Tuesday 6 October 2020

#17: Crystal Of Storms



Rhianna Pratchett

Reviewed by Mark Lain

At Fighting Fantasy Fest 3 there was a rather enigmatic announcement made to the effect that Scholastic would be releasing a fourth all-new FF written by another celebrity guest author. After the shambles of a “celebrity” offering that was The Gates Of Death eyebrows were raised as to whether another FF by a non-gamebook author would prove to be a wise move by Scholastic. Further down the line it was revealed that this new author would be Rhianna Pratchett (daughter of the rather more famous Terry), who had already developed a name for herself as a decent fantasy writer from her video game franchise books. However, Charlie Higson also already had a good name due to his James Bond novels but that did not stop his FF effort from being trash. Fast forward a bit more and the cover to what we now knew would be entitled Crystal Of Storms went public… and things really were not looking good as fans saw something akin to My Little Pony with a sort of flying cute dog and a cloud emoji on a purple background. “Bring back Robert Ball” we all cried. So it was that, with a mixture of bad tastes in our mouths due to the Higson debacle, genuine hope over RP’s record with other properties, and wanting to gouge out our eyes because of the horribly pre-school cover art, CoS finally appeared at the end of September 2020. Any brand new gamebook in any series is a welcome thing, but a new FF is always eagerly anticipated, even if the Scholastic treatment of the series has met with a fair bit of (mostly justifiable) backlash.

The first thing that strikes one on actually having a copy of CoS in the hand is that the cover layout matches nothing else in any of the Scholastic print runs. Gone is the gold spine (in either format), instead we have a purple spine with the author’s name in massive gold letters, whilst the title hides over two lines in much smaller gold letters just under the FF logo. The positioning and lettering style on the cover does match the general Scholastic run style, but the image is full size rather than being “portholed” in the now standard Scholastic style – is this the precursor to a third set or reprints in yet another layout from Scholastic? If nothing else, they certainly know how to milk the collector market. As with the Higson effort, RP’s name is on the cover, this being only the second example where a guest author has been considered important enough to get cover credit – the selling out to celebrity continues, then. Internally, we still have the strange smelling ropey quality paper but thankfully the horrible black smuts that were supposed to represent weathering of the pages and instead just looked like a printing error are finally gone. Good move, Scholastic as this definitely improves the appearance of the pages. We also have a modern dynamic-looking new Adventure Sheet layout at the back of the book, which is a good contemporary touch. Reading through the instructions (also at the back, which is standard for the Scholastic editions), we start this adventure with no Provisions or Gold, but do have a sword, a backpack, a lantern, and travelling clothes (well, I’m glad we aren’t expected to undertake this quest with everything hanging out, then!) The lack of Provisions or Gold is no great handicap incidentally, as we very soon find both, and there are several more opportunities to replenish these as well. The opening section of the book does mention “new” rules about testing Skill and Stamina, neither of which is new as they have been around for about 30 years – thanks for the ignorance Scholastic.

The background to this piece is genuinely intriguing and highly original: YOU are a member of the Sky Watch, a sort of Police Force tasked with protecting Pangaria, a previously unknown area of Titan positioned in the Ocean of Tempests between Allansia and Khul. FFs set in previously untapped regions always have a unique feel with their very specific settings, creatures, and cultures. Take Hachiman in Sword Of The Samurai or Atlantis in Demons Of The Deep, for example, two areas which are unlike anything else on Titan and which, as a result, gives the single book set in each of them a truly one-off feel that makes them all the more interesting. And Crystal Of Storms is no different in that respect, with its totally unique and localised creatures (Cloudkin, Stormborn, Canidor, etc) and its equally individual world, a world which is very high concept with its six floating islands that are held in the air by Goblin technomancy. All of a sudden one day, one of these islands (Nimbus) falls out of the sky and sinks into the ocean below, taking all of the Sky Watch with it (they were all at an emergency meeting on it when it sank) except for YOU which leaves you as the only available Sky Watch member who can try to resolve the mysterious fall of Nimbus. To add to the uniquely high concept nature of this effort, the locals hop from island to island using either small airships piloted by Goblins (flyers) or hovers which are sets of personal metal wings powered by the titular storm crystals (which reminds me a bit of the crystals that power light sabres in Star Wars). Well, this is all very interesting so far and the Background compels you to read on purely because it is so very unusual.

Thus begins the adventure proper but our first choice on paragraph 1 is a bit confusing in that we have to know which of three islands is our home island. Er, did I miss something? Having re-read the Background several times I could not find any indication where I was actually from, so I assume this is an actual choice we have to make and seems to be a random decision point with no precedent. This is awkward but not a showstopper. In fact, whichever island you choose to be from will slightly nuance the opening Act as a) you are forced to visit that island first, and b) whichever one you are from is slightly easier to negotiate as you bump into a friend (which makes sense as this is your home island) who will travel around that one island with you, which means you get combat boosters whilst you are there as there are two of you fighting as a pair. Add to this the fact that (for once) your sidekick does not instantly die (in fact, they cannot die) and you finally have a useful companion in a FF book. Having explored your home island you can then try one of the other two from the initial choice (or both if you want to), before heading off to a fourth island called Incus, followed by a fifth named Asperitas. In other words, this is a rare occasion where a FF region really does allow you to visit absolutely every part of it. So many FFs’ maps and regional descriptions have shown places that I wished we could explore but that remain totally elusive. (As an aside at this point I would have really liked to see a map of Pangaria in the front of the book, but sadly we do not get to see what this hitherto unexplored area of Titan actually looks like, which is a shame). Once you have visited these five islands you can then head underwater in a bathysphere to descend down to explore the now sunken island of Nimbus. So essentially this book works in three parts: the initial three island exploration (mostly equipment gathering), the second part covering Incus and Asperitas (where the mystery begins to get explained), and the Final Act on Nimbus itself where you try to save the sunken island. The concept of the bathysphere is another nicely different inclusion – the bathysphere is a one person minisub (again, built by Goblins) that allows the locals to safely go under the sea, so we are seeing an element of Jules Verne showing through here.

At this point, I feel we need to talk about Pangaria’s Goblins which are, as with every other concept in this book, totally different to the rest of Titan’s Goblins. Firstly, they co-exist peacefully with humans and serve a genuinely useful purpose rather than just being a nuisance. Secondly, they are considerably more articulate than those found elsewhere on Titan and can make coherent conversation. Clearly, Pangaria is a very civilised place as Titan goes, and the general feeling of peace does come across throughout this book. There is certainly no sense of danger, bar the mystery of what has caused Nimbus to sink, and this does give an overall impression that this FF is aimed at a younger audience than usual. This is not an issue as such, I just never got the impression that I was under any particular threat and, as a member of Sky Watch should probably be familiar with everywhere in the region, there was no real sense of exploration or of a descent into the unknown. However, adventure in its purest sense is not the point of this book. Instead, this is a mystery piece and is very plot-driven, giving it a feel akin to Paul Mason’s FFs which always placed plot over adventuring. Indeed, the familiarity your character is supposed to have with the area, along with the fact that we have never visited Pangaria before, gives RP free rein to flex her imagination where other FF authors may have been limited by established lore and/or locations. I’m not sure quite how I feel about the lore in this book: Potions have new naming conventions (but sensible ones rather than the stupid non-comedy naming that Charlie Higson used in Gates Of Death) and the tech level (with technomancy) does seem higher than we have come to expect from Titan. However, as Pangaria exists in a bubble and has developed separately from the rest of Titan (we are specifically told that visitors from other regions can’t ever leave), I can live with this and I do not feel that the revised lore detracts any from this feeling like FF as it is woven into the piece neatly rather than seeming to be strong-armed in for the sake of hilarity like in the Higson mess.

Structurally this is an interesting book as it is in theory possible to visit absolutely everywhere in one playthrough and, bar the restriction of starting on your home island, then Act Two beginning on Incus, followed by Act Three being underwater, you are free to roam about in whatever order you wish and to revisit locations as much as you want to, notwithstanding if you die in combat or run out of money to keep you hover working. This freedom comes at a price in gaming terms though as the reset button is very much in evidence here as revisited areas will regenerate themselves, meaning dead creatures come back to life, and you can hit continuity problems by finding several of the same item (which can work in your favour). To control the plot this book uses codewords (something I’ve never been totally comfortable with, but I realise they exist to control cheating and make plot flow more fluid) and the mystery will slowly be revealed through these codewords. In spite of the relative freedom you have to roam, this book is still oddly linear though, and I found myself enjoying the opening parts more than the Final Act, which seemed to be railroading me with looping choices that just seemed to lead back to the same place until I picked the option that the book wanted me to take to access the next part. It is also very apparent that the victory path covers most of the book so there is probably not much replay value here. Having completed it and, in spite of its intriguing premise and unique location, I cannot see any mileage in revisiting it as it has nothing else to offer. If you could not go everywhere in one playthrough there would be much more to explore but, as it stands, this is a win-and-put-it-away-forever book.

Which brings us to the difficulty level: if this book was hard there would be replay value in simply trying to beat it. But, CoS is far from difficult. In fact, it is very easy, in no small part due to the fact that you can go everywhere and can revisit areas to find items or information that you might have missed. Even in the final analysis, if you do not have the three items that Vizigg (another unusually sentient Goblin) needs, you can just go back a step and keep going until you do find them. In the true path sense, this book is very very forgiving. On the contrary though, in the combat sense, this book is surprisingly harsh as most opponents hare strong and most combats come with adjustors (a touch of the Jon Green influence here, I feel), but at the same time you can find a vast array of items that give you various combat bonuses to counter this, so there is some balance to this. To use these items tough does involve a lot of book-keeping to keep track of what does what (this is at odds with the idea of this being aimed at a younger readership and adds an out of place element of complexity), and the sheer amount of stuff you quickly accumulate would suggest your backpack is massive and that you should hardly be able to move. Interestingly, some combats have clever subtleties built into them such as the Saltwater Crocodile fight where your foe is vulnerable and less powerful out of water or one particular fight you have using the bathysphere where is loses its manoeuvrability out of water. These add realism and interest to the proceedings and show well-planned design. Another part that is well-planned is the end battle which involves a very strong opponent but it is not you who fights it – instead you are sat on the shoulder of a Sea Giant that fights for you. What makes this so interesting and varied though is the way that the fight can change subtly as it progresses based on use of items which can have Skill or Stamina impacts on both your enemy and your Sea Giant. It is relieving to see fresh ideas like this still coming into the series. Whilst the end battle is fought for you, and the underwater sections has you fighting from inside your bathysphere (ie you use the bathysphere’s stats rather than your own which, incidentally, are cleverly implemented by it having a fixed Stamina but its Skill is based on what yours in ie the actual driving of the thing is affected by how skilful its driver is), the rest of the book does require a high Skill score to survive the combats, plus the sheer number of crucial Skill tests does mean low-powered characters will struggle. There are quite a few Luck tests too, although these usually only cause you to lose Stamina if you fail them, rather than them fundamentally affecting your chances of victory. A count up of instadeath sections reveals there are only four in the entire book, so death by misadventure is unlikely, even if death in combat (or failure through running out of money to recharge your hover) is a very real possibility. All the same though, I doubt many players will struggle to complete this on the first attempt as long as they are strong enough.

It would be too easy but also unfair to try and make a comparison between RP and her father as writers, so I will focus just on Rhianna’s writing in isolation. There is a great energy to her prose and she really does make Pangaria come alive in her vivid descriptions and constant reinforcement of the plot and concepts that are at the root of this book. The end battle in particular is very excitingly written and at no point did I find any let up in the pace. I did find the moments of awkward humour a bit irritating (I think this devalues FF as “serious fantasy”) and the inclusion of items called a “Thingie”, a “Whatsit” and a “Doobrie” pretty inane (even if I did find the option that said something to the effect of “if you have a thingie and want to give it to [the NPC]” unintentionally amusing in a Carry On film way lol). I also could not help but notice how much RP likes onomatopoeia which is a small point, but it did strike me after a while. If there was just one moment that nearly made me throw the book at the wall it was this: “the flyers have been locked down by the island governors” – surely this is not an accidental inclusion and it has to be a reference to the situation that was affecting the world when this book was published. This is frankly annoying and, whilst it could easily be missed, there is no place in escapist fantasy for this kind of opinion polarising political reality.

To depart from reality and back to FF and Titan, whilst Pangaria is totally stand-alone and can get away with bearing only limited relation to what we expect from FF, there are some moments of familiarity to give some coherence. The Ray Harryhausen-esque Giant Crab scene must be a nod to the same cameo in Island Of The Lizard King and the appearance of a creature that we have previously only ever met in one other FF (the Wheelies) is a nice inclusion as they are such an iconic species, but the fact that they had only ever been seen once before also suggests they are very rare – unless of course Balthus Dire sourced his from Pangara (in a moment of retconned lore) and this is their actual home region? Either way, it was fun to see some Wheelies again. Naturally, many of the creatures we encounter are sea-dwelling (I enjoyed the merfolk encounter) and this adds even more to the unusual feel of this book and, as the species are different to those found in the only other undersea FF (Demons Of The Deep), both Pangaria and Atlantis are clearly very different places, which is good to see.

Not only does this book offer us a new author, it also introduces another new artist. The cover and internals are both the work of Eva Eskelinen. I will not dwell log on the cover, suffice to say that its image of two new species (a Canidor and a Cloudkin) cannot be considered as serious fantasy art. It would be far better-suited to a book for very young children and/or enthusiasts of emojis and is horribly cutesy and totally uninteresting, unthreatening, uninspired, and well, unsuitable for a FF gamebook. I want to feel terror and threat from the cover, not nausea due to it being so sickeningly friendly. EE’s internals are noticeably better than her cover but that means very little in real terms as her illustrations are for the most part lifeless and insipid. The only two internals that I find effective (and they are admittedly very effective) are the steampunk-influenced Goblin War Golem and the very threatening attacking Wraith Fish. There is nothing else in here that warrants a second look and the art looks to be almost tenth generation photocopied, it is that lacking in depth and clarity in places.

Boring art aside (and it is not as bad as anything by Vlado Krizan, I hasten to add), this book is a real winner. It is exciting, highly original, thematically intriguing and unusual, well-written, and the mystery approach does make you want to play and is a welcome alternative to the usual trying-to-bring-down-a-lunatic concept of FF. The real problem comes with the ease coupled with the fact that you will probably cover off the entire book in one playthrough making it unlikely to offer much real replay value. That said, I really enjoyed this and, as it has an open ending, I hope we will see more FFs from Rhianna Pratchett if this is any indication of what fresh new material she can bring to the table. But I do feel that a decent artist would have done the book more justice and really brought RP’s little corner of Titan to life.