Thursday, 28 February 2013

#16: Seas Of Blood


Andrew Chapman

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Number 16 in the original series is one of only two FFs where you get to play an out-and-out baddie (along with Midnight Rogue where you’re less bad and more just vaguely shady.) It is also one of only two pirate-themed FFs ever released (the other being the many-years-in-limbo Bloodbones.) Andrew Chapman was fairly prolific in the teens era of the series, giving us #12 Space Assassin, #15 The Rings Of Kether and this effort all in very short succession. The quality of his output was sadly very inconsistent, but there was a noticeable improvement from book to book: Space Assassin was terrible, The Rings Of Kether was adequate, but Seas Of Blood was actually really good. Perhaps Chapman realised this as at this point he then stopped writing FFs for good (other than a co-writing credit in the 2-player offering Clash Of The Princes.) Incidentally, to avoid any awkward silences he didn’t die suddenly, I’ve checked J

There is much to relish in your portrayal of a pirate captain who has engaged in a wager with his rival (the colourfully named Abdul The Butcher) to decide who is king of the pirates (although that does awkwardly now remind me of Aardman’s The Pirates in An Adventure with Scientists, which could reduce this book’s credibility slightly nowadays!) You both have a limited time in which to sail around the Inland Sea, plundering, murdering and robbing to gather as much gold and slaves as possible. Whoever has the most when you reach the far end is the winner. So the premise is pretty simple really, which works well and is a nice respite from the usual FF fare of either assassinating a megalomaniac who’s threatening the world or going through some hideous experience or other to acquire untold wealth and fame. To help accentuate the difference between the individual YOU and the YOU that has a big ship and a crew, two new stats (Crew Strike ie Skill and Crew Strength ie Stamina) are introduced. New stats are always a mixed-bag but, unlike some other attempts at crews (the dismal and unnecessarily long-winded effort in Starship Traveller springs to mind), this one is well-handled. There are many skirmishes with other ships and/or bunches of people and, although most of these are fairly difficult, you do get the feeling of a tough inter-crew battle which is pretty accurate as you wouldn’t expect this to be over in three dice rolls. You also can’t escape unless you win an Attack Round (again, logical, as you’d collectively need the upper hand overall, rather than it just being YOU that’s running off.) To add a sense of urgency there is a Log feature as well where you keep track of how long you have been travelling for – another logical inclusion as you are on a schedule here! If you exceed the number of days agreed with Abdul you lose regardless (more good plot logic.) Some extra rules have been added as well to deal with time being a healer and also with strengthening your depleted crew. Capturing slaves increases your Crew Strength and you personally can regain 1 point of lost Stamina per day of travelling. Again, these are further logical inclusions and are, again, welcome.

Whilst the fairly simple plot is executed effectively, there are a few issues that seem at odds with the overall well thought-out construction:
  • ·         Primarily, if you have been plying these seas and making a nuisance of yourself in them for years how come a) you don’t seem to know what there is anywhere and b) no-one seems to know who you are (or has everyone who ever met you ended up dead)?
  • ·         Less jarring, but also fairly evident is that there seems to be a time dilation effect depending on which direction you go in or what verb is describing your way of moving. For example, heading one way up a river takes ages, but going the other is really fast (unless of course the current is incredibly strong in one direction, maybe?) Likewise, “speeding” towards Nippur takes twice as long as just generally going there!
  • ·         No matter which direction you go in and how many times you zigzag across the Inland Sea, you never seem to run into Abdul and his crew. What route exactly does he take then? Is he watching where YOU go and deliberately going the other way or something? Or does he just head straight for the really rich pickings and then spend a few days R&R somewhere? It would be nice to be able to do some taunting and even plunder each other along the way as that would really add some extra urgency to the game.
  • ·         Occasionally, there are some moments that just don’t seem to make sense, in particular an assault on a monastery where you are made to change your mind about torching it with flaming arrows only for your “over-zealous” (and presumably fairly disobedient) crew to burn it down anyway destroying all its booty in the process (or is this an admonishment for attacking a monastery?, which a nasty pirate wouldn’t really be bothered about in moral terms) and a Roc’s nest that seems to contain the entrance to a dungeon (that has no dead clumsy baby Rocs in it that would presumably have slid into it at some point surely?)

Given the subject matter (and the fact that pirates are presumably unwelcome in most places), the difficulty level is fairly high in this book, both in the combat/encounter sense and in the unpleasant instant deaths sense (and many of them are pretty unpleasant.) There are c.40 instant death paragraphs in this book, in other words 10% of it is trying to kill you! You are especially penalised for exploring. Given that most FF players will want to take some risks and will enjoy guessing what might be good and bad situations to get in, this book is pretty harsh on bravery. Combat-wise, you will need a very high (11 or 12 preferably) Crew Strike to stand a chance in ship-to-ship combat situations which is, unusually for the harder FFs, very suitable here as fighting other pirates and trained navies is not going to be easy (most ships encountered have Crew Strike 9 or 10.) The fact that some tough combats yield hardly any booty adds to the difficulty and the fact that you need to choose wisely before engaging other ships. There is even a point where you can literally find yourself in the middle of a warzone which is very hard to escape from and, again, this really does make sense. To add to the difficulty, the true path is very tight and exploring often gets you nowhere as many diversions are exactly that – diversions that send you on a wild goose chase up a river etc and gain you nothing. As time is of the essence this could be another deliberate feature but it does kind of take away the whole idea of an adventure. The real killer comes in a triple-wammy at the end where you need to have four winds on your side, followed by a hand-to-hand fight with a Cyclops and finally the discovery that your (seemingly) huge amount of booty gets divided in half for the final count-off with Abdul himself. In one way you can feel pretty cheated by this at the end but, on the other hand, it does show you that you need to seek out the true path and gather a vast amount of gold (800+ gps to be exact.)

Initially, it appears that you have quite a variety of routes to take, which seems interesting and varied, but multiple playing will show just how linear this adventure really is and also just how much of it is pointless diversion and red herrings (rather like House Of Hell.) This means you can learn from replaying and gradually discover the optimum route so there is lots of playability on offer here. Add to that the genuine satisfaction gained from playing a baddie, some interesting side-missions, the general fun of bataar racing (Steve Jackson would approve!) and this book’s (overall) well-designed structure, and this makes for a generally really good FF.

There is one real tour-de-force sequence in this book which is not well-written but is brilliantly designed: the battle with the Cyclops. Rather than a straight FF combat, you have to choose where to strike the Cyclops over numerous blows and there is a real skill to it, rather than just slashing with your sword/rolling the dice. This sequence covers around 30 paragraphs and is reminiscent of the car chase in Chapman’s The Rings Of Kether. Chapman seems very fond of these long set-pieces and should perhaps have been a film director instead, as his ideas and execution are better than his writing abilities.

Indeed, the only real problems with this book are peripheral rather than any faults in the game itself. Chapman’s writing is typically terse and, at times, lacking in colour and detail. The atmosphere is created more from your being a pirate and the premise of the game, rather than from the text, which is fairly barren in places. Chapman’s snappy approach worked in The Rings Of Kether as it added a hard-boiled aspect, whilst his frankly dull atmosphere-less prose in FF#12 all but ruined Space Assassin. In Seas Of Blood it just about gets away with it as your attention is elsewhere. The endings are genuine let-downs and make you wonder why you bothered turning to them – whether you win or lose you only get two sentences that amount to little more than either “You lose. Ha ha” or “You win. Hurrah.” (but actually phrased worse than that!) The other big problem is Bob Harvey’s art which I really do not like. Granted it is better here than in Talisman Of Death, having a slightly sun-drenched “bright” feel to it that adds a Treasure Island­-ish effect, but it is still too “Arabian Nights” in feel and does not seem to be fantasy art. If anything, Harvey’s art looks more like semi-serious history to me that detracts from the theme of this book. The cover is far better and has real menace to it, even if a) the seas of blood themselves aren’t red and b) the hydra is nowhere near that big when you meet it. Incidentally, this and Robot Commando both have the number and Fighting Fantasy lettering in black on the cover instead of the usual white – I have no idea why!

Overall I really like this book and have played it many many times without ever getting bored of it. Its strengths carry it through and do well to overcome its odd parts and bad writing/artwork. Wizard Books haven’t re-issued any of Andrew Chapman’s FFs, but this must surely be the one that most deserves a re-issue as it is genuinely good.

Monday, 25 February 2013

The Trolltooth Wars


Steve Jackson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

I have to admit that when this first came out I approached the concept of a “Fighting Fantasy Novel” with some scepticism. The whole idea of a FF book is that it’s “Part-Novel, Part-Game in which YOU are the hero”. This offering is 100% novel, no part game, and someone else is the hero. So in that sense it kind of defeats the object of it’s being FF really. However, if you can get your head around the idea that this is a concerted effort to expand on the FF folklore that was assembled in Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World, and not a shameless cash-in for Puffin at the height of FF’s success, then there is definitely some value in the creation of a FF Novel series. Steve Jackson was always trying to expand the boundaries of FF as a franchise so he was the most likely person to pen the first FF novel of which there were, eventually, only seven – three featuring Chadda Darkmane and four about Zagor. In keeping with the FF gamebooks, SJ wrote the first, then SJ and IL executive produced the rest that were written by various other interested parties.
As this is a Jackson effort, the key NPCs are Jackson creations, Balthus Dire (from The Citadel Of Chaos) and Zharradan Marr (from Creature Of Havoc), with supporting roles for Jackson/Livingstone’s Zagor (from The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain) and Livingstone’s cartoonish Yaztromo (who we first met in The Forest Of Doom and who then turned-up ad nauseum in various other FFs.) Many of the creatures lean towards the more outlandish and original Jackson types (rhino-men, ganjees, calacorms, soulless ones, etc) with the usual inclusion of some fantasy standards (goblins, orcs, etc) which makes this feel like a very Jackson-esque effort. SJ’s prose was always well written in his FFs and that is the case here too and his tendency to include some dark humour also shows through (Ian Livingstone’s FF writing always felt more serious in tone) which is welcome and keeps it interesting for the reader.
Much has been said in reviews about the inconsistency or sheer ludicrousness of FF plots. The fact that traditional FF is a game makes this less annoying, but this would never work in a story book. Thankfully, SJ manages to create a logical and well fleshed-out storyline that flows nicely and makes perfect sense. The added bonus of this being a story book means that it is possible to develop the urgency of the plot by having multiple threads running simultaneously to eventually meet together further into the story (eg: the story often switches between Dire’s, Marr’s, and Darkmane’s activities) – this would be impossible in a FF gamebook because, by definition, YOU can only know what has happened and/or is happening to YOU (unless you’re psychic or something.) The plot revolves around possession of a herb called cunnelwort that allows you to go on little forays into the spiritworld (LSD then basically?) Whoever has this power can become the most powerful sorcerer on Titan so Marr and Dire both want it. Marr has already got it (but can’t really use it properly otherwise he would already be Sorceror #1 presumably), so Dire’s minions attack a caravan transporting some and steal it. This upsets Marr and very soon a war breaks out between their two forces. Dire uses the usual collection of bizarre vivisects that anyone who has played The Citadel Of Chaos will be familiar with, whilst Marr’s army consists largely of his unholy experiments with gormless zombie-type things. The main protagonist enters the fray in the form of Chadda Darkmane (the YOU of the piece, in fact), an adventurer from Salamonis who is keen to increase his Amanour (which is best described as a kind of publically-acknowledged kudos or the adventurer’s equivalent of well-publicised sexual virility) so he gets hired by the King of Salamonis to meddle in the war and make sure Salamonis does not get invaded. It soon becomes apparent to Chadda that he can make his task easier by visiting the third of Allansia’s evil sorcerers (Zagor) and asking him for help. So, long story short, Dire and Marr are at war, whilst Chadda visits a few towns and then plays The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain but with the aim of making friends with Zagor rather than nicking his treasure. Needless to say, Chadda acquires a couple of hangers-on along the way, both of whom in traditional FF companion style eventually end up dead, so no surprises there. It is worth noting as well that once again Jackson cannot resist referencing Greek mythology when it turns out that the entire story is just the Gods playing a game to relieve their boredom and personally I really liked this very unexpected ending.
Much of the enjoyment of this book comes from its exposition of the FF world. There is a really nice background to the Dire family early on in the book, the role played by the ganjees makes sense of how they came to be living with Balthus Dire in The Citadel Of Chaos, Zharradan Marr is revealed as even more despotic than he appears in Creature Of Havoc, and Zagor is actually quite sympathetic by comparison and we can see why he buried himself so deep inside Firetop Mountain to get a bit of peace within the microcosm of his own impenetrable domain. A few areas of illogicality in FF gamebooks are explained along the way (eg: why the keys to Zagor’s treasure chest are scattered around Firetop Mountain’s dungeon) and we get to visit one of the bizarre novelty towns in Allansia (Shazaar) which gives SJ a chance to be playful as he often is in his FF books. There is a very interesting section where we are introduced to the ganjees’ mortal enemies (the sorq), so they’re not totally indestructible after all or, at the very least, they do appear to have a nemesis. There are a few small downsides to the FFxploitation in this book, but they are mostly harmless – the similes in particular are often laboured and seem a little smug (smelling like a skunkbear, etc etc) and Darkmane’s annoying Chervah sidekick is a sort of hyper-superstitious version of the equally-irritating Gronk in 2000AD’s Strontium Dog stories.
If there is one area of confusion it would be where this story is supposed to fit into the FF story arc. The gamebooks do tend to have a coherent flow with sequels and prequels along the way etc. Given that Balthus Dire is still alive, this book must come before FF #2 The Citadel Of Chaos. The presence of Marr is more confusing as he gets trapped in his own dimension in FF #24 Creature Of Havoc and gets trapped again in The Trolltooth Wars when Darkmane smashes the mirror he likes to hide in – unless he has a lot of mirrors with pan-dimensional properties, this is fairly hard to explain. Zagor still being alive is less problematic as he keeps reincarnating anyway (albeit in a kind of Frankenstein’s monster way) so the jury is out in that sense, but he does still have his treasure so, logically, this would also sit before FF #1 The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain. Other aspects of Firetop Mountain suggest this as well – the iron cyclops still has its jewelled eye, the minotaur in the Maze of Zagor is still alive, the keys to Zagor’s treasure chest are still where you find them in WOFM, etc.
There is a certain assumption, in the way this book is written, that the reader is familiar with Titan and the FF world, but I can accept this as it is fairly unlikely that anyone would read this book without having a prior knowledge of FF. The attraction of a FF novel would stem from liking the gamebooks, so this does make sense. There is also an assumption that the reader has completed The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain as Darkmane’s trawl through Firetop Mountain is full of spoilers that will tell you how to find the true path (in terms of items, at least) through Firetop Mountain. In particular, where to find Zagor’s keys and what his two weaknesses are (the eye of the Cyclops and his deck of cards) are given away here.
In a clever bid to make this 100% novel FF book more acceptable to FF fans, key moments are punctuated with internal art by Russ Nicholson. This is especially astute as Nicholson’s images of Zagor and Balthus Dire are used several times which adds coherence with the gamebooks. As ever, Nicholson’s art is really good throughout and his particularly beady-eyed and ugly goblin/orc art is as good here as it is in any other FF he has drawn. Again, this adds a nice linking feature to the gamebooks.
There is one aspect of this book that rarely appears in FF gamebooks. The gamebooks rarely show much empathy plot-wise as any “human” element is supposed to come from YOU, the player. As the immersive-ness of the adventure being “yours” is not present when Darkmane is experiencing what there is to be experienced, the reader's sympathies are gained in other ways here and SJ handles this very well in his writing. Of particular note are Balthus Dire’s initial cunnelwort trip which is a bit overwhelming even for a sorcerer of his experience/evil-ness (you really get a sense of how the spiritworld really ought to be left alone by mortals) and the real highlight of Jackson’s writing comes in the attack on the village of Covan (again, from Creature Of Havoc and presumably fully re-populated by the time FF # 24 enters the story arc) which is genuinely harrowing in the way it is written from the perspective of one family.
All things considered, there are hardly any negative points to this book. The fact that it manages to act as a compliment to the gamebooks (assuming you can figure out where it sits in the “history” of Titan) is a credit to how well it is written and there is definitely some fun to be had in the diversion of watching someone else having to go through what YOU would normally be up against in a standard FF gamebook. There are no dull points, there are many exciting and/or disturbing points and the book bounces along very well. It’s very easy to read 100 pages of it in one short sitting without even realising how much of it you’ve just read - surely that has to be the sign of an enjoyable novel... The FF novels have never been re-issued and definitely deserve another chance assuming they can still find an audience.

Friday, 1 February 2013

The Lord Of Shadow Keep


Oliver Johnson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Originally planned (and advertised) as number 13 in the original FF cycle, this book instead surfaced as number 3 in the rival Golden Dragon Fantasy Gamebooks series published by Granada. From what I can establish, this was commissioned by Puffin and was entirely intended for the FF series, when Johnson suddenly turned traitor and the book was released by Golden Dragon instead without Puffin even knowing this was going to happen! Forget the eventually released Bloodbones, this book was totally lost to FF as it NEVER appeared in the FF series and is far less known and talked about than Bloodbones. If it wasn’t for it being listed as a forthcoming book in early editions of Sorcery! this book would probably have passed by all but the most inquiring of FF fans and collectors.

Rather appropriately, treachery is exactly the subject matter of this adventure. The premise revolves around YOU being a member of the Imperial Guard of King Valafor (Richard I?) who has gone on crusade against some (presumably heretical if it’s a crusade?) goblins. He left his supposedly nice brother Averok (King John?) as Regent, but, as is often the case, Averok soon turned despotic and sadistic under the influence of the thoroughly unsavoury Arkayn Darkrobe (one of the most cringeworthy baddie names of any FF ever), so it’s your job to hunt Mr Darkrobe down in his castle (the Shadow Keep of the title) and rid the land of Lalassa of him, thus allowing nice old King Valafor to be restored so everyone can live happily ever after. Oh, and Darkrobe is a vampire by the way... and so is Averok... not that you ever actually meet Averok. So, plot-wise, this is pretty much the usual FF standard fall-back idea of hunt down and kill the baddie who is threatening life as we know it. Sounds like it would have fitted in perfectly in the FF series so far then!

The plot as you play is very linear as you travel from your hometown, through a forest, across a plain, and then into Shadow Keep itself (which is basically akin to the Black Tower in Citadel Of Chaos, I suppose.) There is only one true path and there are rarely many options to digress from it other than to go either left or right, or select a staircase or door out of two or three, all of which will eventually lead to the same place, followed by another set of supposed “choices” that eventually lead to the same next place, and so on, so, again, this is pretty much a standard FF trek followed by a dungeon trawl, followed by ascending a tower. As it is largely set in a tower and you are likely to want to get to it quickly, in this case, linearity makes sense and, as with COC, once you’re ascending the tower, the likelihood of digression will be minimal by definition. So this is acceptable, if a little restrictive in terms of having a choice of where to go next. All in all, the plot here is very logical with no bizarre digressions and it does feel like it flows and makes sense as you play through it. The further into the Keep you go, the more undead you meet, until you encounter a mass of hungry ghouls in a dining hall and/or a group of dapper vampires, followed by the big man himself. Darkrobe’s minions are milling about the place trying to protect their master and there are a few comedy encounters such as a Lizard Man with a lisp who seems to be straight out of PG Wodehouse, a somnambulist witch, and an unusually sympathetic ogre. There is a courtyard to negotiate before you get into the keep, as well as a Ghoul who demands a password, and the ghost of Darkrobe’s deceased ex-wife (all very similar to Citadel Of Chaos then, really.)

Again, as with COC, there aren’t an awful lot of items that you need to collect but, those that you do need, are totally essential (although you’re given the most important one in the introduction before you’ve even started!) Also, just like COC, there are a lot of instant death paragraphs (nearly 10% of the entire book in fact), especially once you’re in the Keep itself, which does make for a pretty tough adventure. To make it even harder, you need a very high Psi stat to stand any chance of mentally coming to terms with the Keep’s inhabitants (Vault Of The Vampire would employ the similar stat of Faith, House Of Hell used Fear, and Beneath Nightmare Castle handled this as Willpower, to name but a few of the plethora of different approaches to this idea.) Add to this the fact that you also need a decent Agility score otherwise you have no hope in Skill or Luck test-equivalent situations, plus a very high Vigour stat to survive the many Stamina-reducing happenings, and you get a book that cannot be won without superhumanly-high attributes (so Ian Livingstone would have approved, then!)

To make this book even harder, combats are handled in a manner that completely disregards any evidence of your being a battle-trained imperial guard. Basically, each combat scenario is different, but many are pretty weighted against you. You throw two dice and then check to see what the outcome is. Some combats lead to instant death if you roll a 2, most are just either you or the enemy taking damage, but some have very different results dependant on the number rolled. In some cases, a higher roll can cause severe damage to either you or your foe. For example, if you still have the magic ring from the introduction section you can potentially inflict 10 points of damage to Darkrobe in one hit. Conversely, if you attempt to attack him outright as soon as you meet him you instantly take 15 points of Vigour damage (meaning you are almost certainly dead, I’d have thought.) If Agility is basically a mixture of Skill and Luck, and Vigour is Stamina this would be equivalent to losing 15 points of Stamina which would surely be the highest damage taken in one move by you in any FF book ever. Whilst it emphasises the importance of the magical ring, it also gives you basically no chance of winning without it so killing you outright would have seemed fairer (and is hardly rare in the final showdown situation in most FFs.)

So, the plot is logical if very linear by necessity and there is no ridiculously-long Livingstone-style shopping list, which are good things. There is also a really nice long introduction that sets the scene very effectively. On the flip-side, stat-wise this book is very tough and combats can be very unfair at times, as can the number of instant deaths (which some might view as a challenge in line with Citadel Of Chaos again, so this is both a plus and a minus really), although overall this book does veer in the overly-difficult direction a lot of the time.

The most interesting thing about this book, and part of the real intrigue in playing it, is seeing how it would have functioned as a FF book had Oliver Johnson not stabbed Puffin and FF in the back at the last minute. The mechanics of FF have been smoothly switched to use the Golden Dragon system and, notwithstanding moments like the grossly unreasonable 15 Vigour (Stamina) point penalty, it would work well using either set of rules (although Psi would need an equivalent new attribute inventing, but that’s hardly unusual in FF.) It would be worth getting hold of the FF manuscript (if it even still exists) just to see how the 15 Vigour point loss was meant to work in Stamina points and also how the many special attacks of various encounters would have been handled. Would this book have fallen into the trap of using practically nothing but “Specials”? – if so, it would have seemed a bit unbalanced, unless the justification would be that only “Specials” can survive in the Keep, which you could argue would make sense. I found it a bit odd that you can meet two different lycanthrope species in short succession but there are none after these so we can overlook this (after all, this isn’t Howl Of The Werewolf.) Using FF’s combat system would resolve the combat problems above, so maybe this book was forced down the combat unfairness route mentioned before when it was converted into a Golden Dragon offering. Equally of note is the length (or lack, thereof) of this book: at only 300 paragraphs, it is standard for Golden Dragon, but would leave you feeling very short-changed if a FF had only 300 entries. I can’t help thinking that this did start out with the usual 400 sections as there are parts of its construction that seem edited and there’s a cut-and-shut feel to it. For example, some paragraphs send you to others on the facing page or within a dozen or so sections either way which does make it a bit easy to cheat as you can see what’s coming without having to use multiple fingers to mark save points. A more frustrating result of this suspected editing is that most of the illustrations are on the wrong pages and footnotes have been inserted to make you look at the previous page’s picture (or the next page’s one.) This makes it seem disjointed in places. Furthermore, there is a section where, if you go a certain way, you can find yourself in a labyrinth. These are usually not good places to be in FF books as anyone who has spent hours endlessly wandering around Warlock Of Firetop Mountain’s Maze Of Zagor will understand. The labyrinth in TLOSK ends as soon as it begins. Basically, in you go, find a minotaur immediately, and then out you go again. Even if you get “lost” you get straight back out easily. Either a lot of the (presumably) removed paragraphs related to the labyrinth or Johnson needs to look the word “labyrinth” up in a Dictionary! Either way, this part of the book was frankly pathetic and might just as well have been excised completely. Also, where, in a Keep, would you find room for a maze anyway? This is pretty much the only illogical aspect of this book but, as it’s mostly non-existent, you’d hardly notice! Also of note is the switching of location – Allansia is thinly-veiled and re-worded as Lalassa and there are numerous references to the Icewrack Hills (a corruption of Icefinger Mountains and Moonstone Hills maybe?)

The real let-down in this book is Leo Hartas’ artwork. The illustrations are almost cartoon-ish and rarely rise above the semi-comical. Only the picture of Darkrobe’s dead wife has any oomph to it and you certainly don’t get the impression of an imposing and terrifyingly evil environment.

A counter-balance to the generally unsuitable art is Oliver Johnson’s text. Descriptions are lengthy and generally thorough and the scene is set well, especially in numerous colourful descriptions of direction-taking options (eg: stairs with blood on them vs stairs with red ribbon on them vs plain old stairs.) This adds a nice sense of foreboding and manages your expectations as a reader pretty well. Some of the instant deaths feel a bit curt and unsatisfying, but most are well-written and are far from the, for example, Luke Sharp-style “You are dead, so there” type that can be a major anti-climax.

All things considered, this is an entertaining, if short, adventure and you certainly don’t feel you’ve wasted your time by playing it. Yes, the labyrinth is a contradiction in terms, the art is hardly worth bothering with, and it’s very very hard, but overall (in a 400-section full FF version with the stats properly factored) it could well have been one of the better entries into the very uneven “teens” part of the series (ie numbers 11 thru 19) and would certainly have been better than the eventual number 13 we received (Ian Livingstone’s only Sci-Fi effort, the Mad Max rip-off Freeway Fighter.)