RETURN TO THE ICEFINGER MOUNTAINS
Reviewed by Mark Lain
Ed Jolley is a regular contributor to Fighting Fantazine, although his primary offering is the frankly excruciating Everything I Really Need to Know I Learnt From Reading , a regular column written in such a smug and “oh-so-funny” way that it is borderline unreadable and is, in fact, the only part of the ‘zine that I started skipping straight over after a few instalments. Combine this with my dislike of Caverns Of The Snow Witch (at least in its book version form as I do kind of prefer the much shorter and more efficient Warlock magazine original), the FF to which this effort is a sequel, and I found myself approaching this mini-FF with some trepidation and very low expectations.
Presented in Issue 9 of Fighting Fantazine, Return To The Icefinger Mountains puts YOU in the role of a former slave of Shareela the Snow Witch, who escaped the Icefinger Mountains after Shareela was vanquished by a different YOU in the Livingstone original. On that basis, you are not the same character that you were in CotSW, a trait common in FF sequels. The premise here is that it is (appropriately) 30 years since the Snow Witch was defeated and you suddenly start having nightmares about her again and, on discussing this with your friend who helped you originally escape (called Reniso) you discover he has had the same dreams causing you both to start to think she is somehow back from the dead. You both resolve to return to the Icefinger Mountains (the title could not be more apt then really) together and determine if she is indeed resurrected and, if so, destroy her for good whilst, at the same time, attempting to establish the true source of her power which appears to lie in an ancient civilisation that once inhabited the Crystal Caves in the city of Cyrantia. Cut to the next day when you arrive at Reniso’s house to find him dead and trussed up with the ominous message “SHE WILL RETURN” written into a pool of his blood. Next arrives a scholar called Denati, an expert on the Cyrantians, so you decide to head into the Crystal Caves with him as a sort of guide instead. The Introduction setting the scene is long and very satisfying and it really did make me want to play this, in spite of my reservations, as did the opening few sections handling Reniso’s death and the arrival of Denati. Really intriguing stuff with a premise that draws you in and makes you want to learn more. In fact, there is more Shareela/Icefinger Mountains lore in just the intro section here than you can glean from the entirety of CotSW. You start this adventure with just a sword and a rucksack, although the Rules do tell you that, whilst you start with no Provisions, you will soon acquire some – a bit of a spoiler really, as I would have preferred the tension of wondering how I might regain Stamina, especially given how harsh the original was in terms of stat penalties and scarcity of opportunities to restore your attributes. However, as you are not an adventurer and have no time to prepare for this quest, your limited resources do make perfect sense. All in all, this is shaping up to be good stuff.
I have said in other reviews that I find FFs set in snowy/icy environments quite fascinating as they always feel more unique with their localised creatures and the added perils of trying to function in extreme cold. Both of these features are included here and we encounter no end of very suitably-placed monsters from the outset including the rare Toa-sua and Frost Giants. In fact, the opening snow-set Act has two distinct paths through, one of which is rather harder than the other and can, if you are particularly unwary, lead to a very early run-in with a Silver Dragon. As this is a Livingstone-inspired piece you encounter a second potential companion (the rather feisty girl warrior called Nowri) who, again as this is spiritually an IL effort, dies almost immediately after joining your party (An in-joke? Very probably). Once you find your way into the Crystal Caves (and there is more than one way in), there are a further two alternative routes through the main interior, one involving re-encountering the infamous Ice Demon from the original book, and a second full of entirely new material concerning the Cyrantians. Whilst the continuity of the returning Ice Demon makes this feel inter-connected with its predecessor, the Cyrantian material is much more interesting and the amount of planning and design Jolley has put into this ancient culture really is impressive as you work your way through the Chamber of the Four Winds (a nod to the early Games Workshop board game Valley Of The Four Winds, possibly?), the Arena of Contests, and the Hall of Contenders, all of which is punctuated by Denati’s awe-struck enthusings and extemporisations on the Cyrantian culture. If you want lore, this is the gamebook to play! Following a tour of the background to the Crystal Caves, you then reach your endgame with the resurrected Snow Witch herself.
An issue I, and just about everyone else who ever played it, have with CotSW is that it is ridiculously hard and downright unfair with its frequent stat penalties, many instadeaths, lots of Luck tests, and very strong over-powered combat opponents. Plus, as always with IL FFs, it is very linear and requires you to find quite a shopping list of items. What Jolley has done to address this is very clever as there are two distinct ways to complete this adventure: one is the “IL” approach with hard combats and lots of items, the other is more of a Paul Mason-style path avoiding a very tough fight with Shareela at the end and focussing much more on the plotting and the Cyrantian lore aspect. The IL path is much easier to find yourself being led down, but the PM path is more interesting and shows much more ingenuity in design terms. This is an interesting commentary on both of their styles I think, as IL’s style is very direct and obvious whereas PM’s is much more subtle and often quite elusive in his books. The IL route leads to a straight combat with Shareela, the PL route offers two distinct and much cleverer ways to kill her. What I also find really interesting is that one of these paths is the “good guy” approach where you act with honour and the other involves your needing the flame sword which you can only get by playing the bad guy and killing the totally innocent good NPC that is Nowri. So EJ is both emulating and subverting these differing styles of gamebook design and is obviously doing more than just writing an adventure, given what he has done with this piece design-wise.
As IL and PM’s FFs were generally very difficult, the subject of difficulty from Jolley’s effort has to be discussed. And both paths are actually (appropriately) very tough to negotiate. There are loads of Luck tests and quite a few instadeaths (although the majority of the latter come in the Final Act), there are some extremely tough fights (although, again, some of these such as the Silver Dragon and the Ice Demon make perfect sense given their enormity), and the Snow Witch herself (if you do have to fight her) has Sk 12 St 20. There is also a moment where you are required to roll 5D6 and compare with your Stamina in the Final Act, which is a very tough roll to make. But there is also another difficulty element, and this only comes into play on the “Cyrantian history tour” path, which involves two very difficult maths puzzles that, I must admit, I found simply baffling as I am not a good mathematician at all. This is problematic as it does make this particular path all but impossible for anyone other than those with very attuned mathematical minds (a specialisation, for sure). I want to play a gamebook, not get a headache trying to number-crunch. I gave up on these pretty quickly and just resorted to searching through the paragraphs until I found the right answer section. Some might find this an ingenious inclusion, I just find it frustrating. Worthy of note also on the Cyrantian path is the Bone Golem fight – this is very tough with some harsh adjustors, but a balanced stat boost is your reward for killing it and you do not even actually have to kill it outright, so there is some quarter given in places. There is even a non-win ending (very Paul Mason, although IL did throw these in to his gamebooks occasionally, too) where you die but take the Ice Demon and the Snow Witch with you, in other words, you have achieved your goal of destroying Shareela, but you personally do not gain from doing so. I do wonder if this is a nod to Paul Mason’s original ending for his Slaves Of The Abyss, wherein you had to sacrifice yourself to win (Steve Jackson vetoed this and had it changed to the published ending, incidentally). Either accidentally or deliberately, Jolley is showing that he really knows his stuff.
As well as demonstrating an insight into the distinctly different styles of two FF authors and his impressive imagination and planning in terms of lore and really making his Cyrantian world feel real, EJ is a very good writer. None of his annoyingly knowing approach to his ‘zine articles is evident here. Instead, this is very well-written and the pace is electric. Literally every moment is worthwhile and there is nothing wasted to the point where this is difficult to put down once you have started playing it. The narrating voice of Denati punctuates the action by verbalising the new Cyrantian material and, in often very long paragraphs, Jolley’s vision comes to life again and again. If there is one let-down in the design/lore it is the Cyrantian alphabet element: when I first flicked through the pages I saw many illustrations that incorporated the Cyrantian alphabet and I was hoping there would be a mechanic whereby you had to decode the language to win. As it stands, Denati translates these for you every time you find them which makes sense in terms of him being the Cyrantian subject expert, but does remove a potential extra layer of challenge and gameplay (although it would have made an already hard book even harder).
On the subject of the illustrations for this piece, Fighting Fantazine was always very inconsistent when it came to art. At times, admittedly due to availability of resources as this is a fanzine after all so there is no budget to throw at getting professional art in any quantity, the art in the ‘zines mini-FFs was amateurish to the point of being detrimental to the adventure. Not so with this adventure though which uses the excellent work of Brett Schofield who has contributed to Arion Games’ AFF books and is a definite talent. All of his images here could have stood up in the Puffin FF series and, whilst he does have to compete with Gary Ward and Edward Crosby’s stunning woodcut-style art in CotSW, his images that have equivalents in both books (most notably Shareela herself) definitely hold their own. There is a nice tribute to the GW-EC originals here too in the incidental image of the frozen creature reaching forward. Schofield’s cover image of the Ice Demon’s face in extreme close up with its shadowy and icy blues and whites is truly terrifying and makes a pleasing alternative to the more obvious approach of putting Shareela on the cover, which would have been a big mistake as it would have given away the pay-off that she is indeed back from the dead which is a plot point that, whilst probably rather inevitable given the concept, is still not explicit until you do meet her at the end.
Indeed, even if the revelation that the Snow Witch has resurrected is hardly a surprise, there is a very unexpected twist in the final analysis where it turns out that Denati is a traitor and is actually in the employ of Shareela. I have to admit that from the way he seemed so genuine up until this point, and from his researcher’s fixation on Cyrantia, I really did not see this reveal coming – on reflection it may be obvious and he is in fact an expert on Shareela which has the secondary knowledge of her power source by definition, but this came as a big surprise to me, and a welcome one at that as it added yet another layer to the sheer effort that has gone into putting this adventure together.
As mini-FFs go, this is one of the best I have read. It is far better than a lot of the efforts that got printed in Warlock magazine, and it is definitely among the best that the ‘zine offered us. It really expands upon and opens out the concept of both the Crystal Caves and Shareela herself, and it is not just a tired sequel where the baddie comes back for more given all the lore this offers. The two distinct paths and the variables within these make this eminently replayable and the difficulty is not at all off-putting. There is so much going on here considering it is just 275 sections long and I actually prefer this to CotSW for many reasons, the most obvious being that is does not suffer from the boring overlength and the pointless post-caves coda of the original. We kill the Snow Witch and it ends there, exactly where it should do (just like the Warlock short version of CotSW did, in fact). If the adventure here wasn’t that great, the lore and world-building alone would have carried this one through, but the adventure is really good and, unwelcome brain-melting maths aside, this is pretty essential playing.