THE TEMPLE OF THE PHARAOH
Reviewed by Mark Lain
The news that Issue 13 (aka Special Horror Issue) of Warlock magazine would be the last came as an unwelcome surprise to me when I bought it in 1986. I had only been collecting the magazine since Issue 11 so my new-found extra gaming outlet was short-lived, plus I just really liked the idea of a FF-centric magazine that also covered other gamebook systems (in its latter issues, at least) rather than the more RPG-focussed White Dwarf that frankly never did much for me. It was especially appropriate then that the short FF adventure included in #13 would be a modern day-set effort which mixed traditional mummy movie horror tropes with the modern understanding (as well as early-20th Century superstitions) of Ancient Egyptian culture.
As with the only other (at the time) modern-set FF book (#10 House Of Hell) this one starts out with you experiencing a technical failure in your chosen mode of transport and having no choice but to explore a death-trap to get back on track. However, in this adventure you are more complicit and less surprised at what you find as you are an Egyptologist searching for a legendary lost temple/pyramid complex in the desert, so you have a decent idea of what to expect within. You have flown around aimlessly for days trying to find it before you suddenly stumble across it and immediately crash your plane as you do so (an implied curse, perhaps?) Naturally, as you were trying to find the site, your initial motive is simply survival (although why this makes you enter the complex is not entirely clear – what are you realistically expecting to find in a tomb that could possibly help you out?), but, as the intro points out, you soon get a more specific quest: to destroy the undead Pharaoh Terratakamen. There is also an incidental side mission of acquiring as much valuable plunder as possible to become rich as well as famous for your exploits. So, there are essentially three reasons to be doing what you are doing and one could arguably play three times with three distinct goals should one wish to widen this adventure’s potential horizons a bit and add re-playability. Yes, the survival concept seems peculiar, but the hunter-killer and/or treasure-hunting motives are as good a reason as any other to head into the complex (this is FF, after all), although these do sit a little awkwardly with your characterisation as you are told from the get-go that you are not an adventurer, you are an explorer, and you do need to try to keep this in mind as you go along.
What works very well in terms of making you feel the concept is the laying-on thick of prior knowledge that only subject experts would know, which shows that you are what you are meant to be. In some gamebooks you can feel like you know nothing at all about something you are supposed to be an expert on, but that is certainly not the case here, especially in the (appropriately) casual manner that Egyptian Gods and other major players are presented to you. You can meet Imhotep, Amon-Ra, Set, Se-Osiris, Isis, Sekhmet (and you know them all by name), plus three generic animal-headed Gods as well as finding a scarab, and being familiar with your structural surroundings ie you can identify the courtyard, throne room, etc within the complex rather than the text just relying on “ugg, pyramid”-type stereotypical Egyptian imagery. I like the immediate immersion and it does make you feel like an expert which really helps with playing the character and it is not long before you are an explorer and are quite comfortable with not being a great hero of some sort or other.
The explorer idea, as well as the classically exotic “unexplored world” setting, make this feel like an especially-graphic Boy’s Own-type of romp, and the way you can find the journal of a previous victim of the complex adds hugely to this as this is straight out of Rider Haggard or Indiana Jones, or such like. The journal gives some handy clues as to how to progress but does not give the entire game away (although it does tell you how to defeat Terratakamen) and is especially useful in early playthroughs as you, just like the doomed writer of the journal, feel your way around the site. Indeed, it quickly becomes apparent just how doomed previous visitors have been as this adventure is quite difficult if only for its labyrinthine map and some quite harsh instant deaths based purely on taking a wrong turn. The final act is especially tough as literally any false move can kill you. However, it is easy to jump to the wrong conclusion and think this is a very short adventure as, should you choose a particular path very early on, you will skip an entire (massive) section and jump straight to the final act, although you will have no chance as the essential items for victory can only be found by a very thorough exploration of a maze that takes up the vast majority of the adventure’s body. The maze itself is as convoluted as they come in mapping terms and it is probably just as easy to blunder around as it is to try to draw up an incomprehensible spider’s-web of a map and try to beat it analytically. As it stands the actual flow of the adventure involves entering a gateway, finding an underground passage, negotiating the huge maze, then avoiding several instadeath traps, before negotiating the inner sanctum’s lethal catalogue of “pick the right option” checkpoints. This might not sound very interesting but, curiously enough, this is actually very interesting and I really was quite gripped whilst playing due in part to the “so this is the modern day – what the hell is going on?” vibe, as well as the sheer depth of subject knowledge that the author pours into the text. Clearly Tom Williams knows his Egyptology and, by the end of this gamebook, so do you! Thankfully, he avoids the very creaky cliché of bandage-wrapped mummies shuffling around and instead goes for a deity- and trap-based dungeon design. The initial sections wherein you find a range of corpses some of which are wearing modern day attire does send quite a shiver down the spine as you realise that this lost tomb complex is still fully functional, albeit as if it were 4000 years ago (there are even some Greek slaves to find at one point, which is a lovely historical detail.)
To add to the very well-realised game design, your character’s starting inventory makes perfect sense in context. You start with 3 Provisions (all that there was in your plane when it crashed) and a fire-axe that you feel compelled to bring along at the last minute. The usual stats of Skill, Stamina, and Luck are all you have in terms of building a character, but there is no need for anything else as you are exactly what you are – a semi-stranded chancer. In classic FF style, if you lose your fire-axe you fight with a -2 Skill penalty until you can find a replacement and there is at least one other Skill penalty to suffer too and this is a very noticeable feature of this adventure as, if you have a low starting Skill I doubt you have much chance of survival if you take the combative approach as most battles are with very tough foes: Swarm of Bats Sk 10 St 12; Isis in cobra form Sk 12 St 16; Corpse Sk 4 Stamina INFINITE, plus if it hits you, you die instantly; Se-Osiris Sk 13 St 12; Set Sk 12 St 15; “Creature” (a sort of Egyptian abomination that mixes several species into one and is understandably beyond any naming conventions) Sk 10 St 14; Statues (if you use the wrong item on them by accident) Sk 14 St 14; and finally Terratakamen himself who has a whopping Sk 14 St 20 although you only have to try to last for 3 Attack Rounds before the text decides you are fighting a losing battle and lets you try something else and/or die trying. We need to temper this catalogue of super-baddies though as only a small number of these combats are totally essential to success: play your cards right, avoid certain paths, and do not be psychotic and you will find that you can plot a less deadly route, at least in combat terms. There are also a few key Luck tests (involving the classic idea of pyramids being riddled with traps) that can have fatal results if failed, but they come late on and the difficulty level overall ramps logically up as you approach the final showdown, plus several of the battles are with Gods so you can hardly expect an easy ride really, so the difficulty in general does suit the flow and the concept.
The shopping list here is not huge, but certain items are necessary to win (plus some make the going slightly easier) and the maze section makes finding them all the harder to add to the challenge. I have to admit that I do not like mazes (I think they are a paragraph-consuming cop-out) but many Egyptian tomb complexes are built like mazes so this one is a sensible (if rather frustratingly repetitive) feature. Only certain parts of it yield anything of use and I’d hazard that replaying is essential to uncovering the items you need (unless you are really lucky on the first attempt, of course!)
There is an intriguing moment late on where you are asked a riddle by Isis, the answer to which requires some knowledge of Ancient Egypt to get right. Either the writer knew this was probably going to be beyond many people and intentionally designed it this way, or the section randomising got cocked-up, but the correct answer section is on the same page as the riddle section (in fact it’s practically parallel to it) which does make the 1 in 4 chance of guessing correctly a bit easier. On the one hand, the challenge element is removed in this episode but, on the other, how many players will really know enough about Cleopatra to ever be able to get this riddle right? So I can live with this as it is, if only to avoid a factually obscure (and completely unrelated to any info you collect in the adventure), 75% chance of dying, penultimate test.
As is the norm with Warlock mini-FFs, this one has its fair share of typos but there seem to be less than usual and this adventure is generally better proofread than the typical Warlock offering, which is a good thing as it allows us to focus more on TW’s obvious fondness for his subject matter. Putrefaction and/or immaculate locations are described in some detail and the feeling of being in an Egyptian temple-tomb comes across from the outset. The desert flight does feel sun-baked and the interiors are ominously described. The best descriptions by far are those of the creature/deity encounters and the smell that lingers around Set is especially vividly detailed. Likewise, the “Creature” is explained in enough detail for it to be both horrific but also slightly elusive in the mind’s eye as it is, essentially, beyond explanation (although the picture of it kind of covers anything you haven’t already got your head around!) The text also flows better than the usual Warlock fare as the minefield of dodgy punctuation that normally plagues these, causing fracturous sentences that jar as you read them, is largely missing, bar a few rogue capital letters but that’s no crisis and is hardly noticeable. The art here is by Dave Carson (of Beneath Nightmare Castle fame) and he does graphic body horror very well, although the art here is more restrained than in BNC, but is frightening enough to still give you a chill and really suits the general feel of this adventure. Unfortunately, the art is very randomly scattered throughout the text and rarely sits anywhere near its related section meaning that you sometimes stumble across an image of something that was described to you several paragraphs ago. On the one hand, it allows our imaginations to play a bigger part in the visual aspect, but on the other hand, the art is so well-rendered and suited to the concept that it would be better if the layout were a bit more sympathetic to both the gamebook and the reader, but that’s more a criticism of the art/layout department than the adventure itself.
For a short subject (only 194 sections) this one does feel very big as you play it and no paragraphs seem to be wasted, even by including a maze. There is a sense of awe (both in the player’s mind as the complex unfolds in front of you and in the writer’s respect for the material) and you do feel that you are delving into the unknown whilst also trying to discover something hitherto only known to legend, just as the 1920s/30s explorers would have done. Similarly, your thirst for wealth and fame is constantly reinforced as you are told the value (in shekels, appropriately enough) of any treasure you find and you often casually steal what treasures you find. It would be an interesting alternate mission were you to play purely to amass as much wealth as possible and this is one of the many ways this adventure compels you to want to replay it. If there is one oddity in the game design, it is how to use Provisions – to me, at least, the instructions are ambiguous as to whether you can only eat when instructed or if you are free to eat whenever you want to. There are definitely some sections that offer you the chance to eat, but they do make the proviso (as it were) of if you have any food left which suggests that you could be free to eat at any stage. Likely as not, this will not really cause a problem, but it is a little curious if you read it literally (or try to.)
This is a really enjoyable and intriguing adventure overall, and the depth of detail, combined with the desire to achieve any or all of your three aims is enough to make this work very well. Williams really knows his subject and this comes across throughout. There is no drop in quality at any stage and even the maze suits the setting. Warlock’s mini-FFs were always quite hit-and-miss, but this one is a definite hit (plus it matches the "Special Horror Issue" theme very effectively) and ensures that Warlock goes out on a high rather than with the boring whimper that would be FF's other mummy-themed entry (#59 Curse Of The Mummy) which ended Puffin’s 59-book run by curing us of insomnia. If you have not yet played The Temple Of The Pharaoh, I would recommend you do as you will not be disappointed and, at the very least, you will come out of it knowing a bit more about Pharaonic Egypt (whether you want to or not!)