Sunday, 10 March 2013

#27: Star Strider


Luke Sharp

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Let’s make something clear from the outset: as is often the case with FF aficionados, I am not generally particularly fond of the majority of the small number of Sci-Fi FFs, nor do I rate Luke Sharp (real name Alkis Alkiviades) as a FF author. He only wrote four FF books and has been criticised for including unfair features in his FFs such as Luck tests that invariably lead to death if you fail them and arbitrary dice rolling (often several times within one paragraph) where failure will also kill you. Sharp’s second FF offering (#30 Chasms Of Malice) is infamous for being practically impossible and his third (#35 Daggers Of Darkness) is certainly not a walk in the park either. Interestingly enough, his first effort, and his only Sci-Fi FF, is actually fairly easy (if you go the right way) and is far shorter when compared to his pretty long (in the FF context) medieval books.

The premise here is that YOU are a Rogue Tracer (aka a Star Strider) who has been hired to rescue the Galactic President from a hostile group of aliens who want to extract some key strategic info that is in his head. The aliens in question are the Gromulans (or Groms) who have settled Earth, a now fairly irrelevant planet that YOU know very little about. Exactly when this is supposed to be set is hard to say, but most Humans have left Earth and settled off-world so it must be set after 2019 which is when its obvious conceptual prototype (Blade Runner) is set! Off-world settling is heavily plugged in Blade Runner and the concept of your being a crack bounty hunter is a nod to this as well so Sharp has presumably borrowed from it. Indeed, borrowing is very much in evidence in Star Strider and there is a feeling that it is a hodge-podge of various likely influences both from classic Sci-Fi and also from actual Earth reality:
  • ·         A Rogue Tracer = a Blade Runner (more or less)
  • ·         The semi-baddies are the humanoid Gromulans = the semi-friendly but untrustworthy humanoid Romulans in Star Trek
  • ·         Youth gangs abound on Earth called Houlgans that are based on “some sort of ancient religion” and have names like L’pool, R’al and G’ners = football hooliganism
  • ·         You can ride Silverhound hoverbuses = Greyhound buses in America
  • ·         There is a race of feline humanoids from the planet Wistas-4 = Whiskas cat food
  • ·         You ride a hoverboard in the final London section = the hoverboards in Back To The Future II
  • ·         Earth is fairly irrelevant and of little interest/threat = Earth is “Mostly Harmless” in The Hitch-Hikers’ Guide To The Galaxy

Some of these references (if intended) are actually quite witty and there is a definite satirical element to this FF. The Gromulans have the ability to use Illus-O-Scopes to control the planets they settle. Much is made of the Grom’s illusions in this book, plus you are sometimes inconvenienced by public transport which is unreliable and pretty useless. Added to this is that any food you eat seems to be fairly tasteless. All this suggests that Sharp is trying to say something about reality on present day Earth here. How successful this is depends on how much you notice of it and/or read into it but it’s definitely there and it’s rare that FF attempts satire so this does add to the experience.

As is often the case with LS’ FFs there is a lengthy background section that acts as you being offered the mission, followed by a mission brief where the scenario is explained very thoroughly including such details as the effect of Illus-O-Scopes and why the President’s info is so critical (along with some colourful detail about the Groms’ fondness for snails and chess, which is a bit bizarre.) The background is interesting enough to make you want to play the book, but you suspect from the outset that this could be a fairly daft experience and this will depend entirely on what mood the book catches you in as this adventure can either be perceived as genuinely amusing or just silly at times.

As normal with Sci-Fi FFs there are some extra game mechanics to contend with. Fear is back, but this time it is an unchanging value that is a measure of your ability to handle the Groms’ illusory attacks – roll higher than your Fear and you lose Stamina due to being scared. This is a generally effective feature (that can frighten you to death) but that overall reflects your fortitude to carry on, as fear of illusions will naturally weaken you. Time is included as you have a limit of 48 Time units in which to liberate the President otherwise the Groms have extracted the info they want from his head and apocalypse is on the way. This does add a sense of urgency and raises the tension of the game, but multiple playings will show that it’s practically impossible to run out of Time (unless you digress to a genuinely stupid extent) so it’s not hugely effective overall and could have made the book much more challenging in the sense of needing to find an optimum route (or routes as it’s not wholly linear.) The Adventure Sheet includes a section for Oxygen, but this is not a stat as such in that it is only used in the Plaza De Toros sequence (which can be avoided) which is a shame as this is intriguing when you first see it – basically, you have a limited amount of Oxygen to find your way out of the Plaza which, as with Time, adds some nice tension but isn’t particularly difficult to survive so is another wasted opportunity. Surely if you’re running out of air the aim is to find the true path out asap and this should be very tight? As most combats are with Androids that are all fitted with a fail-safe weak point installed by the slightly paranoid Groms, throwing a double 6 in combat with an Android means you’ve found its weak spot and disabled it. This does add a realistic aspect in that robots should be mechanically vulnerable. It also works well as the weak spot should be well-hidden so the highest possible dice roll is needed to achieve this. Interestingly, there are no instructions in the rules about your Skill, Stamina and Luck not being able to exceed their initial scores. As these are therefore presumably unrestricted, for once it really is possible to win with the lowest possible starting stats as you can increase your Stamina by eating (which happens a reasonable number of times) and you can end up with a ridiculously high Luck score as Luck bonuses are frequent and generous.

The lack of any limits to how high your three core stats can get is a good antidote to one of the usually excessively tough aspects of a Luke Sharp FF – the very numerous Luck tests where failure will almost always kill you. Yes, there are lots of them in this book, but you have a pretty high chance of surviving them here – if only Sharp had allowed unlimited Luck in his other FFs... The other major problem with Luke Sharp’s FFs is very much in evidence - the arbitrary deaths by failing random dice rolls that represent things such as how many stairs you have to leap or whether a stray laser blast has hit you, etc. These don’t seem quite such an issue in this FF though as it is generally fairly easy so the relentless feeling of inevitable failure that blights his adventures does not come across in Star Strider. Similarly, the Luke Sharp-ism of instant deaths by going the wrong way are also included but they generally make sense in this book, mostly being caused by power units etc failing on stolen hover cars/bikes (that you can easily avoid commandeering anyway) or by persisting in blatantly going the wrong way. Indeed, a big aspect of this book is that common sense will generally see you through. If you are on a specific mission the likelihood of digression is low so this does add to the effect and make you feel part of the action (FF # 15 The Rings Of Kether is similar in the respect that you are encouraged to focus specifically on the task in hand.) The introductory spiel mentions that Excel droids are the Groms' most lethal android creation and that they should be avoided at all costs. This is certainly the case as any run-in with one will kill you. This may sound unfair (and typical of Luke Sharp) but, again, with one or two exceptions, only doing something really stupid will result in you encountering one, so they are mostly avoidable.

Encounters are also pretty easy to deal with for the most part. There are several incidents where you can get arrested by GromPol (the Gromulan Police) but as they seem to be the most forgiving law enforcement agency in the known universe (for some reason, considering their paranoia with androids and with wanting to control thoughts by using illusion propaganda) it is very easy to talk or shoot your way out. In fact, for a fairly dominant race that is into inter-planetary colonisation, the Gromulans are pretty pathetic. Any non-GromPol Groms that you encounter will usually faint in terror so it’s hard to believe that they are planning to wreak havoc when they get the info out of the President’s head. Granted they defend themselves with illusions, but these can be broken/survived with your Fear stat. Groms are rather like The Wizard Of Oz really. Most combats are with androids and, whilst this can be a bit monotonous, there are some humorous android encounters to break up the air of repetition. A visit to the Plaza De Toros will result in you facing a robot bull, whilst there is an unhinged android that thinks it’s living in a Western and will challenge you to a shoot-out after it’s rambled on about its imaginary horse (which does exist if only in illusion form) if you go to a certain tavern. All in all, these are quite fun and will, as I have said, break up the cycle of android fight after android fight. There is a continuity error where, if you find the robot bull’s weak spot and deactivate it, it will then come back and attack again, but it is hardly noticeable as all you will be interested in doing at that stage is escaping the bullring. It is possible to meet another Rogue Tracer (twice, in fact) and, in the first instance help her if you wish, whilst in the second she helps you, but these aren’t essential to the plot and (in the first case) you will achieve the same result by ignoring her completely. You can also pick up a few other wanted criminals along the way which neither gains nor loses you anything, but it does make the environments feel less like you are in a mission bubble and that there is an overall context to the setting.

A further feature of both Sci-Fi and Luke Sharp FFs that is very obvious in this book is that there are basically no items to collect as such. You can pick up a few bits occasionally but none make any difference to your success or failure. Acquisition of items is often an indication of whether you are on the right track so it is hard to establish how things are going when you never really find anything. Granted the main aim is to find clues (specifically co-ordinates) that will help you locate the President, but you can just as easily reach him without any clues. The usual FF mechanic of using numbers to find a hidden paragraph does not happen in the final stage. There are a few parts of the book where you can only access certain rooms or computers by solving fairly complicated mathematical problems, but, again, none are the difference between winning and losing so the effort put into figuring them out is wasted and you will never fail if you can’t solve them. Plus, the actual co-ordinates are in several different locations so it’s fairly easy to find them, if only to make you think that you’re achieving something by doing so!

As regards the plot of the adventure, it is all very logical, if somewhat empty and unchallenging, and there are none of the usual ridiculous convolutions or credibility pushes that so often occur in FF books (plus it’s Sci-Fi so the horizons of logic are pretty unlimited anyway.) The actual game itself simply involves negotiating your way from Madrid to Rome to Paris and finally to London. None of this is even remotely difficult and the first three cities are fairly dull and only have a couple of possible routes you can take with very little to see or do other than a few (usually helpful) run-ins with the locals (not that you’ll ever really need any help!) The London section consists entirely of a hoverboard trip through the London Underground. This is the main part where going the wrong way or through the wrong door will often instantly kill you but, if you know where you are headed or use trial and error, it won’t take many attempts to get through it (plus there’s a map so if you do know the way it’s actually very easy.) This final section is very unbalanced compared with the other three as literally nothing happens here other than you change direction or die. At least the other three cities offered something (if not much) to do, plus the trips from city to city allow you to interact with people and/or eat to restore Stamina. When you finally find the President he is with a Grom who naturally faints from terror so rescuing him is also easy. There then follows a Luke Sharp scenario where you have to keep throwing dice to survive an ascent (this bit is actually quite hard if only due to it being based entirely on arbitrary chance.) The absolute final stage is the only part of the entire book where the Groms seem nasty and where their illusions have a sinister touch, but if you have already grown used to their illusion attacks it doesn’t take a genius to survive this and win.

There is one feature of this book that seems odd and that is your trusty Catchman pistol – the weapon of choice of Rogue Tracers. It fires a sticky net over baddies to catch them and will help you avoid combats. For some reason, the all-important Catchman is very unreliable and you have to test your Luck to see whether it has worked properly or not every time you deploy it. This may be designed to add some difficulty to what is generally an easy FF, but I fail to see why crack bounty hunters would favour such a useless weapon!

Art-wise this book is sound and the internal illustrations do have a futuristic feel to them being weighted towards greys and blacks which have a “shiny” slick appearance that also gives a sense that much of this is happening at night. Whilst the art is functional it does suit the tone of the book generally. The cover is pretty good and does have a futuristic feel to it, even if the creature on it is not particularly relevant and isn’t a Gromulan which is, after all, the central alien species of this book, so I’m not sure what happened there. Luke Sharp is not known for writing interesting text but the writing here complements the art and does create the right atmosphere to help you feel involved. At times the text is quite humorous and avoids the boring matter-of-fact-ness and lack of description that blights Sharp’s medieval FFs. Similarly, his often off-hand way of telling you that you are dead is avoided here by making the instant deaths actually feel like a natural progression from a previous section (be it from stupidity, time-wasting, a craft you are in going haywire, etc) rather than just another random “oh well, you’re dead for some reason or other” comment.

So, in summary, this FF is not bad, but it’s also not particularly good either. It’s certainly fairly easy, but the general lack of anything happening of any consequence or interest does make it all feel a bit pointless making it one of the most forgettable and irrelevant FFs ever and certainly the only underwhelming entry in the otherwise consistently good ‘twenties part of the original series. Far from essential...

1 comment:

  1. I remember in the final paragrath something like returning in the gromulians quest for revenge was Luke Sharp planning to write a sequel