TALISMAN OF DEATH
Mark Smith & Jamie Thomson
Reviewed by Mark Lain
When I first read this book as a child in the early 80s it seemed at odds with previous FFs, plus its tone felt more adult. With hindsight (and far more knowledge of gamebooks in general) the difference between TOD and other FFs is fairly explicit – other FF books ARE FF, TOD is not. It was written by the writers of the Way of the Tiger series of gamebooks, was illustrated by Bob Harvey who also illustrated Way of the Tiger, and is even set on Orb, the setting of Way of the Tiger. No matter how you look at it, TOD is fundamentally Way of the Tiger with FF rules. The fact that Way of the Tiger (and also Joe Dever's Lone Wolf, but that is just an aside in the name of factual accuracy) were the only other gamebook series that came anywhere near giving FF something to feel threatened by suggests that this book was basically a peace-gesture between the two series. To make it seem slightly less blatant you start as a human on Earth who is chosen by some Gods to go to Orb on an errand, but the fact remains that this book could just as easily have not been in the FF series. However, this book is actually very good and is probably one of the most unique-feeling of the FFs because of all this.
From the outset you feel different about your character in this book. You are used to being told you are the best sword/gun/wizard/pilot/etc in most FFs – in TOD you are a simple human with no background credentials who just ends up being cannon-fodder for the Gods (there’s a nice Greek mythology touch here), which makes a refreshing change. You genuinely don’t feel confident as you play through this and you get a real feeling of vulnerability as various tricksters, rival groups, evil things, religious zealots (of which there are loads of one kind or another in this book) and even dinosaurs try to get in your way. For this reason alone, this book is a lot of fun to play.
Added to that is the fact that the plot is actually very absorbing and eventful, with masses of encounters to keep your interest up and lots of places to explore in subsequent play-throughs, even if, in the final section, the path becomes very thin and linear. I have one gripe with the plot and this is a gripe which can only have become apparent in recent years since Tolkien became ultra-popular again: this book is a rip-off of Lord Of The Rings. You are a fish-out-of-water sent on a suicide mission in an unknown territory to ultimately destroy a piece of equipment that, in the wrong hands, is bad news for everybody. Along the way you are hassled and threatened by Envoys/Minions of Death (read: ringwraiths) who will do anything to steal the talisman (read: ring) from you. The parallels are obvious, but the book is still enjoyable in spite of this.
I briefly mentioned the adult tone of this book. Some of the situations are genuinely disturbing – the vivisect, for example, is horrific and the prevalence of zealous monks/high priestesses/etc gives a worrying feeling of reality. FF works best when, whilst you are drawn-in, you also can feel that it is all a fantasy. Take Balthus Dire’s unholy creations in Citadel Of Chaos for example – they still manage to seem unreal, but TOD’s encounters are often uncomfortably real and unpleasant. The attacks by the envoys of death are genuinely frightening and will now seem very similar to the death-eater/dementor attacks in Harry Potter. As TOD followed on the heels of the controversial House Of Hell with its modern-day setting, devil worship, virgin sacrificing, etc, TOD probably felt quite tame and toned-down by comparison, but these two books were clearly FF coming of age. The production team presumably also felt a bit disquietened by these two books as the series then lurched into awkward Sci-Fi again (Space Assassin) followed by a Mad Max copy in Freeway Fighter, before settling comfortably back into its traditional medievalism roots with Temple Of Terror (although the envoy of death idea was carried-over into TOT with the much more inventive Messenger of Death.)
Much has been made of Bob Harvey’s art in FF reviews, but I personally like it. He brings a down-to-earth feel to the books he has drawn and his human characters are very realistic. His creatures, however, aren’t quite so good in this book, especially the dragon which looks more like a recoiled albino-eyed scaly cat – dragons should be regal and impressive, not sinewy and sorry-looking. Personally, I much prefer his work in Seas Of Blood and Demons Of The Deep but his art did add even more to the unique feel of TOD within the FF series.
The cover too is unusual. The image of the envoy of death riding a sort of horse/wraith and thrusting the talisman at the viewer with lightning etc around it is very Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in feel and is, again, a bit more real than unusual as it could play on the psyches of those who believe in this. It definitely sets the tone though and makes you fear attacks from the envoys/minions of death. Interestingly, this was one of the few covers (the other most noticeable being Forest Of Doom which was just made a bit more frightening) that wasn’t hugely changed for the Wizard re-issues – with TOD though, the original cover was more frightening and the Wizard version has a bit more of a Sleepy Hollow comfortably-gothic feel to it.
TOD is also unusual in that it manages to be logical and there is little to criticise plot-wise. It does feature the usually irritating reincarnation trick, but in TOD it actually makes perfect sense. You work for Gods and Gods are omnipotent so why can’t you be allowed to be brought back from the dead by them? Thankfully you can only be reincarnated in the final section, so there is still a danger of instant death which means the challenge is not negated too much. Plus, if you are allowed to come back to life, you forfeit some essential items and have to get them some other way, which makes it a bit more interesting. In this respect, TOD does what books such as Forest Of Doom failed miserably to do – it properly and logically handles the re-set button, plus it removes the normal soul-destruction of dying a few steps before the end, especially after you’ve survived everything else this book will already have thrown at you!
The ability to come back from the dead/re-set the story is a mixed blessing in FF. In Forest Of Doom it simply blew all credibility out of the window and was frankly stupid, in Scorpion Swamp it was handled neatly (although you could pretend you weren’t re-setting an area you had already been too), and in Night Of The Necromancer it’s the entire purpose of the exercise as you are dead from the outset (although it can all still go wrong, even then!) In the first two books this meant the game itself was stupidly easy. In Night of the Necromancer it meant the game was incredibly difficult. This suggests that FF writers struggle to deal with this element. Talisman Of Death is, in spite of its many encounters, potentially-disastrous situations with other people/things that want to steal the talisman, and multiple mini-missions along the way that could go wrong, actually not too hard to beat. I think it took me only two attempts and that was only because I missed all the hog men bit the first time and didn’t get a vital piece of equipment (although that did mean I got to fight a catalogue of hard-as-nails dinosaurs.)
As a child this was my least favourite medieval-type FF book, probably because I simply didn’t understand what it was getting at and, at 8, I wasn’t the right age for it. As an adult, and with the benefit of the Lord Of The Rings movies, Harry Potter, and post-9/11 global paranoias about religious cults, this book is actually very intelligent and whilst it definitely does not fit in with most of the other FF books, it certainly makes for a more adult gaming experience and is very satisfying to play, if a bit too easy in the end.