STARHUNT: VOID SLAVERS
Reviewed by Mark Lain
Issue 12 of the increasingly infrequently-appearing Fighting Fantazine offered readers the ‘zine’s third sci-fi mini-FF, written by Ian Brocklehurst who is most familiar for his ongoing (and actually rather good) episodic story Aelous Raven and the Wrath of the Sea-Witch, which was also published on and off in Fighting Fantazine.
The premise of the piece is that YOU are the Captain of an interstellar freighter called the Starhunt. Out of the blue, your estranged father contacts you to tell you that your sister (an exotic dancer) has been abducted by the titular Void Slavers along with several other members of her dance troupe. Being the protective individual that you are, you immediately set off to rescue her from her captors, accompanied by your I-Bot co-pilot Kraven-8 (or Kay-8 for short – get it?) The adventure is appended by a lengthy intro explaining the background to the particular sci-fi universe that gives the gamebook its setting and there is a lot of rich detail to be found here which shows that a lot of thought has gone into designing the setting. The Rules are also well-planned with different approaches to Unarmed, Blaster, Ship-to-ship, and Multiple ship-to-ship combats. To avoid initially overloading the player with all these subtly different systems, Brocklehurst sensibly takes the Starship Traveller approach and only explains unarmed combat in the opening Rules section, leaving the other three to the back of the book to be read only when they come into active use. This is a wise move as it means you can get on with playing the adventure much quicker and you don’t have to try and remember four sets of combat rules. There are also eight (yes, EIGHT) attributes for you to roll-up: the standard three (Skill-Stamina-Luck) for you plus an additional stat (Blaster Skill) which is actually a neat idea as it is very viable that your skill in unarmed combat could be very different to your ability with a blaster, so this is realistic and well-planned; you also need to generate the Starhunt’s stats so we have Manoeuvrability (basically a Skill equivalent for avoiding obstacles), Weapons System (your firepower), Deflector Shields (your defensive power), and Hull Integrity (Stamina for starships) – these should hopefully come into play very effectively in ship-to-ship combat as there is an attack vs defence concept in use which reminds me of the more nuanced and elaborate space combat/trading games such as Elite whereby you are not purely at the mercy of a one-dimensional single-stat ship combat approach but instead various factors can affect outcomes. Again, I like this and it is more realistic. You also start with some futuristic Provision equivalents in two food packs (each restoring 4 Stamina) and one medi-kit (which restores 8 Stamina). You even get a single-use Hull Maintenance Procedure which restores 8 points to your ship’s Hull Integrity. So then, the setting/world and the well thought-out mechanics all suggest that this is going to be an above average sci-fi gamebook experience for once. Let’s hope the content adds up to the planning and designing.
…Which it does not, and here is why - Starhunt: Void Slavers is not a gamebook. It is a short story that has been chopped up, jumbled about into a random order, then joined back together by section links. Is that not what a gamebook fundamentally is? I hear you cry. Well, no, because a gamebook has an interactive element where you make choices that affect the direction the plot takes and has direct implications on your success or failure. With this piece, you literally only make a handful of decisions, none of which really affect anything other than killing you at various points, and the book just railroads you meaning any sense of achievement is minimal. There is an argument to say that this surely just makes this an extremely linear adventure, but it simply is not and a look at how it is designed will make this explicitly obvious. The book has a total of 206 sections, a massive 111 of which just direct you to another section, which is frankly ridiculous and you quickly get fed up of making no decisions and reading paragraph upon paragraph of what is just prose. 16 sections have different outcomes based purely on dice rolling results, so these are hardly “choices” – yes, they add the element of chance that dice incorporate into a gamebook, but you have no control as such and you are not influencing your progress in any way. There are 23 instadeath/failure sections ie more than 10% of the book which is the equivalent to 40+ fail points in a standard-length FF, which is pretty excessive and puts it in the horrible Chasms Of Malice scale of unfairness territory. Plus, obviously, three sections are taken up with the extra rules. Once you factor in the combat sections, you are literally only making a few choices which, whilst they do influence your progress (always leading to pretty immediate failure), this hardy gives you the feeling that you are “playing” anything. This whole issue presents us with a massive problem and I do wonder how Fighting Fantazine’s editorial people ever accepted this submission as a serious contender for publication as a “mini-FF”. It would make a good short story, yes, but a gamebook surely not as there is just no game part to this. I can only surmise that either nothing else was submitted, leaving the magazine with no choice but to include this “adventure”, or IB intimately knows people on the inside (which he may well do given the inclusion of his ongoing Raven story) meaning he could strongarm the piece in. Or was this put together retrospectively? In other words did it start out life as a short story but, in the absence of any other options, the ‘zine asked for it to be reworked as a gamebook by forcing in a few fairly pointless decision points and a system of mechanics that never gets off the ground? It really is very hard to see what the rationale behind this all was.
To add insult to injury, this “adventure” (I use the term very very loosely here) suffers from having at least four section mislinks (how did they get this wrong when there are so few decision points that even needed differential links?) including (and this beggars belief) a critical section mislink at the very end which makes completing this impossible. I thought the ‘zine had a team who rigorously proofread and playtested the submitted adventures, but this one shows no evidence of proofing at all given that the final section cannot be reached due to a mislink (it sends you to section 201 when the victory section is number 40).
The fact that this is not a gamebook, and that what few gamebook-y parts it does have are broken, is really frustrating as the mechanics and the concept should have made for something really good and worthwhile. Yet even the mechanics end up being an own goal as the two different versions of ship-to-ship combat literally only come into play a couple of times each, blaster combat hardly does much, and even item collecting serves no purpose as you don’t ever really find anything (bar a couple of times) and the book has pointless prompts telling you to make a note of the fact that you are carrying stuff that you have already got anyway (but didn’t know) or that you can’t really avoid finding and that, again, will railroad you into death or non-death moments and nothing more. There are no grey areas to this outing at all! It is very disappointing that all the variant combat rules get rarely used as they could have really added value to the experience. As for the much more frequently used unarmed combat, most of your opponents are very strong (the end baddie called the Sovereigness has a ridiculous Sk 11 St 26 so is as strong as a Dragon somehow!) and, if we add in the sheer number of Skill tests that can only be passed by rolling under your Skill (rolling equal to it is a failure) or you generally die, any character with a Skill lower than 12 has no chance (…of ever reaching the second to last section given that, as we have already seen, you cannot reach the victory section!) Oh, and there are so many Luck tests that, again, a Luck of lower than 12 gives you little hope either, even with the occasional Luck bonus that you cannot help but get as you get unavoidably led to those sections that give the bonuses. What an utter shambles this is!
And that is not all. In the final Act you have to jump into your ship, as does your sister. Logically, this is done by Skill testing. Presumably you have a Skill of 12 yourself to have ever got this far, so you are highly likely to succeed. However, your sister only has a Skill of 8 (lap-dancing and stripping presumably aren’t especially highly-skilled jobs?) so her chances of making it are not that great and if she dies you lose - another unfairly hard moment, then.
As the reader quickly reaches the unavoidable conclusion that this is a short story rather than a gamebook and, as I have already noted, IB’s Raven story is rather good, we should at least hope for Starhunt: Void Slavers to be well-written, which it both is and is not. The prose is written in a fun style which reads very well, but the plot itself is uninspired and really quite boring as you meander from one uninteresting event-free planet to another via an asteroid belt and a few unfriendly ships. There is a problem that I must raise with the text and that is that it has moments that are not in keeping with FF’s idiom, especially references to rape and lesbianism, and the use of words such as “shit”, “bitch”, and “screwing”. I’m not a prude by any means, but this is not the FF “way”. I do have to mention Kay-8 though, who adds an element of comic relief to the piece. He (it?) speaks like K-9 from Doctor Who, using words like “affirmative” and “negative” and occasionally rattling off probabilities, and I do like this element of the book as it helps it rise above being totally mundane. Oddly, I did find myself enjoying it at points, but that is in part due to the Kay-8 character.
I think as well that another aspect that made me enjoy this more than it ever deserved is due to Angela Salamaliki’s dynamic art. There is a very modern feel to her digital illustrations, all of which are full of life and suit the sci-fi genre very well. Her tech images are far better than her creatures/monsters, but this is a tech gamebook, so I can forgive this minor point. What is really striking and impacting is her cover image which just screams sci-fi to me with its shiny metallic corridor and its red and black-costumed dominatrix end baddie. The cover image is full of life and colour and is probably the best thing about this gamebook overall! I also really like the image of the Inferno Fighters which look like Focke-Wulf FW-190s that have been converted into spaceships: a surprising image that connects past to future in an effective manner. It is also interesting to note that most of the female characters are drawn wearing very revealing costumes and either the artist or the art brief from IB seems to relish this fact!
To be honest, I can find very little else to say about Starhunt: Void Slavers. I had really high hopes for what on the surface (after reading the rules and background spiel) looked like it was going to be a genuinely well-designed sci-fi effort with an interesting and effective system of mechanics deployed well enough to make it a really satisfying effort. Instead, the rules that should have lifted this serve zero purpose, the plot is empty, you have no impact on your fate in any way, it is very difficult in the traditional FF stat-testing way, the combats are way too hard and the opponents are illogically overpowered to the point of being superhuman, and due to no proofreading it is broken such that you cannot complete it. If there was a system vs gameplay aspect to analyse I would analyse it, but there isn’t, so I can’t. On the positive side, the art is effective and it certainly suits the genre and theme, and there is definitely something bubbling away under all this that could have been really good especially as IB writes very well and the mechanics cried out to be deployed to really lift this into the high echelons of sci-fi gamebooks. But sadly this is basically just a short story with a slightly seedy undertone where very little of any consequence happens. If you do not get bored or frustrated with it and do reach the penultimate section, your patience is not rewarded and you just feel a bit insulted by the overall production’s lack of attention to quality control. Just look at the pictures (especially the cover) then move on to something better instead would be my advice rather than wasting your time with this mess. I’ve observed before that bad sci-fi FFs have titles beginning with the letter “S” – my point remains undisputable.