Tuesday, 4 December 2012

#9: Caverns Of The Snow Witch


CAVERNS OF THE SNOW WITCH

Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Number 9 in the original series started out life as a mini-adventure in Warlock magazine and evolved into a sprawling epic when released in book form. This adventure is effectively three stories in one, starting with your initial mission of having to hunt down and kill a yeti that is causing a nuisance to passing caravans, followed by a tip-off that you just can’t resist involving ridding the world of the Snow Witch Shireela then heading out of the Snow Witch’s caverns only to have to defeat a resurrected Snow Witch, and finally discovering you’re dying and having to trek around Northern Allansia finding the only person who can heal you.

Sadly, this book was where Ian’s annoying habit of making his books unreasonably hard began. Unless you have very high stats you don’t stand a chance as there are just too many very tough encounters, most of which cannot be avoided if you are going to win. In fact, from very early on you are faced with monsters with skills and staminas in double figures, which makes this book hard-going and doesn’t have the gradual build-up in encounter strengths that you would normally expect. Due to this, the Snow Witch herself is not comparatively strong (in the context of everything else that is thrown at you here) making her one of the least memorable baddies in any FF. Yes, she comes back to life, but the second terminal encounter with her is a silly scissors-paper-stone game that is arbitrary to the point of unfairness. Plus, it is no great surprise that she can resurrect (and you actually are expected to be astonished when she turns out to be a vampire) as she clearly has fangs in the cover picture so one of the book’s two big pay-offs is hardly gobsmacking news when it comes. The revelation that you have been fatally cursed is more of a surprise, but this is the point where the book really starts to fail as you will genuinely have lost the will to live when you discover that the apparent purpose of the exercise (given the title) is not the end and that there is an awkwardly tagged-on coda that you now have to wade through.

... And this is the biggest problem with this book: it overstays its welcome and becomes fairly arduous after a while. If you can make it to paragraph 400 you are genuinely exhausted and it really does feel like you have just trekked across the Icefinger Mountains and into the wilderness beyond. I recall it taking around 3 hours to play through this from start to finish and, due to it being pretty difficult, it takes some motivation to start over. This book, arguably more than any other FF produced, is the book where save points will come into play as it’s just too long and drawn-out, as well as being pretty punishing. Ian’s favourite tricks of being doomed to failure unless you happen to have a catalogue of key items is very much in evidence, as is his desire to completely ignore FF’s claim that anyone, no matter how low their stats, can win. In fact, even with maximum stats your chances are not great!

As this is an Ian Livingstone effort, notwithstanding how difficult and how endlessly long it is, there is much to recommend it all the same. Ian’s typically vivid and well fleshed-out environments and descriptive prose are nicely done and you do get a sense of being in a barren icy wasteland, followed by some forbidding icy caves. The encounters are some of the most locality-appropriate in any FF and the desire to go overboard with wacky monsters that sometimes ruins FFs is avoided here which does maintain a good atmosphere. As this is one of the few ice-set FFs, many of the encounters are unusual and fairly unique which makes playing this interesting, even if most ice-dwelling FF monsters seem to be practically immortal if this book is anything to go by! Plus, Ian insists yet again on providing us with some NPC companions, even if they don’t instantly die or run off for once. Granted, they do eventually come a cropper but they do survive long enough to actually add something to the adventure and to feel like they have a place in the plot, which is very unusual for IL’s usually fated or cowardly sidekicks and is probably FF’s only really effective use of companions (although Masks Of Mayhem did a fairly decent job of this.)

FFs are often criticised for having either far-fetched or completely illogical plots, but COTSW does have a very logical flow to it. The progression from one mission to another adds realism (as opposed to the usual knowing what you are meant to do right from the word “Go”) and makes this seem like more of an adventure in the sense of wandering and discovering what you have to do next as you go along. It is, however, a shame that Ian got over-involved in throwing twists and turns at us and this is ultimately at the detriment of enjoying the story as it just goes on forever. After a while you really do stop caring and hope that one of the excessively tough encounters or a lack of a key item will be the end of you.

The art is also very unusual. This is the only FF that opted for woodcut-style heavily stylised illustrations, rather than fairly traditional fantasy art and, whilst the results are mixed and work better in some places (brain flayer, snow witch, crystal warrior) than in others (the yeti and hillmen are terrible) there is no denying that the art gives this book a very unique feel. It’s just a shame that the cover betrays one of the book’s secrets (see above) and I think the woodcut art should have extended to the cover as the cover is far too out of keeping with the interior art and seems a bit too conventional. As for the Wizard re-issue cover, this makes it look like it could be cheap porn as Shireela seems overly-seductive in a Lust for a Vampire style. Basically, they've never quite managed to nail the cover on COTSW, which is a shame as FF covers are often great and normally add a sense of theme/tone to what is waiting for you on the inside.

This is probably one of the FFs I have played the least times, not because of a lack of interest in the first two sections, but because of its sheer length and the fact that the final third (tracking down the healer having escaped the mountains) just does not fit and seems to be an afterthought to try to add something different to the original short adventure purely for the sake of adding paragraphs. This would have been better left shorter and ending after killing Shireela for the second time. Granted we wouldn’t have the logical plot element of having to get out of the caverns, but we also wouldn’t have to endure the atmosphere-ruining and frankly inferior final section.

Sometimes less is more and that is definitely the case here. Whilst this book has a lot to recommend (initial atmosphere, unusual art, interesting and in-context encounters, useful NPC companions, a proper flowing plot) it is probably the weakest of all the Jackson/Livingstone-penned Medieval-era FFs due to its sheer length, over-difficulty and, worst of all, the problem that it long overstays its welcome. Play the first two parts and then either stop there, or play the third part as a separate adventure on a different day otherwise a) you will be bored before long, and b) you’ll feel like you’re reading a very schizophrenic FF.

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