Tuesday 13 November 2018

Legend Of Zagor Boardgame


Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Produced by Parker Games in 1993, this formed part of a multi-format release that included a gamebook, four novels, and this high concept game. Not strictly a boardgame in that it has no board to speak of, this game consists of three 3D dungeon areas moulded in plastic (one grey, one red, one black) which are linked together by white model plastic bridges. The first two areas have various floor tiles and rooms scattered about them, whilst the final section (in black) consists of a dragon’s lair (complete with grille presumably covering something that turns out to actually be a speaker), four floor tiles, and Zagor’s throne room. The throne itself is a large skull structure with horns and teeth in which Zagor reposes. To move from area two (the red one) to the black one (the Crypt of Zagor aka the throne room) you pass over a model bridge with a jawbone cavern entrance which acts as the way in to the crypt. The crypt also contains figures of a dragon and of Zagor himself. Up to four players can play, each selecting a pre-defined character to match those in the gamebook (ie dwarf, wizard, warrior, barbarian), each of which has a mini figure to move around the dungeon sections. Also included is a mini of a shopkeeper and a bunch of minis depicting the various denizens of the dungeon (ogres, trolls, skeletons, hellhorns, etc).

Immediately on opening the (massive) box that houses all this stuff, it becomes apparent that this is visually pretty special. The minis are beautifully rendered with a lot of detail, with the Flame Dragon and Zagor being particularly impressive, in part due to the sheer size of them. In fact, Zagor is so big he doesn’t actually fit in his throne so you have to put him to one side, have him stand awkwardly behind the dragon, or lay him horizontally across his throne. The dragon and the shopkeeper have handy pips that hold them in place once the game is set up, as do all the various structural parts (bridge sections, jawbone doorway, skull throne, etc). Even the dungeon section floors and walls are really well moulded with plenty of detail down to each tile having something unique about it be it the paving design, grilles, etc. No expense has been spared in designing and creating this game and it really does look very classy and high quality. Were you to paint all the figures and the dungeon floor sections too, you would have something truly impressive and the box sides do show the minis painted up to give you an idea of the potential of the game’s parts. With all this elaborate detail, setting the game up can take a bit of time: each section has a set of colour-coded tiles that are laid face down one per tile square, each room has a card floor design tile (each one shaped to fit a particular room which can be something of a jigsaw exercise to get them all in the right places), and each monster mini gets put in a room (the more deadly foes such as the chaos champions and the hellhorn being put in section two). Character generation is not required as each of the four PCs has a nicely rendered character sheet with a picture of the character’s face on it (matching those on the game box). Character set up is dead simple. Each of you starts with 1 Strength (Strength being the equivalent of Skill here), 6 Stamina, 20 gold pieces, and no equipment. The only real differences between the four characters are how much each particular piece of equipment costs (eg: fighters pay less for weapons, wizard pays less for the magic ring). Before the game begins, each player can spend their 20 gps (or part of them) buying equipment: weapons and armour to increase Strength and/or special items to affect gameplay such as torches, elven boots, magic arrows, a magic ring, healing potions, etc. Each player also gets a spell. Anyone with the magic ring can carry two spells at any one time, otherwise you can only ever carry one at a time. There is a large deck of spell cards which include healing spells, combat/defence spells, spells that allow transportation, gold creation spells, spells that help you steal stuff or pass through walls, etc ie the usual selection of beneficial, risky, and downright wacky magic to nuance the game.

Once each player has kitted themselves out, the game can finally begin. The fact that it easily takes half an hour to set all this up makes you hope for a lengthy playing experience, which you may or may not actually get, but more on this later for now we can no longer avoid the subject of this game’s main gimmick – the much-vaunted 40K electronic voice unit which the box and the TV advert that plugged this game made the primary focus. The voice unit sits in the chunky black plastic crypt section and as soon as you insert 4 AA-sized batteries in it, it starts shouting at you. “Who dares challenge me?” it yells in a voice not unlike Tregard’s from Knightmare (although it isn’t Hugo Myatt’s voice, incidentally) and you reply by pressing buttons in the crypt that correspond to the character’s being used: “Dwarf”, “Barbarian”, “Warrior”, “Wizard” Zagor responds after you press each button. As this is a game for anything from one to four players, you only press the buttons that represent the character’s that are actually being used, otherwise it all gets in a mess pretty quickly. Once everyone has checked-in Zagor will randomly decide who starts: “Dwarf begin” or whatever. Play then proceeds with each player taking their turn to turn over the tile they are starting on. The tile will have something on it and the game plays out with players moving around the sections, turning over the tiles they land on, and dealing with whatever is on them: some are bad, some are good, and some can be good or bad depending on dice rolls. Level one is the only area where equipment can be found on tiles (11 out of 26 level one tiles are useful gear, which is pretty forgiving), although you are limited to how many of each thing you can carry so some stuff gets left behind for others to benefit from. This adds an element of chance when creating your character: do you blow all your cash buying everything that will shoot your Strength straight up to the maximum of 8 from the outset or do you take the chance that you might find something useful for free and gradually build up your Strength? The only areas in section one that involve combats are the rooms which you can avoid initially if you start weak or you can also go on a killing spree if you start out strong. Killing room inhabitants is the core of the game as a kill rewards you with a treasure chest. Each treasure chest shaves 1 Strength and 1 Stamina off Zagor in the end fight and you need to get as many as you can carry (six normally, or eight if you have a mule) otherwise the Zagor fight is unwinnable. Why? Because combat in this game is not standard FF combat. This game came out in the mid-90s post-HeroQuest era when combat had been dumbed-down to avoid it supposedly detracting from the playability of games of this type so combat here is simply a matter of rolling a D10 and comparing the result to the defending thing’s Strength: equal to or higher and 1 Stamina is lost, lower and the attack misses. When you read the rule book it states that Zagor has Strength 12 Stamina 12. It does not take a mathematical genius to work out then that, with no treasure chests, it is not possible to wound Zagor when the highest roll you can get is a 10 and he has Strength 12. With two treasure chests you can only hit him on rolling a 10 so getting the full six or eight chests is pretty essential and even with six you still only have 40% chance of hitting him. Mules are expensive to buy but you can find one (and only one) in level two. Realistically, you would want a mule so that you can carry eight chests but this does also involve either forking out a lot of gold for a mule or being lucky enough to find the only one that is roaming free in the dungeon. Plus, getting eight chests requires you to win eight combats with monsters which brings us to man-on-monster battles. When you enter a room you press a particular combat button on Zagor dependant on whether you are in section one or two: “Who dares do battle with me?” shouts Zagor and the fighting player replies by pressing the relevant character button. Zagor will then randomise the Strength and Stamina of the monster and combat begins. The player rolls the D10 to attack as above and Zagor shouts out random numbers to represent the monster’s dice rolls. Most level one monsters only have Strength 2 or 3 and Stamina 1 or 2 whilst second level monsters are hardly much stronger. This might seem rather easy until it becomes apparent that Zagor tends to shout out high numbers more than low ones so you quickly become grateful for creatures with Staminas of 1 or 2. Indeed, the combats in this game are distinctly unbalanced and fights can leave you pretty close to death after a short time. Granted, there are many ways to heal your character and using spells can make fights easier (or recruiting a hireling to do the fighting for you) but you do get the feeling that Zagor is rather harsh on you. Then comes the rub: Zagor will keep track of how many fights each character gets into, the braver you are the more likely he is to reward you with equipment or Stamina bonuses, conversely avoid fights and Zagor will start to pick on you and penalise you in various ways. This really is very neat and Zagor effectively acts as a GM as well as playing the gamebook author role whereby a player who fights gets more items than a player who avoids confrontations. Add to this the need to get treasure chests and it becomes evident just how essential being psychotic is in this game. Should you die you just regenerate and start again at your original starting square with a fresh character bereft of equipment and everyone has to wait whilst you work out how best to spend your 20 starting gps again. Incidentally, there are several ways of finding more money too so that has to be taken into consideration when planning your spending strategy and there is a Store where you can go and buy more stuff throughout the game.

And that’s pretty much it: you move your piece, turn over a tile (or fight in a room), collect treasure chests and other handy kit, then decide when you want to head for the crypt for the big showdown. The first player to enter the crypt has to contend with the Flame Dragon which has a +2 bonus to Strength and Stamina on top of whatever numbers Zagor shouts out. Therefore it is possible for the dragon to be fairly weak if you are in luck. Once the dragon is dead it’s dead and no-one else then has to deal with it. Should the dragon kill a player however, any treasure chests he/she has (and you would assume they would have some otherwise why the hell would they be attempting the final challenge?) become the property of Zagor and are out of the game. In other words, the number of available chests will decrease as players fall foul of the dragon. Similarly, if Zagor kills a hero, the same happens which means that, in theory, there can come a point where there aren’t enough chests left in the game for anyone to be able to defeat Zagor so he gets a sort of default victory. Additionally, you cannot use any magic spells, magical items, or certain other things such as hirelings in the crypt which makes the end game even tougher. This is strategically counter-intuitive as you would be likely to try to amass this sort of equipment specifically to make the end easier, but it does also mean that by using them up you can get through the first two sections much more easily and with a minimal amount of risk or Stamina loss. When you approach the crypt is entirely your decision incidentally and the peril and anticipation really does ramp up as each player tries to tackle Zagor. Not only is he very strong compared to everything else you fight in this game (even with his stats reduced by treasure chests) but he will also randomly attack you with spells that the 40K chip will decide to use. The sound that precedes Zagor announcing that he is either unleashing a fireball or thunderbolt spell at a combatant quickly becomes something you don’t want to hear and he is not unknown to use two or three in successive combat rounds!

Which brings us to the subject of sound effects. Not only does Zagor control combat and arbitrarily reward and penalise players, but the chip also generates suitably atmospheric sound effects. Lightning randomly crackles at times and Zagor will occasionally burst into maniacal laughter to unnerve you. When combat is happening, the chip starts by making the sound of approaching footsteps followed by the clang as weapons clash with each other. Kill a monster and you will hear it emit a gut-wrenching scream followed by it crashing to the floor. It has to be said that this all really does add to the experience and, whilst it might seem a bit corny now, in 1993 this was very hi-tech stuff and quite revolutionary. However you perceive it (and the crackling tinny voice can get irritating after a while, especially if you are getting victimised by Zagor for being a coward) this concept is undeniably fun and, with the random moments in particular, each game does become unique and there is a constant element of anticipation as you play.

In terms of actual dungeon design and structure, the levels idea is generally very effective. Section one contains, as I have said, a lot of free items, and encounters are equally divided between three helpful NPCs and three bad NPCs. There is the prerequisite trap (but only one), a couple of potentially handy secret passages (unless they end up next to each other of course, which is perfectly possible as tiles are laid out randomly each time you play), a teleport tile, a guard (which can be good or bad as you must bribe him or fight), three random tiles (Zagor decides the effect which can befall any character, not necessarily the one who turned the tile over), and the neat pool of gold (roll to get a certain amount of gold – the pool stays where it is until someone is unfortunate enough to roll a zero and dries it up thus then ruining it for everyone for the rest of the game). Section two is predictably more challenging with two random tiles, two more secret passages, and another teleport tile. The proportion of good to bad NPC encounters changes for the worse however with just three helpful NPCs compared to five bad ones for you to contend with. There is another pit trap too. In spite of the overall increased difficulty of section two, the two arguably best tiles that work in your favour are also found here: the fountain of life (restores Stamina to maximum) and the very handy mule. Finally, the crypt contains only four tiles that are explored once the dragon has been despatched. As the elven boots (which allow you to move up to three spaces rather than the standard one or two) cannot be used in the crypt you have to statistically explore at least two of these crypt tiles, all of which are potentially bad news in some way. Two tiles are 100% bad and there to reduce your stats purely to make the Zagor fight even harder. The remaining two tiles are a 50/50 situation with a fireball and an encounter with a mummy that either reduces your Stamina by 2 (ie a third at “best”) or that can be avoided completely if you had the foresight to buy a torch. Clearly then, every aspect of the crypt be it the four tiles, the dragon, or the ultra-strong Zagor fight, is very challenging and, again, suggests a lack of difficulty balance after the first two sections which are, overall, not too tough to negotiate. Of course, this could also be interpreted as clever game design to catch out the unwary who assume that because they have made short work of the first two sections, they can naturally expect an easy ride in the crypt too, only to end up dying horribly just as they thought victory was in sight. Interestingly, with the general exception of equipment tiles, most of the floor tiles remain where they are throughout the game. Obviously this means that the perilous crypt section will always be perilous (the four tiles all stay there for the whole game) and that players need to remember where good and bad tiles are located so as to frequently reap the benefits of the good ones without constantly falling foul of the bad ones. There is a spell, incidentally, that allows you to switch tiles around to add a bit of jeopardy to the proceedings, and if you have a torch you can peek at tiles before deciding to stand on them. Particularly daring players will want to keep visiting the Random tiles to try to gain something from Zagor and/or hope Zagor will stitch another player up. All this adds several layers to play: risk, memory, and interaction between players as one player’s actions can directly impact another player, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad. Add this to the randomised nature of fights and Zagor’s habit of interfering with players’ fates, and a lot of luck comes into play.

Overall, the amount of luck involved in this game is probably a bit excessive but the sheer amusement gained from hearing Zagor’s voice and the anticipation of who is going to be rewarded or penalised makes the game more of a fun experience than simply a game of pure chance and at no point do you start to get fed up or start to wish it was over as the one thing that you take from playing this game more than anything else is a sense of enjoyment and this game makes up for any of its lacking points through the sheer fun of it all. In fact, other than the reliance on luck and Zagor’s tendency to use loaded dice in combats, most of the game’s shortcomings are in the implementation rather than the mechanics. Yes, the whole thing is very random but that is the idea as Zagor governs the whole game and you are after all playing against him ie the 40K chip DM substitute. The most striking issue I have is with the minis. As nice as these components are, the actual creature representations are meaningless and the minis effectively do nothing other than to act as over-elaborate markers showing whether a particular room has a living or already killed monster in it – if they are standing up they are alive, if they are lying down they are dead and the room is not worth entering as you cannot get a treasure chest from it anymore. The creature minis never move and are no indication of what you are fighting. Furthermore, you never get to find out what you are fighting as Zagor doesn’t bother telling you meaning that, whilst the minis clearly are specific creatures, the box shows exactly what they are and names them, and even the level one and level two rooms have differently powered types in them dependent on the level the room is in, all this is ultimately pointless as you are just fighting an unnamed something with randomly-generated stats. This is a pity as something really effective could have been made of this to go hand-in-hand with the undeniable quality of the figure mouldings. Granted, the minis of the four player characters do move around the board and do represent whichever character class you are playing but the monster minis are definitely more interesting and give a level of expectation that never quite gets satisfied once you start fighting them. The larger structural elements (Zagor’s skull throne, the bridge, the jawbone doorway) all look great but, again, serve no purpose within the game as such other than to create mood and atmosphere. You could say the same for the random lightning and insane laughing noises that the chip generates but you do get more atmosphere and a sense of foreboding from their being there than if they were not. The cynical would probably argue that the miniatures are better utilised elsewhere and that part of this game’s long-term use is in supplying parts for other RPG-type games and there is certainly an element of truth in this. Indeed, if this game used its very well-made parts to the benefit of a more immersive experience you would be less likely to plunder it for spares and that might explain why finding complete ones can be tricky.

The subject of actually acquiring this game is worth mentioning in itself as, on first release, this game did not sell well, in part due to it coming once the HeroQuest fad was on its last legs and in some larger part due to it costing the prohibitive amount of £49.99 which was a lot for a boardgame in the early-90s. Yes, the production values and the technology justify the price tag but actually selling this concept to punters evidently wasn’t easy in spite of there being a TV advertising campaign to try to shift units. Understandably, as sales were not good originally, there are not that many of these about on the second hand market. Add to this the fact that there could be parts missing (minis in particular, not that you really need them and any being missing won’t make any difference to gameplay and can just be substituted with pretty much anything to act as a marker) or broken (the tabs that hold the bridge together are especially fragile and prone to being snapped), or even worse the voice chip no longer working which renders the game unplayable and completely useless, then overall finding a complete and functioning example will pose a challenge and demand a high price. If you can get this game in complete and working condition for less than about £75 now, you are doing well. If you can’t get one or can’t get access to one, then you are definitely missing out on a huge amount of fun.

And that’s the key to this game. Do not take it too seriously and play for the entertainment value alone. The mechanics and system are simple and the game is very rules-light, a refreshing change to the often intense and overly-complex games of this type. It is very easy to learn how to play and you can get on with it pretty quickly once the set-up of characters and their opening buying spree is over with. A playing session is roughly an hour to 90 minutes which is fairly brief as these games go and there is ample replay potential, not just in the completely random nature of both the layout and Zagor’s whims, but also in the way that the rule book provides two shorter scenarios which involve hunting out specific items/people represented by numbered treasure chest cards. These scenarios can be used both as training playthroughs to familiarise yourself with how the game works and as shorter quick-fire games if time is limited or you can’t face the very hard Zagor showdown and just want to play an item hunt. The three different endgames effectively give you three different games which is a nice touch that helps avoid the feeling that there is probably very little game here in real terms and it is definitely not aimed at anyone looking for a serious RPG or strategy game session as this is as slam-bang as it gets, but therein lies the appeal of it. The materials are definitely over-produced and wildly over-engineered but it looks great and is a winner for sheer novelty value.

The gamebook version was based on this boardgame and not the other way around, as with WOFM. This approach seriously hampered the book which feels like little more than a boardgame in text format. The book is also ridiculously difficult to the point of being almost unplayable. The boardgame version is neither hard nor dull. Many aspects of the boardgame version were carried over into the book, although thankfully the sequence of end fights is far easier in the boardgame version and most of the unfair encounters from the book are far simpler here or were additions when the book was put together and are absent from the boardgame. Similarly, the hopelessness of playing as either the dwarf or the wizard are absent from the boardgame and all four characters have equal and balanced chances of winning, unlike in the book. All in all, the boardgame is a simpler but far better-executed version of the same thing.

Legend of Zagor is a visual feast in terms of its presentation: the technology, the dungeon sections, the figures, and the art on the tile and spell cards are all top notch. The whole package is wildly over the top and unquestionably kitsch by today’s standards, but that’s all part of the pleasure of it. The box could easily have been half the size and still housed everything nicely but that would lose the literal physical impact as well as getting to see Martin McKenna’s impressive cover art far larger than we usually get in a gamebook and what’s not to like about the box art? To play requires no knowledge of FF as such and this game is far less involved and potentially complicated than the WOFM boardgame meaning the uninitiated can just dive straight in and play with as much chance of winning as a seasoned FF player. The way that the valiant are rewarded and cowards are punished adds a bit of tension and motivation, whilst the generally fast-paced play means it maintains the interest throughout. If the game in its presented form is too simple for peoples’ tastes then there is no reason why house rules cannot be used to add a bit of nuance and increase the RPG-style logic such as the dwarf not being able to use the elven boots due to the dwarf-elf antagonism thing, or using combat adjustors for weapons/armour, or even increasing the stats of fighter types and reducing the stats of the wizard (as per the book version, in fact). You could even add a time factor where, after a certain amount of play time had elapsed, the dungeon regenerates and tiles are returned/reorganised in different places or creatures in rooms get replaced by new ones, or even go as far as setting a time limit to get as many items/treasure chests as possible before all players are forced to head for the crypt and try to defeat Zagor. Alternatively, you could just use the dungeon sections and the minis for your own RPG scenario based on the far more complex and unreasonably difficult book version.

Overall, the thing that you take from this game is that it is light and pacey fun that is not to be taken too seriously. It is hugely enjoyable, the voice chip ranges from the ominous to the hilarious, and the final analysis is pretty challenging, even if Zagor does seem to be cheating at times with his dice rolls. If you can get it, do so, as this is a great antidote to the usual fantasy boardgame fare. Purists will moan about the dilution of the FF system but they can always play the book instead (assuming they really hate themselves that much and want to put themselves through it) if they don’t understand that these games can be simple fun at times. This is certainly not a game you could play as regularly as the WOFM boardgame as the novelty could wear off but it is definitely worth playing for a lighter session and there is way more than £49.99’s-worth of parts and technology in this huge box. 

Tuesday 18 September 2018

Fortress Throngard


Tom Williams

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Fortress Throngard is, at 172 sections, the shortest stand-alone mini-adventure to be printed in the pages of Warlock magazine, appearing, as it did, in Issue 9. I assume this is another reader submission (many Warlock short subjects were) as I have no idea otherwise who Tom Williams is, but I may be wrong on this matter. Whoever he is, this adventure shows him to be quite skilled in designing gamebooks structurally, even if the opening spiel hardly grabs you by the throat and demands that you play: all we get is three brief paragraphs setting the scene by telling us that the wood of Ergon has been the site of abductions in the name of the wizard Throngard, that you are squire to a certain Sir Falfax the Fair, that he has been captured, and that the only way you can save him is by getting yourself abducted in Ergon and taken to Fortress Throngard to pull off an inside job rescue mission. A previous statement in the initial header section also tells you that you can prove your worthiness to become a knight yourself by rescuing Sir Falfax, so I’m guessing that the real intended outcome of this adventure is getting yourself knighted rather than either liberating Sir Falfax or dealing with Throngard himself, but presumably both of these are prerequisites to achieving a knighthood.

The Rules tell us that we start with the standard FF equipment of sword, leather armour, and backpack, along with the Warlock mini-adventure modifications of 5 rather than 10 Provisions and one from the usual choice of three starting Potions that contain two rather than one doses. You also get the more unique additions of a shield and, as soon as you read the Introduction, you also discover you have a knife and a picklock. These last two items sound very specific and presumably must have an impact on the adventure: dungeons, lockpicks; yes, I think that’s a logical combination so this appears to make sense…. Or rather it does until you finish reading section 1 which tells you that, in fact, you are unarmed bar your knife and you have now acquired a stout stick. Add to this, the comment in the Introduction that You know that any other equipment [than your knife and lockpick] will be taken as soon as you are captured and you have to assume that you actually have no equipment except for the knife, lockpick, and the stick that appeared from nowhere, and that the time you spent noting down the other stuff (including the rare starting shield) was wasted as you don’t have any of it. And this causes a big problem as it makes the double-dose Potions of Skill and Strength completely useless as there is no way you can drink them before you start. On the other hand, the Potion of Fortune is very handy assuming you think to drink both doses before you begin as you will automatically increase your Initial Luck by 2, giving you a starting Luck range of minimum 9 to a maximum of a whopping 14 which, when you consider that you are made to Test Your Luck in only four paragraphs (although two of these can be handy in getting an easier path through), is very generous. So, from the outset, we have a worrying number of glaring errors and the adventure hasn’t even begun!

What is pleasing to see though is that section 1 gets straight to the point in plot terms and immediately has you meeting three potential abductors. You have a choice of three ways to tackle them, all of which ultimately lead you to imprisonment in the dungeons of the titular fortress (that’s good, right?), although one can be more disastrous and results in you becoming weaponless as you lose your knife (presumably your stick has vapourised as it never gets mentioned again after section 1) causing you a -2 Skill penalty which, whilst a little harsh so early on, is realistic as you are unlikely to be knowingly left armed after capture and you should not have full Skill potential if unarmed. From your cell you then have to explore the dungeon area of the fortress before climbing some stairs to a gallery area lined with doors (and occasionally some animated armour) which conceal the chambers of various dignitaries, uber-nasties, and some essential equipment and knowledge. Now, this last is an interesting point – for a short adventure the shopping list is reasonably long and involves both equipment and information, much of which you cannot find until you reach what, at first, appears to be the end. Couple this with the fact that the very early areas of the dungeon ask you frequently if you have info or items that you can’t possibly have been anywhere yet to gather and it soon becomes apparent that you actually need to head for the “end” first (or as soon as you know a certain piece of info) and then backtrack and double-about on yourself here and there to gradually piece the true path together. This becomes all the more apparent when you start to get direction options that allow you to retrace your steps and in the way that you can often get knocked unconscious and wake up back in your cell at the start of the dungeon complex which you might think is a bad thing, but is actually often to your benefit. So, here we have an interesting non-linear design where you have to return to previous areas and effectively have to defeat Throngard first before exploring the earlier areas. This might sound problematic as FFs rarely deal well with revisiting areas but this adventure (for the most part) handles the reset button successfully and avoids the usual illogicalities by not having things come back to life and/or not having already collected items available to you a second time. So there is quite a bit of sophistication in these 172 sections in terms of design, the path through, and the mechanics, and such a level of complexity is unusual for the early days of FF before authors began routinely deconstructing the concept from the 40s numbers onwards. Indeed, when you crack this adventure and see the complete route to success, it becomes evident just how complex this mini-FF really is.

The complexity level is, for me, one of the real stand-out aspects of this piece and I was genuinely impressed with how TW worked so much neat design into so few sections making this probably one of the most efficient and section-effective FFs. Add to this the size of the multi-level map and the way most of the encounters are key to the plot and thread together very well, and you get a very satisfying playing experience. Curiously though, this is also a bit of a dichotomy if we set this off against the shambolic equipment mess at the start, some inexplicable moments such as you having to abandon an item if you wish to take a deck of cards (just how big are these cards?), an awkward jump between sections 5 and 21 which simply does not make any sense, a combat against a foe with no Skill (do you automatically win, then?), a bonus to your Skill that is actually a bonus to your Stamina, and a weird connection between two key rooms involving the dragon’s chamber/fortress entrance. Similarly, there are far too many close section links, sometimes one leading directly to the next one or to two or three sections away. I realise this was endemic of Warlock FFs in general due to the limited number of sections but it does kind of ruin any surprise at times although, taking into account the non-linear back-and-forth structure, perhaps this might not be such a problem after all in terms of actually defeating the adventure as a whole as I feel the real point is to work this part out rather than contend with individual section connections in microcosm.

A complex design often suggests a high difficulty level, but that is not necessarily the case here. Whilst you are at a weapon disadvantage early on, should you become completely unarmed, there are several opportunities to acquire a new weapon. Likewise, your initial loss of all Provisions solves itself with several rooms where you can acquire replacement Provisions and/or eat what is in them. The Rules do state that you can only eat when offered the chance to do so by the text, but the book remembers to give you these chances so that part is not broken (and the ability to double-back means that you can always return to one of these areas should you need to eat again). Similarly, you can restore Luck and even Skill here and there so there is a good balance between stat bonuses and stat penalties. What is rather odd is the stats of combat opponents: the frequently encountered dungeon guards are very weak (presumably Throngard is not too concerned about actually guarding anything or keeping any prisoners under lock and key), whilst skivvies like the butler seem over-powered. Some opponents are very strong (dragon, demons) but they should be so this makes sense and you can weaken the dragon considerably if you have a bow and arrow. In fact, if you read a key book that you need to find to gather essential info you will be told how to negotiate certain strong enemies so you should not come a cropper. Even Throngard himself does not have to be fought (you can’t fight him even if you want to) and instead needs to be trapped which is a nice twist on the end baddie idea (especially as you in fact meet him earlier on than usual) even if this does leave a loose end as he is still alive so can probably go back to abducting people in Ergon woods as soon as he works out how to liberate himself. This is one of the few major plot loopholes in what is an otherwise generally logical story arc and the adventure always remains well-focussed on the plot with several NPCs to meet, some of whom are prisoners (the resigned-to-the-inevitable Gandorn primarily) and some of whom are Throngard’s sidekicks. On the subject of prisoners there is a very neat requirement to gather companions and you cannot win unless you have both Sir Falfax and a big group of peasants with you. A clever touch in regard to companions is that some prisoners are nuts and will hinder your progress so there is some fun to be had too in figuring out who will and will not be of help in your mission. Obviously, you will fail if you do not find Sir Falfax (and there is a non-win ending where you escape without him) but instant death sections in general are few, which adds to the overall impression that this adventure is genuinely winnable and it can even be completed with rock-bottom stats which is a refreshing and rare thing. This all suggests further that this adventure’s real reason for existing is its structure and the player having to unravel the puzzle of the true path rather than the soul-destroying FFs where the author is trying to kill you constantly and show how much he or she hates you. In fact, aside from dying in combat, you will only usually die instantly if you do something completely stupid or blunder into a portal that leads directly to Hell, which does give the fortress and Throngard himself an undeniably sinister bent, whilst also explaining why there are demons roaming about the place and why Throngard’s close associates are a vampire and a witch, as well as making sense of an episode where a ghost really desperately seems to want out!

The combined themes of horror/demonism (even Throngard has to be trapped in a pentagram) and the escape peril central plot make for an interesting sensation throughout of the fortress being an oppressive and dangerous place that you really do want to get out of as quickly as possible and TW makes a good job of presenting the urgency of your mission through his fast-paced and unfussy prose. Initially, you do get a feeling of being well out of your depth and the whole mission seems to be a lost cause until, that is, you discover how easy it is to get out of your cell (over and over again), and start to unravel the game map. On that subject, mapping is pretty much essential otherwise the toing-and-froing will confuse you as the directions offered are presented from the perspective of exactly what direction you are facing at any one time (ie right could lead from a room on the left back down in the direction you might have just come from) which is actually a very good thing, although it could have been simplified by using compass points (as these would never change) rather than left/right/straight ahead. The actual mapping of this adventure though is straightforward as there are no real convolutions as long as the occasional weird section link doesn’t confuse you.

The dark theme requires dark imagery and this is a rare occasion where FF cartographer Leo Hartas gets to illustrate a FF adventure (yes, I know he did loads for other series, but not for FF itself). His work for, for example, the Golden Dragon gamebook series, irritated me as it had a very cartoonish look to it, but in Fortress Throngard he shows a real flare for the gothic with large swathes of black tones accentuated by stark whites to highlight the horror (eg the vampire and Throngard himself) or by filling the frame almost to bursting to show the grotesque nature of some characters like the cooks or the guards. There is a touch of how I visualise Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy of gothic grotesqueries in Hartas’ work here and it’s a shame that he did not get a chance to illustrate a full FF. For some reason, whoever did the layout work for this edition of Warlock made an absolute pig’s ear of positioning the images in relation to their respective sections and often the impact of a section’s illustration is lost due to it being somewhere else entirely (especially the very impressive full page vampire and Throngard in his study), which is a shame as I found myself having to play the full adventure and then look at the artwork afterwards to visualise things more fully. I have to say though that Hartas’ illustrations of Throngard, the vampire, and also the dragon are all fabulous pieces that really do benefit from the larger full magazine page size treatment they get here. The main magazine cover art is by the always superb Chris Achilleos and features a melee between a wizard, a dragon, some vampire bats, lizards etc and, whilst impressive, only bares a passing connection to this adventure and is probably not intended to be associated with it as, by Issue 9, the trend of having the magazine’s cover art act as the mini-adventure’s cover too was over.

In spite of some glaring errors and a train wreck of a beginning equipment-wise, this is a great little adventure. The complex and unorthodox structure is enough to carry it, but its slick pacing and the real sense of desperation that you get whilst playing it all add up to make this well worth your time. I would have been curious to see what other ideas Tom Williams may have had and it’s a shame that we did not get to see any more from him as, if this is any indication, he had great potential as a gamebook writer. Add in Leo Hartas’ brilliant visuals and you get a tight, effective mood piece with a threatening villain and a human interest mission that also includes the usual gamebook self-aggrandisement. The difficulty level is just right and the whole thing pulls together very nicely thematically and plot-wise. This is far better than a lot of gamebooks that are over twice its length in paragraph count and its 172 sections actually work in its favour as, by necessity, this really drives the pace. This could have been pointless and empty but, delivered in the way it is, the overall package is very very good.

Tuesday 14 August 2018

The Dark Chronicles Of Anakendis


Andrew Whitworth

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Warlock magazine issue 6 offered us this short FF penned by reader Andrew Whitworth. My initial reaction to the intriguing title was that the adventure would be a dark episodic effort with some sort of epic feel to it, the kind of short subject that really pushes the potential limitations of just 200 sections and crams in a large amount of material in the way that Dungeon Of Justice did so well. I was a little disappointed then, on reading the background section, to discover that the “Dark Chronicles” of the title were in fact literally a book that is the central conceit of the piece in that it is the source of Anakendis’ power and your aim is to destroy it (after killing Anakendis, of course) otherwise he will presumably resurrect. Already, this premise may seem somewhat familiar and, on reading the full background, it becomes even more so: a local settlement (Kokbridge near Fang) is being terrorised by an evil wizard who lives deep within a cave system and the previous hero did not fare very well in killing him. So: evil wizard, cave dungeon, curious source of power, disappearance/lunacy of previous person who was supposed to vanquish him…. Hmm, this all sounds very Warlock Of Firetop Mountain-ish to me.

Indeed, this adventure feels very like WOFM throughout. Not only is the concept suspiciously close to that book’s but the need to find the correct combination of keys (there are three, but only two will open the chest that contains the Dark Chronicles), as well as a tendency for the incorrect routes to end quickly at doors is also rather too close to WOFM for comfort. Similarly, essential items are often down these diversion paths which, again, mirrors WOFM to an extent. Sadly, what Dark Chronicles does not do especially well is hold the attention in the same way that made WOFM so compelling an introduction to the series. For example, the first two potential encounters are with creatures stolen from Doctor Who in the form of an Ice Warrior and a Macra (and yes, the Macra is a crab-type thing) which instantly makes this feel even more hackneyed and unoriginal. Very early on you are expected to contend with a very tough fight with an Astromancer who, after every other Attack Round, casts one of three spells at you: darkness, fire bolts, or sleep, the first two of which impede you stat-wise and the third of which irritatingly sends you back to paragraph 1 to then contend with the reset button. Needless to say, the reset button is just that and anything you might already have killed comes back to life if you revisit it and you can end up with multiples of some items (including one of the two essential keys). To add insult to almost certain injury, this fight yields nothing of use and just seems to be there to hurt and/or frustrate you. It soon becomes apparent that no matter which directions you choose to take you will quickly be sent back to the optimum path and by the mid-way point the map is so convoluted in the way that it links up that mapping is basically impossible, not that you will really need to map this adventure as you are unlikely to play it more than a couple of times because a) it’s just not that interesting, and b) it is very easy, assuming you don’t fall foul of one of a small number of tough fights or get the key combination at the end wrong.

The climactic decision point can be impossible if you have not actually found the correct pair of keys (although they are both hidden near the start and the third red herring key is very close to the end which, again, is not great for exploration and replay) but it is botched in its presentation as one of the three choices directs you to section 200. Assuming that you have already established that this is a 200-section book it does not take a genius to realise that choosing the number 200 option is probably going to lead to victory. This would have been far better executed and much more challenging if a bridging paragraph had been used to separate the choice section from the victory section and (like WOFM again) if you do somehow choose wrongly you get more chances to make another choice.  Furthermore, there are only three instant death paragraphs and one of these is avoidable simply because of the way the sections are randomised, as sections 171, 173, 176 and 179 are all involved in this episode and are all on the same page! Obviously, with the limited number of pages and their large format size, splitting paragraphs up is not as easy as it is in a book, but surely this critical fail moment could have been spread out more evenly to make it more deadly. Equally, this 17x episode offers you the odd choice of potentially facing Anakendis just after the half-way mark which seems far too strange to be worth attempting, unless you somehow believe that the adventure can end so abruptly and prematurely (which it can’t, evidently!)

It has to be noted at this point that, due to the large number of Skill and Luck tests, you are unlikely to get very far without both of these being in double figures, but Luck bonuses in particular are abundant, plus you get the standard choice of three Potions at the start which, in the Warlock style, contain two doses meaning you can start with a Luck score of as high as 14 if you choose the Potion of Fortune and immediately drink both doses before you even start the adventure. Essential items are mostly found after fights and Stamina penalties can be harsh in places (losing 25% of your Stamina at one point, a dice roll’s-worth at another point, and/or taking a -8 St hit from Anakendis if you are particularly unfortunate) but you do start with 5 Provisions and, whilst you can only eat when instructed by the text, for once this book actually remembers to do that and you can eat after most fights so replenishing lost Stamina isn’t too difficult, especially given the relative brevity of the adventure. Once you have identified the true path, completing this book is fairly easy and it will take very few attempts to do so and this is definitely an area where it wildly differs from WOFM as completing that book can take years.

Whilst this is a basic dungeon crawl, there are a few moments that seem to make no sense at all, in particular, what can only be described as the Forest Room which literally contains a forest complete with huts (er, somehow). As an essential item is hidden in here you have to suspend disbelief as you have no choice but to explore this contradiction of a room.  For some reason, you can find gold pieces here and there although they serve no purpose as there is nothing to buy anywhere. There is also a slightly bewildering room containing an aggressive man and some meat - I have no idea what this room is actually meant to be but you can masquerade as a meat inspector, should you feel inclined, which suggests it is maybe a pantry even though it contains just that one piece of meat – and an error loop that allows you to visit it an infinite number of times (again, ignoring the reset button) because paragraphs 23, 36 and 23 again all interlink which should not be possible unless you are teleported in some way. Basically, this is a mistake in the design and it does not give any advantage to keep going back to this room as the meat only serves one purpose very close to the end of the adventure so it is irrelevant how much of it you have got. Another moment that I found more annoying than strange is a pit containing a dinosaur which is just that, a dinosaur. There is no explanation of what type of dinosaur it is, it’s just a “dinosaur” – had the writer got bored of his own creation by this point or had he decided that, as it is not on the true path, the player would not care about it being completely one-dimensional? Either way, this is rather half-assed and, as the adventure progresses, this amplifies itself and it does appear that Whitworth was getting bored and/or his muse was running dry. It is important to emphasise that this is not as flat an experience as some other Warlock shorts (Rogue Mage is particularly dull) and the big difference between these two is that RM was written by a pro who was part of the Games Workshop inner circle, whereas Dark Chronicles was a reader submission, so someone in the editorial team must have thought it worthy of inclusion and up to the same standard as the rather better reader submissions that preceded it in previous Warlocks, and I think this is part of the problem as it is inferior because of the high standard set in the selection of adventures printed in Warlock up to that point (and after it to an extent, too). Had the Warlock minis up to this point been just so-so this would have been a pretty average dungeon bash that kept you occupied for an hour but, as it stands, it is not going to stay in your memory for long.

However, there are at times glimpses of what could have been, in particular the way that most of the creature encounters are unique and really make this cave environment feel like an unexplored part of Allansia that has its own distinct fauna. Unique to this FF are Devil Hounds, the Sand Squid, the Denrec (a subterranean bird), the Forest Demon (which appropriately lives in the otherwise out-of-place Forest Room), the IP-infringing Macra, and the truly macabre Walking Mouths. As we have no benchmark for these species image-wise, the more bizarre ones are helpfully illustrated, although the rather busy art does make them quite hard to make out without studying the images closely. The Devil Hounds in particular are pivotal to the plot and the connection between these, their handler (known only as the “Houndmaster”), and a NPC named Traskannd, draw the whole plot together neatly and connect the intro with the final act very smoothly. An early encounter with a good wizard that Anakendis has imprisoned within a well in the dungeon as well as a run-in with a tricky minion called Granzork part-way through adds to this overall sense of plot coherence and the adventure never veers away from your primary aim of killing Anakendis and destroying the source of his power. The problem is that the actual adventuring part is just not very exciting or inspiring and it seems that the writer hoped that this could be driven along purely on its premise alone and on the player maintaining the impetus to keep aiming for the final kill rather than the experiences to be had en route.

The theory that the climax is all that really matters in this adventure is further supported by the end baddie fight with Anakendis himself who is very strong (by the standards of early FFs) with Sk 12 St 20. You can reduce him to Sk 8 St 14 but the item needed to do this is on one of the few paths that is not mutual with the true path so, whilst the fight is made easier, you probably cannot win this way when it comes to the final analysis when you try to open the box containing the Chronicles. So, this is a very tough and climactic end fight and Anakendis can deal you some serious damage if you are not careful. The generally easy overall adventure does not really prepare you for this fight (even the made-out-to-be-tough bottomless chasm that you have to cross to reach the final act has multiple ways of being negotiated) and this is quite an unexpectedly deadly encounter that does come as a bit of a surprise in the context of this FF’s design. The pre-end baddie fight with Traskannd could also be tough but it is avoidable.

The ultimate aim of destroying the Dark Chronicles itself is, as with WOFM, another of those “came so far and failed at the final hurdle” situations that FF likes to throw at you and, if you do not have the right (or any) keys the book does prompt you to look for keys when you replay which is both a blessing (as it means you might win next time) and a curse (as it gives the game away somewhat). However, as I have said, this adventure is not remotely in the same challenge ballpark as WOFM and the destruction of the Chronicles acts more to round off the story arc fully, rather than to do what WOFM did and repeatedly scupper you when you think you’ve won because you’ve killed the villain of the piece. In WOFM this was a hard pill to swallow but a challenge to try again. In Dark Chronicles it is just a very diluted carbon copy of a far better assassination-focussed dungeon crawl.

I have briefly touched upon the busy art in this adventure and this is the only FF to feature the art of Mark Dunn whose only other offerings were two creatures in Warlock number 7’s Out Of The Pit section. To my eye, Dunn’s art mixes Bill Houston’s dark-scaled terror images from Temple Of Terror (interestingly, Houston’s work is seen elsewhere in this issue of Warlock incidentally) with John Blanche’s busy and macabrely otherworldly style of drawing to create something really rather disturbing that puts over the sense of horror of some of the denizens of these caves very effectively. Dunn’s art is very busy and demands study to make any sense of it, but I find it rather good and would have liked to have seen more of it in the main series. The title image of Anakendis himself (at least, I assume that’s who it is meant to be) is imposing and full of horror, even if it looks suspiciously like Gerald Scarfe’s teacher in Pink Floyd’s The Wall movie (or was this intentional?) The cover art for this issue of Warlock is Dragon Man by Chris Achilleos which, whilst it is as impressive as anything Achilleos has done, has nothing at all to do with this adventure, although Warlock only intermittently had cover art that was associated with its mini-adventures, so this is nothing unusual.

Overall, this adventure can be summarised as a logical plot that has a beginning and end but not much of a middle to connect them. You start with the North-West-East choices (or the illusion of choices), followed by a deranged and unmappable mid-section, then a series of plot-bonding NPC encounters, followed by a difficult end boss fight and a very simple and overly-signposted final key choice, as long as you have found the right keys, that is. Rarely can you diverge from the true path and the general over-arching ease, combined with the lack of anything to really inspire the player, make this gamebook one that is unlikely to get many repeat plays. Furthermore, as there is nothing to explore once you have beaten it, you do not even have the option to replay purely to uncover the stuff on the other routes that you might not have taken, as there isn’t much of it and what there is is presented so flatly by the author that you will care even less about the wrong paths than he obviously did! Play it once you have only got this and Rogue Mage left to play from the Warlock minis or play it first when you have nothing to compare it to. That way, you might just about get something from it. Otherwise, this is as meh as meh gets.

Monday 9 July 2018

#12: The Gates Of Death


Charlie Higson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Attendees of Fighting Fantasy Fest 2 in September 2017 were given the surprise news of the first FF book to be written by a genuine celebrity in the form of Charlie Higson. Accompanying this was the news that he was a long-term FF fan, a comment which immediately seemed to make no sense when he said he was too old for the books the first time around, followed by him then listing a handful of titles that he owned, one of which, Creature Of Chaos, does not exist. Alarm bells started ringing in my head at this point and they then rang even louder when we were told that Jonathan Green would be helping Higson out with the mechanics. None of this especially suggested that CH had much of a knowledge of FF or rather, certainly not enough to try to write a FF book (unassisted, at least). But, the dangling carrot of another new book in the series was more than enough to get fandom excited by this announcement and there is no question of Higson’s credentials as a successful writer of books aimed at FF’s actual target audience so his pedigree in literary terms made this project look very hopeful. Much speculation then followed on the subject of how the “Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone Presents” tag would work with someone far more famous (in real terms) than them. This, mixed with Scholastic’s almost certainly wanting to make the most of the Higson name, meant that there was little surprise when the standard naming convention applied to third party FF authors’ books was finally relinquished and CH was given cover author credit. Had the series finally sold out? Well, in real terms, probably yes as no-one else ever got cover credit, but in practical terms Scholastic really had little choice but to do this so it’s understandable even if it breaks with FF tradition in the name of celebrity. Such is life.

Another striking observation worth pointing out about the marketing of this book is the colour. Scholastic’s versions of FF have gold spines - the first six were like this and the subsequent five new reissues to accompany Higson’s book also had gold spines albeit slightly different in appearance to the initial six – but the Higson book is silver. This is bad news for anyone whose OCD precludes oddities on bookshelves, but good news for anyone trying to find the new book quickly in bookstores and, again, demonstrates how determined Scholastic are to push the Higson credit. Thankfully, unlike the first six reissues, the silver cover print does not disintegrate on contact with human skin so credit to Scholastic for heeding at least one of the numerous criticisms levelled against their reissues.

Which brings us again to the biggest controversy and criticism of Scholastic’s series and one which we will get over with first: Vlado Krizan’s internal art. When this first saw the light of day in The Port Of Peril and the reissues of The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain and City Of Thieves it was justifiably panned by FF fans. His uninspiring greyscale pallet made the images seem dull and lifeless, whilst his semi-digital inorganic forms were emaciated and cartoonish. Any sense of awe or terror was gone entirely and the whole ensemble of art was amateurish and uninspired. Replacing familiar and popular art by Russ Nicholson and Iain McCaig with this insipid rubbish was a travesty, and this problem carried over into The Port Of Peril as it featured familiar species, locales, and key NPCs that had all been drawn better in previous iterations and that the fan’s eye had become familiar with. Curiously, the subsequent reissues of The Forest Of Doom and The Citadel Of Chaos did not fare as badly art-wise because in these two cases Krizan seemed to have just traced Russ Nicholson and Malcolm Barter’s original art and added a bit of boring greyscale and jagged digitalisation to it resulting in what was essentially just a bad photocopy of the originals rather than a crime against good taste. House Of Hell’s Krizanisation (new verb, copyright me) was somewhere between the two, but was still fundamentally poor in comparison to the original art. So, the subject of the art in The Gates Of Death is curious: on the one hand, it’s back to Krizan original material a la The Port Of Peril but, other than in Port Blacksand, most of the actual subject matter is new Higson creations and this book relies less on familiar tropes than PoP generally did, notwithstanding its over-reliance on demons. This should allow VK to let his imagination run wild and really give him the opportunity to demonstrate what he can do with a (ahem) blank canvas. To be fair to him, his portfolio of sci-fi and battleship art online is actually very good, albeit that battleships are normally shades of grey (which suits him down to the ground) and his sci-fi stuff is colour which does not suffer as much as black and white does when large blocks of colour are used. So Krizan is not as talentless as people make out, there’s just something not quite right with his FF art. We all love the original artwork so he was never going to win there but this new book goes into unknown territory with no yardstick to compare the images to. It’s a depressing observation to have to make now then that Krizan’s art in TGoD is just as bad as that in the first three Scholastic books and has the same lack of inspiration, awe, and evidence of ability in fantasy artistry that made the art in the earlier Scholastic books such anathema for the eyes. Supposedly, Krizan was given a ridiculously tight deadline to turn the art around for the series in general but surely he could have done better than this…. Surely?

With that out of the way, let’s move swiftly onto the content of the (literally) shiny new offering from FF and its injection of new blood with its first new author since 1993. The plot is fairly straightforward: the Demon Queen Ulrakaah is the latest in the sequence of psychos who wants to wipe out Titan, this time with a demon plague. YOU are a novice monk engaged to stop this happening with the use of the hard-to-get-your-head-around-the-idea-of substance known as Smoke Oil (??) which turns demons back into normal people. Throughout the book you encounter people who transform from people into demons which fits the concept of how Smoke Oil works, but overall this idea doesn’t seem to make sense unless we accept the book’s repeated premise of people being transformed into demons being by possession presumably. YOU have to trek across Allansia, initially via familiar places from FF lore (Port Blacksand, Silverton, Salamonis, Plane Of Bones) to eventually reach new places invented for this book (the Invisible City which contains the Temple of Throth and the Gates Of Death themselves). This is an interesting approach as the overall feel of the book progresses from great familiarity to completely unknown territory which does give it a sense of unfolding mystery and foreboding. Port Blacksand can be negotiated by two mutually distinct routes and can bring you into contact with either Nicodemus again or very nearly has you meet the enigmatic and elusive Lord Azzur (who you don’t actually come face to face with as such which was a partial disappointment balanced out with the intriguing revelation that he sees, hears and speaks through conduits). From there you have a choice of routes to Salamonis (one via Silverton, the other via a more treacherous open environment) before heading off into uncharted new territory as you try to find the Invisible City and breach the titular Gates Of Death to get to Ulrakaah herself. Silverton is nothing more than a one-note opportunity to heal lost Stamina and we learn nothing new about Silverton itself by going there. Indeed, it is sold very short in the same way that Port Blacksand was in Port Of Peril which is a shame. Salamonis is a whole other prospect though and, as it’s nearer to the source of the demon plague, it is in a rather more advanced state of infestation. Essentially, the Salamonis section is a labyrinth of interconnecting (and mostly anonymous) roads that lead eventually to its gates at compass points. The literal killer here is trying to negotiate the city, find a NPC who can sell you useful equipment/advice, and avoid repeatedly dying by falling foul of demons, in particular by ending up in their purple demon dimension. Certain locations are deadly (the sewers in particular) and some of the city gates are red herrings that, again, will scupper you. The looping interconnecting roads within the city are a game-mapper’s nightmare and the feeling of disorientation as you try to get out safely is very much to the fore, making this section both effective and oddly hopeless in the sense of your chances of survival.

At this juncture, we need to discuss a mechanic that dominates this book – the looping nature of its design. Not only does the Salamonis map loop all over the place, but so does much of the book. If you die, more often than not you can use one of several methods of reincarnation to then get hurled back to a previous point in the book (or occasionally a future one, which is quite confusing). Initially, this seems unusually forgiving for FF (which it is) and removes the demoralising experience of endlessly restarting the book only to fail again in a similar place to a previous attempt (especially as the Salamonis section is deceptively hard), but it becomes just as frustrating after a while as being sent back to relive previous stages is no less tedious than having to just start again from the beginning. Indeed the sheer amount of reincarnating, looping back, returning to a fail point, looping back again, and eventually going around in endless circles does quickly become annoying and quite boring and repetitive. It does take a certain amount of determination and willpower on the player’s behalf to get beyond the Salamonis section and I suspect many players will grow so frustrated with this part that they will eventually just give up. There are only so many times you can re-read previous parts of the book before you get fed up with it and, whilst reincarnating creates the illusion of fairness, aimlessly wandering about in Salamonis’ deathtrap becomes inane after a while.

However, if you do manage to escape Salamonis, the rest of the adventure is far more interesting and, once you’ve found (revealed) the Invisible City, you get to explore the ethereal and genuinely mystical-feeling Temple Of Throth which gives you useful equipment and info before you try to access Ulrakaah’s lair. This is the most original and well-designed act of the book and rewards your persistence in the earlier sections with a genuinely enjoyable and intriguing episode. Indeed, everything previous to the Invisible City is fairly lacklustre. The final showdown with Ulrakaah is easily one of the most climactic end boss encounters in any FF book and goes some to make the rest of the adventure worthwhile. My favourite element is the way you have to die to pass into the demon plain and inhabit another character’s body there. To do this you fight the Obsidian Giants and, should you have some weakwater, you are almost certain to lose the fight which, perversely, means you win the fight as you need to die to progress. This is a refreshing idea which provides a neat twist on the usual “hero that has to win all of the time theme” that is central to most fantasy adventuring. The book repeatedly bangs on about you needing to be “pure of heart” to pass through the Gates Of Death and, presumably by dying, you demonstrate this. Ulrakaah is physically massive and genuinely intimidating and unleashes the (at first sight) absolute toughest and most unwinnable FF fight ever upon you: a Demon Horde of Skill 400 Stamina 800. Obviously there is no way that you can even attempt this fight in real terms, but, by using various magical seeds that you have picked up in the Temple Of Throth (or should have!), you can exponentially reduce both the Skill and the Stamina of the horde down to a much more manageable level. Ulrakaah herself is not especially strong for an end baddie (Sk 10 St 10) and it’s impossible not to have the key weapon you need to kill her (a khopesh) as there are two in the book and the second one is wedged in the gates themselves so you cannot help but acquire it. Interestingly, there is a non-win ending that you can find here too where you become Ulrakaah’s successor and continue her work. This section is number 400 which is very meta. The real win section is 470 which also shows us how comparatively long this book is in paragraph terms, although the optimum path is not actually very long so much of these sections must be used up in the Salamonis labyrinth and the multiple interconnecting paths within the Temple Of Throth.

The Demon Horde fight (and the Salamonis deathloop) raises an interesting point about this book: the difficulty level. At face value, given how labyrinthine Salamonis is, how seemingly impossible the end showdown is, and the number of items and information that you need to win through at the end, this book should be very hard. However, with the constant reincarnating, the multiple paths through (pre-Salamonis, that is), and the sheer amount of helpful items (seeds and potions in particular) that you can collect, in reality this book is very easy once you’ve cracked its looping design and realised that coming back to life can be advantageous as it gets you the chance to visit other areas and get more than enough stuff to win through with. There are loads of opportunities to find potions (and there are many different potions, mostly linked to reincarnation or negotiating demons easily), Luck tests are rare, there are umpteen Stamina bonuses, there are three types of handy magic boots, instant deaths are very rare, it is possible to revisit certain sections in the Temple area endlessly to get huge numbers of items you need for the end fight, and you can collect so many different weapons with various different properties and damage indicators that you should hardly be able to move for the weight of them. None of the (infrequent) fights (most of which are with curiously weak-ish demons) are difficult and several are avoidable one way or another, especially if you start experimenting with potions and/or smoke oil. It is possible to move quickly through the opening section by accepting an offer of help from Lady Webspinn (a goth name if ever there was one) and you can also travel on horseback at one stage which makes things move faster. The sheer amount of help you can get in the Temple Of Throth knowledge base section becomes overwhelming and definitely convinces you that, by this point, you have a good chance of winning. This balances neatly with the tedium and apparent hopelessness of endless death loops in Salamonis and makes the book feel more balanced difficulty-wise for anyone who is totally demoralised by the Salamonis section. Once you have explored the book as a whole it is obvious that this is generally a very easy book to finish, it’s the exploring it all part that could take you some time and experimentation. There is no central maguffin to find as such, it just tests your tolerance levels due to the underlying looping structure, which is both a blessing (less dying all the time) and a curse (repetitively going around in excruciating circles). There is no true path to speak of due to all the loops, but there is an optimum path that gets you to the Invisible City very quickly. You can negotiate Salamonis in about ten sections once you’ve worked out how to and, if you listen to all the advice you are given throughout the book by helpful NPCs, you will find that (like The Port Of Peril before it) all the potentially tricky parts are signposted to make them simple to get through. The Invisible City is non-linear although some areas will need to be visited before others and you can visit and revisit each part an infinite number of times so you will not struggle here. There is a huge amount of info to gather in the Temple but none of it actually affects your chances of success. It simply adds lots of plot extemporisation and contextualises what is happening by bombarding you with background detail to make the plot nice and logical.

As well as the looping design, the other feature of this book that quickly comes to the fore and won’t leave you in a hurry is the tone of Higson’s writing. This book reads less like a gamebook and more like a modern style children’s story book, what with its use of words like “bum”, “burp”, “wee” and “fart” (none of which suit the tone of serious adventuring), repeated use of corny jokes (Fish Face is a NPC who has the face of a fish, Holy Man is full of holes, there is an essential item called “bier goggles” which allow you to see the Invisible City whilst riding on a bier), potions are named things like “Nostalgia” (sends you back to a previous point) and “Pretty as a Picture” (beautifies a foe)… the list goes on. Not only is this reducing the player’s ability to take this book seriously, it is also far too explicitly obvious in terms of how to use/negotiate these moments. (I have a feeling the Nostalgia Potion might be a dig at aging fandom too, but I could be wrong.) There is a much bigger problem here though and that is that none of this fits into FF lore. Potions in FF have a distinct naming convention, as do NPCs, etc and awkward comedy and overly-obvious signposting does not sit well in my opinion. I found the humour puerile and at odds with FF, and the revised approach to certain aspects of lore sets this book aside from the rest. The initial sections where you visit familiar places do indeed create familiarity (which is welcome) but the overall idiom is not in keeping with FF and is out of context. As for the bum-faced monster, this alone is the single worst moment in any FF ever and also seems to serve no purpose at all other than to add yet another pathetic attempt at humour. I have to acknowledge there are many neat nods to continuity such as meeting a Clawbeast in Trolltooth Pass, finding a demonised King Salamon in Salamonis, the Nicodemus/Lord Azzur cameos, etc, and there is a nice nod to cartographer Steve Luxton, but I have a suspicion these could be Jon Green edits given how oblivious to the whole scene Higson seemed to be at FFF2. On the subject of JG’s “help” it is hard to guess exactly what the extent of this was but the mechanics combat-wise seem very FF (as do all the adjustors/new rules listed in the back for combat with different weapons, which do add some realism to fights) and the name Lady Webspinn in particular has a very Green-ish feel to it as does the description of the bier goggles which is clearly a pair of steampunk goggles, but I’m just conjecturing of course. And, incidentally, is the Fish of a Thousand Voices a reference to the Babelfish in Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy? If it is, fair enough, it just occurred to me that this was a possible popular culture link worth mentioning. Who wrote/designed what and where inspiration comes from is ultimately near here nor there really, there is a much bigger underlying problem with how this book is written and that is that, stylistically and prosaically, Higson is completely out of his depth with serious fantasy (I’m sure he thinks having Logaan set your pants on fire for lying is hilarious but, in the context of serious fantasy, it is not!) For sure, there are some design elements that work very well in this book and someone (Jon Green or whoever, with more gamebook-writing skill than Higson, did any post-manuscript edits) has done some of the necessary work to make it function but much of the awful Higson pre-teen burp and fart prose remains and overshadows the decent aspects of the content. Also, I cannot resist, as a lifelong Prince fan, from commenting on the paraphrasing of the lyrics to Purple Rain in section 200: doubtless Higson thinks this is hilarious but it is at best cute and at worst desperate, and, again, is jarring random new lore that is at odds with everything else we know about the FF world. On the plus side, it does explain why the dimension portals in Salamonis are purple!

Much of the negative focus on Scholastic’s FF range has been directed at Vlado Krizan’s internal art, but Robert Ball’s new covers also inspired a mixed reaction from fans. The second sextet of Scholastic FFs does not have full page cover art. Instead these books have a cropped image within a circle. The small image of Ulrakaah’s face on the cover of The Gates Of Death is suitably evil-looking and I personally find it effective but, having seen the full-sized version, I would have much preferred the latter image on the cover as it is far more threatening and shows her as the truly awe-inspiring baddie that she is. Instead, Charlie Higson’s name seems to be the star of the cover, rather than the Demon Queen herself. I guess it’s all about marketing the celebrity name rather than the content of the book and there is nothing we can do about this. Whilst on the subject of Scholastic and their handling of the series, as with the earlier books, this book is printed on poor quality paper with the fake smudges and scorch marks that made the first six books look so shoddy.

We must be grateful that, decades down the line, the series is still open to adding new authors to its ranks. In the modern day cult of celebrity, a well-known name is a necessary evil to shift units and Higson does at least have the target audience pedigree. Sadly, as a gamebook writer he appears to have no idea what he is doing and has taken a concept with huge potential and turned it into an only half-decent novel written for a 21st Century pre-teen. There is a wealth of strong material in here (and the optimum path will reveal it to far better effect than bumbling around endlessly trying to navigate the loops and dead ends) but it is muddied and overshadowed by the bad jokes, flippant oh-so-hip writing style and the excessive number of system loops. The end is by far the best part and shows the true potential of the book (although I think you can finish it without any smoke oil if you don’t bother visiting the High Priestess in the Temple, which is a major error, and it assumes you know who Lady Webspinn is whether you have met her or not), assuming, that is, that you can be bothered to endure the looping parts long enough to ever reach it. It does not suffer from the rushed travelogue and no-real-choices-as-such linearity of The Port Of Peril and the plot is far more involving and original than PoP. I found myself getting bored in the Salamonis maze but was glad that I got through it and persevered to the last act. The opening part is nice in its familiarity but it does not really amount to much and just seems to ultimately be a bridge to create some cohesion with PoP. My biggest gripe is Higson’s awful writing (especially his backside fixation) and some of his lore does not mesh with “accepted” FF lore.  I enjoyed The Gates Of Death more than, and it is definitely better than, PoP but its problems generally outweigh its moments of quality. A playthrough of the optimum path (without all the asides and loops) reveals the quality of its central premise and concepts (and also how easy it is to win), but most playthroughs will almost certainly involve getting tangled-up in its irritating webs. If it had been written by a more capable and accomplished gamebook author - and had far more editing afterwards to make it fit better with cannon (the naming conventions of potions in particular) and to remove a few glaring errors - this could have been really good but, as it stands, it’s just okay and I doubt many people will revisit it once they have completed it, especially as you will have even found most of its alternate paths in one endlessly looping and increasingly frustrating night-after-night playthrough. Overall, this was a missed opportunity where your focus is unavoidably drawn from its good points (plot, concept, intrigue, excellent final act) to what Higson really wants you to experience (the resurrection mechanics, his terrible idea of hilarity) and what he unintentionally causes you to experience (his lack of ability at writing a serious gamebook). The good parts are very good, the bad parts (which, due to them heavily outweighing the good, are what you will remember) are terrible.