Reviewed by Mark Lain
Quickly following Steve Jackson’s first solo effort (Citadel Of Chaos) came Ian Livingstone’s The Forest Of Doom. FOD is unusual for a Livingstone effort, yet, at the same time, is a very generic Livingstone FF. It is unusual because it’s ridiculously easy (assuming nothing kills you) given that, unless you die, you CANNOT conceivably lose. Rarely is Ian so forgiving and only this once has he allowed us unlimited chances to go back to the beginning and have another try if we haven’t got what we were looking for (more on this later), plus there are relatively few instant deaths which is very unlike Ian. It is also generic Livingstone for two of the usual reasons in particular:
- · Linearity – there is only one true path and you are forced to head for the end.
- · Shopping list – you literally visit a shop at the beginning, there are lots of items you need to progress safely (although not as many as usual for Ian), and you can find yourself carrying masses of stuff once you start going back through the forest over and over again.
Presumably at this early stage, Ian hadn’t yet thought of making his gamebooks borderline impossible which is a refreshing change for anyone who first comes to this book after some of his later tougher efforts.
I have mixed feelings about the fact that you can start over if you reach the other side of the forest without the things you are looking for. In one way, this is totally anti-FF as you are only normally given one chance and must, through repeated playing and mappings, gradually discover the solutions – that’s part of the fun and challenge of FF. On the other hand, the forest itself is so packed with good encounters, variety and fun things to meet and do that it would be a shame to not give you the chance to discover everything it has to offer. In this sense, FOD is probably one of my favourite early FFs; in the sense that the difficulty level is zero, FOD is the closest FF ever got to the short-lived and impossible-to-lose Starlight sister series (which was designed, ironically, for your sister!)
There is a more frustrating problem, however, caused by the endless restarts in FOD, that being that the plot is rendered meaningless unless you can accept that the forest can reset itself every time you go back to the start, including anything you killed coming back to life, any surprises being surprises again, and any items you found having left a trace of themselves which have formed into a full duplicate of something you already have! This is annoying as it means you can end up with loads of the same useful (or useless) pieces of equipment and can render yourself indestructible with endless Skill, Stamina and Luck increases. More worrying is that, if you keep finding one half of the dwarven axe and not the other, you can end up with loads of them when there is meant to be only one of this unique and life-saving object, which brings us to the purpose of your mission. You run into a wounded dwarf who tells you that an axe that the dwarves of Stonebridge desperately need to fend-off total annihilation has been broken in half and hidden in Darkwood Forest somewhere. Being a good guy you decide to find it and return it to Stonebridge which lies inconveniently at the exact opposite side of the forest to where your dwarven friend met his dwarven maker. This incidentally is the first incidence of Ian’s annoying habit of killing-off seemingly nice NPCs, but it does at least give some meaning to your wanting to traverse the forest. So instead of killing someone who wants to destroy the world or seeking some immeasurable fortune, you are running an errand in FOD, which does make it quite different to most FF plots and you feel more like a good Samaritan than the usual FF concept of being the best swordsman or wizard or angel of vengeance or hitman in the land.
Ian’s books are often lengthy and full of vivid detail and this one is no different in that sense. The forest is well-developed in the text and you do feel that you are actually in a forest as you make your way through it. Sadly, part-way through you can find a hill range as well as an open plain which seem at odds with a dense and impenetrable forest – oh dear, there goes any last remnant of plot coherency if there ever was any! On the plus side, this does actually add even more variety so we have to accept yet another of FOD ‘s simultaneous blessings and curses. Variety is the key to the enjoyment of this book and it contains many interesting (and often foresty) creatures (although the pterodactyl feels totally out of place) as well as lots of nice trees, huts and other woodland locations to explore. There’s even an underground mine inhabited by weird clones that I can’t help thinking parallels the underground world of the underpants gnomes in South Park nowadays! But at least it’s another unexpected twist and it keeps FOD from never getting dull, plus you even get to run into a sad Friar Tuck and make him into a happy Friar Tuck if you have the right item. Part-way through we are also faced with a situation lifted straight from Warlock Of Firetop Mountain – the hard-to-negotiate river. It might be unoriginal in FF terms but, again, it does break up the “shall I go east, north or west up the path this time” decisions you mostly have to make.
There is only one really wasted opportunity in FOD and that is the use of very basic magic. You are not a wizard (that would be too out-there for Livingstone) but you can purchase magical items at the beginning. Sadly, these play very limited roles in the book and might as well not be there. If anything they are just an excuse to introduce us to Yaztromo. In terms of the overall FF cannon and the development of a FF world, FOD is very important in this sense. We meet Yaztromo in his ubiquitous tower, we meet the dwarves of Stonebridge for the first time and we get a sense that there is war between different species in Allansia. All these ideas would be developed in later FFs and are pivotal in creating a FF universe as opposed to random happenings that take place in a building, town or mountain in an otherwise context-less bubble.
Ian’s writing in FOD is as colourful and absorbing as the art is hideous and disturbing. Rarely in FF is there an illustration as crass as the catwoman! The poor quality of the interior art is even more surprising given how great the cover is. The shape changer in a forest on the cover really sets the tone and fits well with Livingstone’s prose. Sadly, this raises yet another desperate plot inconsistency – if you encounter the shape changer on the first trip through Darkwood you are going the wrong way I’m afraid and you have already missed part of the dwarven axe. Almost all FF covers involve key plot elements or key encounters along the true path but not FOD as that would presumably make some sort of sense and logic was not on the agenda when FOD was created.
All things considered, FOD is not a bad FF. In fact, I really like playing and exploring it as it offers a lot and I think it is very under-rated. Unfortunately, it is best described as a heroic failure due to its ridiculous ease and lack of any logical story arc. Play it for variety and enjoy it for that and for Ian’s vivid creation and you will be pleasantly surprised. If you want a challenge or a logical plot don’t bother as it will just frustrate you.