Saturday, 16 March 2013

#14: Temple Of Terror




TEMPLE OF TERROR

Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Originally advertised as Dragon Master, FF #14 can be easily overlooked due to its falling in the middle of a fairly inconsistent period in the series. Puffin’s demanding release schedule (caused by FF being a victim of its own success) meant that other writers and experimental subjects were being brought into the series when it got into its “teens” to allow numerous FF books to be published in a matter of months, with mixed results in terms of quality. Temple Of Terrror was the first Allansia-based medieval FF to be released since #9 Caverns Of The Snow Witch and came after two fairly adult-themed entries (the modern-set #10 House Of Hell  and the medieval but Orb-based #11 Talisman Of Death) and two fairly pathetic Sci-Fi efforts (#12 Space Assassin and #13 Freeway Fighter.) The fact that it was followed by the relatively ignored Sci-Fi detective FF #15 The Rings Of Kether does not help its attempts at getting any attention... and Temple Of Terror certainly deserves attention as it’s a return to the feel of the earliest FF books and is arguably IL’s third best offering after #5 City Of Thieves and #6 Deathtrap Dungeon.

Interestingly the opening section suggests that this is the sequel to #3 The Forest Of Doom as it begins with you recovering in Stonebridge after a recent adventure when the ever-annoying Yaztromo turns up and hires you for another suicide mission after commenting that you look familiar to him. He takes you back through Darkwood Forest (which it turns out he is impervious to dangers in, which begs the question of why he didn’t do the mission in The Forest Of Doom if it would have been so easy for him to get through it) and then teaches you a choice of four out of a possible ten spells. Your task is then to travel to the Desert Of Skulls in search of the lost city of Vatos which is where five dragon statues are hidden. These statues are being sought by the evil wizard Malbordus so that he can use them to take over the world (surprise, surprise...) You have to get there before him and destroy the statues to foil his evil plan. Unusually for FF the plot of this book flows very logically and it all seems to make sense as you work your way along. The introduction is very well put together and you do get a sense of series continuity which I always like to see in FFs. There is also a genuinely epic feel to the plot as you have to actually locate Vatos rather than just starting on the doorstep like you do in so many other FFs (although repeat playing will reveal that it’s impossible to miss Vatos as long as you live long enough to get to it as this is a linear IL FF and you can’t go in any other direction once you’re close to it.) You have a choice of two different routes to take (although one is more dangerous and there is an essential item that you can only get if you go the other way), either via the ever-popular Port Blacksand or a trek directly south across the plains. Whichever way you go you have to negotiate the desert and it’s certainly pretty tough and really does have an atmosphere of endlessly trailing across sand with the sun relentlessly beating down on you. Logically, you are required to drink regularly, which is good to see as it makes perfect sense in a desert and you can meet some fairly tough creatures (that need to be tough to survive in such a hostile environment) including an incredibly strong Sk 10 St 20 Giant Sandworm (although you later discover that there was a reason it’s so tough as it yields an essential item that you can’t win without having, so that seems sensible too.) Once you’ve reached Vatos there is then a dungeon trawl through the abandoned city, hunting for the dragon statues before Malbordus gets to them.

But there is even more to this book’s plot than all this and this has to be one of the most well fleshed-out stories of any FF book as there are twists along the way to add to the challenge. Once you’ve survived the trip to the desert, then negotiated the desert to reach Vatos, as soon as you enter the city the Messenger Of Death whispers “DEATH” in your ear and you are involved in one of FFs best races against time ever. He tells you that if you find all five of the letters that spell out “DEATH” he will appear and suck the lifeforce out of your body (and not in a good way lol.) Thus you are presented with a double-edged challenge. As this is Ian Livingstone, the five dragon statues are very well hidden and involve lots of risk-taking and opening/looking behind things. However, you never know whether what you’re opening or looking in will contain a statue you want or one of the five letters you are trying to avoid. This mechanic is brilliant and adds masses of tension to the experience and really gives you something to aim for. You are not just hunting for a shopping list of items (and there are loads to find in this book as it’s Ian Livingstone so you can’t expect anything less), you are also trying to avoid finding some stuff as well. In keeping with the early FFs, the dungeon is full of fiendish traps and tough opponents, along with some NPCs that are helpful, and there are lots of choices of left or right to take. Also, as it’s Livingstone, the route is pretty linear and the true path is narrow, but you don’t really notice as you are intently concentrating on finding dragon statues without finding DEATH letters (which are all avoidable, incidentally.) There is a fairly tense moment where you can find two of the letters back-to-back if you’re unfortunate enough, but it’s also possible to find the first dragon statue immediately after you meet the Messenger Of Death which introduces a feature that is very rare in all but the best IL FFs (ie this one and numbers 5 and 6) – balance of difficulty.

This book, as with numbers 5 and 6, is very tough and requires multiple replays to beat it. What is great about this FF (and 5 and 6) is that it’s so well designed in terms of interest and excitement that you want to keep coming back and you know that you will eventually find the true path through repeat plays. What is brilliant about this FF (and, again, 5 and 6) is that it is as encouraging and rewards you as much as it punishes you. Skill, Stamina and Luck penalties are frequent and particularly harsh in this book (often 4 or 5 points are lost for errors), but these are offset against very generous bonuses for successes. You are allowed to use magic which always goes in your favour, but there are Stamina penalties for this so you have to choose your moments wisely (as in Steve Jackson Sorcery! cycle.) There is no optimum selection of spells and they are all handy (but not totally essential) at various points in the game. To avoid the final section being too easy, your magic is disabled near the end but I like this as it makes you rely on key items rather than using the easy way around things. Even the plot has an extra element of balance and intrigue – very little is made of Malbordus once you reach Vatos. No-one has heard of him and that’s because the few inhabitants of the lost city are living under the dictatorial grip of a megalomaniac called Leesha and, interestingly, she plays a far bigger role in the Vatos section than Malbordus does, which adds an interesting extra twist to the plot as you start to worry about what she might have in store for you, let alone Malbordus.

In the rules section, there is no mention of Potions and this is the first medieval FF where you do not get a Potion from the outset. You do get 10 Provisions (which you can lose and replace at various stages, which is also nicely balanced) and a rather generous 25 gold pieces. Initially, the money seems to be a mixed blessing as you can get ripped-off a lot early on in the book (as well as robbed of all of it), but it is not needed once you’ve used whatever you’ve got left of it to buy some items from a nomadic trader in the desert (if you find him.) There’s a neat feature here as some of his more useful-looking objects are useless and the more incongruous ones can prove very handy, but none are obvious by their price (no 25 gp blue candles here like in The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain.) There is also a treasure-related continuity item where you can find an item that could make you rich if you survive. It is very unusual for a FF book to make you think of your future beyond its own ending in terms of riches or fame (again Deathtrap Dungeon is one of the few others.)

If this book has one downside it is with Malbordus himself. It is possible to completely forget about him once your focus has been switched to Leesha (who you learn far more about) and he seems to be awkwardly tagged onto the end once you’ve dealt with her. He is definitely tough (Stamina 18) but there is no pre-combat to negotiate and you can get straight on with the battle which, if you beat him, leads you to paragraph 400 and victory. However, as this book is well-balanced the skill is in actually reaching him as you will have taken so many stat penalties and bonuses by now that at least one of your stats is going to be dangerously low, so you will do well to actually beat him even in straight combat. This could be intentional to avoid the soul-destroying problem in FFs of falling at the final hurdle due to something you probably couldn’t have anticipated. The usual Ian Livingstone problem of needing maximum stats to have any hope of winning is apparent, but this is normal for his FFs and it’s at least handled better and fairer than usual so you tend not to notice.

The encounters in TOT are also well-balanced and varied, ranging from low-stat insects through to very tough specials (like the Night Terror) that really do take some beating. Some encounters can only be fought with special items (which also keeps things interesting) rather than just hacking your way through everything. Indeed, there are some NPCs that you need to speak to rather than kill so variety is added there too and you are required to think a lot about what actions to take (especially when you’re trying to find more dragons and less DEATH letters.)

As several of the encounters are fairly horrific (Night Terror, Phantom, Messenger Of Death, Giant Sandworm), the art is suitably unpleasant and Bill Houston’s vacant staring eyes on some creatures are very effective. I also like his skeleton guards dressed in Egyptian gear which, although no reference is ever directly made to pyramids/Egypt/pharaohs/mummies, seem very appropriate in the desert/lost city theme. Chris Achilleos’ cover art is effective, but I’d have preferred a yellower desert look rather than the night brown of the cover, especially as the cover depicts Vatos’ Serpent Guard who you meet on first arriving when it is still daylight (you are told specifically later on when it turns to night as that’s when the Phantom and Night Terror appear.) Achilleos’ best FF art ever was his wrap-around cover for Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World but his TOT cover is well-drawn too. As ever, the revised cover art for Wizard Book’s reissue is inferior and, whilst scarier than usual for Wizard’s covers, does not capture the feel of this book at all. This is not a horror-themed FF and the Wizard cover would suggest this. I gather that IL wanted the Wizard cover to be an extreme close-up of an Orc which would explain the thinking behind the design, but this is of little relevance in the book’s plot.

Overall this is a brilliantly-designed FF that is exciting and interesting from beginning to end. It is urgently written in a very upbeat manner with many long descriptive paragraphs that really draw you into the scenes. The initial journey to Vatos is epic in a good way and avoids the tedious drudgery of Caverns Of The Snow Witch and there are constant surprises once you are in Vatos itself. Few FFs have a plot mechanism that is as effective as the play-off of the Messenger Of Death against the need to hunt for the dragons, and Livingstone manages to create his second-best and most varied dungeon after Deathtrap Dungeon. This book is one of the few highlights of the 11 thru 19 part of the original series and is arguably one of the best medieval FFs. Incidentally, this is one of only two FFs that has no Puffin Books puffin logo on the spine – the other being #30 Chasms Of Malice but they probably disowned that one...

1 comment:

  1. My green spine copy of this book has the Puffin logo intact, but maybe it's a reprint.

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