CHASMS OF MALICE
Reviewed by Mark Lain
The watchword with number 30 in the original series is “malice”. This book is written and designed with absolutely no consideration for the player’s enjoyment and acts purely as a series of ways for YOU to fail. It took me 4 ½ hours to play through this book for this review, which is more than double the usual time to play a FF even if you visit everywhere (which I did.) Sadly, the time taken to get through this book is not a reflection of it having any depth or imagination to its construction – it is simply a boring and relentless catalogue of instant deaths and 50/50 life/death dice rolls with very little to see or do other than waiting for your inevitable death (which is, frankly, a relief when it comes.) The book may be so long and dull because it knows that you really aren’t going to get very far so the latter half wouldn’t be worth making interesting as it’d be a waste of the author’s time writing something that no-one other than cheats will ever read.
It is a shame that this adventure is so disappointing as the premise starts out quite intriguingly. YOU are the long-lost blood heir to a great King who trapped an untold unpleasantness (actually another loony who wants to destroy the world called Orguz) in the titular chasms. The seal to these chasms has been broken, the great shield that defends it has been stolen, and it’s the bloodheir’s job to enter the chasms and kill the maniac within. This is the first of three Khul-based FFs that form a loose trilogy based around the wizard Astragal (the others being Daggers Of Darkness and Fangs Of Fury.) Astragal enlists you for this task and, to help you on your way, sends a cat goddess called Tabasha The Bazouk along too. Tabasha is handy as she can find you food and sometimes also get you out of lethal situations, but you can only use her services nine times, one of which must be either increasing your Skill or Luck to its initial level (basically a Potion substitute then) but at least she’s one of the few reliefs in this grim reading-playing experience. Your character’s position of third assistant rabbit skinner in the royal kitchens is obviously supposed to be hilarious but just comes across as a lame attempt at suggesting just how irrelevant you are until you are sent on this mission. It is possible that the total impossibility of this adventure is intended to reflect your (lack of) status, but that would be giving too much design credit to Luke Sharp and I don’t believe this is the case. The only genuinely good bit of game design I can pin-point is something that I’m surprised didn’t get more use in other FFs – if you cook Provisions (assuming you can find some Fuel to do so) eating them is worth 6 rather than 4 Stamina points but you’ll need all the Stamina you can get and it hardly makes much difference as most of the death situations completely ignore stats full stop.
The design flaws in this book’s environment are out-weighed by its sheer unfairness, but these flaws are restricted largely to the problem that there are too many labyrinthine path networks. Whilst there is no maze as such, most paths interlink (often un-mappably and, therefore, probably impossibly) into each other with many of the wrong paths being very brief routes to a point just beyond the helpful part of the correct path so getting back on the right track is pretty hard. Ditto, seemingly thematically unconnected areas link into each other making the credibility and flow of the plot disappear very quickly. It would be very hard to map this book due to this which makes the likelihood of a lot of replays low as you’ll just end up back in some boring area that will eventually lead to death.
The biggest problem with this FF, however, is that it is fundamentally impossible unless your luck with dice-throwing defies all laws of probability. Yes, it is possible to get lucky on every throw, but this is not realistically going to happen. If you have the staying power and can really be bothered to find out what the whole book is about and what happens, the only real way of doing this is to cheat (probably many many times!) The best FF books are challenging and interesting/varied enough to make you want to keep replaying in the knowledge that, whilst the book may be tough, it is not impossible and you will eventually win by building on what you know from previous play-throughs. That is not the case here. This book has so many, often unfair, things to throw at you that there quickly comes a point where you just don’t care anymore. Any one of these on its own would be harsh, but Chasms Of Malice expects YOU to contend with:
- An inordinate number of instant death paragraphs (c.50 which is more than 10% of the book), many caused by simply going the wrong way or opening the wrong door
- Equally, there are too many sections that lead to nothing but the 50 instant death paragraphs
- There are too many Luck testing situations, most of which lead to death if failed and, as there are so many, you will end up with a Luck of zero fairly quickly making failure even more inevitable. Added to this is the fact that so many of the failed luck test deaths are handled in an almost aloof, off-hand manner such as getting hit with a stray arrow, falling off a ledge, or getting crushed by a big rock, that you just don’t care after a while
- The absolute worst part of this book’s unfairness is the One-Hit Combat idea. This is meant to demonstrate that fighting on a ledge can lead you to fall off and die easily, but it’s arbitrary in the extreme and totally ignores your stats and therefore your combat prowess. You throw two dice for YOU and two for the enemy – the higher number wins, the lower number falls to their death. Given that in several cases you have to deal with 3 or more of these in one section, again, you are unlikely to survive
- Added to all this are the random dice rolling situations that can determine life or death. In one case, if you throw 50% of any possible numbers an Orc has randomly executed you, and in another the dice determine distance and then whether you make it across the distance or not
- If all that isn’t depressing enough, there are even some combats where throwing certain doubles will lead to instant death
In short, the ways in which you can die and the way that they just follow one-after-another make this book a relentless experience to the point where it really is very boring.
The boredom is exacerbated by there being very few interesting encounters and cameos. Only the meetings with the underground people called Gaddon/Sensewarriors are of any real intrigue, but these usually just lead to attacks by lots of Orcs anyway, but you can at least learn how to fight in the dark, making combats slightly easier in that you don’t have to keep taking a -2 Skill penalty when rolling your Attack Strength. There is an OK-ish visit to an Orc garrison where the crack Xokusai Orcs that protect Orguz’ lair live, but this comes very late on so you will either not care anymore or, more than likely, never actually live long enough to get there at all. The concept of the Xokusai Orcs is a good one in itself but isn’t exploited at all and the Xokusai just seem like normal Orcs, if a bit more fanatical. On the subject of combats, the bulk of the encounters have Staminas of 10+ so even these are pretty relentlessly-hard.
Another potentially interesting, but ultimately wasted, concept is the Kuddam - these are Orguz’ seven fanatical side-kicks who you can run into in the chasms. They are all out to stop you at all costs and you need to mark off any that you kill on your Adventure Sheet as you go along. Any you miss will result in your having to fight Orguz once for every living Kuddam, plus once for himself. I could only actually find 4 of them in the entire book (unless I wasn’t paying attention any more, which is possible) which makes this final showdown pretty impossible as well (if that’s any real surprise!) Orguz himself is totally two-dimensional and is hardly worth the effort to reach him. In the unlikely event that you can get this far and beat him, you are then faced with yet another potential fail situation where you have to guess which person out of five is the traitor using clues you have gained along the way (or by cheating, which is highly likely by now.)
Of some interest is a system of cyphers used by the Gaddon. If you can learn these (and, shock horror, you actually get TWO chances to do so, which is the only real nod towards making your life easy here) you can then access locked doors and secret passageways. Unfortunately, most of these special routes can just as easily be found by going a different way so that is rendered a pointless feature as well.
A good FF should always have a well-fleshed-out and believable back-story to set the scene and make you want to get involved. Creature Of Havoc is probably one of the best examples of how well written a back-story can be in FF. Sadly, Chasms Of Malice is not. I had to read the introduction four times before I could understand its onslaught of information from various chronicles etc. Anyone who has tried to understand the baffling opening Chapter of Tolkein’s Silmarillion will know exactly what I’m on about here! Luke Sharp seems to then veer off into very sketchy descriptions for most of the book itself, giving very little impression of the chasms that you are in. There is very little to involve you in the text here.
This book has only one real mercy. The internal art is all by Russ Nicholson who I think really epitomises FF. As much of the art is his really good illustrations of orcs and dwarves, at least the book is given a familiar feel in this sense and the only sense of involvement you can really get is from the pictures as the text is so oblivious to the reader’s immersion. I also really like the atmospheric firey cover. It’s a shame the written contents are so bad as the art is wasted here and deserves to be in a better FF.
In summary, this has to be a contender for worst FF of all time due to its lack of interesting gameplay and the fact that it is so harsh on the player that you have very little motivation to try to beat it more than a handful of times - perhaps that’s why so many immaculate copies are around! Luke Sharp (which is a pen-name by the way) seems to have taken to heart the criticism that his previous FF #27 Star Strider was too easy and unleashed his resentment onto the player in this grim, relentless and dull FF offering which could have been good given some of the ideas it includes, but simply finished up being awful. Anyone who bought and played the FFs in release order will have got a nasty shock playing this after the very forgiving #29 Midnight Rogue that it followed. Incidentally, this hasn't been re-issued by Wizard Books and hopefully never will!