Monday 25 May 2015

#47: The Crimson Tide


Paul Mason

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The follow-up, as opposed to a sequel, to the archly pretentious #42 Black Vein Prophecy (they are both set in the Isles Of Dawn and this book’s plot requires you to encounter the protagonist from the earlier book but your character this time around is totally different) is structurally and stylistically unique within the FF cannon. YOU play a 13-year-old serf who is seeking vengeance on the leader of a band of marauding bandits who murdered your father and abducted your mother. The book begins with the bandits attacking your village, then YOU and some other village children set off to right the wrong. The plot motive itself may hardly sound original (there are several other revenge FFs), but the approach and execution is a million miles away from the standard “sword, armour, potion, food, mission” gamebooks.

Beginning the book as a child means you are initially very weak and your starting stats are designed to reflect this: Skill is generated with a single dice roll (ie it can only range from 1 to 6), Stamina is only 2d6 (ie 2 thru 12), but Luck is the standard 1d6+6 (ie 7 to 12). This may seem quite harsh in gaming terms, but it is very logical in real terms as a child cannot have the same physical strength or weapons abilities as a bigger and more experienced adult. There is no reason, however, why a child cannot be as naturally lucky (or unlucky) as an adult so the handling of Luck also makes perfect sense. To avoid you simply having no chance of getting anywhere due to your restricted stats, an added feature involves your Age stat. You start aged 13 and, as the book progresses you are prompted to add another year or two to your age as time is spent doing various things (working, training, being enslaved, etc.) As you get older your Skill and Stamina also increase in line with whatever you are doing – do physical work and your Stamina rises, learn combat skills and your Skill rises. Again, all very logical, with the added realistic element that, once you reach the age of 18, your current Skill and Stamina become your Initial values and you now have an adult character generated. This is the only FF gamebook ever to deal with this idea and it gives a realistic RPG feel as your character literally develops. There is another stat involved here too (Ferocity) which is your desire for revenge. As you get older, your Ferocity generally decreases as your hatred lessens. If it ever reaches zero you have achieved inner peace and can automatically avoid the aggressive responses caused by rolling under your Ferocity score when making saving throws against Ferocity. Ferocity is the only stat mechanic that does not work especially well in this book. If your primary goal is vengeance (and it is in this book) then why would your thirst for closure ever reduce? Also, as the book regularly reminds you that you are out for revenge, it seems a bit at odds with that part of the plot. That said, a major feature of this book’s design plot-wise is your gradual spiritual awakening, so in that sense it fits well, but there are not really many moments where your Ferocity is tested so overall it has little bearing on anything much. All the same, the idea itself is sound.

It does not take a genius to realise that, given the limits imposed on you by playing a child in the early stages of the book, you can find yourself starting with a super-weak Skill 1 Stamina 2 character. If you do, you have to give up immediately and start again. In fact, if you have anything lower than an opening Skill of 3 the book is impossible from the outset as you are expected to fight a Sk 12 St 6 Giant Mudworm a few sections into the book. Even if you roll double twos for its Attack Strength in every Attack Round (possible, but highly unlikely), giving it an AS of 14 (which is its minimum) you can only ever wound it with a minimum AS of 15 (ie 2 x 6 on the dice + 3 Skill) and even then you have to roll double sixes every time (again, it can happen, but it is extremely unlikely.) Much has been made of this encounter in various write-ups of this book and it is incredibly hard, but this has to be looked at rationally. Yes, the fight cannot be won unless you have a Skill higher than 3 (and even with a Skill of 6 it will not be easy) which is a fundamental flaw in design, but you only need to inflict three wounds to kill it. If you use Luck (and remember that Luck is rolled-up as per any other FF book so you have no disadvantage Luck-wise) you can potentially only need to hit it twice as it is physically quite weak. The book does mention that you are made leader of the gang of children because you had previously killed a Giant Mudworm (which you quickly realise is the standard enemy of the rice paddy worker in this area of Titan) so this combat is evidently a plot-enhancing moment and is obviously intended to be easy as you start the book with only a wooden sword as a weapon – presumably Giant Mudworms can be simply beaten to death with sticks so cannot be all that tough? But, it is unfair to criticise the book’s design for this encounter as it was never meant to be this way. PM has gone on record as blaming Marc Gascoigne for changing the creature’s Skill during the editing process so the error is just that – an error! Looking up Giant Mudworms on Titannica suggests its stats should be Sk 6 St 6 which would certainly be more sensible and make this combat fit the context far better. So, there are two choices here (excluding cheating and awarding yourself an automatic win, of course): 1) play the book as it is in its finished form which does demand a minimum starting Skill of 3 but that’s no different to the multitude of the FFs that have predestination built into your stats and cannot be finished without certain minimum attributes and just accept that this combat is ridiculously hard; 2) decide the Mudworm has a Skill of 6 and conduct the fight that way instead. By all accounts, if you want to ever get beyond the very first part of the book you need to do something otherwise you will miss a lot of decent material.

On the first few playthroughs it can seem like you spend a lot of time going around in never-ending circles making the intended route seem rather elusive and, until you find the true path the book is pretty much a loop of visiting and re-visiting the same places and scratching your head trying to fathom out what essential item or side-route you have somehow missed. It is even possible to end up being sent back to paragraph 1 (although this happens quite early on, rather than annoyingly right at the end as with BVP) to re-live everything but that is preferable to just being told you have failed. Indeed, the way failure is handled in this book is one of the best parts of it as instant deaths are very rarely used, other than in the final section where there is a generic item checklist that you have to go through and any missed ones will lead to death. Instead, TCT includes a multitude of alternate endings, all of which involve you getting a job of some sort and just settling for that instead of revenge. Some are very “zen” and follow the spiritual enlightenment themes that are central to the book (becoming a monk, etc), some are just you accepting that a career will get you through life fine (weaver, sailor, farmer, etc), and a few are pretty awful and condemn you to a life of hell (slavery, etc.) There are loads of these outcomes and, whilst they might start to grate and become repetitive after a while, they offer a good alternative to simply dying and show that a lot of thought has gone into a) the design of the book and b) the central themes and the genuine realities of accepting a good opportunity when it presents itself rather than trying to be a one-man revenge machine (especially as you are totally out of your depth here.)

The central theme of enlightenment is key to completing this book and you are required to pay quite close attention to a few important clues along the way, especially in the introduction which tells you that you need to note down codewords in the exact order that you are given them. Enlightenment in this case involves training as a monk, learning to control your rage (Ferocity) whilst growing physically more powerful (Skill, Stamina) and making some wise (enlightened) choices at major decision points and it quickly becomes apparent that killing everything in sight will get you nowhere in this book. The codewords concept is one that I generally do not like in gamebooks but it is very well deployed in TCT and serves two purposes. The first is the use of codewords as a way of controlling plot logic and flow to avoid the reset button illogically kicking-in as you return to previously visited areas and/or deal with cause-and-effect scenarios. The second is the subtlest and also most frustratingly clever part of this book in that a particular sequence of certain codewords holds the key to the only way of completing the book. This is an intriguing idea and emphasizes the importance of the true path and of mapping. There are lots of codewords that can be found, but only a few form the essential clue, others just control plot flow and some even force you down red herring routes, which makes the correct message all the tougher to find. It will take umpteen failed attempts to find an even vaguely coherent message in the codewords and the one true path is rendered incredibly tight and linear due to this. In fact, it could take many playthroughs to even work out that there is meant to be a message in the codewords, but, as I said earlier, close reading of the text will give clues about this. The statement in the intro about noting them down in order is a clue that probably grows more obvious the more times you play the book, but during the Monks’ trial section one of the Monks actually says “In everything there is a pattern and you will understand only if you observe the pattern” so he essentially tells you how to crack the book’s code. On one hand, this is one of the cleverest and most unusual secret solutions in any FF book, but, equally, it is so subtle due to its uniqueness that it can make this book seem un-finishable and I doubt many people have ever genuinely completed it, especially given that the last part of the hidden clue is the section number that you need to turn to which can only be found by solving a very hard maths puzzle that you are not directly told you have got right until you combine your miraculous realisation that it goes with the word clue with actually managing to do the maths and magically get the correct paragraph. Overall, this is an exceptionally difficult code to solve, but, as I said, the clues are there if you are persistent and are willing to go through the pain of many many unsuccessful playthroughs as you slowly piece the map together and figure out the required order of events. But, at least the “now use the secret section you have uncovered” moment is clearly signposted in the options when it comes to needing to know it, rather than you just having to guess, so it’s not all weighted against you in terms of uncovering the solution.

Indeed, there are a few other nods to make the ride a tiny bit easier for you. Combats are generally discouraged (the battle count on the true path is very low indeed) as the point is to reduce your Ferocity and achieve enlightenment (a word the book hammers into you over and over again to get the point of its importance across) and the really tough opponents do not need to be fought if you have got the point. As time passes there are ample opportunities to improve your stats, although only the true path will give you a decent enough Skill to win through. As an aside, the passing of time may seem a bit jumpy (ie you are often simply told that you spend a year doing this, that, or the other and to add +1 to your Age) but it does avoid unnecessary longeurs that will slow down the plot progression. Plus, the adventure overall is not too long so re-starting does not seem to be a chore as you don’t need to spend ages getting back to a previous fail point which makes re-play more likely without it growing depressing.

For a game with such a tight true path, you are relatively free to roam about and explore areas in any order whilst you try to map the book on repeated failed attempts. Obviously, once you find the true path there is no scope for digression but the “exploratory” possibilities of the book are fairly wide open and are all the more viable given the various non-win endings that avoid the usual “wrong way = death” FF fallback. In some ways, it’s just as much fun trying to reach all the alternate endings as it is trying to find the optimum one and the alternate endings are very easy to get to, unlike the very well hidden true ending. Granted, the true path negates the free movement possibilities but exploration and repeat play is an essential part of the process in this book so it works well in my opinion. Equally, there is a lot to see and do on all paths so it is worth just roaming around aimlessly if only to experience all that has gone into designing the Isles of Dawn. Of note is the way NPCs interact with you as everyone is out for themselves (logical given that this region is an unstable feudal land ruled by an oppressive regime) and hardly anyone (bar the Monks) shows any interest in you at all, especially the bureaucrats. Add to this the way the atmosphere is laid on thick and you really do feel like you are a little twerp on a hopeless personal crusade that you cannot realistically hope to complete... and maybe that’s why it’s so hard to beat this book. Perhaps that’s the point that PM is making, that the little man will always lose when trying to take on the big man. Thankfully though, the political side is largely presented through the feudal social structure rather than through ramblings which was one of the many things that ruined the previous Isles of Dawn book, Black Vein Prophecy. Adding to the atmosphere is the very exotic Far Eastern feel of the locations, NPC names, vocabulary, and the monsters that you can meet. The creatures in particular are highly imaginative and unique to this book (I particularly like the Cargui, which is a big silkworm thing) and are a nice antidote to the usual bog-standard fantasy fare of Orcs and the like, none of which seem to extend this far across Titan. It’s nice to see a bit of geographical exposition in FF and the “cut-off” nature of these Isles seems to be a nod to how feudal Japan used to be viewed by the West. Indeed, Hachiman (from #20 Sword Of The Samurai) gets name-checked frequently in this book (mostly with negative “baddie” connotations) which also adds to the idea of a part of Titan that has developed separately from the rest, plus this also adds to the always-welcome cross-linking between books in the series.

I opened this by describing this book as a follow-up as distinct from a sequel to Black Vein Prophecy. I say this because the links lie in the location and the final denouement only, otherwise this is a wholly different book. In BVP you were destined for greatness (you just had to realise it), in TCT you come from nothing and are probably headed for nothing which might be why you can find so many non-win endings that you are expected to just settle for. The main inter-linking between the two books happens when you come face-to-face with King Maior ie the character you play in BVP. OK, so this is a different slant on the concept and FF sequels almost always do not involve you re-playing the same character (although occasionally you really are the same person), but rarely do you literally meet yourself as is the case here! Unfortunately, whilst it works in the context of TCT’s plot, this does kind of defeat the object of BVP (although, if my advice is worth taking, I would strongly advise against bothering with the wretched BVP anyway!) especially as there is an illustration of King Maior who I can categorically say does not look like the YOU that is me (if that makes sense?) But, it is always nice to see global coherence plot and setting-wise and I think that is what is intended in this book, rather than YOU trying to un-do your role in BVP. Plus, TCT is a far superior book and avoids the lunacy, pretentiousness, and cod politicising that made BVP so unbearable.

As can be expected in a book that plays so liberally with the form and format of FF, paragraph 400 is not the ultimate ending. Instead, it is the key instant death outcome that results from failing the item check-off part of the final section where you meet the King. The fact that several sections offer a “turn to 400” next move can initially create the illusion of success (which may be intentional) can indicate that this is not where you want to be heading and that it is simply another red herring. We have discussed several aspects of this book that make it so very hard to complete (low starting stats, need for high stats generally, ridiculous Giant Mudworm fight, very tight true path, and, the most important by far, the secret message hidden in the text) and another aspect that makes this tough is the shopping list of essential items. Granted, they can be individually fairly easy to get hold of, but finding all of them in one playthrough can be a challenge and it does come as a bit of a surprise when the book suddenly demands that you produce them and the ending is very much a “Do you have x? If not, die”, “Now do you have y? If not, die” catalogue of item checks. That said, it does make it all the more satisfying when you manage to best the “combination of items needed + getting past the rather tough Monks trial by using your enlightened mind + fathoming out that damn secret message” equation and win. It also requires you to win (or at least get a long way through) to appreciate just how intricately and superbly designed this book really is.

Whilst this book is highly original in the context of the FF series, the actual plot is anything but original, given that it is basically lifted from Conan The Barbarian ie child witnesses parents’ undoing, goes through various trials to build himself up physically and spiritually, finally gets revenge as an adult. There is enough variation and interesting incident throughout the game’s plot for you to possibly not notice this, but the appearance of a human-snake end baddie is a little harder to overlook as a Conan steal. Similarly, during the all-important pivotal Monks’ Trial episode, you are required to face your personal demons and confront an image of the masked bandit leader who you are ultimately seeking revenge against. The moment where your face is behind the mask bears more than a passing resemblance to the part of The Empire Strikes Back where Luke decapitates Darth Vader only to see his own face behind the mask. All very philosophical and there is a definite correlation between Luke’s Jedi awakening and your spiritual enlightenment in this book, but it’s a bit transparent where the idea came from. Probably less obvious is the inter-textual repeat image of the bandit leader’s mask itself which is very similar-looking to the horror mask from the classic Japanese movie Onibaba.

On the subject of the internal art, there is a dark mysterious look to Terry Oakes’ work here and some of the images are quite imposing and frightening. I like the way much of the art is from a “looking upwards” perspective which does emphasize the idea of your being a child. The art is not exceptional, but it certainly works in the Far Eastern context of this book. As for Alan Craddock’s colourful and busy cover, this was what really drew me to want to play this book the first time as there’s just so much going on. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to work out exactly what it is that is going on as the Sharkmen (for one) aren’t in the book anywhere and the entire image seems to relate to a completely different book. Odd then, as a cover picture, but I like it nonetheless as there is a certain animation to it and it has effective use of dark as well as bright contrasting colours.

This is a very unique experience overall that is very satisfying to play (and beat, if you actually can do so) and offers a lot to keep you interested. The system is highly original and kudos has to go to Paul Mason for trying to do something very different with the FF format and for successfully pulling it off slickly rather than creating a botched mess in the process. There is no doubt that this book is unbelievably difficult but there is enough here to compel you to keep searching for the solution. Apparently PM set out to write the hardest FF book ever and he may just about have achieved his goal as this is certainly amongst the all-time hardest without a doubt. Opinion is very polarised in FF fandom about this book – some rate it for its originality and the thrill of the chase, others hate it for its difficulty-level and the Giant Mudworm cock-up. I’m in the former faction and would strongly recommend giving this a try. You probably won’t win, but you’ll still get a lot of enjoyment out of failing!

Tuesday 19 May 2015

#13: Freeway Fighter


Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

I know exactly where I got this book (and more or less when too – it was certainly in Summer 1985.) It’s the only FF I ever got from what was then the huge Games Workshop in Nottingham’s Broadmarsh Shopping Centre. We were there for some reason and I got the book and then walked down to the banks of the River Trent and played it for the first time on a gloriously sunny day. Since then I’ve probably only played it four or five more times because the Sci-Fi books never really caught my imagination in the same way the Medieval fantasy entries did. From what I can gather, this one doesn’t get played all that often by many FF fans which is both unsurprising in some ways, but also a bit of a pity.

On first opening the book, this has to have one of the most intriguing Adventure Sheets of all the FFs. Firstly, there are four pages of it which suggests a pretty elaborate system. Secondly, there is a schematic of your car with little pictures of rockets, iron spikes, oil canisters, and spare wheels for you to mark off as you use them. There is a box to record any custom Modifications you do and a Fuel tracking box too. On your personal stats page is a Med-Kit checking-off box, a box listing 200 Credits and even a box to name your character! Then there’s a page for Enemy Encounters followed by a final page for Vehicle Encounters. All looking pretty exciting really. A read-through of the rules tells us to roll-up Skill and Luck conventionally, but you get a remarkably high Stamina of 2d6 plus 24 (more on this later), then there’s additional generation of stats for your car – Firepower (ie Skill for your car) is calculated the same way as your own Skill, then Armour (car Stamina) is 2d6 plus 24 (the same as your own Stamina.) So you seem to be pretty tough with an equally tough bit of hardware to cruise around in. Furthermore, there are three sets of combat rules – Hand Fighting (combats where you are armed with any non-ballistic weapons or your own fists) which is basically standard combat but with two key differences, one being that fists only do damage of -1 St on a successful hit, the second being rather more unusual which allows for a very realistic element where the first person to lose 6 Stamina will lose consciousness (at last, on book number 13 we have the first FF that allows for this rather obvious feature, rather than just letting you take a relentless pummelling with no pre-death consequences); Shooting is similar to normal combat but damage is calculated by rolling 1d6 and deducting whatever number is rolled from the injured character’s Stamina – even the rules tell us that this reflects the variable damage from a bullet of anywhere from a flesh wound to outright death (another realistic touch); Vehicle Combat is the same as Shooting but is for, erm, vehicle combats, so Skill becomes Firepower and Stamina is Armour with the added proviso that anyone in a destroyed vehicle dies too (again a nice realistic touch) – you also have the equally logical option of firing one of your rockets at an enemy vehicle and decimating it on the spot without having to roll any dice. I love these rules for their realism and variation in cause and effect and, on playing the book, it becomes apparent that the balance of their deployment is generally equal which is unusual in FFs with loads of combat rules where one is normally favoured at the expense of (usually) the more interesting rules. We are also told that we have 200 Credits to use as money, but that a system of bartering for medicine (your Med-Kits) is favoured in this particular future which is, again, an interesting and quite realistic idea for a post-apocalyptic future (and it actually happens in the game!)

...A future which, now, is not all that far off given that the book is set in 2022 as the well-written and actually quite exciting introductory back-story tells us. Basically, one day (21st June 2022 to be precise) a virus somehow broke out in New York City which rapidly spread globally and had wiped-out 85% of the world’s population within four days, leaving a desolate future wasteland where society rapidly degenerated into anarchy remarkably quickly (don’t they always in these futures!) Fuel is a valuable commodity, as are medicine and seeds (presumably to grow food crops?) and YOU come into the equation by being selected to drive a mercy mission from the hackneyed-named New Hope to San Anglo to trade a cart-load of seeds for 10,000 litres of fuel. YOU drive a Dodge Interceptor tricked-up to the teeth with weapons which you will then leave at San Anglo and drive a fuel tanker back home again. Reading the Intro really makes this seem like a fun thing to do and the two aspects that really make this book work are the sheer fun of it all and the pacing of the plot and text.

Rather than going into long descriptive sections the fast pace is maintained with short and snappy paragraphs giving just enough detail to allow us to visualise this future. And this is the big feature of this book as everywhere you go and, in particular, everyone you encounter, are pretty one-dimensional caricatures that mostly exist just for you to destroy or acquire stuff from. In typical IL style, even in a Sci-Fi book we still get a companion at one point, but the equally one-note Amber is just a plot point rather than the usual die or run way side-kick. Similarly, almost everyone you meet is either psychotic or wants to rob you but that works for me as this is a dystopian future where society has disintegrated and it’s every man for himself in a bid for primeval survival. It’s a nice antidote to the usually quite intense FF material purely because this book is so fast-paced (you can really feel the adrenalin pumping as you speed across the desert roads), is action-packed, and is totally mindless fun for the sheer hell of it. It asks very little of the reader, but I don’t have a problem with that as it just really works and is very charming in its simplicity. Blowing up cars and buildings with various weapons makes this feel like a video game, but there are nonetheless a few clever moments, primarily the Blitz Race where you really do have to fully exploit your car’s arsenal to win the race (and any false move will blow it for you), even if the prize of a canister of fuel in return for wasting a load of fuel in the race seems a little peculiar and illogical.

The Blitz Race itself is one of the few tough moments in what is largely (and unusually for IL) a fairly easy book to beat, but there are three aspects that must be overcome if you are going to win. A high Skill and Luck are essential as there are umpteen Skill tests (mostly testing your driving credentials) as well as many Luck tests. The difficulty of the frequent Skill tests is compounded by the frustrating (but very realistic) fact that you lose 1 Skill point every time you are wounded more than once in Shooting combat. The real killer in this book though is regular checks on your Fuel. Again, this makes perfect sense but you will almost certainly lose a few times just by running out of fuel. This is another rare mechanic for IL as instant deaths are few and far between, whereas failing due to either running out of fuel or just losing your car and having to trudge back home to try again are the far more likely outcomes of playing this and this does make re-playing a logical plot progression. On top of this is the fact that there is a non-win ending where you die but still achieve the aim of just about getting the fuel back, plus there is a “double-win” ending where you return with the fuel and also rescue Sinclair who you are told in the Intro has been abducted. Lots of re-playability here then.

The curiously high Stamina score that your character has here suggests that you are pretty tough (potentially stronger than your car, in fact) but this acts more to balance out the potential 6 points of damage you can take each time you are shot and reduces the likelihood of you getting knocked out, making things a bit fairer on you. Human and vehicle foes are often quite strong (especially other vehicles’ Armour which also makes sense given the context of carnage) and Vehicle Combat can be quite hard so a high Firepower is also going to be necessary if you want to avoid trashing your car too quickly. To keep a futuristic context and also stay within the FF idiom, Provisions are replaced by Med-Kits which, as before, restore 4 Stamina points each time they are used, plus you can sleep and occasionally eat too so your chances of staying alive are generally good. An interesting feature is that you cannot use Luck in combat, but I doubt you would want to given how many Luck tests there otherwise are in this book, so this exclusion is probably in your favour too. If there is one problem with the design of this book it is that IL cannot avoid his habit of writing very linear books with strict true paths, and that is certainly the case here as the correct route where you have enough Fuel to get to San Anglo is tight and does not allow for any real digression.

There are a few textual inconsistencies to be found but they don’t detract from the enjoyment of the game itself and can be overlooked. What is impossible to ignore is the striking (almost plagiaristic) resemblance to Mad Max 2 The Road Warrior – basically the entire general concept is lifted from this film and there is even a gang to be contended with (The Doom Dogs) with a hard-nut leader called The Animal (read, The Toecutter, minus Mad Max’s personal dead family interest plotline which is absent from Freeway Fighter so at least it’s not a 100% rip-off!) This book will never win any points for originality and there is nothing here that had not already been done in the Mad Max franchise, but I don’t think that’s the point. The emphasis here is on sheer simplistic fun and the frantic pacing alone is enough to carry it very well.

Some fans of FF have expressed disappointment over the relative shortness (in section count) of this book. At only 380 paragraphs you could be forgiven for expecting it to be quite short in adventure terms, but it is not actually that noticeable. You are on a desperate mission and the ongoing impulse is to get to San Anglo as quickly and safely as possible, so I personally think this works in the book’s favour and it is still satisfying and eventful all the same, plus it will take a couple of hours to play through which is the average for most early FFs so nothing is lost in the 20 less sections.

The cover by Jim Burns is a real draw with its bright colours and imposing-looking combat-ready car (a Red Chevvy, incidentally) crewed by more extras from Mad Max! The title font is almost computerised and sets a nice Sci-Fi tone. The internal art, however (by Kevin Bulmer) is a big let-down and does not do the setting or incidents any favours at all. It is all bordering on line drawings with no depth or background, plus some illustrations totally contradict their descriptions in the text. I gather that different art was originally created but not deemed suitable so apparently Bulmer only had nine days to throw this together, which is very obvious unfortunately. After a while, though you can just ignore the art and hurtle through the text and frequent incidents that keep this moving so nicely. I was disappointed when the Wizard re-issue appeared which replaced the very effective Puffin cover art with a much more modern image which, to add insult to injury, was stolen directly from the cover of IL’s Battlecars ZX Spectrum game. Not only was art that I liked replaced, but it was replaced with something we had already seen twenty years before. Harrumph.

For a Sci-Fi FF this book works because it is set on Earth so it avoids the boring space opera approach of FFs like #4 Starship Traveller but is never as bonkers as the other silly end of the Sci-Fi spectrum  of worlds that all but ruined #12 Space Assassin and #33 Sky Lord. This was never going to be a great high-brow gamebook, but it is great fun to play for sheer entertainment’s sake (just like the Mad Max movies then, really) and it never claims to be anything more than fast-paced, violent fun. The realistic system and additional rules work very well and add to the overall experience in what is a fair, generally logical, and balanced adventure overall. I marginally rate #22 Robot Commando above this offering as it is less bloodthirsty and more varied, but there are many much worse gamebooks in the FF series than Freeway Fighter. Turn your brain off and just enjoy this for what it is: dumb energetic fun.

Saturday 16 May 2015

#51: Island Of The Undead


Keith Martin

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Sometimes referred to as Plague Of The Undead (and often listed as such in FF title listings inside other books in the series), probably the biggest surprise about FF #51 is that it ever happened at all given that the series was due to be axed by Puffin at number 50. However, the runaway success of #50 (Return To Firetop Mountain) bought the series a brief additional nine book reprieve before Puffin’s series finally rolled over and died on number 59 (Curse Of The Mummy.)

As with the bulk of the 50+ entries, this book uses a far more complex system with new stats to track, natural hunger to contend with, mathematical cheat-proofing galore, and a long and involved mission. Also, it quickly becomes evident that it also suffers from fundamental errors, another feature of the final handful of books! The rules tell us, in their explanation of the Presence attribute, that “There is also a box on your Adventure Sheet for recording your Presence score.” Er, no there is not! There is a box for Honour (which does not get mentioned in the rules and does not feature in this book at all), a box for Time Elapsed (again, not listed in the rules or used at any point in this book), one for Possessions (how does this differ from the also present Equipment List?), and a small Enemy Encounter box (what the hell is this for?) So, the first thing we have to accept before we’ve even started playing is that the Adventure Sheet is a write-off and it’s time to get pencil and paper out and make our own one instead. There’s also a general spiel about an eventual possible need to use Magic which hardly really ever happens so this is a pointless part of the rules too, unless it’s just to make you think some exciting magicky stuff might happen at some point. Not a promising start. However, if you ignore the Adventure Sheet’s numerous phantom rules and just read the extra rule about Presence (which is the only one you need to bother reading if you already know the FF system) this seems like it might not be too hard to get your head around. Presence is basically your kudos. It starts between 5 and 7, can exceed its Initial level, but is capped-off at a maximum of 12 to avoid the saving throws becoming academic. Overall this sounds like an interesting extra stat then and it is well-deployed throughout the book proper.

The adventure itself involves YOU being a fisherman who inhabits a village on the coast of the Strait Of Knives in Allansia. Life there was hard until four wizards randomly showed-up on a neighbouring island (Solani) and struck up a deal with your people whereby they keep storms at bay (meaning your fishing hauls are bountiful) in return for the locals giving them various essentials for their work. Recently the storms have started again and YOU have volunteered to join a mercy mission to Solani to find out what’s changed all of a sudden. Your boat is destroyed in the inevitable storm and you are washed-up on a beach on Solani, the sole survivor from your crew. From here on in you have to roam around the island (that you have never been to and is totally unknown to you) and try to solve the mystery. The first surprise is a combat on paragraph one with a Sea Zombie which has resurrected from one of your dead fellow crew members. It’s pretty easy (Sk 6 St 7) and does at least alert us to the fact that the title’s mention of the Undead is not a lie. Indeed, many of the encounters in this book are with Undead so there is a coherence of title and theme throughout that makes sense. The presence of several Elementals helps you to understand how the Wizards balanced the weather (each Wizard turns out to be a Master of an element – Fire, Water, Earth, Air) and the underlying plot of one of the Wizards becoming a megalomaniac and pitching the others against each other does have genuine intrigue and mystery to it and the enigma is a satisfying one to uncover as you progress through what proves to be a very coherent and logical storyline.

At the same time, however, the sheer effort involved in unearthing everything you need to as the player makes this a very demanding and seemingly endless book in the game sense. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a “gigantic map” type of gamebook. The island is quite small and, by definition, just how far you can travel around is limited by geography itself. The problem comes in the sheer amount of the map you have to explore to find all the information you cannot win without knowing and you just about have to visit every square inch of the island. It is often quoted that this book has one of the longest true paths in real terms (somewhere around 250 paragraphs have to be read to complete it) but it doesn’t seem like this will be the case in the quite fast-moving early stages wherein you are exploring the island’s varied exterior environments. The really demanding part comes once you enter the black tower where the Masters actually lived and worked. This is the stage of the adventure where you need umpteen secret clues, almost all of which involve counting letters, then crunching values to find hidden sections. Most of the information is found in the external trek, but it is in the tower where your brain will start to hurt from all the maths that you are expected to do. Add to this the fact that one of the Wizard’s names you needed to find has a spelling that is down to how you personally interpret the font on a handwritten note (and it’s not totally clear that this is the name of the bloke in question as, when you find the name, which of the Wizards has this name will be fairly abstract detail at that point) and you can see that this is a very hard adventure to complete. Curiously, my first playthrough yielded all but one key piece of information (and sort of a second one, the Wizard’s name from above, because I didn’t realise I knew it!) so I must have been lucky enough to just blunder along the true path for the majority of it which is, of course, perfectly possible. But, the true path in this book is very linear and requires areas to be visited in a fairly specific order which adds to the difficulty. As is often the case with KM’s FFs you are given generally free-rein to explore the external section in whatever order you wish, although this is a mixed-blessing as it creates the illusion of free movement whilst you are actually required to take a linear route so this is a bit irritating. In other KM books the free movement approach is not designed to trap you, whereas here it is something of a curse. Some would see this as an added challenge, some may find it a failing, but I’d rather have a RPG approach that is integral to the structure of the book, rather than a “you must make a map as you aimlessly wander around as you will not find the true path the first 100 times you play” situation like exists here. It’s worth adding here that one of the mathematical clues that yields a key item (the door-code puzzle on the shipwreck) has an error in it, but it will take a while to fathom it out anyway as it repeats the forwards-backwards alphabet puzzle (which I’ve always found fairly impenetrable without using a solution guide) that KM used in #38 Vault Of The Vampire.

So this book can be roughly divided into two parts: Act One involves you roaming the island, getting your bearings, and trying to find out what has gone on; Act Two is a dungeon trawl full of puzzles in the Masters’ black tower. Act One is, for the most part, varied and interesting, although each place you visit seems brief and to exist only to yield information. I particularly like the shipwreck which is quite fun and the monastery adds real flavour and depth to the unravelling of the mystery. There are some red herrings, but almost everything has to be visited in one form or another, it’s just getting the order right that will take a number of failed playthroughs. Act Two is much harder going, both in terms of what it expects of the player mathematically, and also in terms of the way it just goes on and on with all its doors, stairs, corridors, secret sections, etc. In summary, it’s either a very big tower or it has TARDIS-like properties. I have to admit that I started to get both bored and demoralised by the tower section. The Masters themselves are great scenery-chewing NPCs and each is totally unique in terms of how it behaves and where it lives, but the onslaught of maths and “out-of-game” challenges (by that, I mean, the player’s brain is doing the work, rather than the character adventuring, as it were) make this part of the book a real chore. You can see how the overall design and structure works and how well-designed it was probably intended to be, but it does end up being unbalanced structurally and you eventually forget you are on an island and feel like you are just playing an excessively difficult dungeon trawl.

Keith Martin’s gamebooks are generally (with the obvious exception of the very easy #34 Stealer Of Souls) pitched towards the tougher end of the difficulty spectrum and this might well be the hardest out of all of his efforts (notwithstanding the fact that #58 Revenge Of The Vampire is genuinely impossible due to an error.) As in most KM FFs you cannot win without a magic sword – why is he so obsessed with these? OK, some Undead cannot be fought without one, but this is a recurring motif that gets overly-repetitive in his books. The amount of information you need to find is considerable and the maths linked to this can be quite complex. I got sick of working out what letters of the alphabet in usually very long names corresponded to what numbers that then had to be added together or whatever and after a while this stopped feeling like an adventure gamebook at all, which is a shame as there is a fair bit to recommend here. I really like the way your character begins with only a knife as a weapon – you are not an adventurer and must find a sword and shield otherwise you must take Attack Strength and damage infliction penalties in combats until you can get hold of both (although there is more than one of each which is a generous aspect that appears in most KM FFs.) Combats are not too hard overall - interestingly, most of the very hard combats have to be avoided if you are going to win although the confusing rules for the (essential) Hydra-Snake fight might take a few re-reads before you figure out what you are expected to do - and the atmosphere of mystery comes across very well through the text which does make you feel out of your depth and in an unknown territory. At no point do you feel that the odds are ever stacked against your character, but you do get the feeling that they are stacked against you as a player and you do eventually feel that there is a distancing between player and player-character which surely defeats the whole object of role-playing. If we counter this with the inclusion of some very RPG-esque features (KM’s regularly forcing you to eat, particularly as days pass or you do something particularly strenuous, which is certainly very realistic, and this tempered by allowing you a generous 12 Provisions from the start), the repeated option of turning to a given section number when you feel that you are in a position to return to that location to complete an unfinished task, and (particularly unusual and interesting) having to collect empty bottles to mix potions, then this is a rather schizophrenic affair overall. It certainly doesn’t seem rushed in its execution (no adventure that is this long in physical section terms could ever be seen that way as it has definitely taken a lot of designing), it just seems ungainly and in places almost clumsy. That this was the first of the “new wave” post-50 books might just be the aspect that works against it as the new approach of bigger and more complex adventures was unfamiliar to the player at this point. The technique of trying to create a sort of “halfway-house” book where Act One uses a more traditional FF environment then Act Two makes us re-take GCSE Maths and manipulate data ad nauseum adds to the perception of a schizophrenic book.

If it was badly written, its inconsistency might be easier to explain, but it is certainly not. None of KM’s FFs are badly written. His text is thorough, descriptive, and really draws you into the world he is presenting. And Martin’s world is different to that of most other FF writers. His is not a cosy medieval fantasy land of orcs and elves, rather it is a hostile and threatening dark fantasy environment of pestilent undead, disease, and (more often than not) references to acid. KM’s oft-used mechanic of afflictions appears again here, although you can only get Lung Rot in this book, but it does add another layer of RPG depth. As with all the post-50 books, paragraphs are long and involving and encounters can often prove either friend or foe depending on how you as the player react towards them which raises this above the slash-and-stalk approach of some early FFs. Occasionally there are a few parts where you have to suspend disbelief (How do all the empty glass bottles not break in your backpack? Is it really possible to glue an entire shrine back together?) but for the most part there is a plot and textual coherence which, again, does not sit well with the unbalanced construction. Oddly as well, the design of this book is not helped by the way action choices on some paragraphs overlap onto the next page, meaning you can easily miss some options completely by simply not realising there are more on the next page. This is not KM’s fault, it is unsympathetic page layout on Puffin’s behalf, but it does affect the gameplay.

I am a big fan of Keith Martin as well as being a fan of Russ Nicholson’s artwork. But, as seems to be the theme of this review, even the art is inconsistent. In some cases it is as good and frame-filling as RN’s defining FF imagery in the very earliest books in the series (his Undead are always superbly terrifying and his Lizard Men are sinewy and hideous), but in other places it seems over-cluttered and looks like organised chaos (take the Swamp Alligator or the Mermen vs Shark-Kin pictures, for example.) Terry Oakes’ cover, by contrast, is a subtle and controlled affair, largely dark but with a strikingly shimmering ghostly image firing an energy bolt directly out of the frame at you. I really like this cover for its simplicity and there is an eeriness to it that suits the mystery of the adventure itself.

Island Of The Undead is not a bad gamebook by any means, but it can be hard going and this weighs heavily against its intriguing plot. It reads very well but it takes far too long to play (many hours, realistically) and becomes increasingly more relentless in its demands for information-manipulation and hidden section discovery. It is arguably one of the least essential of the series, but it does bridge the gap between the old-school style of book 50 and the revised approach of 52 onwards so, for a gamebook aficionado, it can be an interesting experience. It just tries your patience after a while.

Friday 1 May 2015

#24: Creature Of Havoc


Steve Jackson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

When the release of this book was first announced it immediately became probably the FF book that’s publication I looked forward to the most. A book where you get to play the monster was a prospect to relish and the image of charging around wreaking the havoc of the title whilst indiscriminately killing everything in sight for no apparent reason was a nice antidote to the usual business of playing a good guy adventurer. What would eventually see print was not quite what I, or (I would imagine) many other FF fans, could have anticipated.

The first thing that strikes the reader as a little bit out of the ordinary is the Introduction. Normally in FFs this is no more than three or so pages long and sets out exactly how YOU came to be in whatever situation the book requires you to be in. In CoH, rather than an establishing shot, we are instead presented with a 19-page mini-story explaining the nature of the Trolltooth Pass and its surrounding environs, as well as potted biographies of the key people who have been instrumental in shaping life in the area (quite literally in the case of Zharradan Marr!) but there is no mention of where YOU might fit into it all. (As an aside, for anyone who has read Jackson’s novel The Trolltooth Wars, many aspects of this back story (and, in some ways, parts of the adventure too) will seem familiar, but CoH came first and sets the scene for the novel that followed – clearly SJ had big plans for the characters that came from CoH and it’s pretty obvious that the two books were intended to flow together.) Interestingly, in typical SJ style, much of the information given in the intro is misleading but that only becomes apparent much later on as, on paragraph 1, the initial Act of the adventure proper begins and YOU find yourself waking up to a living nightmare devoid of identity or awareness of who or even what you are meant to be, almost as if you are being born. Then begins a voyage of self-discovery as you gradually become more and more sentient, pick up snippets of information, and find your way to your eventual double-goal of vengeance and, probably more importantly, of determining your true identity.

This book has what must be one of the densest and most satisfying plots of any FF, which, through constant changes of location, ongoing aims, and self-awareness, remains compelling and pretty intense throughout. Indeed, as long as the book is, it is difficult to put it down and, having beaten one area, you immediately want to move on to see what it will throw at you next - this is the most fundamental sign of a successful gamebook, not to mention a good story book in general and the fact that you want to read on and discover more of what it has to offer, along with the sheer determination to try to unravel the mystery due to the fast pacing and overall desire to find out what you are, sets this well above the average benchmark for a “decent” gamebook. And it is certainly very long, both in game/plot terms as well as in literal terms. With a paragraph count of 460 this is amongst the longest FFs ever and the adventure itself has an epic scale to it, although it can be roughly divided into two halves (the dungeon part, then the “outdoors” part) and leaves you feeling exhilarated once you reach the end, rather than exhausted and grateful to have got it over with (a problem that certainly blighted the later, more large scale, FF books.) The dungeon section takes up a large chunk of the book and is monumental in its scale and design, with decision points that often offer all of North, South, East, and West as options as you wind your way about its labyrinthine passages trying desperately to find the exit. I have to admit that, as a child, I could never crack it and get out into the outside world, and this is certainly a more adult book in terms of actually being able to get anywhere, although there is a lot of fun to be had as a younger reader just from lumbering about eating everything you meet and being unusually strong! So this is one for everyone then and I appreciate this fact.

The opening dungeon is the part of the book where you feel most like a monster, but also most like you are evolving very quickly, so the suggestion that you might not have always been quite so monstrous begins to come through from an early stage and the plot hits you from the get-go. In design terms, getting this concept across is no mean feat, and there is a sense that the very first few stages are a little rushed. You start by having such animalised instincts that even decisions on what route to take put you at the mercy of dice-rolling, but this quickly disappears as you develop reason, followed by the power of communication (although you are required to decipher a coded language in the dungeon part so you are still expected to play the role, as it were) and the ability to “use” items to your advantage. In the main, I feel that this is probably as well-handled as it could be, given that too much instinct-based material would leave you feeling that the dice, as opposed to the player, were calling all the shots and that you had very little influence over your progress. Equally, this would make the book so difficult to master that it would probably become frustrating at too early a stage to really grip the player on an involving level so the fast change from stupid monster to something semi-aware of what’s going on was unavoidable in gameplay terms, so we’ll forgive this. Interestingly, even in the final stages of the book you still cannot quite curb your animal instincts (your rage, in particular) so, in spite of your development, you are expected to still play the part of an “animal”, which is a nice touch of coherence and adherence to theme.

Escaping the dungeon is a major achievement and requires you to crack two puzzles inherent in the design of the book: the language code, and the hidden section gimmick. The language code revolves around you initially being unable to understand the human tongue (you yourself are mute, incidentally, and remain so for all of the game, although you can grunt and gesture to try to get your message across if you need to) which, in the dungeon section, is presented in what initially seems to be gibberish form. Once you gain the power of understanding you are told how to decipher the code, but the player must do this by using a three-point set of rules which are in themselves a little baffling until you get used to reading the gibberish which eventually becomes quite straightforward to understand once you’ve adjusted your eye and mind to it. The very earliest bits of speech can only ever be understood on subsequent playthroughs or by back-tracking, but they are of little real relevance. The really important language clues come after you have learned the secret and you MUST work out what each message you find from thereon means otherwise you will miss some key details that you cannot win without knowing. Incidentally, it’s worth mentioning that a really nice bit of attention to detail comes when part of one message is in Orc language that cannot be decoded – in other words, you have learned the human tongue, and only that. Pretty sophisticated stuff! The hidden section gimmick was, by the time CoH came out, a Steve Jackson standard game mechanic, but its deployment this time is better executed than in either of its previous outings (#10 House Of Hell and #17 Appointment With FEAR.) Structurally, the approach is closer to that in HoH than the version in AwF, but the CoH approach is more fully-developed than either of these. Gone is AwF’s totally obscure use of hidden sections where you were left to randomly guess when to use a maths clue to find the optimum next section that made beating the book almost impossible, but the reliance on hidden sections is not as lethal as it is in HoH. CoH has more sparing use of red herrings than HoH had and you do not die almost immediately having missed a clue this time around. On the flipside this does mean that, if you miss a secret section, you can head off down completely the wrong path only to fail 20-odd sections later which can be a bit disheartening, but it does at least allow for some gameplay scope once you’ve missed what SJ wanted you to find. It also gives you the chance to map a bit more of the dungeon out for future reference and mapping is absolutely essential in this book due a) to the scale, and b) to be able to unravel all the interlinking and looping paths. In the dungeon there are four stages where hidden sections can be found, but only three use the word prompts that you are told to watch out for (unless you have the Wizard edition that rectified this, that is.) This has been the subject of considerable speculation – most regard it as an error and that is certainly possible given FF’s general propensity for printing mistakes, but there is also a school of thought that suggests that this is just another intentional trick by SJ that you have to overcome. My perspective is somewhere in-between the two: the section in question (213) certainly does not have the lead-line that we are told to look for, but this is the third of the four hidden section clues and is the key one for being able to get anywhere close to escaping the dungeon (although there is more maths needed to actually get out of it completely) but, once you realise that the jewel that finds secret passages for you only works when you are told you are in a dead end, this can signpost that it’s time to try to add or deduct 20 from the section you are currently on, so, if you are reading the text closely enough this is not a terminal problem. If you do miss this section on early playthroughs (which you almost certainly will), and reach the fourth of the four secret passages, you will be trapped in the fourth area and die which will sooner or later suggest to you that you have gone too far and that what you are looking for lies somewhere between the sitting ducks that are secret areas two and four. For me, error or no error, the missed opening line in paragraph 213 is irrelevant – the player should already know to look for signposting or more subtle prompts given what has gone before in this book, so I can accept this as it is. This book is extremely difficult, this is a fact that we cannot escape, so we can only expect the most important success or failure moments to be tough to beat.

The external act of the book replaces the language code trick with normal dialogue text. We have evidently beaten the part of the book that required us to decode the language. This symbolises two things: firstly, that YOU are now even more sentient which is important for both plot development and in feeling the character we are playing, and, secondly, that we are now expected to untangle some other sort of game mechanic, that being even more elaborately and cleverly disguised prompts to use numerical clues which are, again, signposted in a balanced manner and do not bring back nightmares of HoH or AwF. Yes, the red herrings, inter-looping mazes of paths (and in a particularly cruel moment you can end up accidentally going back into the dungeon!), and long treks towards death are all carried-over from Act One, but the emphasis now is on interaction with NPCs and, as best as possible, completely avoiding anywhere on the map on the inside cover that would normally be assumed to be important to visit (Dree, the Forest of Spiders, and the Bilgewater will all kill you), plus the more intriguing-sounding places that get mentioned in the long backstory that also seem important (Stittle Woad, the Rainbow Ponds) are totally inaccessible and don’t even feature in the plot of the game! In fact, the whole concept of this book is one huge puzzle that gradually reveals itself over multiple playthroughs and becomes all the more rewarding for each additional piece that you discover. The structural highlight for me is how your companion (Grog the Half-Orc) is managed. Firstly, the way you acquire his company seems totally counter-intuitive, especially as the rewards for not saving him seem better, but this is just another red herring for you to overcome. More importantly, you will fail if you do not have him with you and an interesting technique of alternate paragraphing comes into play when he is with you. Rather than the usual “do you have a companion with you?” question prompt (which makes cheating very easy and would be out of context here) we are instead asked to read sections that end in a 7 followed by another section that is that one minus 52 then proceed from there. This normally means Grog gives us some advice to avoid perils, but it also eventually means he dies instead of you. OK, so our companion winds up dead as usual, but at least his presence adds considerable value to the structure of the game in a design sense. If I have one qualm with the use of hidden sections in this book overall it is in the second to last code that we have to crack where we meet a key NPC shortly before finding The Galleykeep, as it is totally unclear that you have found him, but we’ll forgive this one slip in what is otherwise SJ’s best secret section exploitation overall.

Another interesting idea that ties together red herrings with the labyrinthine looping design is the three moments where you can literally get stuck in an endless loop of paragraphs, all of which will eventually make you die of Stamina loss rather than reaching an instant death section. One is a never-ending series of combats with Quimmel Bone who resurrects every time you kill him, the second involves an endless queue of Chaos Warriors who come at you one after another, whilst the third is a futile catalogue of attempts to break down the door to the outside world. It takes a while to realise that you are stuck in an infinite loop each time until you notice that you keep being switched between the same few paragraph numbers, but this is an original take on the “you are dead” failure ending as you keep trying to convince yourself that there is a way out of these traps.

On the subject of instant deaths, the way your character functions adds considerable depth to your belief that you are a large monster of some sort. Notwithstanding the regular references in the text to your tough hide, sharp claws, big fangs, growl, and back spines (which all certainly add colour to your believing in your role), you have a natural instinct to feed and, instead of having Provisions which would not make much sense here, you are frequently given the option to eat the carcasses of foes you kill. Some require combats, others (weaker foes) can just be killed outright without a fight, and some taste better or are more nourishing and will reward you with higher Stamina bonuses than others (and decayed ones will poison you.) You are particularly fond of eating Hobbits which, whilst a little immoral, definitely adds another layer to your role-playing. Due to your strength and your thick hide, wounds in combat will only reduce your Stamina by 1 which is another realistic touch, and this also gives you an understandable edge in most battles (and most combats are contextually pretty easy, too, which is another good inclusion.) Additionally, you have the power of Instant Death whereby, if you ever roll a double in combat you hit your enemy so hard that you kill them instantly. Realistically, this could happen quite a lot which is another convincing aspect, but it must be said that combats are not a main focus of this book and act more as a support function to give some FF context to the proceedings. Incidentally, there is one stage of the book where doing something particularly wrong can cause you to lose your Instant Death ability, so even that is not totally untouchable!

Your general size and strength advantages may suggest that this will be an easy ride in the stats sense and, all things considered, it generally is, but I don’t believe that the book is intended to focus on this aspect. Instead, the puzzles and codes are the book’s main design purpose, whilst making you feel alienated and bewildered is the effect it should have on the reader, which it does in an impressive way. Stat bonuses are frequent and generous (some of them are red herrings, though) and only a few items are needed, but this is not an item hunt, instead it’s an information hunt as you try to work out who or what you are. Instant deaths are used sparingly for the overall number of sections and exist to close down a dead end or wrong turn rather than to just make you die for sadism’s sake. There’s even one secondary win section where you sort of win, but haven’t found the optimum ending. Again, this adds more to the re-playability and plot expansion on show here. However, let’s not under-estimate the true difficulty level created by the structure of this book. This is easily one of the absolute hardest FFs of all, although it does generally seem fairer than most of the ultra-hard offerings in the series due to the signposting and your size advantage. Structurally this book is an exceptional achievement and it is no surprise that SJ would not write another FF gamebook after this one – where would you go with the design ideas from here? I have to assume that he decided to quit whilst he was ahead and move into expanding the FF franchise at this point as it would have been hard for him to follow this with anything other than an inferior book (or maybe the best gamebook of all time that never happened?)

SJ often interjects elements of black humour into his books and there are some apparent here, especially in the actual creature encounters that you are faced with and how some of them interact with you. The more inventive encounters don’t actually involve combat and are, as we have said, generally fairly easy bar a Sk 14 St 14 Master Of Hellfire that can appear at the very end, but you might as well let it kill you because you have gone the wrong way if you meet it! Amongst the highlights for me are the Chattermatter (a talking trap in the employ of Zharradan Marr), the Jabberwing (an amusingly abusive crow relative), and the Shadow Stalker (an evil version of the problem Peter Pan had with his shadow.) There is a moment early on where you can meet another of Marr’s hideous creations, the Devourer, which is quite tough but still within your capabilities to beat if you have decent enough stats, and is pretty disturbing in the image of it. Incidentally, contrary to what I first thought, the creature on the cover of the Wizard edition is the Devourer and not you, and is even more hideous in colour.

So, combats are fairly easy, but the design and mechanics make this book extremely difficult. I don’t have a problem with this though as I can accept the challenge of extreme difficulty as long as the plot is well-paced rather than plodding and the adventure is original and imaginative, which this certainly is. However, this book is not without its problems, even if most of these are ingrained in the concept itself. Firstly, you are NOT a Creature Of Havoc. The title is misleading. If anything you are to be pitied and you certainly feel drawn into your character partially through empathy with its plight. Yes, you have a few issues controlling your baser instincts, but that just adds gameplay. Secondly, it eventually transpires that this is not really a “you play the monster this time around” book at all, but you have to reach the very end to find out what/who you really are and the plot reveals just how well-designed it is when the end links directly to the beginning (and certain parts of the intro.) The biggest niggle for me, though, is that although this is arguably the best FF book ever, all things considered, it is not especially representative of the series as a whole (ie no adventurer with sword, backpack, and a Potion going on a riches or assassination mission.) Yes, structurally, design-wise, and plot-wise, this is an awe-inspiring achievement that exudes quality, but it is also very off-the-wall due to its subject-matter and approach which puts it into the small “exceptions to the norm” category of FF books.

I think it is important that we define the meaning of “the best FF book ever”, as this book is not my favourite (that accolade would go to any of Deathtrap Dungeon, City Of Thieves, or Spellbreaker, depending on my mood at any given time.) For me, there is a distinction to be made between the words “best” and “favourite”. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is generally regarded as “officially” the best film ever made, an assertion that I would agree with due to its technical brilliance, the revolutionary impact it had on film-making and cinematic story-telling techniques, and its compelling-ness from start to finish. But, I have only seen it twice and I am not driven to casually watch it as entertainment. Creature Of Havoc is technically brilliant, pretty revolutionary in terms of how to design a gamebook, tells an excellent story, and is very compelling to both play and read. However, my favourite film is either Blade Runner or Star Wars. I have seen both hundreds of times, pretty much know them off by heart, but will happily watch them over and over just to fill an empty few hours. They are not high art though, unlike Citizen Kane. And that’s the point I’m trying to make. I am impressed by CoH and am in awe of it, but I can only play it so many times. Once the secrets are unlocked, it loses something of the feeling of achievement. DD, CoT and Spellbreaker are all books I can, and have, played umpteen times and never lost the sheer enjoyment of the experience. The difference is important – CoH is the greatest FF of all time in my opinion, but it is not the most enjoyable or ultimately re-visitable.

I briefly mentioned the confusion caused by the Devourer image on the cover of the Wizard edition (which is a very impressive and scary image) and a similar thing happened to me with the original Puffin version. For a long time I thought the green creature in the big chair on the cover was YOU, but it is not, it is Zharradan Marr, a fact which only becomes apparent when you finally meet him. ZM himself is the third of the really key baddies in FF (after Zagor and Balthus Dire) and this book rounds off their three intro stories, which would then lead into seeing all three brought into play in the final culmination of the Trolltooth Pass story arc that appeared in The Trolltooth Wars novel. The Puffin edition is one of the rare FF covers that shows us the final denouement rather than a random obscure cameo moment and really sets the tone of terror and bizarre-ness that pervades this book. Changing the cover for the Wizard version takes something away from this effect, but at least the Wizard cover is also effective for once. Internal art is by the usually very prehistorically-oriented Alan Langford, who has adapted well to the more conventional Medieval fantasy settings and peoples of this book. There is no real stand out art here, but it is all well-rendered and suits the text. Incidentally, you can see yourself in silhouette/shadow in three of the pictures, but they give little of your identity away. The text itself is very thoroughly written with unusually long paragraphs to add depth and interest to the game and its plot. There is a sense of disorientation throughout, and the repeated emphasis on your bulk and your ongoing evolution makes the story very rich and full, as well as very logical and well-paced.

This book is a remarkable achievement in terms of how to create and present a gamebook, but it also reads just as well as a novel, perhaps a little too well. There is little doubt that this is the best FF book of all time but, as I suggested before, it works differently to the others and does not match the idiom of the series in general. It is also one of the toughest of the series, but for different reasons to the usual ones. Get it, be impressed by it, spend ages trying to beat it, but can you really go back to it once you’ve cracked it? Definitely a one of a kind gamebook.