Friday 5 May 2017

#49: Siege Of Sardath


Keith P. Phillips

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Three things immediately spring to mind when people mention this book. The first is that it is by an author that no-one has ever heard of, the second is its reputation for being exceptionally difficult to complete, and the third is that the cover suggests it is probably going to be about Elves. But before we discuss these points, I have to say that the title is somewhat misleading given the plot.

When I first played this I genuinely expected a Fangs Of Fury-type book where you have to be involved directly in the titular siege before heading off to try to stop whichever nutter is besieging your home. The latter is kind of true here, but at no point do you get involved in, or even really witness, a siege as such. Instead, you play a ranger who sits on the Council of the town of Grimmund in the hitherto unexplored far north-east of Allansia. Next to Grimmund is the massive Forest Of Night which has been taken over by a dark unpleasantness making it unpassable. At the far side of the forest is the much larger city of Sardath (which is built on stilts in the centre of a lake) that has consequently been rendered inaccessible. The rest of the Council are blaming all the spiders that inhabit the forest and want to launch a pre-emptive strike but YOU, in your capacity as the eco-friendly voice of reason (ie an experienced ranger), think there could be something else amiss and you volunteer to head off into the forest to sort everything out. In the midst of the debate another ranger type appears and instantly wreaks mayhem when it turns out that he is actually that ranger’s evil doppelganger from a mysterious species known simply as “Black Flyers” (that look very like mutated Dark Elves with wings, which it transpires, is what they are). Once he has (or maybe even hasn’t) been dealt with you head off on your mission which divides roughly into three main Acts: the forest itself (which can be partially negotiated by river if you wish), the Freezeblood Mountains, and finally the underground lair of the Dark Elf baddies.

To drive home the fact that your character is a talented ranger, several of the FF staples have been modified in this book. Bundles Of Herbs (you start with just 5) act as a Provision substitute (and you can pick more along the way to get more Provisions/Herbs) and you carry a bow as well as a dwarf-forged sword. In certain combat situations you have the option to fire arrows (appropriate distances pending, naturally) to do instant damage pre-combat, although you only start with 6 arrows and extras are in short supply so you need to use this feature sparingly. You also begin with a generous 15 Gold Pieces (which proves less generous when you soon meet a trader who charges quite a lot for his wares) and a council signet ring which acts as a diplomatic passport of sorts (although not very often). The matching of kit to characterisation is done very well in this book and you are steeped in character from the outset. This is not a “learn who you are” gamebook, instead it’s a “we expect you to know who you are” outing and, as you are unlikely to realistically achieve this in initial playthroughs, the book does throw the occasional awkward-seeming compulsive reaction at you eg: a moment where you are forced to thump someone because, and I quote, “his scornful tone upsets your natural sense of honour and fairness”. Less “YOU are the Hero” then, maybe, and more “YOU are on a steep learning curve to be the Hero that the book has predesigned for YOU”? But this is a minor criticism of a dense logical plot that is full of surprises to discover and, by all accounts, as you will have to play it many many times to come anywhere close to winning, you will soon get the hang of what being an “experienced ranger” is all about!

And now we inevitably come to the subject of the difficulty level of this book which is, quite frankly, off the scale. But this book is made very hard for slightly different reasons to the handful of other mega-difficult FF books. Many factors are at play here to conspire against you but, oddly enough, they all seem to work well rather than being a depressing catalogue of annoyances and this must be down to the fact that, as medieval “trek about the place” gamebooks go, this one is more intelligent than usual and is intellectually very demanding on the player, rather than just relying primarily on unbalanced dice-based decision points like many FFs do and/or on a huge shopping list of essential items. Yes, there are several items you must find, but the emphasis is placed firmly on a lot of incidental factual detail that must be extracted from the text, much of which is either mentioned in passing or that is rendered somewhat unobvious. I realise that this also is far from unusual, but it is the way the detail is presented here which really makes this book stand out as being particularly high-brow. The conundrum that really epitomises this is a puzzle that you come across very early on: six squares are drawn with a pattern on them and you must fathom out what the hidden message is within it by piecing the parts together. The actual solution almost certainly requires you to copy the page, cut it up, and then join the pieces back together correctly into what turns out to be a cube. Assuming you can even manage to do this much, from this you are then supposed to decipher a message which is the letters “IST”. The text tells you to find a hidden section using this info which you almost certainly won’t be able to do as the section is not the usual “letter of the alphabet equals a number” FF trick but is, instead, the closest numbers visually to these letters. “I” is obviously “1” and “S” is “5” but what number looks like “T”? Er, none of them. The answer is rather tenuously “7”. We are in a whole new world of pain with this one then. If this one puzzle alone is not enough to melt your brain, it will soon dawn on you that everything of any importance to completing this book is riddled, varying from some admittedly easy (if you know the language of FF trickery) stuff, through some bits that require a bit of lateral thinking in line with picking detail from the text, right up to a few moments (such as the cube puzzle) of genuine obscurity.

Amongst the other mind-bending enigmas to get your head round are: using the seven-coiled snake ring which doubles its coils to become a 14-coiled snake ring which you have to add to the number associated with the Ring of Three Centuries – this is not that hard if you apply a bit of logic but it certainly had me stumped the first few times I tried to work it out plus you need to pay attention to the fact that the snake ring doubles its coils late in the book and you do need to find hidden sections based on BOTH numbers of coils; using the Brain Slayer Amulet which involves you needing to know Roman numerals and, again, its number changes later on to a more complex Roman numeral based on a bit of info you pick up by making a sort of Skype call via a special communing mirror; another Roman numeral hidden more subtly this time in Mystery Potion X which again has to be added to a section number;  at one point you can invoke Itsu (if you’ve cracked the cube puzzle earlier) by multiplying his secret number by 10 but his secret number is rather obscurely the number guardian that he is – again, close reading will reveal this but it could catch you out and the text is rather vague about how to find his number;  then there’s the potion making machine which only works if you can find the instructions of use and you still need to have one of each requisite type of ingredient – so we are in familiar shopping list territory with this but there are four possible combinations (that I can find anyway) and if you have the right parts to be able to attempt any of the four (which all involve matching ingredient numbers to hidden sections, of course) you will discover that one is basically essential, two are useless, and one will kill you on the spot.

All this compulsory code-cracking is in itself very challenging, but that’s not where the ramped-up difficulty ends and it is definitely where the inevitable comparisons with Steve Jackson’s Creature Of Havoc will begin as, in the latter parts, you must look out for phrases in the text which act as subtle prompts to add or subtract numbers from the current section to find the actual intended hidden paragraph. I must admit that, in the post-SJ hidden section trickery world of FF this is rather less of a surprise than it was when it first appeared in SJ’s books and is one of the better-signposted aspects of Siege Of Sardath’s difficulty, but it can scupper you nonetheless especially if you haven’t gleaned the necessary information to even know to look out for these. In a literal lift from Creature Of Havoc there is a secret door to find this way, as well as a key plot moment where you start a Dwarf slave revolt, and a series of prompts when you are disguised as a Dark Elf that will stop you from being killed for being human.

Mercifully though, amidst all of this book’s exceptionally tough hidden paragraph tricks, there are also two that I found extremely easy. There is a magic square that opens another hidden door behind which is an essential part of the optimum potion and I found its numerical puzzle very straightforward, ditto the secret knocking sequence (which is literally just simple addition) that you need to access the final episode. In a similar vein, a very interesting mechanic comes into play in the later stages where you need to develop a basic grasp of the Dark Elf language. This is not too hard as it is laid-on quite thick and only demands that you learn basic one-word interactions which are given as options for once rather than requiring manipulation of words to find hidden sections (well that’s generous, isn’t it!) but it is another feature that will require you to pay attention to the text.

Somewhere between the super-hard and the less mentally strenuous is the book’s subtlest design trick – that of allowing you to choose when to turn to special sections to read something or make use of an item. The best example of this is the page you can find that describes dangerous fungi. Two are discussed and, if you read it early enough, it will make negotiating the Dwarf Mines and the Dark Elf sacrifice cameos much more safe and obvious. I like this level of voluntary interaction and this is helpful to rather than being essential to victory. The flipside of this though is the optional way that the Brain Slayer Amulet works: if you put it on you must reduce your Skill by 2 for as long as you are wearing it which naturally makes combat and Skill tests much harder, but you absolutely must be wearing it before you meet the end baddie for the final showdown so remembering to put it back on this late on may well slip your mind. Ok, you can cheat and pretend you’ve got it on (and no-one will know in the way that a RPG GM would be able to penalise you) but this is so subtle that you would probably miss it and die as a consequence either from Skill-based weakness (this could reduce your Skill to 5) or being pasted for mishandling a key item at the end.

Which brings us neatly to stat considerations. For a notoriously tough gamebook, SoS does not rely much on Luck testing or tough combats. Most opponents are easy to beat and the tougher ones will usually have a high Skill or Stamina offset against the other stat being relatively low. Add to this the fact that your puzzle-cube-exposed sidekick Istu will fight a certain number of combats for you before it gets sent back to the Demonic Plain and you get a book that does not demand that you have superhuman Stamina or Luck scores. That said, there are a lot of Skill tests to contend with so a high Skill is useful (especially if you forget to take the Brain Slayer Amulet off) but it is possible to get a +1 Initial Skill boost (up to a maximum of 12) so even that is generous stat-wise. Furthermore, there are several opportunities to increase all three of your stats and Stamina in particular is not too hard to maintain at a high level so death by Stamina loss is fairly unlikely. This is a relief as losing by not having or fathoming out essential info almost certainly will finish you off sooner or later! Similarly, it is possible to find an item which makes you extra-strong when fighting Dark Elves or Black Flyers (which there are a lot of as the story unfolds) and deals them 3 rather than 2 points of Stamina damage in combat, although it only lasts for four battles. On top of that, another item will allow you to automatically pass any Luck tests that you will need to do in the Dark Elf underground city. This is very useful as failing any of these tests result in instant death. In brief then, this is one of the rare FFs where you really can hope to win with rubbish starting stats although this gesture is all but eliminated by the fundamental solution to the book which is based around the sheer number of puzzles that you need to solve.

So, this is a book crawling with hidden secrets, but the factors contributing to its extreme difficulty level do not begin and end with this. You are in a race against time and the Adventure Sheet has boxes representing each day of an Allansian week. With this we get some nice lore exploitation as the days are named in line with Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World’s model and as you progress through the book each new day requires you to tick off the next day of the week. From roughly the half-way point you will be prompted occasionally to check what day it is. If it is the last day of the week you have run out of time, the Dark Elves/Black Flyers have over-run the region and you have failed. In other words, you cannot waste time by bumbling around all over the place and finding the swiftest route through (that involves visiting all the necessary places and people to get all the items and info that you cannot win without) is essential to victory. The introduction tells you that trial and error should be avoided and that instead you should use good thinking. This interlinks neatly with the demands of characterisation that the book puts on you, but the only realistic way you can achieve this is through a lot of replaying and mapping and you can only work out what is a good or bad choice by trying it. Again, this means you are going to lose a lot of times.

In addition to the puzzles and time limit factors, there are a further two features which are designed to hinder and/or kill you. The Dark Elf underground city is laid out as an MC Escher-style maze with impossibly-connected passages, stairways and doors that all deceive the eye. Apparently this is because Dark Elf architecture is designed to induce madness and this is why you must test your Luck to avoid blundering off an edge of it due to sheer confusion. This is a nice bit of plot extemporisation but it does make for an intensely frustrating part of the book as you loop about and double-back on yourself in a bid to get through it in one piece. Considerably more irritating than this though, is the final confrontation with the villain of the piece which immediately follows the disorientating city. 
For a book that is so intricately and cleverly designed, the “climax” is a huge disappointment. On the one hand, it does not use the usual fallback ending of a stupidly hard combat that is weighted heavily against you, but instead it involves a dialogue with the end baddie. What’s wrong with that, you may ask. Well, the solution to this conversational showdown is little more than you guessing which options to choose. Guess right and you get another option. This happens several times. Guess any of these options wrong at any point and you are dead. You do need to try to bluff him, which is admittedly a neat touch, but you don’t really know what you are doing and repeatedly dying just by guessing wrong really does ruin the ending especially as, given what you have gone through mentally to get this far, you deserve a better denouement and you really should have been allowed to win by this point.

As a parallel to the annoying ending, it is also possible to lose as soon as you begin. If you can’t apprehend the doppelganger ranger who tries to disrupt the Council meeting at the start you can get carried off by him and deposited at a mid-point in the forest from where, as you have already missed key items and info, you cannot possibly win. I don’t like it when gamebooks make you lose from the outset but, that said, this outcome is far less likely than you managing to deal with the doppelganger so this is not quite as annoying as it could have been, even though it highlights the fact that not visiting any one of the key places or NPCs will lead to certain failure. In other words, this one is very linear overall, although there is replay value in the fact that there is so much to explore, as one thing this book does have is variety.

A well-designed gamebook should have a varied selection of locations and incidents and this one offers this in spades with every encounter offering something different to what has preceded it. This is anything but a one-note effort and particular highlights for me are exploring Corianthus’ castle where everything is giant-sized and you keep being reminded of this, meeting the amphibious Slykk, and helping the Dwarves in their war against the Toa-Suo which, it turns out, are what the big baddie uses to wreak havoc during the day as the Black Flyers are sensitive to daylight. This is excellent depth of lore and it does not stop there because dwarves live in mountain mines, dwarves and elves use different languages and, in a Tolkien-esque touch, there are multiple names for things and places which are stated in both Elven and Dwarven languages. Very intelligent stuff. There is an amusing moment when you can meet the rather irrational goddess Thyra Migurn who creates storms to antagonise the Dwarves because she disapproves of them mining the mountains and there are even a few almost Cthulhu-influenced moments with horrific monstrosities such as the Xanthic Horror. There is one let-down as regards cameos though and that is that you cannot actually reach Sardath itself. There are plenty of opportunities to head for it, but the lake surrounding it has become very dangerous due to recent events and you can only get part of the way across before you have to turn back. I would have liked to have known about the city that the book takes its title from but, at the same time, this does make Sardath somewhat enigmatic which is not a bad thing. The various races create a well-designed system of interaction and the rarely explored world of north-east Allansia really comes to life. There is an unusual depth to the species detail at times especially with the three distinct types of spiders that are blighting the Forest Of Night and we get vivid descriptions of their behaviour which, logically, directly affects their motives towards you and their level of dangerousness. Elves get decent coverage too as the forest’s Wood Elves behave very differently to the evil Dark Elves which, in turn, have minor differences to their mutated version (Black Flyers). Equally, herblore comes to the fore as your ranger skills allow you to identify potential sources of food and healing and can also help you to contend with certain plants. Furthermore, the local lore can directly aid or hinder your progress (see comments on the fungus book page above). Linked into the concept of local lore and your ranger talents of course is the focus in this book on observation and close reading rather than brute force (the lack of an end baddie combat in favour of a war of words highlights this), so this all ties together very effectively.

Indeed, this is a very well-written book and you do get the feeling that Phillips was aiming for something (intellectually, at least) a cut above the usual FF fare. In this sense it brings to mind a series such as Blood Sword which is very demanding on the reader both in design and in vocabulary terms. The words used in SoS are far from complex but this book just reads much more elegantly than the FF norm. A curiosity in how this book is written though becomes quickly apparent in the way that you will sometimes be given an option early in a paragraph. If you don’t want to pick this you can read on but you will find yourself reading on anyway and, in doing so, you then find out what happens if you don’t choose the first option. This gives you a weird second sight which can be a bit confusing. It would have been better to put this in another section even if this resulted in exceeding 400 paragraphs. There are also a few inconsistencies between the text and the art where the illustrations contradict what the corresponding section tells you. This is particularly noticeable when you meet the Wood Elves and you are told that your Elf friend has a scar over his right eye. In the image the scar is over his left eye. Is this an error or a clue that you are in fact talking to his evil doppelganger? Likewise, in the Dark Elf city we are told that part of it is under construction yet this is nowhere to be seen in the illustration which shows what appears to be a completed area. That aside though, the internal art is generally pretty effective although it seems a little lacking to me, but I can’t quite put my finger on why - perhaps the depth of the text exposes this more than was intended? This is not a big issue though and does not take anything away from the book as a whole. The cover art, however, is largely uninteresting and, other than telling us that Elves might come into the equation, could not be much further from reflecting the book’s contents.

At this point, I have to mention two moments that really jar with me. One is a literal error in that section 171 (in first printings at least, which my copy is) is inaccessible, although this was apparently fixed in subsequent printings. It is not a massive mistake, but it can mean that you get sent in the wrong direction if you handle the Slime Mould encounter in the forest in a particular way. The second bothers me much more and that is the key moment when you find an eagle in the mountains. You need to be carried by it to Corianthus’ castle and the text asks you to write down what you choose to do to show it that you are friendly. Are you really going to think of something as abstract as “Hold up the Brass Key”? Oh yeah, because eagles are known to take brass keys as a gesture of good will, aren’t they? This is so obscure as to be the sort of ludicrous command that you used to have to type into classic text adventures! Yet another thing that evidences just how indescribably hard this book really is.

So then, SoS has a wholly deserved reputation for being very difficult and it is one of the hardest gamebooks in the FF series, but not for the conventional reasons that we normally associate with tough gamebooks. For this, Phillips must be applauded as he has taken hidden section elements from Steve Jackson’s harder books, mixed in a bit of Keith Martin maths trickery, added some Ian Livingstone shopping lists and obscure enigmas, and made the mixture his own by taking it all to the next level and creating something very cerebral that will tax even the most adept at seeing through gamebook tricks and traps. Moving the emphasis away from hard combats and onto seriously challenging puzzles makes for a very original book that is memorable for its combination of lore, exciting pacing, varied events, and excellent prose. It is certainly not perfect as the true path involves solving some stuff that is a bridge too far for anyone that isn’t some sort of super-genius but, once you’ve given up (which is likely) and read the solution you cannot help but be impressed by its intricacies and how brilliantly designed this book really is. The desire to win will keep you thinking and encourage replay and this is a book that, thanks to its many qualities, deserves to be explored and unravelled thoroughly. SoS cannot be put in the ranks of the very best FFs because its solution is so obscure that I can’t believe many people have beaten it without cheating, but it is certainly well above average and is outstandingly well-written. If you want a real brain-teaser but can’t face the extremities of Casket Of Souls then this is the gamebook for you. Plus, if this is representative of what Phillips is capable of gamebook-wise, then it's a real shame that he did not write any others for the series.