Reviewed by Mark Lain
Number 29 in the original series sees a welcome return to the mean streets of Port Blacksand, which we first visited in depth in City Of Thieves and then passed through en route to somewhere else in Temple Of Terror. This book has not been re-issued in the Wizard Books series and, frankly, this is a great shame as MR is actually a really fun FF. I emphasize the word “fun”, rather than using a word like “excellent”, as this FF does have its shortcomings, but it’s good enough to be a worthy further visit to Port Blacksand, rather than making us wish we’d never bothered going back after the dizzy heights of COT.
This book is the first FF to really put the player into an anti-hero role, which makes it intriguing from the outset. You play a thief who has one night in which to pass the initiation to join PB’s Thieves’ Guild. The initiation itself involves tracking down and stealing a priceless jewel called the Eye of the Basilisk - anyone who has played Ian Livingstone’s abysmal Eye Of The Dragon will be pleased to hear that not all FFs that involve finding unimaginably valuable jewels named after the ocular units of various lizardine creatures are terrible. The jewel is owned by a wealthy merchant called Brass (ha, ha) and you are first required to sneak around PB trying to find clues as to where exactly Brass is stashing said valuable object. You don’t actually get to properly see much of PB as you can only explore three pre-defined areas, but this does make sense as you probably wouldn’t go on any wild goose chases if you are a competent thief – you’d be straight to the point and out as quickly as possible, rather than wasting time having a bit of a look around. Once you’ve found the clues you need, you are then sent on a very linear dungeon trawl to ultimately find the jewel at the end of it.
There is much more depth to the plot than just its general essence, however, some of which makes sense and adds to the atmosphere of the book and some of which is plain ludicrous. Depending on which route you take into various locations you can see different angles on things and gradually learn what you ought to be doing as you go along. For example, if you try to access Brass’ house by shinning up the drainpipe and peering in through the bedroom windows you can establish who is in what rooms and therefore learn what you will meet once you’ve gone into the building via the front door (which it quickly becomes apparent is what you need to be doing.) I like this aspect as it adds a three-dimensional feel to the environment rather than the usual flat, one-way-in-one-way-out approach that you often find in FFs. There are relatively few encounters and combats within PB itself which is logical as you would not want to be drawing attention to yourself or making waves in a place where thieves are hunted by the city guards. Once you pass into the dungeon trawl there are numerous encounters and traps which, again, makes sense as this second part of the book is effectively a test in the vein of Deathtrap Dungeon. The two parts of the book add variety and also add meaning to this being an initiation that involves rather more than just pinching stuff, which would be a bit one-note. There is some nice continuity from other trips to PB: city guards are dressed the same as those in COT, Lord Azzur’s palace is still impenetrable, Madame Star is back (and is still useless), the pubs are still very unpleasant, you can meet Nicodemus (although if you do somehow end up at his hut, you are dead as he still enjoys turning people into newts), etc. Again, this is a nice touch as it adds to the atmosphere and makes PB feel familiar to the player, rather than being totally unconnected to the other FFs that are set there. The plot is also very “interactive” in the RPG sense as you have considerable scope to explore and revisit areas rather than following a linear route, although the dungeon trawl is literally a straight line but this could be deliberate to avoid the book feeling unbalanced towards this section and, therefore, make the player lose the sense of character and place that the first part creates in abundance.
Unfortunately, the RPG element also adds the one really silly part of this book’s plot – if you do not have the clues you need to leave PB at the end of the first part, you are allowed to go back to paragraph 1 and search about again which presents the credibility-losing problem that PB then resets itself, which is a problem FF rarely ever addresses properly. Granted, in MR this isn’t overly noticeable as there aren’t many encounters, kills, etc to have to keep re-visiting, but you could find yourself re-collecting more of the same items. The tavern, the sleeping beggar in the Merchants’ Guild and the re-sets of Brass’ house are more annoying but you might not actually visit the same places more than once unless you know for certain that you need to go back if you’ve established that you’ve missed something important. The fact that you can return to the start an infinite number of times does suggest that this is a very long night and removes some of the sense of urgency, as well as making no sense plot-wise!
There is a neat twist at the end when it becomes apparent that the whole exercise was just one big test as the jewel itself is a fake made of glass. This does also present a bit of a plot dilemma though – given that Brass is the pivot to finding the jewel, are we supposed to think that he is in on it all along? This is never answered so we just have to either draw our own conclusions or assume that there’s a big gaping hole in the crux of the storyline.
This book does not simply offer a (generally) coherent plot and lots of appropriate atmosphere. To help you get into the feel of your anti-hero character (you are, after all, generally used to playing all-round good guys in FFs), there are some neat additional rules and game mechanics added, albeit with mixed results. As you need to move stealthily and silently, you are limited to only being able to carry six backpack items. This is a nice touch, but it is rendered almost meaningless as rarely does anything you find actually qualify as a backpack item, plus weapons (presumably noisy sometimes?) do not count as encumbrance. OK, you have a shortsword, not a regular sword, but all the same, this feature hasn’t been incorporated well at all. Plus, on starting the game, you are told that two item slots are already taken up by your Potion and Provisions which makes you feel that this rule will be a real challenge. Sadly, it is not exploited much and is a wasted opportunity. There is also another small plot niggle here – why does one provision take up the same space as ten? Odd.
A generally better employed new game mechanic is the use of Special Skills of a thiefy nature: you can pick three from Climb, Hide, Pick Lock, Pick Pocket, Secret Signs, Sneak, and Spot Hidden. Sadly, whilst there are many references asking if you have these (and the deployment is fairly balanced across all of them), it becomes quickly apparent that some will be far more useful than others and, if you didn’t choose the best ones, you will go around and around in an endless circle back to section 1 until you either die or lose interest and give up. Hide, Sneak, Climb, and Spot Hidden can often be substituted for successful tests of Skill or Luck (although there are so many of these tests that you do need very high Skill and Luck stats to get through this way, which could be intentional.) Pick Pocket is largely useless and offers few benefits, although this could be a clever feature as you are fairly likely to choose this very thiefy talent, only to discover it’s hopeless, so we’ll give that one the benefit of the doubt as (probably) a good piece of game design. Secret Signs, whilst sounding mysterious, is the worst of the lot as you normally end up deciphering fairly incongruous Thieves’ Guild emblems that it transpires you don’t understand anyway – it’s handy in the tavern to get info but the info isn’t essential, and it adds some plot depth near the end of the dungeon trawl when you can realise that a dead body is a failed testee, but it’s generally no use to you overall. On the other hand, it is not possible to beat the book without Pick Lock (and Climb will become essential as well, depending on your Skill/Luck situation.) Frustratingly enough, or very helpfully, depending on which skills you started with, the book knows that Pick Lock and Climb are essentials and you can find items in PB that act as substitutes for these skills, which is helpful but is also part of the biggest failing of this book – it is far too forgiving to the point of being one of the easiest FFs ever.
Not being content with just allowing repeated resets if you can’t get out of PB, generally ignoring its item restriction rule, giving you the two key skills on a plate, and letting you literally see where you are going wrong, the book has yet more ways of helping you along. If you head off in the wrong direction in the dungeon or in either the Merchants’ Guild or Brass’ House, the book will repeatedly try to convince you to go in the right direction instead. In some cases, it eventually kills you for not listening to its suggestions, but in most cases it just turns you around and makes you go the right way instead. This is hardly a challenge, plus the rare occasions that you are killed instantly are usually the result of rank stupidity on your behalf – indeed, a fair bit of this book can be beaten on common sense alone. Granted this makes you feel the character, but it also takes away the element of danger that is key in FFs. There is a small challenge in that you can only access The Noose (a sort of thief-friendly part of the city) from section 1 (and you need to go there to get a clue), but, as you can keep re-setting the game, it quickly becomes clear that maybe you should be going to this otherwise exclusive location (and I can’t help feeling this might be an error in the construction, maybe?) Plus, I’d have thought that a thief would probably head straight there to try to build up some allies amongst his own kind before tackling the (theoretically) more hostile territories of the Merchants’ Guild and Brass’ House. If all this isn’t enough help, if you don’t know where Brass is hiding the jewel by the time you decide to stop searching the three areas, you are then offered the chance to try various other (more famous) parts of the city, all of which seem fairly suicidal to visit (Lord Azzur’s palace, Nicodemus’ hut??) and, if you try this, the book goes into overdrive to talk you out of it. If you really are daft enough to ignore its advice, it will then kill you, but you wouldn’t be very likely to get into this situation as your wariness as a thief should have turned you away by now.
Personally, I struggle to see how you wouldn’t know where Brass is hiding the jewel as it’s laid on pretty thick, but there is a definite challenge in finding the three actual numerical codes you need to get out of PB – this aspect is really good and makes cheating impossible, but it’s only a matter of time from repeatedly visiting the locations before you will find the codes.
Interestingly, if this book used the Time feature that some FFs use, the constant resets would be offset by limiting how long you can waste going round and round the same three places (if you really need to do this anyway), but that would be far too hard for this most forgiving of FFs! Even the inevitable FF falling at the final hurdle feature is dumbed-down. Granted, you can die at this point, but you might have just acquired a brand-new item in the previous chamber that is probably the answer... and if you haven’t, the book actually allows you to turn to a clue paragraph where your thiefy senses tell you to go back and try to find something that might help in said previous room. Any sense of difficulty that may still have been lingering in your mind will be gone by now (unless you’re dead, of course!)
The art adds to the sense of place very effectively, especially the images within PB itself. We’ve already noted its neat consistency with other PB-set FFs, but the art itself is very well drawn and is full and vivid. The dungeon-set images also have a suitable dark gloom to them, plus there is a distinct feeling of night in all the images which works well and is in context. I have only one issue with the art and that is the image on entry 134 when you enter Brass’ office – the picture is clearly from the outside looking in through the window, yet you are actually in the office at this point so maybe there was a misunderstanding or this picture was originally intended to be used somewhere else? The cover also suffers from an odd problem: the jewel is stated as being yellow in the book’s text, yet it is red on the cover. Is this another paragraph 134 incident or was the cover picture simply never colour-corrected? The blue background and the pink ROGUE lettering look very washed-out and I’m not convinced the cover was intended to look like this. An interesting point to note with this cover is that it is the only cover that shows YOU on it, albeit in fairly non-committal and general shadowy humanoid terms. Overall though, in spite of it looking wrong, there is a night-time feel to the cover and it is quite nice.
An interesting small point of note with this FF is that it includes a few fake paragraphs (eg: 260, 275) to prevent you from cheating by reading random entries and trying to piece the solution together. This is a neat feature but I have two problems with it: 1) This is basically a waste of paragraphs and I don’t like to see this in a FF; 2) This book is so easy I fail to see why you would ever need to cheat!
So, difficulty-wise this book is too simple and far too helpful (although that’s a nice antidote to brutally harsh FFs such as Crypt Of The Sorceror or Chasms Of Malice.) However, in terms of atmosphere and the feeling of the fun of playing a miscreant, it is actually really good and I really enjoy it for its originality and the variety it adds to the series. If it were a little harder it would make you have to plan your skills and route out more, learning from past plays, but it’s still got a lot to recommend it and is a worthwhile entry into the series.