Wednesday 2 August 2017

#6: The Port Of Peril


Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

In 2017 it was announced that Scholastic had taken over the publishing rights to the FF series, an announcement that was met with a mixed reaction from fans. Shortly after this, previews of the new art that had been commissioned for these editions met with an even more mixed set of fan reactions, ranging from this being seen as a progressive step to modernise, thru resigned acceptance, to utter contempt (the third being the response of the vast majority). As with Wizard’s two attempts at republishing the series, a new book was released. Whilst the Scholastic editions have no external numbering system, the books are numbered on the inside and this book is listed as #6 which sounds fine until you realise that it was released first along with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (inevitably as #1) and City Of Thieves (as #2). The new book being in the first tranche makes commercial sense and, as it is the sequel (of sorts) to City Of Thieves the simultaneous re-release of that book is also logical but quite why the new book is officially numbered as six I have no idea given the release schedule of 1,2,6 followed by 3 and 4. There was only a week between them and #5 was nowhere to be seen at the time but, bizarre numbering in the context of the release schedule aside, the main point is that, for FF’s 35th Anniversary, we got another brand new book and it was written by series co-creator Ian Livingstone. Furthermore, after the FF-in-name-only 30th Anniversary offering of the generally universally-panned Blood Of The Zombies (although I personally quite liked it, in spite of its unwinable-ness) it was good to see a return to a straight medieval three stat-based Allansia-set book in the classic FF style.
Not only does Port Of Peril use the tried and tested FF system formula again, but it is also a sequel to one of the series’ best ever efforts, City Of Thieves, and sees the return of that book’s protagonist Zanbar Bone, now resurrected. However, in a canny move, this is not actually the gambit of the plot or, at least, not initially. YOU start out as a down-on-your-luck adventurer who has been roughing it on the streets of Chalice for the last four days on the off-chance that an opportunity for treasure-hunting might present itself. Said opportunity soon does present itself in the form of a dubious treasure map that you pick up after it gets discarded by a drunk who bought it from a dodgy bloke he met “down the pub” (a bit like we used to do with VCRs in the mid-‘90s, then). The map suggests that a great treasure (the Ring of Burning Snakes) is hidden in Skull Crag deep within the Moonstone Hills (or just “Moonstone Hills” as the book keeps calling them as the definite article seems to have been scrapped for some reason) and you decide to go off to find it. You start out with a traditional-style item-grab around Chalice before heading out across the plains to Moonstone Hills (without the “the”) and Skull Crag, where you run into the usual IL staple companion (a female ninja called Hakasan) who convinces you to go and find a certain Gurnard Jaggle who it is apparent got to Skull Crag before you and might know where the ring now is. He lives in Darkwood Forest so off you both go there to find him and subsequently learn, through a fateful encounter on the way, of the imminent return of Zanbar Bone, news of which means you need to call on Gurnard then hotfoot it to Yaztromo’s tower on the southern edge of Darkwood to see what stage Zanbar’s reappearance has reached. Yaztromo is in trouble already and tells you that you need to go to Port Blacksand to track down Nicodemus (familiar territory for anyone who has already had to go to PB to track down Nicodemus once before in City Of Thieves), bring him back to Yaztromo’s tower and all join forces to destroy Zanbar again before he takes over Allansia. Incidentally, Zanbar has decided that this time he will run his destruction-fest from Yaztromo’s tower which he is slowly covering in black stones to enable him to overrun it. Also, Nicodemus is useless without his ring of power (the book’s maguffin of the Ring of Burning Snakes) which ties the Zanbar half of the plot to the initial treasure hunt part so it all gels quite nicely and the switch from wealth-seeking to world-saving flows smoothly and is not as jarring a fundamental plot change as it might sound.
The sheer amount of ground that you cover in this adventure does give it something of an epic feel but, as you literally hurtle from one place to the next with very little real depth being given to anywhere that would otherwise demand entire books be devoted to them, you do not get the impression that you are really going anywhere of any great interest and the town-plain-hills-forest-plainagain-differenttown-forestagain layout seems rather facile in spite of what the map suggests you have traversed. It does not seem to take very long to get from one part to another and you could be forgiven for thinking that all this takes place in an area of just a few square miles, were it not for the map in the front of the book (and what the seasoned FF player knows anyway) suggesting that this book involves a trek of quite a distance. The only other FF book that really tries to encompass such a large playing area within Allansia is #26 Crypt Of The Sorcerer, a book which handles this on a much more grand scale and feels far more like you are travelling over a great distance. In other words, Port Of Peril only achieves superficially what Crypt Of The Sorcerer does brilliantly in this respect. I am rather cynical about the way this book darts from place to place as it becomes an endless catalogue of name-checked FF locations and, at times, also NPCs. Along with the already noted game locations of Darkwood Forest, Chalice, Moonstone Hills and Port Blacksand, we also see casual mentions of Firetop Mountain (it is actually possible to briefly go there and immediately die, incidentally), Fang/Deathtrap Dungeon, Fire Island (and its Lizard Man mines), Oyster Bay, and Vatos. NPC-wise, if Nicodemus, Zanbar Bone, and Yaztromo are not already stellar enough for you, Vermithrax and Mungo both turn up, whilst Bigleg, Throm, and Lord Azzur are also cited by name, as well as an allusion to a beggar you meet in Chalice probably being the one-armed jeweller from City Of Thieves. Oh, and the Darkwood Shapechanger gets a mention too. Phew, that’s a lot of places and characters to have thrown at you and the verbal assault reads rather like a Tolkein novel in this respect with its confusing list of people and places. OK, if you are familiar with FF lore this is easy to deal with and interconnection is always welcome but this is just too much and a new reader could easily become overwhelmed with incidental detail that could detract from the core playing experience. More irritating is an encounter with Bignose (Bigleg’s cousin) which is basically just an advert for other books in the series as he specifically suggests the plots of The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, Deathtrap Dungeon and Eye Of The Dragon as possible ways of seeking your fortune. This is vulgar product placement and I thought/hoped FF was above doing something this transparent, but apparently not!

On the subject of the relationship between Bignose and Bigleg, there are umpteen family connections between NPCs in this book - be they cousins, spouses, or siblings - and this aspect begins to read like something akin to a soap opera. One or two would be fine, but this book does seem to push this to extremes of coincidence which, tied to the fact that the hitherto unknown (in FF lore) Gurnard Jaggle seems to be the most famous person in Allansia all of a sudden (given how many people know about him and his antics), we really are beginning to labour the credibility of the characters and plot here. Another jarring point of some NPCs is the convenience of their needs or flexibility in terms of trading items. In Chalice you can meet someone who very handily is looking for a birthday present for his bird-appreciating wife (and you just so happen to be carrying a bird-shaped object at the time) and the willingness of Bignose to accept just about any old crap in return for his trusty battleaxe (I thought Dwarves were especially fond of these??) beggars belief! Similarly, the book seems to be fixated on certain types of object and their recurrence throughout in various forms can get quite repetitive: brass objects, keys, things in jars, and your endless knife collecting (for few genuinely useful reasons) can all get a bit samey. Indeed, the shopping list for this book, in typical IL style, is massive, with only about a third of all the rubbish you find actually proving to be of any real use and most of the absolutely essential stuff is either found at the start or near the end. Most of what you find seems quite unusual and the illusion of purpose is certainly created, but the disappointment comes quickly when you realise just how much of it serves no purpose other than to use up space on your Adventure Sheet (this problem also existed in Eye Of The Dragon). Oddly too, when you find objects in jars you are told that you do not have the space to take them all and are limited to only taking so many which makes sense in the context of logical encumbrance, but makes zero sense when you see just how much other junk you seem to be able to carry. Incidentally, there are at least two incidents where you can lose almost all of your equipment (which may come as a relief, to be honest!) but this will also mean you will not be able to finish the book as, as with all IL books, this is as much an item hunt as it is a kill-the-baddie outing.

Tied into the typical Livingstone item-hunt approach is linearity. IL’s books are always ultra-linear with tight true paths to be found by trial and error through multiple failed attempts and lots of mapping but, at the same time, the number of routing options available really makes them eminently explorable and replayable. One notable exception is #7 Island Of The Lizard King which is pretty much just a straight line. This straight line design is also the case with Port Of Peril to the point where digression from the intended path is all but impossible and any attempts at making routing choices will very quickly return you to a choice you were given a few sections back. In playing terms this is very obvious and the repeated options to turn to a certain section will give all but the most uninitiated gamebookers massive clues as to where they should turn to. In fact, if you do try to do anything other than what the book has predetermined that you must do, you will either be almost immediately sent back to the correct path or killed off. No prizes for guessing then that this book is very much FF by the numbers and the lack of any real descriptive depth along with the fact that your “choices” aren’t really choices at all as such makes it all feel very middle-of-the-road for the experienced FF player.

But is this book actually targeted at an audience of FF stalwarts or is it written as an introductory book for a new generation of potential gamebookers? I would plump for the latter given just how many references to other FF books are written into the text and the relatively dumbed-down prose (burping, farting, and words like “bloomin’” seem more suited to Roald Dahl than FF but unfortunately are all here) by comparison with IL’s usually very vivid and descriptive writing style. In terms of plot there is little to criticise in text terms (some paragraphs are three pages long!) even if there is a little too much happenstance involved and characters talk in such a way that they all seem to be narrators giving away vast amounts of contextual detail but these are definitely fundamentals of children’s literature and for that reason alone they can be forgiven. However, FF has never felt the need to do this in the past so is the series trying to appeal to a younger than usual audience or do kids nowadays just have shorter attention spans so the entire concept needs to be laid out in front of them as explicitly as possible? Who knows, but there is no doubt that this book is written in a more summative fashion than most which can make it rather hard to connect with in terms of immersing yourself in the proceedings. What this does mean though is that it partially makes up for this in frenetic pacing as you dart from one place/incident to another at break-neck speed (without taking any time to go into too much depth) in a bid to reach the final pay-off but I think most of us would rather have a bit more meat on the bones than be changing our surroundings every few pages. If you look at this in the context of how story-driven material works nowadays though, I can understand why this is necessary – just compare Doctor Who stories pre-reboot where a story covered several episodes to the post-reboot world of “monster of the week” single-episode stories which give much more of a quick fix. Port Of Peril in design and textual terms is FF’s response to this need to appeal to the modern child rather than the 1980s child and there is much to be said for attracting a new readership, albeit by watering-down and compromising the series’ core values. Another niggle is that IL sometimes attempts to add humorous references in his later books (remember the pie-eating contest in Armies Of Death, for example) and you can find yourself playing “Dungles and Draggles” at one point in Port Blacksand which is no doubt hilarious if you are of its intended new audience… not that any kids nowadays will have any idea of what that is meant to be a reference to!

With the textual concessions comes a reduced difficulty in playing terms and Port Of Peril is, all things considered, relatively easy to complete. Most IL books are very difficult (with a couple of notable exceptions) and can be downright unfair with their combinations of masses of essential items to find, ultra-hard fights, few chances for healing, and lots of Luck testing. Yes, PoP still has you needing to gather loads of items that you will fail without finding, but other than this, the book is generally very fair on the player. As with the only fair part of Blood Of The Zombies, your curiosity in opening and examining things is usually (but not always, just to add a slight element of tension and make things interesting) rewarded. Luck tests are mostly found in logical places rather than being arbitrarily scattered about and some will only be found if you take a path that the book is obviously trying to talk you out of by repeatedly offering you the section that you are supposed to be choosing. A few Luck tests will kill you if you fail them but, again, this is generally due to misadventure rather than the book hating you. Skill tests are very sparingly used and only come at key critical pass/fail points such as the final fight with Zanbar so this is acceptable. There are many moments where you can lose Skill, Stamina or Luck points but there are just as many opportunities to regain them so this is well-balanced too, plus Yaztromo will max-out either your Skill or Luck, or add 10 to your Stamina making you very strong if you happen to have rolled-up a character with a particular stat weakness. Instant death sections are liberally scattered about but always come from either doing something stupid or from failing at important moments so this makes sense as well. There are only a small number of compulsory tough fights and these again come at key moments, which fits well. Potential traps and the more lethal areas (especially inside Skull Crag where any wrong turn means death) are there to scupper you, but advice from NPCs is laid on so thick that you are unlikely to fall foul of any of them. All this indicates that, after 35 years of writing gamebooks, IL has finally worked out how to get the difficulty right without a book either being too easy or almost impossible. Hurrah!

What FF still has not got a handle on though is proof-reading and play-testing. On paragraph 1 we are given an impossible Stamina point bonus with another equally unusable one a few sections later - the Rules mention not exceeding Initial scores so this is either out of the window or there are errors from the get-go. There are a few typos here and there but nothing more than in any book and no-one’s names change randomly so that is good to see! There are, however, several plot inconsistencies and continuity errors that depend on your having done exactly what the book expects up to those points, otherwise they won’t make sense, such as: you are told that a jar of eyeballs has been smashed by you whether you chose to do so or not; you tell Gurnard Jaggle to call on his brother Jethro whom you might not ever have met or be aware of the existence of; and, most problematically, the flintlock pistol is involved in several glaring mistakes including you getting it serviced even though you might not have it, then allowing you to use it even though you might not have any black powder (which you are told you DO have) or have had it serviced meaning that, either way, it should not reasonably work! A less awkward but just slightly weird problem is that, even without a compass, it seems to be impossible to get lost in Darkwood Forest as you cannot avoid stumbling on the correct path eventually.

In spite of these logic issues, a huge effort has been put into meshing this book with its predecessor, City Of Thieves, as well as making sure that there are accurate correlations (via Easter Eggs) with certain other books. The aforementioned one-armed beggar aside, you can also collect a lotus flower and some hag’s hair which, whilst purposeless this time around, do give a feeling of familiarity, and Nicodemus still lives as a recluse under Singing Bridge in Port Blacksand. Likewise, the episode of seeing Lord Azzur’s coach pass you by is repeated here. Also, Yaztromo’s tower is naturally still situated where it was in The Forest Of Doom, the Hill Men are still wreaking havoc with passers-by on its edges, and you can even get picked-off by a Pterodactyl (now more luridly called a Terrordactyl) near Darkwood, just like the open plain episode in FoD. Indeed, it is just about possible to pinpoint where this book fits into the FF timeline too. Throm is said to have not been seen since he entered the Trial Of Champions so this comes after Deathtrap Dungeon, Bigleg has disappeared into Darkwood to find the still missing dwarven hammer so we are contemporary with The Forest Of Doom, Mungo is still alive (he tries to invite you on a wild goose chase to Oyster Bay which the book refuses to let you get very far on if you decide to agree to go, incidentally) and the mines on Fire Island are still in operation (meaning this is pre-Island Of The Lizard King), but Zanbar Bone has already been vanquished once so we are definitely after City Of Thieves. This all makes the timeline very screwy but we do at least know where we are in the context of the series’ overall story arc. What does seem a bit odd though is how to destroy Zanbar this time around. You needed to amass a lot of things to defeat him in CoT but in PoP there are actually TWO ways to kill him and both can potentially afford you more than one chance (if you have spare arrows or lead balls, that is) – either firing arrows or firing a flintlock are the only ways to despatch him and both will shatter his (now pointier) skull which seems a rather anti-climactic way to kill an end baddie but, as this is a fair IL book, you are not being expected to endure a near-unwinnable end fight for once, especially if you exploit the flintlock continuity snags to your advantage! OK, immediately before you face Zanbar you do have to contend with the book’s hardest battle against the Demon called Quag-Shugguth that Zanbar has brought along from the depths to defend him and, unless you have the Venom Sword (cost 20GP) you must fight with -4 Skill and have little chance of winning but the flipside of this is that, should you have this weapon, you will instead fight with +3 Skill so even the really killer foe can be rendered reasonable to take on.

Zanbar Bone himself is handled, in lore terms, very effectively and, other than him being oddly easier to beat this time, we get some excellent background to how he became what he now is and also learn that, like another FF key baddie (Zagor) before him, he is effectively immortal so can we expect more resurrections like we got with Zagor? Hopefully, yes. Also, because the new and improved Zanbar is now a Demon he has grown wings and cloven hoofs as well as his iconic horns having got much longer and he has become a truly awesome enemy which presents us with two problems: 1) why is he easier to kill this time than he was the first time we met him when he was a lesser character? 2) why is the image of him sat on his bier in this book so devoid of awe-inspiring qualities? Iain McCaig’s original cover and internal illustrations of Zanbar were exactly what they should be – menacing and terrifying. Scholastic’s new artist (Vlado Krizan) gives us a dark greyscaled Zanbar whose cloven hoofs are all but invisible, his wings are just black areas and his tiny skull seems to have had its horns tacked on afterwards. Furthermore, the entire image is blocky and looks like mid-90s PlayStation graphics. In summary, he sounds terrifying in the descriptions but is pathetic-looking in this new picture. Even more depressing is that this image is not a one-off blip like any book with multiple plates will surely have, as all of the art in PoP is utterly awful. Take Cartoon Network people, mix them with stupid-looking cutesy creatures, remove any terror, don’t bother with any detail at all, obliterate everything by covering it with dark greys to the point where it all looks like it’s happening in the middle of the night, and finally put it all into block pixels so it looks like a really bad quality YouTube video and you’ve pretty much got the idea. Whoever thought this guy’s art was suitable for FF needs their head examining quite frankly as this is unquestionably the worst art I have ever seen in a FF book. (Krizan also created the new art for the other books in Scholastic’s reissue series but we’ll talk about that in a separate write-up). The cover image (by Robert Ball) is, in context, a vast improvement over the internals, but it has a childish look to it and is not in keeping with previous FF cover pictures. Yes, I realise that Scholastic is aiming these books at a particular audience and that school book clubs are unlikely to welcome the classic FF cover imagery due to it being a bit too “real-looking” (and good lol) but the new cover concept just does not have the right feel to it. FF was always a series of essentially childrens books but that looked and felt adult. Scholastic has made this book look childish. Apparently some people have shown the covers (and internals) to their children and the reaction has been positive so presumably the new approach is having the desired effect but surely the old art style is a million times better than this? The covers and internals used to inspire and influence which book I would choose to get next when I was a child. I’m pretty certain that if I still was a child I would never have entertained something with art like PoP’s. Along similar lines is the actual presentation of the book. The small incidental images to break up the sections are all present and correct but, again, they suffer from the same shoddy execution as the main plates and the attempt to “age” the pages by adding black splodges on the edges that are supposed to represent singes just looks like a printing error and also causes the book to have similar black marks on the page edges which looks like soiling. Horrible. The paper quality is also awful and smells chemically to the point where it is quite intoxicating and looks (and smells) like newspaper. Furthermore, the actually quite nice gold embossing on the spine and cover text comes off on contact with pretty much anything so the book quickly begins to look tatty. All things considered, the overall impression is of a poor quality cheap production where art, printing standards, paper quality, and general look and feel have all been compromised in the name of budget-saving. This is pretty typical of Scholastic though as many of their books are on cheap paper and disintegrate very quickly. In the name of fairness I have to add here that a Limited Edition hardback version with different (and far superior) cover art by the ultra-talented Iain McCaig is also available, the cover of which represents an assemblage of famous FF NPCs (some of whom do not appear as such in the book) all having a drink in the Black Lobster Tavern. Unfortunately, the dreadful internal art and fake page-edge aging is still there though.

One of the key functions of art in gamebooks is to help us visualise the unknown and, as with all FFs, this book introduces some new foes as well as a scattering of familiar pretty standard types that show up in most gamebooks. Amongst the new offerings are a Sporeball (which is actually quite dangerous), a Hippohog (disables its prey by farting and knocking them out!), and a group of three Blue Imps which look to be lifted directly from the Deathtrap Dungeon pc/PlayStation game (which is apt as most of the art looks like it came from there too, but the way you would have seen it if you had a black and white tv!) My favourite new foe by far is the Quag-Shuggoth which is easily this book’s toughest enemy to fight but, for the most part, much of the new beastiary is a bit lame to be honest and the classic fantasy creatures definitely carry this one. It is worth mentioning the Plague Witch though (this book’s nod to the hag in CoT and also the source of this book’s supply of hag’s hair) who, whilst very weak stat-wise, will kill you instantly if she wounds you so it is nice to see a deceptively strong foe to add yet more balance to the proceedings (if this was an old-school IL book she would smash your sword causing you to fight with -3 Skill, have a Skill herself of 11, and also get an insta-kill if she wounded you!) Of note as well is your companion for much of the second half of this book (Hakasan) who, for once, is actually very effective and doesn’t either die or run away shortly after you find her like most IL companion NPCs tend to do. She acts as a source of information, a guide to keep you on-track (if you really need one!), a co-fighter to make battles easier, a motivator, and also presents a minor crisis for you to contend with when she damages her ankle. Should you reach paragraph 400 (which you will after just a few attempts) she also decides she is off to attempt the Trial Of Champions – I wonder if she ever went through with it – and there is a neat closing sign-off with Yaztromo using the classic “May your Stamina (blah blah) never fail” spiel which looks to be a prompt for you to go out and get some more FF books (which can’t be a bad thing).

Port Of Peril is an OK gamebook that never really rises above being middling. It is certainly not bad but it is miles away from the really top-class material that the series has produced at times. It has lots of plus points, fairness and pace in particular, but its lack of any real immersiveness or intensity makes it feel a bit flat if you have read/played a lot of gamebooks. As an intro to the series it works very well but, whilst there are no direct prerequisites to play, it certainly works better if you are familiar with City Of Thieves. The system is back to the original version of FF, which is good to see. Two currencies are involved (Gold Pieces and Copper Pieces) but transactions are only ever in gold so I suspect copper is just included to add a bit of variety and maybe as a nod to the AFF system. All the IL foibles are back (although his usually excellent prose has been eroded) but they work with you rather than against you for once and, barring a few potential continuity errors, the whole thing comes together well and, in summary, you could do a lot worse than giving this book a go (just don’t look at any of the pictures or your eyes will bleed lol).