Monday 18 April 2016

#26: Bloodbones


Jonathan Green

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The history of this at one time almost mythical book has been recounted umpteen times so, to avoid repetition of things we probably already know, in brief, this was intended to be number 60 in Puffin’s original series but its release got cancelled when Puffin canned the whole series at number 59 and so this book fell into a black hole until Wizard Books finally let it see the light of day in 2006 as number 26 in its first FF series. Up to that point, Wizard had only given us one other “new” title in what was otherwise a sea of re-issues and that book (#21 Eye of the Dragon) was actually just a re-hash of a shorter adventure that had originally appeared in Ian Livingstone’s RPG primer Dicing With Dragons. So, after 11 years we finally had a genuinely new FF book and, more importantly, it was the long-awaited completed version of Bloodbones. I remember when this came out and, like many FF fans, I had waited years for this book to appear so I eagerly grabbed it from the shelves of Waterstone’s, coughed-up my £4.99 and took the book home to play. Since then, this is a book I have been more than willing to replay over and over – the exact opposite in fact of how I feel about the dreadful Eye of the Dragon as, simply put, Bloodbones is excellent.

The basic premise is a simple revenge tale, but it is the sheer quality of the adventure that carries it through. Years ago your village and family were murdered in front of you by the evil pirate Cinnabar (aka Bloodbones) and you have vowed revenge ever since. After a lengthy period working in Allansia, you are back in your homeland of Ruddlestone (where much of JG’s FFs are set) and you now have the chance to get closure by killing Cinnabar. However, you are soon told that someone else got there 6 months ago and killed him for you which is a bit disappointing until you discover that, actually, he’s being brought back from the dead by his crew to wreak havoc once again as an undead voodoo pirate thing. And so you set about hunting him down, which forms the plot of the adventure itself. Divided into four main sections, the plot involves you first searching around the Port of Crabs trying to find the pirates’ secret hideout (and acquiring equipment and intelligence whilst you’re at it), then getting abducted and taking a sea voyage, followed by a jungle trek around Bone Island in search of part 4, which is a dungeon trawl through the Temple of Quezkari (Cinnabar’s voodoo God of choice) to eventually catch up with Cinnabar’s ship and despatch him once and for all. The four sections have a good mixture of puzzles, traps, encounters, and info gathering which makes it all very varied without ever losing the primary focus of your character’s motivation. The plot in general is delivered in an exciting way and is very well paced with no lulls and the plot thickens as the game progresses, with encounters growing ever more interesting as it all develops. The voodoo atmosphere is laid on very thick and Green’s always atmospheric writing style really makes you feel his creations and environments.

To expand on the theory that this one builds as it goes (meaning you will benefit more from sticking with it right through), after a lengthy opening spiel, the initial section in the Port of Crabs is the weakest, but this coming first does make the later parts seem all the better. There are several gamebooks that fail due to everything being thrown at the initial part leaving the rest of the book to slowly fizzle out. Not so the case here. Whilst there is a fair bit to do in the Port of Crabs, there is a problem in that no useful information is really given to you as to the location of the hideout that you are trying to find in this part and its discovery is by pure chance. Yes, throughout the adventure you need information (and equipment) that you can only find by exploring the town, but the actual thing you are looking for is never signposted – you simply pick the right path and stumble across it. Structurally, you have more or less free rein to search all the parts of the town (assuming you don’t die or get arrested, of course) and there are two parts even to this – a daytime area and an after dark part, with only two locations being available to visit at both times of day (although visiting one of them at night is a disastrous decision!) Subsequent playthroughs will reveal that, whilst you have the illusion of choice, most areas are red herrings designed to eat up your time and stats with only two being essential to visit in the day and two (or one and a half, really) being necessary to be visited after night falls. There is a certain amount of leeway given in the first section and you can visit a few unnecessary areas without being totally scuppered, but the optimum route through the Port of Crabs is relatively brief.

On the subject of Time, this book requires you, in the first section only, to keep track of Time in hours. This is quite logical as you are trying to catch Cinnabar’s ship before it sails and he gets away so, the more time you waste, the less chance you have of catching up with him. The Time mechanic works well, adding a sense of urgency (and focus) and teaching you to avoid going off at too many tangents in each playthrough. Once you find the pirates’ hideout your Time is checked: you must have taken less than or equal to 8 hours to get to this point otherwise the ship has literally sailed. It seems that the shortest possible time you can get there in is 5 hours (with 12 being the worst) so you can essentially take three wrong turns and still get there on time. Anyone familiar with JG’s FFs will know that this is an unusually generous gesture!

Part two involves you being abducted by Cinnabar’s crew, getting chucked (or jumping) overboard, fighting a big shark, getting rescued (in a nice link to part one this will only happen if you had stopped the ship that potentially rescues you from being wrecked on the rocks earlier, incidentally), dealing with a ghost ship, then getting shipwrecked by a massive sea monster. This is the shortest section, but a lot of great material is crammed into it, especially the ghost ship which is a superb creation (in fact, it’s probably my favourite part of the book), and it is a lot of fast-paced and quite scary fun.

Part three is basically a jungle that provides more key equipment but the design of it is interesting and unusual in that it is randomly generated based on throwing two dice. This means that the usual FF linearity is subverted and that, to a certain extent, the actual encounters and incidents in the jungle will never be the same twice. The core moments will always happen by necessity, otherwise certain randomised routes would make the game impossible to complete, but this is a neat way of creating some variation in each playthrough. Granted, the dice-generated events add nothing to the plot and have no material effect on it other than to increase or decrease your stats a bit, but the element of inevitability with encounters is removed, which is a good thing.

The final section in the temple (a dungeon trawl, by all intents and purposes) is punishing in the extreme with traps and lethal moments everywhere, the outcomes of most of which are controlled by stat testing and/or arbitrary dice rolling. As failure almost always means death, this part is quite frustrating and you will probably resort to cheating the dice rolls pretty quickly.

...And this point brings us to difficulty. Bloodbones has been criticised for being ridiculously difficult, but I disagree with this. There is no question that this book is VERY hard, but it is also reasonably balanced, all things considered. It is far from easy, but it is certainly not impossible and is still far more beatable than any of JG’s previous three FFs! There is no doubt that you must have very high starting stats to stand a chance, as there are a ridiculous number of Skill and Luck tests (plus a few Stamina tests), but there are also many ways to increase all three of your core attributes (especially your Luck), be it through special items, the huge amount of food and drink that you can get hold of, or even a few moments where Initial values can be increased and/or stats can be restored to their initial values. Many of the later combats are undeniably difficult (there are four unavoidable fights at the end with very tough enemies and this alone will probably kill you many times) and many of these foes have adjustors that can deal you serious damage, but the earlier ones are far from hard and this, again, is unusual for a JG book as you usually have to deal with double-statted enemies from the outset. Plus you can always use Luck to make the later combats a bit less brutal. As with all later-era FFs, there are several cheat-proofing maths tests but these come at appropriately logical key moments and, for once, the puzzles are satisfyingly challenging but are far from depressingly obscure in their solutions like some of FF’s maths puzzles can be. As we have already said, the Time stat is not too damaging to progress as long as you do not waste too much time and it does afford you some freedom. The real killer with this book in difficulty terms is the sheer number of items you need (as well as a fair bit of information) and this is another example of a FF with a very tight true path, although its deployment varies from stage to stage. Curiously, in the sea voyage and jungle sections, the true path involves taking the longest route possible and going basically everywhere, whilst the port section involves trial and error to find the most efficient and least dangerous path through (with a bit of scope for digression), which does add a bit of variety to the usual execution of true paths! JG’s favourite ploy of codewords is back but they seem to drive the plot more effectively here. I am not a fan of codewords in gamebooks, but I can live with them here as they seem to be less intrusive than normal and do play an important part in making the plot flow logically. Overall, in difficulty terms, this book is definitely win-able, but you do need high stats, a lot of trial and error, and the dice to be on your side!

A big plus in JG’s gamebooks is his referencing of actual historical, cultural, and literary tropes and there is, amongst other things, a neat cameo from a Ben Gunn-like castaway that is a nice inclusion. This NPC is clearly bonkers but he also acts as the catalyst to your acquiring an essential time that you cannot win without having, so there is method in his madness, if you have the patience and are willing to take the many risks to get the item. As this is a book about pirates and voodoo cults, a lot of the encounters are of the zombie or pirate-y kind (there’s actually a vampire pirate at one point, which is a fun touch), and the jungle has more than its fair share of creatures with the adjective “Giant” in front of their names and, whilst this may all seem a bit repetitive, it all suits the context. In terms of other creature encounters, I have to mention two excellent creations – the Treasure Golem and the totally manic idea of the Cat’o’Nine-Tails (an actual cat with nine tails, in a clever spin on an obvious nautical idea.)

It is hard not to be drawn to Martin McKenna’s stunning green zombie pirate captain cover and, along with the obvious mystique of the title in FF circles, this was another reason why I had to have this book when it first came out. Indeed, this is a case where you CAN judge an excellent book by an excellent cover. All of the internal art is Tony Hough’s work and it really captures the 18th Century pirate era look that the text puts across, as well as the horror of the animal and undead encounters. If I have a criticism of TH’s art it is that he does not draw people well and they always seem a bit squat and look far too friendly – the image of the advancing Cinnabar in particular is not in the slightest bit scary.

“Book number 60” was eagerly anticipated and the 11 year wait was well worth it. People were inevitably going to judge the book quite harshly and many slated this as “too hard” or “dated”. I do not think it is either of these. Bloodbones is an excellent FF with lots of atmosphere, fast pacing, and a catalogue of fantastic incidents. It is very hard to put it down once you start playing it and you really do feel compelled to keep re-trying until you can beat it... which you definitely can do as the feeling of hopelessness that some of the hardest FFs can give you never arises when you play this book. In many ways, this is a very fresh FF – only two are based around pirates and only this one involves you having to defeat them – and it is full of energy and imaginative moments that are never at odds with its three central themes of revenge, voodoo, and, of course, salty seamen. If this had been the final Puffin FF rather than the desperately boring #59 Curse of the Mummy, the series would have ended with a spectacular and worthy bang rather than a pathetic whimper like it did.

PS: JG’s Gamebook Adventures offering (#7 Temple of the Spider God) bares more than a passing resemblance to a slightly re-thunk version of Bloodbones!

PPS: Am I the only person who finds the question “Do you have a fetish?” both hilarious and a little personal lol?

Wednesday 13 April 2016

#44: Legend Of The Shadow Warriors


Stephen Hand

Reviewed by Mark Lain

With his first FF offering, #40 Dead of Night, Stephen Hand gave us something quite special – a decidedly dark gothic horror gamebook with some often quite warped ideas that made for a really satisfying playing and reading experience. In his second outing, Legend of the Shadow Warriors, Hand would prove that his first book was not a one-off and that he was a serious gamebook-writing force to be reckoned with.

Opening with a dark nursery rhyme, you immediately get the impression that this is going to be a classy and well thought-out piece of work and the large amount of background detail in the introduction adds early credence to this theory. Set after the events of Steve Jackson’s The Tasks of Tantalon (ie many years before any other FF gamebook), you play a mercenary who fought on the side of Royal Lendle in the Wars of the Four Kingdoms. Peace has now been established and you start out at an inn in Royal Lendle looking for adventure. You run into a man from Karnstein (to the far South of the region) who tells you that the town is under threat from a terrible foe and, on the offer of 100 GP reward, you agree to help and so set off with him and his cronies to save the day. First you take a trip around Royal Lendle itself, ostensibly to buy equipment, but also, if you wish, to have a bit of a look around and try to gather some info. On leaving the town, you have to deal with an unpaid tax bill situation and then have your first fateful encounter with the titular Shadow Warriors who, like five Seven Samurai types, all have their own unique powers and ways of making your fight with them extra difficult. You can only actually fight one and a roll of the dice determines which that is after they have wiped your companions out. Survive this first big trial and you can then head off on the quest proper in either a roughly south-westerly or south-easterly direction to eventually reach Karnstein and try to save the town.

This might sound like fairly typical adventure questing stuff but what makes this book so uniquely brilliant is the sheer variety and quality of the material on offer here and the manner in which it is presented. Firstly, neither of the main routes is the optimum path – you can go either way and still have a chance of winning, although one route is rather more dangerous than the other. Plus, within the two main routes are several sub-paths to add even more re-playability and variety. Secondly, there are numerous secondary plots going on that can variously help or hinder your progress (some are total red herrings as well) including the tax collector Queensbury Woad coming after you for an unpaid tax debt in Royal Lendle, tangling with Dr Kauderwelsch (Frankenstein basically) and her experiments, the body-snatching Mandrakes and their (rather amusing) monthly targets of body-snatching that they are trying to meet, the pumpkin-headed Haggworts (the thing on the cover) that are tormenting the town of Hustings, the Gorgon, a manipulative Pan-Terric Behemoth that is conning archaeologists into helping it escape from where it is buried, a run-in with some veterans from your opposing army that recognise you from the war days, and joining the rather suspect Circus of Dreams – and that’s not all of it, these are just my personal highlights! The third big plus of this book is your character who is not a one-dimensional hero type but that rather has a purposeful and logical background context which puts him/her in the situation they are in and also allows for some moments of contextual consequence such as the encounter with someone you fought back in the war and your tax evasion problems. This really feels like a full experience of characterisation rather than you just playing someone who is good at waving a sword around and getting treasure/killing baddies in spite of the odds.

In structural terms, the book follows the same rough design as Dead of Night did in that you trace your route along a printed map in the front of the book which allows you to keep track of how far you have come and have left to go. I don’t have a problem with this but it does give you an indication of whether you are near the end which some might not like. However, as you are familiar with the region you should know where Karnstein is so this aspect does make sense. (Incidentally, for the gamebook historian, the earlier gold dragon cover edition has a colour map on the inside cover whereas the later black dragon version has a black-and-white map printed after the title page.) The mechanics of the book are particularly sound and this is, for once, a FF book that formally has special rules allowing for adjustors based on your Weapon and Armour, rather than these being incidentals as you go along. You can only carry one Weapon at a time, starting with a sword, but other options can be found along the way, some of which will do extra damage to opponents in combat. Lose your Weapon completely and you fight with a -1 Skill penalty until you can get hold of a replacement. Conversely, you start without any Armour but as and when you get some you can take reduced damage or even endure blows without taking any wounds at all depending on what particular Armour you are wearing. There is a downside to wearing Armour though as it impacts on Skill tests due to its weight and or movement-restricting nature, plus the effects of damage to your Armour are even factored in as Armour will be wrecked once it has taken a defined number of blows. This is brilliantly designed and is implemented very well indeed, adding a real RPG feel to this aspect. My only question here would be why was an idea this good not adopted as standard in subsequent FFs? Also built into the rules is the first explicit statement that you need to Test Your Skill. Many previous books had veiled this by asking you to roll two dice and get under or equal to your Skill to succeed, but had not actually admitted that you were testing your Skill. This book sets this out from the beginning, something that later FFs would also often finally do.

And it is in Skill testing that this book shows one of its few flaws, as far too much emphasis is put on this. In fact, if you have a low Skill you have almost no hope of getting very far as failing the myriad of Skill tests is often fatal. There are quite a few Luck tests too, but this is less of an issue as there are lots of Luck bonuses to be found and, if you can get the Ring of Destiny, Luck testing becomes more or less academic. Equally, the Ring of Destiny can make combats a bit easy too but this is a good thing especially when taking on multiple foes or any of the Shadow Warriors themselves. Attribute testing aside, this book is actually pretty difficult in general but it never comes across as oppressively hard, instead the difficulty is a challenge to be relished as was the case in some of FF’s greatest “hard” books such as #6 Deathtrap Dungeon or #24 Creature of Havoc and you really do want to beat it, although this book is nowhere near as hard as either of those titles. The Shadow Warriors are all very tough to fight and all have special adjustors to contend with and there is at least one endless death loop that you can get stuck in. The final showdown with the main baddie, Voivod (who is using the Shadow Warriors to achieve his ends) cannot be won without the Spear of Doom and involves a unique gimmick of having to give him life rather than death to defeat him, which involves rolling less than whatever the spear’s current life force is at that point, a stat determined by you rolling 1d6 and adding 5 when you acquire it. This is a neat touch as it means that you are not totally at the mercy of the author’s whims here and you can potentially have a very powerful or very weakened spear from the get-go, a mechanic which has its own randomised easiness or difficulty associated with it.

The final section itself is very interesting for several reasons. Firstly, it is the only part of this book that involves the normally very common 40s and 50s FF books’ trick of cheat-proofing with maths puzzles. Using a map of Karnstein’s surroundings and any info you have gathered, you have to divine where Voivod is and then render that location’s name into a corresponding hidden section using a numerical code given on the page of a book that you have hopefully found. Thankfully, the maths is not as arduous as normal in FFs as the numerical values of the alphabet run from 1 thru 9 then repeat themselves, rather than running from 1 thru 26 and you needing to try to match the later letters to higher numbers, something which often scuppers the more mathematically spassed players such as myself! As this is a key climactic moment I like the fact that the hidden section trick has been reserved for this rather than being a dominant factor throughout the book as is often the case in latter FFs. Secondly, as it transpires that you are working as an organ of the Earth Gods, you are required to give Voivod (Death, essentially) life to defeat him as death personified cannot logically suffer any from more dying. Indeed, if he wounds you in regular combat he gains 2 Stamina for every 2 you lose! Once you give him life by using the Spear of Doom he turns back into a nice person and thus starts his rehabilitation (which “begins” at paragraph 400 so isn’t actually part of the book, incidentally, but does show that from start to absolute finish, the plot and its ideas never abate.) This ending is probably one of the biggest twists in any FF book and really does come as a surprise. Thirdly, to draw the main plot thread and its recurring incident together and bring them to a tidy conclusion, any Shadow Warriors that you have not yet destroyed completely have to be killed before you can deal with Voivod himself, making finding the way of destroying them for good earlier on in the game of extra importance.

Nothing in this book, even the red herrings, seems to be filler material and every moment of it is exciting, surprising, and often intriguing. As it is set much earlier in the Titan timeline than the rest of the Titan FF books, there is a sense of paganism in many places and the influence on the plot (and on you) of the Earth Mother, the Horned God, and the Jack-in-the-Green really emphasise this. Much is taken (or modified) from real folklore and this could work just as well set on Earth as it does being set in Gallantaria, but its distancing time-wise from the rest of the series makes this fit and work within the Titan concept far better than you might expect it to. At no stage does any of this feel awkward or at odds with the overall Titan mythos and SH is to be given due credit for handing and integrating actual Earth mythologies into FF’s, by this point, very established fantasy world identity.

Given what we have just said, it is to be expected that the encounters in this book are unlike those common to other FF books and the breadth of imagination on show here is very impressive. Selected highlights include the aforementioned Mandrakes (body-snatching plant things), the eerie pumpkin-headed Haggworts, the Slygore (a primordial sludge elemental), the Crombane (“spawn of the dying earth”), the Mahogadon (sort of primitive treeman with an attitude problem), and the wonderfully-named Pan-Terric Behemoth. Furthermore, if you enter one particular cave you will even meet (and potentially get stitched-up by) a pathetic (and tricksy lol) specimen called Smegg that is basically Gollum.

Special attention must be given to the superb inclusion that is the Mandrakes. Before I played this book, I was aware that the Mandrakes were involved so I naturally assumed that either they (or more probably, the Shadow Warriors) were the pumpkin-y things on the book’s cover. Not so as there are two secondary and one primary key creature types that form the core of the incidents in this book. The Haggworts are terrorising a town in one possible direction, whilst the Mandrakes are causing more widespread trouble on the other route. The primary baddies are of course the Shadow Warriors who are unavoidable but the book is designed in such a way that you are most likely to have to only deal with EITHER the Mandrakes OR the Haggworts and not both, which emphasises the re-playability of this book and makes both main routes very unique. The Mandrake incident is longer and occurs in two main places, both of which are real tour de forces of gamebook plotting – firstly, the town of Gornt has been over-run with them and you need to quickly try to work this fact out before it is too late and, secondly, the Circus of Dreams is their way of travelling from place to place wreaking their mayhem. Joining the circus is an interesting moment in itself as you try to trick your way in, but the real revelations come in the big top and the mirror wagon where the real extent of the problem becomes apparent. If you thought all they had done was wipe out Gornt’s population, you have got another thing coming!

With as much going on in this book as there is, obviously you have lots of options of directions to take, places to explore, and nasty localised monster invasions to be heroic and try to stop, however, on reaching Karnstein you discover that time is also of the essence in stopping Voivod’s plan from progressing and if you wasted too much time fiddling about you might just be too late, meaning you need to be selective about what you get involved in and filter out the red herrings early by repeat playing and meaningful mapping. In fact, if you arrive especially quickly (not easy, given that you need to find key items to win) this can work even more to your advantage, but the “arriving early” path is not easy to master.

What strikes you quite quickly in this book is the variety of weapons and armour available to you as you go along (choose wisely, though, as the various adjustors and penalties could cause you more problems than you’d think!) as well as the remarkable ease of acquiring Provisions. There is no limit to how many you can carry and there are a few moments where there is no fundamental limit (notwithstanding funds etc) to how many you can collect. As with the power of the Spear of Doom (and also the beneficial effects of drinking from the paganistic Wizard’s Well), you drive the amount and inherent necessary conservation of your starting gold (in this case, by rolling 2d6 and adding 12) which, again, removes your being at the mercy of the author’s ability to make things harder than necessary for you. Yes, you can start with hardly any money, but there is just as much chance of you starting with a lot of money and I like the way SH is throwing us an olive branch by including chance in governing some very important key plot drivers.

Terry Oakes’ Haggwort cover image is one of the most sinister FF covers in the Puffin series and the use of blue toning adds to the foreboding dusk effect of the picture. Only the Haggwort’s carved pumpkin facial features glow evilly orange and really stand out on the otherwise all-blue cover painting. Martin McKenna (FF’s great master of gothic Hammer-esque art) provides the internal art and every image is brilliant, emphasising the dark horrors that the book presents to you throughout. There are, however, three images in particular that are stand-outs for me, but to see two of them you will need to buy the mirror at Royal Lendle market: the inside of the big top revealing the extent of the Mandrakes’ “join us” propaganda, and the two-fold alternative images of the street scene in Gornt, the first of which shows everything seemingly appearing normal, whilst the second shows an exact duplicate image but with the Mandrake revealed for what he really is. It is a real risk to essentially duplicate an image given the limited number of pictures that can go in a FF book, but this is a master stroke that works so well it blew me away the first time I saw it.

Legend of the Shadow Warriors is an exceptionally good gamebook. It has exciting gameplay, is beautifully and carefully put together (without any of the errors that blight the later books so much), fuses pagan folklore with the Titan concept very skilfully, has ample re-playability, avoids the annoying true path trap that can make you lose from very early on just by going the wrong way, is difficult but in a motivating and very balanced way, and is very appropriately paced. Most gamebook writers would avoid throwing so much A-grade material into just one book, but SH really goes for it with this offering and never lets us down. This is easily the best book from the generally very strong 40s part of the series and is definitely one of the better books in the series as a whole. The Shadow Warriors are one of FF’s most lethal mobs of opponents and you really dread your repeat run-ins with them, but they do eventually get vanquished. More importantly though, the Mandrakes are such a bravura creation that playing a supporting role is surely not enough to do them justice and, sure enough, they would return (along with Dr Kauderwelsch) in the follow-up, #48 Moonrunner.