Sunday 31 July 2022

Vengeance At Midnight



Alexander Ballingall

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.

Wednesday 27 July 2022

Ascent Of Darkness



Stuart Lloyd

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Stuart Lloyd is very prolific in the world of writing amateur fan FFs (and AFF modules) as well as being a regular fixture in Fighting Fantazine  so it was fairly inevitable that a short FF of his would appear in that same publication sooner or later and Issue 11 brought us this interesting adventure. I say it is interesting because of the very original idea of creating here what is effectively a classical Greek epic in FF form.

YOU play a heroic figure, the son of a King, and the leader of an army of men engaged in an ongoing war with the Caarth. You receive a letter from your mother and return home to find that your father is gone and the evil cult of Elim is threatening everyone’s existence. Cue an eventual trip to Fire Island to get to the bottom of the problem and resolve it. The story arc takes you from the Desert of Skulls/Karnath Tor (where you are fighting the Caarth) to Carsepolis (your home) via one of three different terrains (mountains, forest, coast), then on a sea voyage in a tireme to Fire Island. A point to note here is that Carsepolis is the ancient city upon which’s ruins Port Blacksand was built and this is the first “official” trip to classical Port Blacksand that we have had from FF. Kudos for this then. As this is an adventure cut from the cloth of Homer, your character comes replete with several suitable traits. You start with a sword, a spear, and a steel helmet, but no armour (very Greek!), and have 50 Gold Pieces to your name. YOU also have to choose from one Heroic Power and one Heroic Flaw: the Powers are basically boosters to your attributes but the Flaws are more subtle and affect the path itself, sometimes giving alternative approaches and sometimes forcing you down certain routes. The Flaws also give some balance to avoid you being excessively strong (although you should be anyway given the context) and the descriptions of the Powers in the Introduction are very detailed and colourful with some nice legendary context to what you have done in the past. You also get Heroic Stunts that you can use in battle (a lot) which can swing things in your favour if the dice (ie the Gods) are on your side. There is also an unusual approach to rolling up your Skill, Stamina, and Luck here where you can only have each stat be rolled up to a certain level but then your chosen Power will boost one of these to a potentially powerful amount. Again, this suits the concept. This kind of idea is a trademark of SL’s amateur FFs so it is good to see it applied to this offering too. There is a neat little heroic touch too where if you do anything particularly unheroic you will lose Luck points - this is clever.

The initial battle with the Caarth is a good opener as you are straight into the action and have a few strategic decisions to make but the end result is basically the same. An amusing little inclusion is that there are only 300 of your army left after the battle which is a nice nod to The 300 Spartans of classical legend, but there are a lot of possibly overly Greek references along the way including the codewords (Perseus, Heracles, and Odysseus) and the fact that your father is called Agamemnon. This does create a bit of disconnect from FF as these names are just too well-known and too associated with Greek legends. The idea of the Achilles Heel Flaw is just about ignorable as it has become a euphemism but it is still directly related to Achilles so throws another Greek non-FF trope into the mix. What SL has managed to do in terms of encounters though is get a good mix of FF and Greek material, with all the Greek encounters being equally FF encounters as they are already lifted from classics and established as FF lore: harpies, the mermaid, and the hydra in particular. What is very apparent in the combat encounters is that almost all of your opponents have stats in double figures and are equally as legendarily powerful as YOU. Indeed we see some very high Staminas in this adventure (many of the fights are multiple foes fought as one), but for once this is actually offset against your potentially being a bit over-powered too so there is some balance here. Some foes can even use Stunts against you which make those fights particularly varied (and dangerous).  A lot of fights have adjustors to shave extra Stamina points from you under certain conditions which does add to the realism of fighting several foes as one.

With very strong enemies to fight and your Power and Flaws offsetting each other, the question of difficulty arises quickly but because of the balancing factors you can get through with average stats (or as average as you can have here) plus there is no optimum choice of Powers or Flaws to scupper you from the outset. The Powers do not really affect the actual adventure itself all that much (bar in combat) but the flaws certainly do and the Achilles Heel is just that and does make the adventure rather harder if you choose this Flaw. It is also theoretically possible to have two Powers by acquiring the Strength Of Telak from a bronze apple so if you start with this Power that can be a bit of a sucker punch (or a big plus if you started with one of the other two!) So whilst the Powers and Flaws are presumably intended to nuance and change the adventure only the Flaws really do in terms of the actual path you follow. It has to be noted that a lot of the Stamina penalties through misadventure are quite harsh (routinely losing you 4-6 points) but there are many opportunities to restore back to your Initial Stamina (as well as getting restoratives for Skill and Luck too) and to replace lost spears (which are very useful) – the fact that many of these are blessings from the Gods adds to the whole classical package. If you can find either the Shroud Of Ashra or the Shroud Of Vuh in Carsepolis (not particularly hard to do) these will make things noticeably less lethal in the later stages and there is at least one item that is essential on a certain path and you cannot get beyond the first Act without having poison immunity. Indeed, when I first read this I thought it was broken at section 99 because I did not read the text closely enough and whatever choice I made killed me – but that is not the case and there are two examples of where close reading based on notes you have taken is vital which is a nice bit of cheat-proofing without resorting to arbitrarily guessing that you are supposed to go to a secret section (something that frustrates me hugely in some FFs). Luck tests are very rare (the instructions say you will need to test Skill, Stamina, and Luck but these rarely happen and I can only find one Stamina test) and there are only about a dozen instadeath sections, mostly for doing stupid things or not having crucial items, so this is reasonable enough. The true path is not especially hard to find as the adventure is very linear with clear convergence points to round off each Act and there are two win outcomes (which results in the final section not being the end and is just a standard game section) but I suspect the optimum ending is that where you have your father’s ring and he survives rather than the version where he dies and you become King (which is still a win really though, but just a bit less heroic). The fact that there are no pre-defined combinations of Powers and Flaws needed to win adds yet more fairness to the piece. The choice of the three Act 2 paths (forest, coast, mountains) adds some nice variety for replays but none is optimum as such and each affords you several useful items including stat bonuses, the vital poison immunity (important in avoiding an overly linear true path) and some Flaw immunities, and the ability to emulate Powers that you may not have. I have noticed though that the coast path is the tightest in terms of the goodies you can come out with (a limit of two from the choice you are given), the forest path restricts you to picking three, but the mountain path appears to have no limit so you can come out with a catalogue of useful paraphernalia on this path to make you very strong indeed. The view is that the best path is the forest as it is the shortest of the three, is theoretically combat-free (depending on what you do), and gets you the various apples that make a later challenge considerably easier, but having a bag load of useful stuff from the mountain path is not to be sniffed at either. The coast path is probably the hardest as you need a dagger otherwise you get assassinated but as this repeats in the Final Analysis I’d argue that this is de rigueur anyway. Similarly, in Carsepolis you can theoretically go everywhere (with a couple of inter-related restrictions) and the freedom to explore is evident even if each of the areas is fairly brief, you don’t really do any exploring as such, and the endgame of acquiring a crew and a dagger is the same and very achievable either way – there is a certain order needed to how you visit bits depending on your chosen path and some ways result in getting a free crew whilst others are more expensive and I’m sure you can end up with lots of crews too if you choose to continue exploring rather than heading straight for the docks the first chance you meet the required conditions. As with the second Act the Carsepolis part is mostly designed to your advantage which gives an expectation of a big climactic finale on Fire Island. But before you get there you have the tireme voyage and a hydra to contend with (which isn’t really very hard). Then comes the end Act on Fire Island itself which is pretty short and colourless and quickly gets to the point with the conclusive showdown (well, there are only 219 sections, after all, and the second and third Acts do eat rather a lot of these up).

The Fire Island section highlights a big problem though with this adventure as in parts it is a real mess. The hut/wizard cameo only makes sense if you choose to enter the hut otherwise you find yourself dealing with the second half of it anyway even though you opted against it (plus you seem to hurtle backwards on the map for no reason to get back to the hut you didn’t know you were visiting!) There is a really clumsy bit of layout/design where section 104 leads to 107 then to either 103 or 105 followed by 105 going to 103 anyway so everything for that cameo is on one page. This also happens earlier on when 114 leads to 115. There is also a weird bit of design on the coast path where you can defeat the harpies in combat to then go straight to an instadeath section if you don’t have a dagger and get assassinated (might as well just let the harpies kill you really). It seems odd to me that the Carsepolis section can allow you to go everywhere (bar the conjunction between the Temples of Ashra and Vuh) an infinite number of times as you are always sent back to the same section to choose where to go next and there is no suggestion of a limit on visiting frequencies (this results in the enormous variety of crews you can have as mentioned above). In the endgame there is an impossible sequence of sections/Flaw prompts (142 to 35 to 71 etc) as, if you have one Flaw there is no way you will have another one, so querying this three times over in an unfeasible combination is pointless. A similar issue occurs with the Flurry Of Blows Heroic Stunt which renders it basically useless as there are no multi-enemy combats and all of these are treated as single foes. There is also an incorrect section link where you are sent to paragraph 133 but it makes no sense in context so somehow the completely wrong text has ended up on this section. With all these errors (and the way they amplify themselves in the Fire Island Act) I do wonder if the ‘zine’s supposed team of playtesters and adventure editors actually exist (or know what they are doing!) and it does distract from the potentially exciting climax to the piece where your classical hero gets to be all classical and win against insurmountable odds.

But the Fire Island bit also throws up a few lovely bits of FF lore for those who want to find them. On first landing on the beech the text tells you that you are “ever watchful for giant crabs” (well, you would be wouldn’t you as 2000 years later poor old Mungo comes a cropper in their claws) and the lizard men are already oppressing humans by enslaving them leading to an uprising inspired by YOU, but in this case they are being forced to build a temple to the evil Elim rather than worked to death down the mines. Interestingly, there is no mention of the infamous Lizard King so I guess he hasn’t hatched from his royal egg yet. The way Carsepolis is ancient Port Blacksand is nice too but there is no real correlation between the two. A possible conclusion that can also be drawn is that classical FF world is similar to classical Earth world in that all heroes are male as it is explicitly stated here that you are male – not an issue as it works in context but it could remove the immersive YOU idea if you are a female player.

A big epic piece like this with the overhanging theme of an impending Evil should have some pretty epic art in it and this was entrusted to the always reliable Michael Wolmarans (aka Mike Tenebrae). The only problem is that he seems to be having an identity crisis with his art here as it ranges from excellent (the very sinister colour cover, the fillustrations especially the Greek helmet, the full pager on page 38) through middling (a lot of the people) to a few pieces that just look incomplete or rushed (the lizard men are especially bad and look totally unthreatening, the zombies make less sense the more you look at them, and the tavern brawl looks like something out of a childrens’ comedy cartoon). Okay so I know this is a fanzine and contributors will probably be working for nothing but still if we compare these with MW’s fantastic work for the ‘zine on Escape From The Sorcerer there is definitely something inferior about the art here. What does lift it well above the inconsistent art is SL’s writing which is pacey, full of energy and an obvious love for the gamebook form, and keeps you interested regardless of any glaring errors that might be annoying you. SL knows a huge amount about gamebooks and the concept and mechanics included here are excellent and show this very clearly.

This is a highly original effort and the classical theme and early-Titan setting alone carry it. The mechanics where you are naturally strong and have legendary talents and weaknesses are great and perfectly suit the concept. It is not especially difficult and is very fair, plus it is not especially long and can be played through in about half an hour or so. The multiple paths and more than one ending add great replay value, as do finding out how different combinations of Powers and Flaws can affect the proceedings. The errors are frustrating (especially on Fire Island where they do distract you from the finale as you try and get your head around them) but the lore and snappiness of the whole thing do make for a decent adventure. The originality of theme and the fusion of Greek classics and FF lore make this well worth a look as do the paciness, overall fairness, and SL’s quality writing and understanding of the gamebook form and how to manipulate it. The art does it no favours but I tended to just ignore it and look at the plethora of fillustrations. If the errors had been ironed out by whoever was supposed to be proofreading/playtesting it, this would have been a real winner. As it is it is just good rather than great.