THE LORD OF SHADOW KEEP
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.)