Sunday 16 November 2014

#26: Crypt Of The Sorcerer


Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Probably more famous for its incredibly tight route through (to the point where almost any digression will lead to failure) than for any other reason, CotS has gained something of a bad reputation amongst gamebook fans and it is easy to overlook the good things about it and simply write it off as ridiculously hard. In real terms, as IL FFs go, it’s actually quite unusually forgiving and, whilst you are unlikely to find the one true path the first time around, it is always possible that you could somehow find it on its first playthrough by pure chance.

Before I’m torn limb-from-limb for suggesting that this book might not be as hard as its reputation suggests, let’s look at how this one differs slightly from the standard IL adventure. Firstly, combats are for the most part not particularly difficult with most foes being of fairly average strength as you would find in the very earliest FF books before all sorts of adjustors started being applied to every other creature you ever had to fight in FF. Whilst it is, as with all IL FFs, extremely linear, you cannot miss the two key items you need (Razaak’s Sword and the Gigantis’ Horn) which takes away the usual IL-style misery of getting all the way to the end but being scuppered in the final analysis because you took a wrong turn and missed some essential object or other – if you make it to meeting Razaak, you cannot fail to have arrived with both items. Inevitably you have to travel part of the way with some NPC companions (two, in this case) but they are not the usual useless IL hangers-on who either die or run away at the first sign of danger – Borri is actually very useful and you need to pay close attention to his endless drivel to pick up important information that you can’t win without knowing, but sadly Symm is almost un-noticeable as he hardly ever says or does anything and you can quickly forget he is even with you. On the plus side, at least the companion element is finally functioning and purposeful in an IL FF. An incredibly non-IL act of generosity is the way that the optimum direction is offered several times at key turning points rather than giving you one chance to pick the correct route. In fact, much of the adventure plays out in a fairly straight line and, other than the initial section where you are trying to find a hidden lake (which you will always reach and can’t accidentally go past so, again, this is unusually lenient), choices of direction are far more limited than you would expect from IL. As would be anticipated, this book has a typically long shopping list of stuff you must find to win, but much of the requirement is for information that is linked to these items rather than simple binary “do you have x?” checkpoints, so why is this book so hard?

The answer to the difficulty question lies in several mechanics that have, justifiably, gained this book its infamy. More than anything else, the sheer number of numerical clues linked to items that you need to find, alone makes this incredibly difficult and therein lies the link to its ultra-narrow true path. The final showdown with the end baddie (the necromancer Razaak) involves you needing to know an incredibly high total of eight secret number prompts and, if that doesn’t sound hard enough, there is also a very Livingstone-y Dungeon Trialmaster to contend with earlier on who, in classic Livingstone Trial of Champions style, makes you answer several questions where any one wrong answer leads to you being toast. The sheer amount of numerical cheat-proofing in this book makes it feel much more like an entry from the hidden number-centric 50+ part of the series rather than the 20s and, stylistically, it feels very advanced in terms of its position in the series. Slightly less ultimately success-crushing, but still contributing to the books difficulty in terms of simply making it alive from one moment to the next, is the very high number of Skill and Luck tests that you need to survive and, unquestionably, if you start with a Skill or Luck lower than 12 you really have no chance of getting very far. This is compounded by many rather harsh Skill and Luck penalties along the way that make the attribute-testing aspect of this book unbalanced to the point where it is genuinely unfair. Furthermore, if this wasn’t already unreasonable, there is a make-or-break moment that comes very early in the adventure where you roll one die after defeating the Chameleonites – you must roll a 1 to get a particular ability otherwise you are screwed in the final fight with Razaak. I don’t like situations in FFs where you can be set up to fail from the very early stages as it makes reaching the end and losing all the more frustrating although, in the case of CotS, there are so many points where missing an item or detail will lead to eventual failure that this particular die roll seems less terminal, although it still seems more pivotal as it comes so early on. We have mentioned that the majority of combats in this adventure are not especially difficult or weighted against you and it is good to see that the only two that are excessively tough are the two most important ones – the final showdown with Razaak and the battle to get hold of the Gigantis’ Horn. Razaak is a suitably memorable final baddie with Sk 12 St 20 and he will kill you instantly if he wins two Attack Rounds in a row which might seem harsh, but he is meant to be a challenge and a super-strong final baddie is always much more worth waiting for than a weak one, so I can accept this part being so difficult. The Gigantis is more problematic if viewed literally (it has Sk 12 St 24 and has two opening special attacks) but actual combat with it can be avoided and it does yield one of two essential items that the main body of the adventure revolves around so, in balance, it’s probably overly difficult if fought, but it just about works in context as it does feel like a critical game point because of its strength.

On the subject of encounters, most of what you meet is very traditional “early FF” fare (Goblins, Orcs, Dwarves, Ape Men, Elves, Skeletons, Zombies, etc etc) with a few unusual ones thrown in to add a bit of uniqueness to this book (Chameleonites, Rad-Hulks, Lava Demons, Fire Beetles, Doragars, the Gigantis, and a very well-handled combat-less showdown with some Ice Ghosts), but this is where the book really works well because it is set in mostly familiar parts of Allansia, many of which we have visited in previous FF books, so throwing in weird and wonderful creatures would seem awkward and remove the element of knowing the territory that we need to take from this book. Continuity and series-linking was always one of Livingstone’s strengths and, amongst other locations, you can visit the Forest of Spiders, Darkwood Forest, Stonebridge, Silverton, and Yaztromo’s Tower, which gives this adventure something of a global travelogue feel. Indeed, in terms of design, this adventure is very traditional, being a forest trek, followed by open ground, then towns, plains, and finally a very straight dungeon trawl to reach Razaak’s tomb. Overall, the entire book does give the feel of a huge dungeon and, in spite of the large scale of its locations and the actual ground you cover, it does not give the sensation of travelling for miles, probably due to its linearity which restricts you from heading off in different directions to explore each environment. There is one exception, though, to this statement and that concerns probably the best set-piece in the whole book – a balloon ride from Stonebridge into the plains – which is very original and avoids novelty value just enough to make it great fun, plus it does feel quite epic as you fly over part of Allansia. As a point of note, IL must have liked this part too as it gets re-used (in a fashion) in the third Chadda Darkmane novel, Shadowmaster. Also, although I find him a tad irritating whenever he shows up in FFs, Gereth Yaztromo (IL’s favourite wizard and adventurer mentor) makes an appearance here which adds even more depth to this book’s connection with so many of the earlier Allansia-set FFs. The presence of a Hamakei in this book also signposts ideas that would be used in the second Darkmane story, Demonstealer, so whilst playing CotS may not give the impression of a massive expedition, there is so much inter-relation with FFs that had come before this book (and some that would come after it too) that it definitely gives it an all-encompassing feel.

Little credit is ever given to the structure and scale of this book (far too much critical focus and commentary is always on how hard it is) and, to highlight just how well designed this book is in spite of its cheat-proofing pushing it way over the unfairness threshold, the final act in Razaak’s tomb is written to cater for you entering either with or without your two companions. This is new (and welcome) territory for IL who normally forces us to take NPCs along and then gives us no option to continue with them once they want to or have to leave/die. Rather, in CotS, two parallel dungeon treks are written into the book. The fact that only one approach leads to victory is typical of this book’s one true path mentality, but the important point is that we finally get a choice of what to do with our travelling companions rather than being at the mercy of the book potentially making decisions for us. Furthermore, this book also has two self-sacrifice non-victory endings where you succeed in killing Razaak but die in the attempt, which is interesting (half-victories are at least a way of not totally losing) and encourages re-play to try to get the 100% success outcome. The ambitious nature of how much (literal) ground this book covers in terms of seeing what Allansia has to offer, combined with the desire to find the missing item (or more probably in this case, number clue) should be enough to encourage re-playability and a general feeling of enjoyment is had from playing this rather than a depressing sense of endless inevitable failure. Indeed, this book does bounce along and its combination of pace and old-school style adventuring romp does make for an enjoyable if very difficult adventure. It is never boring and its sub-division into different acts with the aim of finding items you are told you need reminds me of #5 City Of Thieves with a bit of #3 The Forest Of Doom thrown in especially in the initial Yaztromo/woodlands parts.

As this book appeared in the generally excellent 20s part of the FF series, its simple plot and ongoing logical storyline avoids the bizarre convolutions that plagued the early books and it does all tie together effectively, even if it is basically just a “find the important Achilles’ Heel items then use them to kill the baddie that wants to destroy the world” adventure. Overall, it works well and focuses on incidents and locations rather than trying to be high art. Livingstone always writes in a descriptive and vivid manner and this book is no exception. There are even a few moments of black humour (something IL often writes into his books) especially when you can find a Helmet of Cowardice which makes you useless at dealing with combats from there onwards. If this had been badly written or ploddingly paced it could have been awful given how hard it actually is, but IL has done well to write a fun adventure with a suitably lurid villain to kill off, plus you don’t have to hunt him as you know exactly where he is, so the challenge here is to track down the long list of items that you need. As a point of note, Razaak is a necromancer and is referred to as such in the text of the book, but apparently Puffin baulked at the idea of putting the word “Necromancer” in the title of a children’s book, so the name is a bit misleading and doesn’t really reflect what you are meant to be ridding Allansia of.

Les Edwards’ cover image is very effective with its subtle red-orange-yellow tones and Razaak is suitably hideous-looking plus, for once, the key villain is actually on a FF cover rather than an incidental event so we can counter the inaccurate title with a definitive idea of what our nemesis is all about. The internal image of Razaak is a bit more manic and less sinister-looking, but the rest of John Sibbick’s internal art has a lot of depth and captures the fantasy themes very nicely. Wizard’s re-issue cover manages to generally keep to the original cover’s theme, although Razaak is more like the emaciated Sibbick internal art version and he seems to be fleeing some large flies, which makes him seem a bit less terrifying!

Anyone who dismisses CotS as just “too hard” is simply not doing it justice. As an adventure, it is a lot of fun and is very well-paced considering its scale. It is very original in parts (especially the balloon ride) and works so much FF folklore into its plotline that it seems to be a pivotal moment in attempting to bring order to what Allansia had become (its appearance not long after Marc Gascoigne’s Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World can hardly be viewed as a coincidence!) There is no doubt that it is hard, ridiculously hard in fact, but IL has managed to rectify a lot of his more annoying previous foibles and address them in this book. It acts as a bridge between the traditional early FF designs and the later, more complex, cheat-proofed maths-based FF mechanics and definitely moved the series forward in technical terms. Personally, I really like this book and there is a lot to be got out of playing it. However, cheating is pretty much essential to surviving the unbalanced stat-testing moments which leaves the player to focus on mapping and finding the true path that yields all the clues you need. Treat this book as you would a “true path hunt” FF like Deathtrap Dungeon and it can be very rewarding. I just wouldn’t bother using dice at any point!

Thursday 23 October 2014

#58: Revenge Of The Vampire


Keith Martin

Reviewed by Mark Lain

If watching Hammer horror movies taught us only one thing then it’s that vampires never really stay dead for long and that, sooner or later, some convoluted plot connivance or other will bring them back to (un)life. So it is then, that twenty books on from his original appearance in the genuine classic that is #38 Vault Of The Vampire, Count Reyner Heydrich is back in book number 58 to get his revenge. Quite how he is back is not entirely clear, but we do learn in the intro that his life-force is maintained by a Soul Jewel and that destroying this will finish him off for good, but the main point is that he’s back and your job is to find and kill him.

What is clear from the outset this time is that you are not the same character who killed him in the first book, as his identity, as well as those of his sister Katarina and his wronged brother Siegfried, are all news to you. This is not unusual for the few official FF sequels that ever appeared and revisiting old territory with new eyes is very much the norm with these. As before, you find yourself meeting a stranger in a tavern from whom you discover the story of Heydrich and you determine to kill him, but this time your source of the story is murdered over night and you take over the mission from him (rather than being the only person stupid enough to attempt it) and thus begins one of the longest FF books ever.

The books from number 51 onwards are known for taking a more complex and mature approach to adventure gaming, tend to be very long and labyrinthine, contain a lot of anti-cheat maths and hidden section mechanics, go into far more exposition with very long paragraphs, and are full of continuity errors and typos. All of these are very much in evidence here, but no FF book shows as much of a lack of care in its execution as this one and, on that score alone, this book is an absolute mess that is, in places, literally unplayable. The problems with this book are well-documented, but in brief, we are expected to tolerate:
  • ·         Mis-linking paragraphs, of which there are at least eight, some of which just make the next stage seem slightly confused (eg: disregarding if you do or don’t have a particular item) and others of which are rather more disastrous and send you to another part of the adventure entirely thus ruining any sense of logic and flow (oh, and missing out most of the book in at least one case)
  • ·         NPCs that you have already potentially killed early on that you can re-encounter having come back to life and then have to kill again (and not in a good, plot-enhancing way, but in a shoddy non-proofread way that shouldn’t be happening)
  • ·         A similar problem with the book announcing that a horse (that you might not have) has bolted and references to a merchant that you might not actually have with you
  • ·         A combat where the creature (Huge Basilisk) is listed as having two Skills and no Stamina (although I didn’t notice this the first time around as we are so used to reading stats as Skill x Stamina x that the eye can deceive and mask this one)
  • ·         Names and spellings that occasionally change, sometimes in the same paragraph
  • ·         The rules tell us that we have Magic as a stat when it actually means Faith
  • ·         The Adventure Sheet features three boxes for Skill, but we don’t get any Stamina or Luck, although the rules say we do, the game mechanics rely on us having them and, well, the fact is that we bloody well do have Stamina and Luck in this adventure (there’s just nowhere to write it down)
  • ·         I think there are some paragraphs that you can’t actually reach at all - I can’t find any route to section 8, for example, although I don’t want to re-tread the dull monastery section again to try to prove myself wrong, so this might not be an actual error
  • ·         There are several typos and grammatical errors, some which can render sentences almost incomprehensible
  • ·         Then there’s the infamous buying a horse vs getting into the inn situation that effectively makes it impossible to complete this book (using the intended route) without cheating. In brief, to get to the inn you need to buy a horse. You cannot buy one if you have less than 8 gold pieces, but if you have got more it costs an indeterminate and infinite amount equal to however much gold you do have. You then reach the inn on horseback and have to pay a further 1 gold piece to stay the night. As you have spent all your gold just getting there, there’s no way you can pay to get in so you can’t get an essential item that is hidden inside and you are screwed. BUT, the impact of this depends on just how literally you take the book’s instructions. Why would you pay out all your gold when we already know we need at least 8 gold to buy one at all? Does logic not suggest that we just pay 8 gold and take the horse? Or do we all cheat so much in these books anyway that pricing peculiarities are small-fry compared to some of the more critical cheating we allow ourselves to get away with? There are numerous ways around this problem suggested on forums but, the fact remains that, in real terms, this cannot be completed in the way it was written to be. The Fighting Fantazine FF solutions forum does, however, suggest an alternative route through the game where you do not need to get the key item (Sewarth’s Codex) from the inn and can still complete the book fairly (notwithstanding all the saving throws and tough combats along the way, of course), but this is not without its problems too as it involves negotiating a mis-linked section (or, if you don’t, the particular cameo involved will make no sense whatsoever) and is so long and episodic that it took me over three hours just to read through that method alone!

Whatever way you look at it, the sheer scale of this book’s structural mistakes is unforgiveable and I doubt if it was subjected to any kind of proof-reading process at all which is a huge shame as, with more design care and less padding-out, this could have been a worthy successor to Vault as there is a lot of good material on offer here.

Firstly, there has been considerable effort put into making this book’s creature encounters imposing and memorable. Yes, just like Vault the emphasis is on the undead, but this time type expectations are played with, imagery is often warped and dark, and KM’s imagination has run riot to create as many interesting foes as possible. Take the Grand Revenant (Sk 10 St 14), for example, that comes back to life each time you kill it until you find a particular item to finish it off for good. We meet a Cave Wisp (Sk 11 St 4) that is very weak, but extremely hard to hit at all due to its speed. There are blurred type boundaries with a Vampire-Ghost and a Ghoul-Monk to add some nice fusion ideas. The vampire concept is taken even further with the appearance of a Vampiric Jelly that doesn’t hurt you but will kill its host and several Vampyres which are essentially Succubi in the Lucy Westenra style. An interesting modification of the Ghoul concept features with a Steel Ghoul which is fused with metal and therefore extra-tough, but cannot paralyse like normal Ghouls (which is a relief.) My favourites by far though are the very warped ideas that would not be out of place in the goo-fest that is #25 Beneath Nightmare Castle, the Proto-Zombie which is essentially a Stage 1 work in progress Zombie that can’t fight, and the best by far, the Zombie-Coach which is bizarre yet fascinating – this is Heydrich’s coach that you can see early on in the book but is actually a decaying physical form that envelopes you so you fight it from the inside and its internal workings are described in a way that emphasizes the sickening-ness of this thing. Honourable mention also goes to the Megaghoul which is a Ghoul to the power of quite a lot. These unique encounters are very worthwhile and add an element of uniqueness to Heydrich’s unholy minions. Granted, many of these combats are made extra hard due to innumerable modifiers and most of what you can meet are “Specials” but that was hardly unusual in either Keith Martin’s books or the final Puffin series entries full stop. Another interesting inclusion is the way that, rather than having consecutive combats with 1st x, 2nd x, 3rd x etc, Martin favours deploying the more mundane encounters in packs (eg: Wolf Pack, Ghoul Pack, Zombie Pack) which have high stats (Stamina in particular) but do add a variation to the normal multi-foe combats in FF.

Secondly, notwithstanding the fundamental structural problems, the design (or intended design) of this book is very similar to that of its predecessor, in that you have a certain amount of freedom to visit areas in any order you wish (barring the initial sections) and, once in buildings/dungeons, you can see everything possible in any order, including some re-visiting to collect items and then going back to other places where you need them to reach another stage. The rules even refer to the need to retrace your steps in parts and the subversion of linearity seen in Vault is back again in force here. However, this is not without its problems due to the sheer scale of Revenge’s game map. Vault was 95% restricted to the inside of a square-shaped castle - a concept which was easy to get your head around and to keep track of by mapping. Revenge attempts to massively expand the idea, sending you first to a monastery, then a road trip, followed by some villages, a mountain crag, then Mortus Mansion (the house Heydrich has rented and effectively this book’s castle Heydrich, but with less floors) and finally another village before you enter an underground dungeon (the luridly-named Ghoulcrypts) where Heydrich is hiding out, along with several ancient vampires that are supplying his life-force and five ancient Knights who act as a mechanism to prevent the vampires from escaping. Phew! This adventure is extremely large and ambitious in its scope making mapping and planning your route a big task, especially with sub-routines in two buildings, plus a dungeon complex. The dungeon is actually mercifully small with limited options for exploration, the monastery is a manageable size (but is dull) and Mortus Mansion, whilst smaller than Castle Heydrich as we have noted, has far too many doors leading off in semi-directions, which is hell to map. Put the whole game together and you have a huge and confusing playing board which, by default, also results in a book that can easily take four hours to work through. Non-linearity and a lack of obvious true path are always good to see, but this is just mind-bogglingly huge! Plus, if you want to visit everything that you can (including the red herrings) just to take it all in, you are in for a long old slog given that the interior moments are far more interesting than the exteriors. Also, as with Vault, the book does signpost the irrelevant areas in the buildings by offering these options less than the ones you are supposed to take, but by this point you are probably grateful to have fewer options!

Putting the enormity of it all aside, there are many really neat features woven into the progress of this book, including the fact that you start with an unusually generous 12 Provisions and you have a carrying limit of 12 Provisions throughout. The book does cover this aspect well and there are several moments where you can acquire enough Provisions to fill your allowance. It is possible to earn food and gold along the way (although you suffer time penalties for it) and you are required to note the value of disposable items that exist purely to be sold to get you money to buy things you actually need. As with the freedom to roam idea, we are getting into RPG territory here and I like this, even if it is demanding on the reader in a way that FF usually avoids for the sake of simplicity. Indeed, noting things down and having to remember to do certain things to succeed is a theme of KM’s later FFs and his favourite device of numerical coincidences leading to mathematical ways of finding the way forward is on overdrive here. Many times we have to note down how many of something or other are on an item and then multiply, add, subtract or divide it to find a cheat-proofed section. Cheat-proofing is all for the good, but this book takes the maths too far in the way that many of the post-50 books did and it can detract from the enjoyment of what is an adventure, not a maths and memory test. On the plus side, at least this book actually bothers to tell you to note the numbers down, unlike some FFs where these key facts are mentioned only in passing and you are likely to miss them. There are also elements of realism included that do raise this above the FF norm of disbelief suspension, inasmuch as you have to eat (a lot) or lose Stamina, we have already mentioned the options to work for food and money, and Blood Points are especially realistically deployed. These are another carry-over from Vault and have similar effects on the final stages when you find Heydrich, but they are essentially a time marker here and are less abstract than they were in the first book: spend days working and it costs you BPs, miss a clue and have to blunder around searching instead and you lose BPs, go the wrong way on a wild goose chase and you lose BPs. Likewise, key achievements increase your BPs such as (as before) destroying Heydrich’s coffins or despatching his more important acolytes. Another really nice feature is the use of NPCs – you can find a merchant who makes your life easier in the next village to where you meet him, there is a good balance of helpers and antagonists, there are places where you have to complete side missions for obvious baddies to get key items, and of particular note is the meeting with Vantiane who comes with you until you have fought three combats together, then she leaves, but her presence is actually an advantage as she makes some tough combats easier and the book does not dictate her departure like in other FFs, rather your number of subsequent combats with her in tow will control this (again, it requires note-taking and memory, but I like it all the same as it differs from what we are used to from companions.)

The number of plot aspects and elements of game design brought forward from the first Heydrich book do create a real sense of the story continuing and it is good to see no jarring or awkward bits that have either been forced in or excised completely. I am especially pleased with the far greater role played by Afflictions this time around and they are handled much better here – the diseases such as Lung Rot are very noteworthy and the Afflictions seem more imaginative and less of an afterthought in Revenge. Faith is also back, but its use is more balanced along with Afflictions and Blood points and it tends to impact only the more important moments early in the book. Once you are in Mortus Mansion is does kick in rather more evidently, but there is a far greater concentration of evil there (and in the Ghoulcrypts) so that does makes sense. The only original mechanic not re-used at all is magic, but this did not fit in the first book too well and only came into play in the final act so its exclusion here is no loss. As an aside, I really appreciated a little in-joke when you can find a tiger-skin rug that you are told you are pleased not to be attacked by – a direct reference to an episode in Vault which adds a little more to the ongoing saga idea.

Keith Martin has always had a tendency to address the reader as if a GM is speaking to you, rather than the less direct approach of other FF writers, and this is definitely the case again here. I do really like how he writes with long descriptive sections full of atmosphere and menace and there is an interesting moment where he appears to be commenting on how the final baddie showdown sits within the FF series as a whole. He tells us “[The Count] is the most powerful enemy you will ever have encountered” and this is almost true (he has an insanely high Sk 15 St 30) as only the Night Dragon in Martin’s #52 Night Dragon is stronger with its base stats of Sk 17 St 32, but however you look at it, the regenerated Heydrich is incredibly hard to fight. The good news is that, as with the Night Dragon, you can collect various items to shave points off his Skill and Stamina, but the fight is still very much in his favour. Similarly, as was the case in Vault, you might have to fight him up to three times (dependant on what items you have as the first fight is completely avoidable as is the third – sadly the second combat is the one where he has Sk 15 St 30 and this is unavoidable) and it is also possible to follow fighting him with having to contend with his sister, Katarina, again who suddenly appears out of the blue to try to finish you off. This time around there is no subplot of sibling rivalry and she just wants to kill you as she is now also a vampire herself.

As a note on the darkness of the tone of this book, there is much mention of poisons and acid and many special attacks are based around these. Again, this brings to mind Beneath Nightmare Castle  and makes Revenge seem far less Hammer-esque than Vault and rather more graphic and Cronenberg-ish. That said, there is no question that the overall atmosphere and feel is still very Hammer influenced and the return of Vault’s Martin McKenna on internal art duty adds yet more interconnection with the earlier book. So much of the art here is superbly gothic that it’s hard to pick out a favourite image, although the Grand Revenant, the image of Heydrich’s coach, and the Demonling are definite stand-outs from an exceptional field. There is a really animated beauty to the Vampyre crawling from the grass and you can almost see it moving jerkily and spider-like as if Ray Harryhausen was involved. Also, anyone who has seen Hammer’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell will know exactly where McKenna got the idea from for the Corpse Golem, although, again, let’s not take anything from the sheer brilliance of the artwork. Similarly, I don’t know if MM is a Whovian but I can’t be the only one who sees more than a passing similarity between Dr Verruckte and the William Hartnell Dr Who! To complete the reunion of writer and artist, the overall continuity between first and second books is completed with Les Edwards back on cover drawing duty. I don’t personally like Revenge’s cover as much as that on Vault as Heydrich seems to be cowering away from us, but this is purely a comparative opinion and it is still an effective cover with a title font that is about as good as they were getting by the final days of the series if we consider just how unsympathetic and slapdash most of the other latter-end title letterings were.

If we put the crippling structural issues aside, the difficulty level here is certainly leaning towards the tougher end of the spectrum and this book is certainly harder than the first. There are still moments of generosity (food, gold, many Luck and BP bonuses) and it is possible to find more than one of some of the essential items (there are two chances at getting stakes and magic swords, for example), plus the general lack of a true path gives you a fighting chance, but given how powerful most of the combatants are, mixed with dealing with afflictions, several (but not too many) instant deaths, ridiculous amounts of number-crunching, and an outrageous final baddie fight, the likelihood of getting anywhere without very high starting stats is pretty slim in reality. Add to this the Faith mechanic which, as before, works both in your favour and against you regardless of rolling under or over it (it is purely situation-driven which admittedly adds an element of unpredictability, which is good to see) but is also, as before, a real minefield, and you have a pretty hard book overall. It’s not as hard as some of the other later FFs, but it’s certainly a challenge. Whether you rise to the challenge or just get bored by the book’s sheer length probably depends on your willingness to accept the inconsistency of the plot progression and the way that some parts are very exciting and effective whilst others seem to be asides with very little of interest going on. I felt that the witch section on Crab Peak was totally at odds with the brooding tone of the rest of the book, but as it yields a key item, it has to be gone through. The early sections in pursuit of the Count’s coach are really exciting and well-paced and make you think that this book will be as rollicking as Vault. Sadly, the chase then gets sort of forgotten as you follow clue after clue and it becomes more of a “wandering about getting stuff” affair. It picks up again for Mortus Mansion and the Ghoulcrypts because you actually get to deal with Heydrich himself in these parts so the focus seems to return, but generally speaking this is very inconsistent.

For collectors, this book is one of two Holy Grails (along with #57 Magehunter) and getting a copy in decent condition for less than £35-£40 is good going. I have seen some people asking up to £140 on eBay but that is just ridiculous money. Opinion has it that less than 5,000 copies of the last three Puffin FF books were printed so this is certainly a top rarity and the fact that none of Keith Martin’s adventures have been reprinted by Wizard adds to the collectability. But, FF books are fundamentally games to be played, not trinkets to be coveted and I’d be curious to know how many people who own this one have ever actually took the (considerable amount of) time to play it properly.

I for one do find this book quite enigmatic, not only for its legendary collector’s status, but also for the desperate state that it ended up being released in in terms of its monumental number of errors. What would it have been like if it had been play-tested properly and published in a polished, error-free version? Would it just have ended up being tedious and overlong, or would it have been a masterpiece of satisfyingly complex horror gamebook writing and design? It certainly has a lot going for it, but playing it just becomes frustrating. If the longer duller parts were tightened up and the reader could focus on the good bits this could have been really worthwhile. Sadly, in its current form it is ultimately never going to be viewed as anything more than a shambles.

Thursday 9 October 2014

#38: Vault Of The Vampire


Keith Martin

Reviewed by Mark Lain

My opinion of this book is influenced by two major factors: 1) I really like the vampire mythos, but I am very old-school with my take on how vampire stories should work – Bram Stoker and Hammer Films’ gothic interpretations with the vampires being dapper toffs is how I see the ideal vampire concept, not the modern angst-ridden teen approach where vampires are an allegory for teen disillusionment and they always prefer the out-of-place miserable teen girls that have no facial muscles rather than the upper class beauties that more than vaguely resemble their long-dead brides (Stephanie Meyer, you have a lot to answer for); 2) I am probably not the only FF fan who was really hoping that the series was not going to peter out into a catalogue of so-so books that aren’t a patch on what had come before  – the series needed a re-boot by number 38 and Vault Of The Vampire would be the kick up the arse that it desperately needed and would set the tone for the very gothic, dark books that would make the 40s-numbered offerings generally so much better than those from the 30s.

This book could very easily have appeared in the first ten or so and not have seemed out-of-place what with its very straightforward plot where YOU are drawn to the Old World’s region of Mauristatia (read Transylvania) in search of rich pickings. You spend the night at an inn called the Hart’s Blood (there used to be an extra letter in its name before the locals decided it was a bad omen) where everyone seems oddly taciturn and agitated. Eventually a loose-tongued old woman blabs to you that the local Count has been abducting virgins from the surrounding area and that her grand-daughter Nastassia is the latest to go missing. A one-armed former warrior then joins the conversation and adds colour to the theory that the Count is evil and that his castle (Castle Heydrich) is not a place you would especially want to go to. Being a brave adventurer you immediately take on the challenge of going to the castle to rescue Nastassia and a black carriage with a suspiciously headless driver pulls up outside the inn and beckons you to get in. So, we are back to the good old days of FF YOUs that just want fame and fortune regardless of how suicidal the mission seems to be. From here the adventure involves you getting to the castle (either by riding in the carriage or deciding to walk) and then making your way through its three levels, gathering information from the castle’s other inhabitants and collecting items that are handy for killing vampires. Eventually you enter the crypt, locate the Count (called Reiner Heydrich, as you discover fairly quickly) and despatch him. But, the real beauty is in the execution of the concept and what is essentially a “find and kill the baddie” plotline is raised above this by the inclusion of many NPCs that you can meet including four other members of the Heydrich family, none of whom are vampires themselves, who add a lot of depth to the identity and nature of a) Heydrich himself, and b) the dynamics of the Heydrich family in general. This makes Reiner seem, whilst obviously evil, not necessarily the only unpleasant person in the castle. His sister, Katarina, whilst very vampish and seductive, is actually just trying to bump her brother off so she can be top dog and she will try to enchant you into aiding and abetting her including potentially forcing you to kill someone you really need to get help from. There are three Heydrich brothers to meet too: Wilhelm who has lost it completely (kill him and you are penalised for murdering someone who, whilst obviously nuts, is basically harmless); Gunthar who is a sort of sage figure whose good-neutral-evil allegiance is all very ambiguous and he wants Reiner dead simply due to his nastiness but is moral enough to not be able to face killing his own brother, vampire or otherwise; and Siegfried (or rather, Siegfried’s ghost) who was the previous head of the family until Reiner murdered him and desecrated his grave – Siegfried proves to be the most important NPC to find (which can happen twice) as he yields the most information on how to kill Reiner. Katarina can also be encountered twice and whilst the first possible run-in makes her appearance at the end flow better, the initial encounter is not an easy one to negotiate and can cause more problems than it is worth in the long run, plus her appearance may not be a surprise anyway as you are told early on that she is 76 years old but has a dubious method of keeping herself young-looking. There are also several secondary NPCs to find, including a rather arrogant alchemist and Lothar the Castellan, all of which adds much rich depth and detail to the Heydrich family and the world they live in. There are a couple of side missions you can get involved in, but neither are essential as the focus here is to rescue Nastassia and kill Heydrich (as the mission progresses the importance of the latter quickly over-rides the former) but they do allow for re-play options to add variety.

As would be expected, the castle floorplan is a very traditional square-shape with towers in each corner and the adventure flows in an extremely linear fashion as you are guided along corridors, deciding which doors to open along the way, eventually reaching sets of stairs that lead up to the next level, then finally down into the crypt. However, as this is a Keith Martin FF and he likes to give a certain amount of freedom to roam, it is still possible to visit every single location, provided you follow a certain sequence if you want to visit the irrelevant red herring rooms as well, and the more important locations are offered many times whilst the pointless ones quickly stop being offered once you’ve made your initial choice at any given juncture. After a while it becomes fairly obvious where you want to be going and you can even backtrack in certain places if you happen to have visited a particular batch of rooms in the wrong order meaning an item needed in one room is found after you might have already tried the room where you needed it – don’t worry though, once you have the item the book lets you return to try the room(s) in question. All very fair, then, and the linear path will lead past every key location that you must visit to complete the book so there are no “one wrong turn and you’ve blown it” traps here. This approach may seem restrictive but you do not really notice it as the castle and its contents are so varied and lurid that the sheer entertainment value overcomes any design shortcomings that the “straight line” structure may have.

A feature of Martin’s adventures is his use of puzzles and there are less than usual here but there are still a few cheat-proofing moments where you need to know the number of a hidden paragraph and in one case there is a message to decode that is not necessarily complex once you’ve cracked it (a NPC will give you a subtle clue early on) but that will take ages to work through, letter by letter. There is otherwise very little real cheat-proofing in this book, the bulk of the checkpoints just being “do you have item x” questions which makes it quite easy to cheat, not that that’s necessary as the book is very forgiving in terms of what items you need to find to win. There are four possible combinations of the absolutely essential final showdown items that you must have and all four are valid. As is normal with major vampires, you are required to destroy Heydrich’s spare coffins, but you only need smash up two of the three that can be found which is a relief as one is very well-hidden compared to the other two. To aid you further, there are two lots of holy water and, more importantly, two magic swords (without which you cannot fight Heydrich at all) and there are many ways of regaining lost Stamina as you start with 10 Provisions plus you can find more food and drink (especially brandy) along the way. Incidentally, you are expected to be conscious of the central concept which means drinking red wine (actually blood) is to be avoided and there is a fairly gruesome moment where you must give your own blood to prove your worth – I like these little moments of context as they give yet more depth to the overall atmosphere of the book. Overall, the difficulty level is very balanced with most combats being fairly easy and only the real “specials” have stats in double figures eg the Major/Minor Thassalos’ which are Heydrich’s crack defence mechanisms and should naturally be a challenge to beat. Logically, the final showdown with Heydrich is extremely difficult (he has Sk 13 St 21) and you have to fight him a second time once his Stamina is reduced to 4 or less (and he gains 8 extra Stamina ie his St is then between 9 and 12) to finally kill him off. There then follows a third consecutive combat with Katarina who immediately sets about trying to claim her birth-right, although she is weaker at Sk 10 St 10. This (series of) combats may seem unfair and it is undeniably tough, but you can use several items to shave points off Heydrich’s stats before the first fight (including 12 Stamina if you have both holy waters) and you are required to use your ingenuity to make him less powerful before you take him on. This is a neat feature as it involves you directly influencing the outcome rather than just throwing a super-strong end baddie at you and watching you almost inevitably die by dice rolling alone.

Probably the hardest aspect of this book is the extra stat that is involved (Faith), starting at between 4 and 9 which is unusually low for a FF stat, especially one that has as much influence over the proceedings as it does here. Faith tests are very common and some key discoveries or achievements are driven by passing these which can get very difficult given that most Faith rolls have adjustors to make them even harder (up to +6 in one case) and you are more likely to lose this game due to a failed Faith roll than for any other reason. Skill and Luck tests are quite abundant too, but do not have the same scale of impact as Faith does. However, unlike the usual saving throw situations, depending on the specific scenario rolling either under or over your Faith score can have a positive outcome as too much belief in yourself can be just as bad as not having enough. Obviously, in the most important moments, rolling under your Faith is necessary to be successful, but there are also times when rolling over your Faith will avoid your having to fight additional foes as too much faith will attract unwanted attention from evil and you can find yourself having to deal with numerous extra undead simply because you are too “good”. This is easily one of the better deployments of an extra stat in the FF series and it really does drive the proceedings, rather than just being an extra way to kill you as these extra stats so often are in FFs. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the other two extra elements in this book, Afflictions and Magic. Magic only appears in the final act and it is possible to miss the encounter that can give you magic powers completely as this is not an essential to victory, rather it just makes things easier for you if you can get it. On meeting the NPC who bestows the ability to use spells on you you roll one die three times (or until you get three different numbers), the numbers you roll dictating which three spells you get. The spells are the usual mix of combative and restorative and, at best, can do extra damage to Reiner and/or restore your stats in preparation for the end battle sequence. I’m not convinced that the magic aspect really fits and, although its inclusion method makes sense in plot terms, it doesn’t seem to make sense to suddenly acquire spells so late on in what is a fairly conventional hero vs villain piece and it really adds nothing to the experience other than if you are very weak by this late stage in which case it’s something of a relief. Afflictions are quite awkward and seem to be a novelty inclusion – there are only a small number and only the Lycanthropy Affliction plays any noticeable or effective part in how the adventure progresses as such, in that it is given to you by a Werewolf (in an avoidable episode before you even reach the castle) and only affects you whenever you climb a staircase by a window as that is where the moonlight can get at you. In a neat touch, Lycanthropy can develop into Major Lycanthropy (ie one step away from total wolf-out and failure) causing you to become one of Heydrich’s unholy minions, but Lycanthropy can be cured several times in the castle so its inclusion just seems forced. On the subject of transformations incidentally you can variously meet Heydrich pre-showdown in his wolf, bat and rat forms which is a great added touch of vampire folklore that adds to the suspense as you hunt him out in “human” form, especially the rat version that taunts you.

The folkloric aspect is evident from the start and this is certainly one of the more thematically consistent FF books in that it stays focussed on the main subject and goal throughout. The atmosphere is laid on very thick, but in a classy way in that we are made to feel that Heydrich is rather cultured and debonair (library, expensive decor and plush furniture, dining room, etc)  and there is no sense of decay or putridity other than in the encounters, which are almost entirely with undead and wraiths, but that suits the concept as well. We are even told that the castle feels both evil yet also good at the same time – an indication that help can be found. There is a distinctly Victorian feel to the setting(s) with very little real medievalism giving the impression that Mauristatia is slightly less archaic than most of Titan and much of this book is straight out of Bram Stoker and/or Hammer: the inn where everyone acts nervously, the black coach with its headless horseman, Katarina’s method of bathing in virgin’s blood to remain youthful emulates Countess Dracula (itself based on the gory habits of Elizabeth Bathory), and the whole dress-sense of Heydrich himself including the widow’s peak is very much the Christopher Lee take on vampires. Even the idea of the girl being called Nastassia has Hammer overtones as Nastassja Kinski was in the final Hammer horror of the original series (To The Devil A Daughter) in 1976, plus it’s a very Eastern European feeling name which adds to the whole Mauristatia = Transylvania principal. The Hammer overtones are a real plus-point for me and are one of many reasons why this book is such a winner.

Of considerable importance is Keith Martin’s very vivid descriptive prose and the way he keeps everything feeling urgent and snappy makes time fly when you are playing this. Add to this Martin McKenna’s perfectly partnered internal art (easily FF’s most Hammer-esque all-out horror-inspired artist) and you get a fantastic horror genre piece that is both fun and exciting. I especially like the picture for section 400 where Katarina is rapidly aging post-defeat and this mirrors the closing scene of Hammer’s Countess Dracula wonderfully. For once, a FF cover gets to the point with Les Edwards’ attacking red-eyed vampire and huge “V” in blood red within the title and this mixture of image and title leave absolutely no doubt as to what this book is all about.

Only occasionally did FF go for full-on horror genre outings and this book is a fast-paced and very rewarding experience that, whilst very linear, deals with this in a positive pro-player way rather than creating as many ways for the reader to fail as is possible. That it came at a time when FF books were becoming very by-the-numbers makes it seem all the better, but it would have been brilliant no matter where it had fallen within the cycle and it has the feel of the very early scene-setting FF books in that it concentrates so intently on itself rather than trying to expand the FF world with yet another historical or political detail. Yes, it gives us another part of Titan that seems familiar to somewhere on Earth (Romania in this case), but that is no bad thing and it helps us to put some sort of understandable perspective on the proceedings. FF was crying out for a Dracula clone and when it came, it was written by one of the few FF writers who can really do justice to gothic horror (the others being Stephen Hand and Jonathan Green), which ensured it was truly memorable. Get it, play it, love it.

Sunday 5 October 2014

#59: Curse Of The Mummy


Jonathan Green

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Puffin’s last FF book to be published before the axe finally fell on the series is the third by Jonathan Green, whose previous efforts, #53 Spellbreaker and #56 Knights Of Doom, were both impressive if incredibly difficult entries in the series. Curse Of The Mummy is probably more known now for the high prices it commands amongst collectors which, although less excessive than those paid for books 57 and 58, still routinely come in at £25+. I would imagine the reason for the lower value of the final book is that Wizard Books re-issued it when they revamped the series in the early 2000s, making it less of a Holy Grail than its two predecessors which have not seen the light of day since Puffin’s original printings, even though the Puffin version of CotM is slightly different in that some of the more ridiculous combats have lowered stats in the Wizard edition (as also happened with Wizard’s version of Spellbreaker), not that this made either book any easier to beat!

...And therein lies the real problem with CotM – it is just too difficult and not in a good, challenging way that gives you a feeling of satisfaction when you better it, but in a relentless manner that leaves you feeling that, no matter how many difficult number-crunches you do, impenetrable riddles you figure out, and well-hidden items you can proudly say you’ve somehow found, you know that, inevitably, yet another pitfall of one sort or another is going to scupper you. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a repetitive catalogue of ways to make you fail, as the various check-point devices are very imaginative and varied, it’s just that there are far too many of them to make you think you are ever going to win. For example, there are around a dozen hidden numbers to find (ranging from how many of something there are on an object through to the more conventional secret paragraphs that are revealed to you by various NPCs or on written documents), some of which you need to multiply/add/divide/subtract more than once and every one is a win/lose situation sooner or later. The fact that some of these are very off-handedly mentioned when you find the relevant items means that, on initial playthroughs, you are only likely to note down all these crucial details if you happen to do so by pure chance. Subsequent attempts at the game will make it more apparent that you need to pay very close attention to the text, but you cannot realistically hope to get very far at all on the first handful of plays. Whilst I accept that this is designed to prevent cheating, some of the “can you figure it out?” moments are so complex and/or obscure that you can find yourself growing frustrated with the book very quickly, especially as the first one where you are asked if you know the location of the tomb is probably the hardest of the lot and also involves intuitively knowing that you need to go to a hidden section to even get to the point where the maths part kicks in, which brings me to another problem with this book: there are just too many hidden paragraphs. We have Steve Jackson to thank for this concept, which made #10 House Of Hell and #17 Appointment With FEAR so fiendishly difficult, and CotM is no exception, but it seems to be even harder to work out when to randomly check for a hidden section. Yes, some are sign-posted, but there were at least two entire parts of the book that I’d completely missed (that, of course, yield essential items) every time I played it until I resorted to the online solution to knock this one on the head once and for all.

If having to guess when to look for hidden sections and regularly losing by not being able to play Numberwang very well don’t already make this book almost impossible to beat, it is linear on as extreme a scale as FFs such as #53 Spellbreaker and #26 Crypt Of The Sorcerer ie any slight deviation from the one and only true path will lead to failure due to the sheer weight of essential items that you need to find, along with lots of information that you cannot win without knowing. Needless to say, some of these items/facts are protected by some very tough adversaries and the criticism levelled at Green’s earlier Knights Of Doom definitely applies again here in that many of the combats are with enemies with stats in double-figures (sometimes several at once), but not only that, there are also numerous combats that involve adjustors that reduce your chance of surviving even further, amongst which the toughest are:

·         4 x Xoroa (in one battle) – all Skill 10 or 11, Staminas ranging from 9 to 11
·         Great Serpent Sk 8 St 14 – a high Skill will see it off quick(ish), but you still need to inflict seven wounds to kill it and each time it hits you you add 2 Poison and take -3 St damage, plus it automatically eats you if it wins two Attack Rounds in a row
·         Dracon Sk 9 St 14 – you must fight it with your Attack Strength reduced by 1 because it is basically bullying you and you have hurt feelings (although you need to make friends with it anyway so this fight is avoidable if you intend to get anywhere)
·         (up to) 15 Mummies (in one battle) – all Sk 9 St 12
·         2 x Accursed (in same battle) Sk 12/11 St 10/11 – roll one dice every time they win an Attack Round (which is likely to be almost every time unless you have a Skill of 12) – a 5 or 6 means they’ve stung you for +1 Poison in addition to the normal -2 St wound
·         Tomb Stalker Sk 8 St 6 – not very strong but it will grab you by the neck if it wins two Attack Rounds on the trot, causing you 1d6 of damage, followed by this happening ad nauseum until you win another Attack Round
·         Giant Scorpion Sk 10 St 10 – this one has gone down in FF folklore as it comes very early in the book, has two claws that must be fought as if they were two foes with Sk 10, plus if it ever has an Attack Strength of 22+ it does -4 St damage and also inflicts +3 Poison from its tail
·         Death Spider Sk 14 St 9 – every time it wins an Attack Round (which will be almost every time regardless of how strong you are) you make a saving throw against your Poison, roll under it and you are paralysed and dragged back to its demonic dimension
·         3 x Snapperfish (same battle) – each wound does you -3 St AND -1 Skill, plus you are fighting them will your AS reduced by 2 due to being in water. Be grateful that they only have Sk 6 St 2/2/3!
·         A second Mummy showdown, but this time with (only!) up to 8 of them
·         Amentut Sk 9 St 8 – roll one dice every time he wins an AR, a 5 or 6 means he ages you taking 2 from your current and Initial Stamina along with 1 from your current and Initial Skill for good measure
·         ...and then there’s the small matter of the end baddie, Akharis who has Sk 13 St 25. Win this battle and, two paragraphs later, you have to fight him again, this time with Sk 8 St 10

So, it is pretty clear that, unless you have Sk 10+ St 20+ you have no chance at all of getting beyond the first few major combats here. But, the ridiculous level of difficulty does not end there, as there are many Skill and Luck tests, most of which will result in death (or consequential failure later on) if you do not pass them. Even the final “turn to 400” moment involves passing a Luck test so a Luck score of less than 12 will give you no chance either. To compound all this you have a fourth stat to contend with: Poison. You start with zero and, if it reaches or exceeds 18 you die of toxic overload. It might seem like this is the final nail in the “do I have any hope?” coffin, but it is actually highly unlikely that you will ever reach a Poison of 18 unless you get poisoned at every opportunity for it to happen, many of which (outside of combats) are fairly avoidable, so that’s at least one gesture in the player’s favour.

Interestingly, there are a few other saving graces along the way that will go at least some way to making you think this is not a lost cause, including being able to acquire quite a lot of Provisions (even though you start with none) and a room that’s “magical pyramid geometry” will (at the very least) restore your Stamina to its Initial level, reduce Poison by 4 and add 1 Luck and, if you happen to get very lucky with the roll that determines its effects, you can even have all three stats returned to their Initial levels plus your Poison reduced to zero AND your sword is sharpened so you will subsequently always increase your AR by 1. It’s even possible to fight Akharis the first time with him taking a -12 St penalty if you use two items on him before the fight starts. So not all of the book is weighted against you, then!

So what exactly is it that you are trying to do that gets you into a place that is so insanely lethal? The plot itself revolves around you trying to stop an ancient mummified Pharaoh despot from being resurrected by a cult and (as usual) wreaking widespread carnage. You initially run into an adventurer who talks you into trying to find the hidden location of the Pharaoh’s tomb and, once you’ve located it in the Desert of Skulls, you have to track down and destroy him for good. A simple enough premise that follows a logical route through the desert to find the tomb complex (very similar to the series’ other Desert of Skulls romp, #14 Temple Of Terror, in that sense), then a dungeon trawl through a tomb to eventually locate the temple where the mummy itself (Akharis) is about to be raised from the dead. Sadly, this brings us to another failing of this book, which is that the subject matter of mummies, as rare as a theme it is for gamebooks in general, is not particularly inspiring. Mummies always seemed to be the weakest and most one-note of all the horror staples – they just shuffle around and get burned a lot – and it does make for a rather inconsistent gaming experience. In places, the book is inventive in what it throws at you, but in other parts it just seems very dull and laboured. Some parts of the inside of the tomb are particularly uninteresting, with endless corridors and rooms (not to mention many instant deaths), none of which really motivate you to keep going. There’s even a maze which can be got through in three moves, but can also go on so long that you might give up at that point through boredom, plus it eats up paragraphs that could have been put to better use making more of the better-designed incidents. Add to this all the win/lose check-points and the book as a whole just seems to be an overlong and frustrating slog with not enough rewarding cameos or parts where you can feel that you are achieving something (and, in keeping with the 50+ part of the series' books, it is very long – there is a short route but you can’t win by taking it so there’s not much point in even trying to.)
Within the FF world as a whole, mummies have always played an awkward role in that they tend to haphazardly appear, often in dungeons that have been man-made as some sort of challenge, rather than them being in their proper environment. In this book’s favour is that an attempt is being made to contextualise a less-used horror construct. The desert parts of Titan also suffer from normally being a route to something hidden (eg Vatos in Temple Of Terror or the secret location of the prize gemstone in The Dervish Stone) rather than their's being an understandable rationale in their own right and what CotM does well is create a logical setting for a mummy (or in fact, loads of them) to exist in. If Hachiman in FF #20 Sword Of The Samurai can have developed a feudal culture along the lines of Earth’s Japan then there is no reason why the desert region of Allansia cannot have taken the same approach as Earth’s Ancient Egyptian world. This naturally allows for pyramids, temples, hieroglyphs, numerous traps to stop grave-robbers, cultists, and labyrinthine routes to find the all-important main man. All this makes sense to the reader, but does it feel a little too Egyptian to fit into Titan? Personally, I can live with the idea but there is a feeling of distance from the medieval fantasy world of Titan and this is one of a handful of FF books that could just as easily be set on Earth and still work in exactly the same way. A few attempts have been made to give it its own identity, the language of Djaratian being a key feature that runs throughout the book and, like Egyptologists, you can learn it which makes it possible to read hieroglyphs and even speak to the ancients you meet, but for the most part the concept as a whole seems a bit alienated from Titan. On the plus side, this does give this book a one-off feel and it is certainly original, in spite of it coming so late in the series.
The subject of this book’s position in the series is worth considering in its own right. That Puffin chose to finally kill FF off at number 59 seems a little numerically odd and it is well-documented that number 50 (Return To Firetop Mountain) was intended to be the last one, but it was such a success that FF got a slight reprieve. Equally well-known is that a 60th book was on the cards (Green’s Bloodbones) that proved to be far better than CotM when Wizard finally published it. Number 50 would have been a tidy point for the series to stop at and would have topped-and-tailed it logically with the first book. However, this would have deprived FF fans of two of the series’ better books (#52 Night Dragon and #53 Spellbreaker) which would have been a great shame. For me, the last genuinely really good Puffin FF was #56 Knights Of Doom so this would be my stopping-point of choice if only for the cycle to end on a high (if dementedly difficult) note. It would have been a great pity if the series were allowed to fizzle out and just become rubbish (Carry On Emmannuelle springs to mind as a way to pathetically end a classic series) and CotM is far better than the ignominious conclusion we would have got if #57 Magehunter had been the last or the carelessly un-proofread mess that is #58 Revenge Of The Vampire. CotM is not a bad way to close, it’s just not worthy of being the last one when you consider how much better an ending FF could have had. But at least Puffin allowed us to get an unusually-themed final book, if nothing else.
The parallels with Ancient Egypt are blatant but are also very well-deployed to give cogency to the atmosphere and events in CotM. I personally like the way all the encounters are suited to the theme (cue lots of mummified things along with some unique horrors such as the very warped Accursed and the satisfyingly manic Guardian Of The Dead) and the mythos of pyramids being riddled with vicious traps and curses is exploited nicely. Equally, neat little touches such as Akharis’ right-hand man having been buried alive with him, papyrus documents, the total disregard for architects/construction workers that was common in pyramid building, and amniotic jars containing vital organs are all present and correct. It is elements of this kind that make Green’s FFs really stand out for me and he always tries to include as much rich historical detail as possible to help it all make sense. Sadly, this is also why this book tends to feel sub-par by Green’s standards as, in spite of what is included, it just doesn’t inspire the reader/player in the same way that his other books do as there is only so much mileage you can get out of sand, decay, old bandages, hieroglyphs and lethal traps before it all starts to grow tiresome. This said, Green’s other great plus, the quality and always involving nature of his writing, is in evidence here and it is this aspect that raises this book above just being simply dull. Had it been written by a less talented storyteller, this would have been pretty unbearable considering how difficult it is and, I’m glad to say, Green avoids his annoying reversed codeword mechanic completely here which is another plus. If I have one criticism of the way this book is written it would be that the tone occasionally lurches awkwardly into attempted moments of comedy and the Don Huan episode is genuinely inexplicable and really doesn’t seem to fit.
Green’s prose is skilfully complemented by Martin McKenna’s always brilliant artwork and this is a rare occasion where the cover and internal art are by the same person meaning we have a consistency of style throughout. I’m not fond of the cover itself (it seems a bit camp) and the title font is typical of the crappy lettering on many later FFs, but at least the picture of Akharis is consistent (in every detail) with the much scarier extreme close-up on paragraph 397 (which would have made a far better cover, if you ask me.) McKenna’s art is superb throughout and his slightly Hammer-esque imagery suits Green’s writing style perfectly. If I have one gripe it would be that the only thing more stupid than the idea of a mummified cobra is a picture of one and it really does look very silly indeed, but that’s just a minor detail. Also, what the hell is going on with the Death Spider – on paper this seems scary, but the picture is almost comical. Overall though, McKenna really nailed this one and his mummies and other undead are truly horrifying. Interestingly, the first Wizard cover (which re-uses the Puffin edition cover art) looks better to me as the Puffin version's more garish colours have subsequently been muted and the bandages are made to look much more realistically yellowed with age.
The Wizard Books edition of CotM tries to address a couple of the less fair combat situations by reducing your enemies’ Skill scores, but that really makes no difference to the fact that this book is bordering on impossible to complete. Even if you decide to win every combat and pass every Skill or Luck test by default (which will remove the more irrationally difficult elements), the cheat-proofing will prevent progress any further than your finds and information will allow. Cheat-proofing is always a welcome feature in gamebooks as it makes you really work hard for your victories, but there is so much of it here and it is, in some cases, so tough to fathom out the answers, that the cheat-proofing also acts as win-proofing! This must be one of the toughest FFs ever as it combines most of the aspects that, even in isolation, can make a book incredibly hard and I do not believe anyone can have completed it fairly and I doubt many have finished it at all as most will have simply given up and got fed up with it. With a little more play-testing and its longer and less exciting parts reduced, this could have been a good and original way for the Puffin series to end. As it is, it’s horrendously hard, too long, and suffers from its overall theme being too limited in scope, making it certainly not a bad book, but one that is definitely unlikely to get many repeat playthroughs.

Thursday 14 August 2014

#22: Robot Commando


Steve Jackson (II)

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Bearing similarities to 2000AD’s Flesh and borrowing very liberally from the Transformers and Zoids crazes of the mid-80s, this book has to have the most ridiculous plot of any FF release ever: YOU are a dinosaur herder on a planet (called Thalos) that uses big manned robots to do basically everything; one day the Karosseans (bad guys from another planet) release a sleeping agent across your world that sends everyone except for you to sleep (even the book says you are immune “for some reason”) and you decide to save the world singlehandedly by either waking everyone up to start a revolt or by defeating the head Karossean (called Minos); before heading off in a robot to save the day, you make a point of collecting your sword from your parents’ house in case you get into any personal combat situations, and off you go to explore your homeworld which, from the way the book unfolds as a voyage of discovery, you don’t seem to know very much about. Before going any further, let’s just recap that:

1. Dinosaurs are alive and well on your planet, but, as it’s the future, big robots are used to herd them. OK, it’s meant to be diverting Sci-Fi, so let’s accept that for what it is: a ludicrous concept, yet oddly charming at the same time

2. A sleeping agent has put the entire population of your planet, other than you, to sleep and we have no idea why you are unaffected. Presumably this is to suggest you are some sort of chosen one, otherwise SJ(II) just couldn’t be bothered to try to justify this very important plot loophole/aspect

3. You make a point of taking a sword with you – why? The robots have lasers so why do people defend themselves with something as ancient as a sword? Do people not have guns on Thalos? The intro explains that the Karosseans have avoided attacking in the past and need to use toxic sleep warfare as Thalosians are “brave warriors” (who only seem to use swords) so what the hell weapons do Karosseans normally use? Has the most non-lethal planet in the universe invaded the most technologically confused or something? Genuinely inexplicable!

4. As you farm dinosaurs you must be assumed to be a small-town hick who never leaves the farmstead. BUT, at least this makes an adventure of it all and the idea of a voyage of discovery is a pivotal part of adventure gaming, so this is about the most sensible part of the plot premise!

However, in spite of all these barmy and conflicting ideas, the primary reason we play FF books is for the sheer fun of it and no FF book is quite as fun, in the simplest sense of the word, as Robot Commando. Effectively, the mission involves you wandering/flying around (depending on what type of robot you are in at any particular time, or if you have one at all) from city to city trying to discover a cure for the sleeping sickness and/or infiltrating the invaders’ HQ and killing Minos. The cities offer various areas of exploration with some being more interesting than others:
  • ·         City of Knowledge gives you many useful clues and acts as a good overall indication of what the game is about (facts, dinosaurs, combat)
  • ·         City of Industry is more technological, as you’d expect, and focuses more on robotics
  • ·         City of Worship is basically a stat boost or penalty zone, depending on which temples you visit (the Temple of Fear is especially disturbing, the Temple of Peace is pretty intriguing, whilst the Temple of Nothingness is just odd) and what choices you make in them
  • ·         City of the Jungle is a strange idea as it is mostly just the jungle part and is not really a city, but does allow the dinosaurs to get a look in
  • ·         City of Storms is self-explanatory
  • ·         City of the Guardians (which can only be accessed with a secret paragraph number) is a place with otherwise very inconsistently sketchy security where you can get new robots including the ultra-powerful Robotank (of which there are three available to you)
  • ·         City of Pleasure is not as lurid as it sounds but gives you access to useful kit
  • ·         The Capital City (catchy name!) is where the Karossean HQ is and is the final stop if you are playing to destroy the Karossean threat

The City of Knowledge in particular suggests that this book might be plagued with secret numerical references but this quickly ceases and, once you’ve played through a decent amount of the book, it becomes apparent that there are actually three separate (quite straightforward) adventures going on here: 1) cure the sleeping disease, or 2) destroy Minos in robot-on-robot destructive combat, or 3) defeat Minos in a face-to-face personal duel. Number 3 is the subtlest as there are occasional mentions in the book of the importance of duelling for honour on these planets and of the fact that Karosseans immediately submit to anyone who kills their current leader so this is the outcome that you need to pay attention to reach and is the most satisfying in terms of the development and presentation of SJ(II)’s otherwise rather illogical setting. It’s also the only one where personal combat really comes into play as it is otherwise largely overlooked in this book in favour of outcome Number 2’s robot combat. Number 3, the curative outcome is the quickest and leaves you feeling a little underwhelmed as to how short that particular route is and also how very simple it seems to be to achieve it, but the sheer entertainment value will probably leave you wanting to revisit the book to find the other endings or just to explore everything on offer here.

Indeed, exploring everything is one of this book’s biggest draws as you are free to travel in any direction, going back and forth between places you may already have visited in search of things you now know you need, retrieving abandoned robots that you might want to use again, or just trying to go to every place you possibly can so as to get the most out of a playthrough. Some areas do reset themselves, but many have a “have you been here before?” section that may have you face the consequences of a previous visit, or restrict your second time of being there in some way which makes the plot flow better and adds variety. This is probably the most non-linear FF ever as it is, by all accounts, not linear at all and gives you relative freedom somewhere approaching full RPG freedom (within the confines of what options the book gives you, of course.) Due to your freedom to roam, there is also no true path which removes the usual frustration of failure by taking one wrong turn somewhere and/or by not having 25 essential items. Two of the outcomes do involve key items - the cure obviously requires an antidote and a second ingredient, whilst the duel can only be reached if you have a special weapon – or you can go for brute force by trying the robo-battle ending. All three are fun and, as was the case in SJ(II)’s earlier #8 Scorpion Swamp, there are effectively three adventures on offer here, although Scorpion Swamp handled re-visiting areas more thoroughly overall and almost totally avoided re-sets.

Another similarity to Scorpion Swamp is that none of the three missions in this book are especially difficult, although the sheer novelty value of Robot Commando raises it considerably above SS in the quality stakes. To allow players with weak stats to stand a chance of winning, there is very little personal combat involved here, instead your Skill usually dictates success in robot combat (both with robots and dinosaurs) – a measure of your robot piloting ability then, presumably, which raises Skill above the one-dimensional fighting and leaping-about prowess marker that it usually is in FFs. In fact, it is robot combat that really makes this book an interesting ride as each robot has a Speed and many have Combat Bonuses. The slower robot in a battle fights with a Skill penalty, the faster fights with enhanced Skill. This is very clever as it adds realism to these battles as a slow robot would always be at a disadvantage when compared to a faster one and flying robots, in particular, tend to be the fastest. The Combat Bonus stat means that (logically) robots designed for combat have far greater firepower and therefore can do more damage than those designed for farming, etc. That aside, there are generally a lot of other opportunities to gain stat bonuses of various kinds and there is a nice feature to help weaker characters whereby, if you have an Interface Transponder and your Skill is lower than 11, you get a +1 Skill bonus. It’s not often you see such conditioned bonuses as this in FF and it is good to see that you are not expected to be superhuman to win this one. Similarly, it is quite rare for you to personally get injured (which is good as your 5 Medikits only give a rather stingy +1 St increase), unless you get attacked directly or your robot gets trashed/destroyed. The instructions tell you that the result of your robot losing a combat is specifically given in the text and that death may not be the outcome in all cases. In fact, your death is hardly ever the outcome of robot destruction, unless you are in a flying robot and fall to the ground or get eaten by a dinosaur that has beaten your robot. Luck tests are rare for once, and instant fails are used very sparingly and at logical moments. My only real criticism of the way this book finds very much in the player’s favour is with the fact that there are THREE Robotanks in the City of Guardians which allows you to wreck the first two and still have one left to take on Minos’ very similar Supertank, which makes victory highly likely (in fact, it makes getting to either of the Minos outcomes pretty straightforward.)

The robots are, overall, by far the best thing about this book and they are very imaginative and inventive, and even the ones that are basically just Transformers are fun. Some change between being robots and planes, some are two-legged walkers, some have wheels and trundle along the ground, there are tank types, there are some construction/mining plant equipment types, at one point you find an experimental prototype one that has particularly good Skill in battle due to its very high speed (although you need prior info to be able to fly it, which is another neat inclusion), at least one is almost totally useless, there is a snake one that moves along on its base (with a great name – Serpent VII), and you can even commandeer a Karossean Decepticon equivalent. All in all, there is so much variety of types and what they can do, that you will probably spend as much time changing robots and trying them all out as you will visiting everywhere and trying to win one way or another. To add colour to the playability, some areas can only be accessed safely on the ground or in the air and there is no obvious advantage to having either a flyer or a ground robot and their effectiveness depends on where you are at any given moment. If there is one slight issue with all the options to chop and change robots, it’s that the player is expected to remember what robots they’ve left where, make notes (or have a good memory) and adjust the text mentally to say that another robot is now where the one you are in was found. It’s a little distracting but as long as you don’t double-back too much it is probably fairly unlikely to have much of an effect on the flow of things.

Unfortunately, the dinosaurs do not have anything like as much impact on events and it is quite easy to forget that your planet is supposed to be crawling with them. Only very occasionally do you encounter one (although they do tend to be the bigger and stronger types) and, whilst they make robot destruction all the more perilous, they don’t really add any substance to the proceedings and come across as something of an afterthought where they should play a large part considering the emphasis on them in the premise (and on the book’s cover.) The best dino-related moment is probably early on when you meet a Pterodactyl if you are in a flying robot, but the rest are far from memorable unless you get trapped on foot in a dinosaur enclosure. The fact that you can meet a Robot Tyrannosaurus that bears a striking resemblance in its accompanying picture to both Zoidzilla (from Zoids) and Mecha-godzilla (from several Japanese Godzilla movies) does betray SJ(II)’s obvious theme preference in this book. OK, it’s a neat “missing link” between robots and dinosaurs, but it just seems very forced. Equally, Minos’ total lack of any substance makes the all-important end baddie seem pretty irrelevant too, although he is still quite tough to fight in a duel as he has Sk 12 St 12 (in fact, all the Karosseans have stats in double-figures if you ever actually have to fight them face-to-face, that is.)

Structurally, the lack of linearity makes a real change in the context of FF and makes for a very different FF gaming experience, although there are a couple of moments where you can find yourself stuck in endless loops (the City of Worship once the storm hits and the tunnels/lift under the City of Industry) which may or may not be deliberate, it’s hard to tell. There is only one correct way to negotiate the storm, but the tunnels seem to be evidence of the book getting bored with the player if they insist on going in such an obviously wrong direction too much. The obvious emphasis is on free exploration and robot experimentation and, in these two areas, the book is a design success, especially given the effects that the robot you are using can have on how events progress.

Steve Jackson (II) (the American one) has taken a lot of criticism over the years for not being as good a writer or gamebook designer as the better-known Steve Jackson, but I don’t think this is necessarily fair. SJ (II)’s ideas show great originality (at least in the gamebook sense) and his efforts to subvert the linear approach and inject ways to deal with potentially illogical area re-sets should be welcomed. His writing is entertaining and definitely suits the idiom of this book, as there is a definite element of this not being intended to be taken too seriously. It is far from the satire of #27 Star Strider, but it is also a million miles away (pardon the pun) from po-faced Sci-Fi FFs such as #4 Starship Traveller or the serious Sci-Fi drama of #18 Rebel Planet. SJ(II) never tries to make out that this is high art of any kind by being over-pretentious, but he also never falls into the trap of being off-hand or lazy with his writing, even when you do something particularly stupid. The whole book is delivered in a consistent tone and there is balance throughout (even the two looping sections try to maintain reader interest) that very few FF writers can sustain.

I personally love David Martin’s vivid and colourful cover with its Transformer fighting a Tyrannosaur. FF covers often veer on the dark and brooding side and it’s nice to see an upbeat image that reflects the contents very well in its general cheeriness, whilst also presenting the rather odd dichotomy of a world that it is set on. The title literally flashes off the page at you and it is definitely a book where the cover alone should be appealing enough to move units (it worked for me as I generally hate Sci-Fi FFs but I had to have this one as soon as it was released, based purely on the advert in Warlock magazine!) Gary Mayes’ internal art has a suitably shiny and metallic feel in general and it captures the feel of the book very well (I especially like the ZoidZilla/MechaGodzilla robot and the Serpent VII images), although there are a few curious pictures here and there – in some places you seem to be ex-robot or witnessing things from a 3rd party perspective, and I have no idea what paragraph the picture facing sections 221-223 is meant to go with.

Robot Commando, for all its conceptual derangement, is great fun to play and is, along with Rebel Planet, easily the only other genuinely worthwhile Sci-Fi FF, albeit for very different reasons. RP is a tough book set in a well-designed “serious” Sci-Fi universe. RC, on the other hand, is an entertaining romp, kept constantly varied by allowing you to pilot different robots that do all sorts of different things, as well as being three adventures in one. Yes, it’s unusually easy, but that does not matter, as the sheer appeal of being able to play a gamebook that is this unique both structurally and in gameplay terms, makes this one a real winner.