VENGEANCE AT MIDNIGHT
Reviewed by Mark Lain
Let’s get something very clear from the start here: I do not like the Silver Crusader concept. I hated Appointment With FEAR and could do little more than tolerate Deadline To Destruction. It’s not that I don’t like superhero stuff generally, I just found AwF a gimmicky empty playing experience. For me, it’s one of the very worst FF books play-wise so the idea of there being a third instalment of something that I could happily have lived without the first part of was far from inspiring. But, like it or not, we find ourselves back in Titan City and donning the costume of the Silver Crusader, alter-ego of Jean Lafayette, once again in this 269-section piece from Fighting Fantazine Issue 8. The fact that all three parts are written by different people also amplifies the sound of the bottom of the barrel being scraped as Steve Jackson evidently only intended for there to be one of these otherwise he would have expanded the concept himself (and it would have made a far better RPG if you ask me although the thematic similarity to Games Workshop’s Golden Heroes may have prevented that from happening).
Time has passed since Jean’s last run-in with a major superbaddie (The Dynamo from DtD) and there are a couple of neat little bits of story arc advancement here where you now have a girlfriend called Helen and your relationship with your boss seems to have improved a lot as you are no longer constantly showing up late for work due to your crime-fighting commitments. But of course sooner or later Titan City would be threatened by another lunatic in a silly costume and you have started hearing rumours of a journalist having disappeared and the possibility of a new nutter hatching a nefarious plot against everybody. So off you go to save the day, starting with a run-in in a warehouse, the discovery of a consignment of teddy bears, and then the whole saga unfolds before you. As with the previous two adventures, a lot of the actual content involves choosing various places to visit as you try and gather intelligence to crack the case, a lot of these choices being potentially somewhat uninformed and random. There is a path to follow though based on key bits of information but unravelling it is tricky and the true path itself is very tight, something which brings me to the first big issue with this mini-FF: it is unreasonably difficult. There are several moments where you have to fight a catalogue of opponents and death by Stamina loss is a frequent problem. That said, if you choose the Super Strength Superpower and thus have a default Skill of 13 this becomes a more realistic proposition, something which is so fundamental to victory that it can effectively render the other three Superpower options pretty redundant. These lengthy fights also usually require you to track combat rounds as this can affect how the fight plays out so there is some bookkeeping to do in amongst all the dice rolling (and dying and having to start over) too. Furthermore, the majority of the fights that are with just one or two opponents are usually against very strong foes (both in Skill and Stamina) as they are supervillains which also means a very high Skill on your part is vital, plus a high Stamina too if you are going to have any hope of staying alive. If this isn’t imbalanced enough there are only two opportunities to restore Stamina (both by 6 points when you wake up the next morning) which is hardly fair. Similarly, there are a lot of Luck tests (especially on the true path) and, again, very few chances to restore Luck, so a high Luck is also vital. There is one particularly irrational moment where you have to pass a sequence of three Luck tests and two Skill tests – fail any and you miss a vital password that you cannot win without knowing. This is frankly ridiculous. Furthermore, there are a lot of letter-to-number conversions to find hidden sections which, whilst I like this mechanic as it is an excellent cheatproofer, can be taxing plus one of them is calculated incorrectly and leads you to the wrong section so, unless you have a solution, errata list, or can be bothered to sift through each section until you find the right one, the game is broken and cannot be completed “properly” (although with the crazy stat issues you could argue it is broken anyway).
One feature that sent AwF’s difficulty into the stratosphere that I am glad to say has not been carried over from the first Silver Crusader outing is the annoying reliance on arbitrary guesswork to find hidden sections and this was the main thing that made me hate the original book so much. As a concept and rules-wise though, the same structure that existed in the previous two instalments is all here again: you have a choice from four Superpowers and the list is the same in all three adventures; you can gain Hero Points as you go along based on how heroic or otherwise your actions are; you get three Clues from the outset; the whole thing plays out over a few days; the usual umpteen jokes and riffs on popular culture are here again; and you are not supposed to kill opponents in combat (instead they surrender once their Stamina is reduced to 1 or 2) as you are a good guy. There are a few variations on some of these this time around though as the Clues basically do nothing other than just give you abstract information that you then ignore as everything you need to know to actually finish the adventure is told to you in the course of the story. Rather more problematically the Superpowers also have no influence on how the plot actually plays out. A great feature of AwF was that it was basically four adventures in one (albeit all very frustratingly short ones) so had huge replay value. Not so the case there as each Superpower just subtly nuances events and how you negotiate certain moments to ultimately lead to the same point either way. This is rather sloppy design and creates the illusion of something that just is not there: choice of how your superhero functions and the ability to affect the game as a result. Obviously this makes replayability limited but the fact that you are going to die in almost every attempt might be enough to compel repeat attempts. Hero Points are handled very differently here as you start with 3 rather than 0. This is because should your HP ever drop to zero you have to turn to section 99 and suffer the consequences when the Federation Of Ultrapeople (The Avengers? Justice League? The X-Men?) send Lady Chartreuse (“a drink so good they named a colour after it” to quote a certain Tarantino movie) to deal with you which is survivable although you cannot accrue any further Hero Points after this which does make you rather less heroic. Also, there are several different “scales” of victory where, whilst the true path is very tight and linear, you can reach the win section having tied up various loose ends along the way and finish with more Hero Points (in the previous two Hero Points were purely for you to measure an extra success aspect and try to finish the book with more of them and thus more heroically on subsequent playthroughs) so for the first time in a Silver Crusader adventure Hero Points actually have an in-game purpose which is good to see. The biggest problem here system-wise though has already been raised which is that, unless you choose the Super Strength Superpower and start with Skill 13 you simply will not be able to finish this due to the scale and number of fights you are faced with which is a big own goal for a concept based on variable superpowers.
Without labouring a point too much when it comes to the fights you are expected to deal with, it has to be said that the very first one in the warehouse at the beginning seems especially unfair as you can die or reduce your Stamina dangerously low before you have even done anything of any consequence and there is no reward for surviving it other than not being dead. There is also a key fight with Volt Head that is effectively broken for various reasons and the same fight seems a bit unsavoury as you are trying to save a female hostage whilst you fight Volt Head but the chance of her not dying in the course of events is incredibly low – this just seems odd and very unheroic to me.
Which brings us neatly to the subject of the key villain of the piece who is called Volt Head (and we see him on the cover of this issue of the ‘zine in fact). In a nice element of continuity/lore he is the brother of The Dynamo from DtD so he does presumably have a personal beef with you to add some colour. Indeed this adventure is crawling with FF-related Easter Eggs, far more so than either of the previous two gamebooks, and is a dream for fanboys. Amongst others we have the link between Volt Head and The Dynamo, Wolmaran Apartments, a villain called The Warlock, the Owl and Weasel pub which is next door to the Black Lobster restaurant, and there is a copy of the unpublished Saga Of The Stormchaser in Cottonworths (so it comes out eventually then lol). A couple of nice little general popular culture references that I personally found more amusing than the usual ones these Silver Crusader adventures are filled with are Ben Seven, Karl Marks, and Da Femme who “wears a form-fitting dark yellow suit” (so that’s literally an analogue of The Bride from Kill Bill in her figure-hugging yellow jumpsuit then). What did annoy me a bit though is that the elusive and essential password (the one you get in return for somehow beating the interminable odds and passing three Luck and two Skill tests in succession) is “Voldemort” – this is possibly a bridge too far for me, is too literal, and it isn’t even trying to be a clever take on something like the naming conventions and characters in these Silver Crusader adventures otherwise are. Why did the author do this?
The author himself is Alex Ballingall (Editor of the ‘zine) and he does write very well with a lot of atmosphere and detail to bring his adventure to life. Most of the game sections are relatively long but there is often a lot of dialogue to accommodate (essential to get that comic book feel) and variances with Superpower prompts that need to be factored in (not that they make much difference in the long run). Each key character (ie YOU, the supervillians, and the cops) is written in such a way that they have obvious personality and traits and this does add a lot of depth to the proceedings. The lengthy sections may look off-putting on first sight but they do work well in context and AB has done a good job of putting his take on Titan City across. I wish I could say the same for his art which “graces” this adventure as it is best described as “rough” and looks incomplete and amateurish (the teddy bear fillustrations are particularly awful) but it is better than what he did for Resurrection Of The Dead in the first issue of the ‘zine and he does a good job of emulating the comic book panelled look that Declan Considine produced for AwF and this is a clever visual that suits the concept. The colour cover for this one is also by AB and, again, looks rough and incomplete and is certainly not of a good enough quality to be on a cover especially as most ‘zine covers have been really good professional pieces of fantasy art. I do wonder if they were struggling for contributors art-wise for this Issue?
There are a few interesting design points that I feel are worth bringing up with this adventure, the most apparent being that section 1 is a normal game section rather than the beginning and the introduction gives you options sending you to other paragraphs to start the game. This in real terms is a pretty minor thing but I do find it interesting and I always like to see gamebooks having functions like this that subvert expectations in how they should be designed and these are always an unexpected surprise that makes them feel a little bit different when the author has taken the time to think to do this. There is also, more conventionally, an open ending where you meet the Titanium Cyborg again in prison and it is suggested that a fourth part is on the cards. I read a thread in the Fantazine discussion group suggesting that the Helen character (who, incidentally, does nothing other than get mentioned at the start as existing, have a shower at one point in the book, and show up again right at the end, so including her was not really worth it as she serves no purpose other than to expand your character’s history a little bit) might turn bad in a potential fourth part of the saga. In many ways I hope there will not be a fourth because three is more than I ever really wanted!
So then, is Vengeance At Midnight worth staying up late to experience? I’ll be honest and say I did actually quite enjoy it. The idea of the exploding teddy bears triggered by a signal from a computer is a fun 1960s Batman type silly way to bring about the apocalypse and the supervillains seem less crappy in this one than the previous two. The fact that Hero Points finally serve some sort of (albeit limited) useful purpose is good to see. The usual in-jokes are everywhere (I can take or leave these as they are a bit too knowing) but the FF Easter Eggs are a nice inclusion. It is way too hard though (to the point of being unfair), the requirement to get the password is insane, there is no way you can get anywhere without maxed-out stats, the Superpower choices are rendered useless, and the art is terrible. But of the three Silver Crusader efforts this is still less annoying to me than AwF but is not as conventional as DtD so it does have some merit to recommend it. Yes, it’s nothing special but it is certainly worth giving a go even if the odds are hugely stacked against you and it is absolutely broken due to an adding error by the author.