Saturday, 11 May 2013

#53: Spellbreaker


Jonathan Green

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Jonathan Green arrived very late on in the original series and is (still) strictly-speaking FF’s newest writer. Spellbreaker (#53 in the original series) was his first published FF, followed by Knights Of Doom (#56) and the original series’ swansong Curse Of The Mummy (#59). When the series was resurrected by Wizard Books, he would later publish a further four new FFs and is, other than Ian Livingstone, the only FF author to have offered exclusive material to the two Wizard series. Another parallel with Livingstone is that Green’s books are notorious for being extremely difficult and Spellbreaker is no exception, especially in its original Puffin imprint (the Wizard version being only very slightly easier in that some of the tougher high-stat encounters have had their scores reduced.)

In spite of its coming so late in the series, Spellbreaker is on the whole a very good book and would probably have been viewed as a potential series classic had it been released during its heyday as it has lots going for it, in particular brilliant handling of theme and atmosphere. There is a genuinely-accurate medieval feel to this FF and there is a great sense of paranoia and hysteria amongst the people you encounter. The book features witches (both real and imagined), a very accurately unfair witch trial (that YOU have to survive), the plague, curses, herblore, highwaymen, religion (including relics and the belief in “blessed” and “holy” objects), and the idea that something or someone is locally doing something nasty to each town that is the cause of whatever strife it is experiencing. Indeed, each town you visit has its own problems in microcosm and another brilliant touch of historical accuracy is that rarely does anyone you meet know (or care) about the ins-and-outs of your mission and what is happening or believed to be happening in the outside world – their only pre-occupation is with events in their own town or village and they are generally ignorant of anything beyond their towns’ boundaries. This creates a great feeling that you are in the midst of history and, whilst the sense of history coming alive in this book is very much that of Earth, it puts Titan in a context that is familiar and understandable and this works really well in my opinion.

Similarly, the paragraphs in this book are unusually long for FF and Green makes the most of his text to pile on the atmosphere with considerable amounts of description and contextual extemporisation. There is something insane (yet appropriate to the themes) going on in every place you visit and there are no “filler” locations to make you feel short-changed. Add to this the number of side missions you can go on along the way and this all makes for a very well-written adventure overall.

Indeed, the side missions themselves usually turn out to be important to your success and risk-taking is key to winning through this book. This isn’t a FF where you can play it safe and take the direct route. The true path is pretty narrow, but you have to zigzag about and visit several seemingly suicidal locations to acquire everything you need, making this a very challenging FF and it’s not 100% linear, giving a small amount of scope for exploring different routes to get the same end result.

The difficulty level of this book has often been criticised as being bordering on the ridiculous, but there is a lot of satisfaction to be gained if you are willing to rise to the challenge. This book is not unfairly hard in the sense that the atmosphere and quality of the writing and overall feel does encourage you to replay it and try to beat it and it can realistically be beaten, but you do need a lot of luck with dice rolls in particular to win. However, this is far from the depressing experiences of FFs such as Chasms Of Malice or Curse of the Mummy  where, after a fairly short while, you just can’t be bothered to even try and is more akin to the really excellent but incredibly hard series entries like Deathtrap Dungeon or Creature Of Havoc.

The theory has been put about that you have less than 8% chance of completing this book fairly and there are certainly numerous very tough aspects to it, but there is often a balance to how they are deployed:
  • ·         You need a very high amount of money to acquire all the (purchasable) herbs and other items you need to win and it is possible to get robbed of all your gold at one point early on which makes this all the harder, but it is also possible to acquire unlimited amounts of money by exploiting a glitch in a certain town where you can keep going back ad infinitum to get more gold
  • ·         There are several cases of arbitrary dice rolls where a certain number range (eg 1-3 on one die) leads to instant death, but most of these seem to be logical in context (eg during a witch trial where you need to roll to see if you hold your breath under water for the mandatory three minutes to avoid being declared a witch) and don’t strike the reader as unfair in the way that they are used irrationally in, for example, Luke Sharp’s FFs
  • ·         The list of items you need to collect is extremely long, but this is handled in quite a good way as both obviously useful items and seemingly incongruous ones are needed, as are several potions and herb remedies, which often involves you having to select the correct items (especially if money is short) rather than just being presented with everything on a plate
  • ·         There are several combats with foes that have stats in double figures and this is undeniably difficult to keep having to contend with (and then the final baddie is Sk 12 St 18) but the tougher foes are all in context as they are “area bosses” or hell-spawn, which you wouldn’t expect to be easy meat. Granted, this is often made all the harder as you do take an awful lot of Attack Strength penalties and there are a lot of special battle circumstances to contend with that do seem to come one after the other, so this aspect does swing towards the overly-difficult
  • ·         The Faith stat is used again in this FF and its deployment is inconsistent, affecting you heavily at the early and end stages of the adventure, but fading into inconsequence in the middle section. Many of the Faith tests are weighted against you (although the power of prayer or your character’s own belief is clearly going to be a very variable and haphazard thing to base your survival on so this might be good game design) and you do need a very high Faith to survive. There are quite a few situations where you can gain Faith points (normally by doing good and, conversely, doing bad things reduces it, which is another nice thematic touch) but you need to be very lucky with dice rolls when testing your Faith to have any hope of surviving. But, as with the money question, it is possible to exploit the same glitch to be able to increase your Faith to almost unlimited levels so, is there really a glitch or are we supposed to discover this by replaying and experimenting?
  • ·         At one point you have to lose a combat to gain a key item which is odd in the general FF ethos, but could be argued to be another element that is there to be discovered. A good FF requires thought as well as fighting prowess, so this is an example of having to do some stuff other than simply hacking and maiming your way through everything you encounter. Unfortunately, this is an awkward situation as you will need a very high Skill to be able to defeat the numerous very tough enemies so the likelihood of actually managing to lose the battle in question is low – this could have been handled better
  • ·         There are at least three mathematical puzzles to be solved (one which is very hard and leads to instant death if you get it wrong, although the answer is a very low number so it doesn’t take long to stumble across the answer paragraph if you try to cheat) meaning anyone not particularly numerically-gifted has had it
  • ·         Probably the biggest warning of how hard this FF is going to be comes when it is actually possible to die before you’ve even started as you have to fight a Sk 8 St 9 Fire Demon on paragraph 1! OK, so this is very rare in FF and it was certainly a new idea (this being only the second FF to do this, after the rather arduous #51 Island Of The Undead), but it’s genuinely ridiculous to be able to die so early on

Much of the book’s difficulty could be justified when considering the plot. You are caught in a (demonic) storm with a seemingly-friendly stranger that you stumble across and you both seek shelter in Rassin Abbey. Your sidekick turns out to be evil and steals the Black Grimoire from the Abbey. The Grimoire is needed by yet another nutcase who wants to take over the world and, as you let the thief in in the first place (and he can’t get in without an invite) you feel morally-obliged to help retrieve it. There is a lot of plot and it comes across through the lengthy descriptive passages throughout this FF. You are guided by your Faith score and would understandably struggle up against such odds so maybe this book is ultra-hard for this very reason. The religious overtones in terms of your Faith being tested in difficult situations cannot be lost on many readers and the difficulty vs subject/plot ratio works for me in this sense. Overall this book is very well-plotted, it is totally logical and never veers off into flights of ludicrousness. The historical accuracy adds even more to the success of the plot and this book is noticeably fast-moving (in fact, it is a race against time anyway, so this is another good feature.)

It must also be noted that there are ample opportunities to increase your Skill, Stamina and Luck and you are not short of Provisions and sustenance if you are on the true path. Yes, there are some fairly harsh stat penalties along the way as well, but there is certainly a balance in how your stats are affected and it is certainly not all weighted against you, notwithstanding the Faith score issues mentioned above. There is actually a 5th stat that can come into play in this book as well, should you visit the plague town: Infection measures how much the plague has taken hold and can be controlled by using certain herbs and worsened by certain curses or rat bites you might have picked up. The Infection stat is used really well and adds a real sense of how quickly the plague could affect and kill its victims – it also heightens the sense of urgency and desperation when you are playing.

Considering how tough this book is regarded to be (and it definitely is!) there are certain points where it is possible to accidentally cheat to your benefit without even realising it. Occasionally, it is assumed you have a special weapon and it is also possible to pretend you know certain incantations by just turning to an offered paragraph as opposed to being asked to turn to a “secret” section that you would have found the secret to earlier on. In the really key situations you really do need to have noted down the special section reference or you die, but there are a few exploitable glitches that can work in your favour nonetheless. In particular, to find the required location at the very end of the mission you are asked to multiply the special number you should have already found by 50. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that in a book of 400 sections there are only eight possible answers to this conundrum and it isn’t likely to be number 400! Rather awkwardly, one of the possible multiples of 50 (paragraph 150 in fact) is two game stages on from the actual target section (200) and, should you turn to this in error, it reads as if it flows logically from where you currently are and you could be forgiven for accidentally cheating at a really tough point in the adventure as there is otherwise only a 1 in 3 chance of actually getting from section 200 to 150 safely if you follow the proper intended route!

As this is fundamentally a book about human superstition, the art should be suitably archaic and look medieval to complement how well-written the text is. Alan Langford’s art is normally seen in the more “prehistoric”-themed FFs (Island Of The Lizard King, Battleblade Warrior) so it is nice to see him using large swathes of dark colours and blocking in where he would normally leave gaps and give a sun-drenched desert island feel. The art in this book is very night-oriented and definitely suits the adventure very well. The cover on the original Puffin edition is also drawn by Langford, but, in colour, the picture doesn’t have the same feel as the internal art and is a bit too busy. From a distance it looks cartoonish and it’s only when viewing it up close that you can appreciate how demonic it is. The Wizard Books re-issue cover is actually the same image but zoomed-in and considerably browned giving less colours and looking far less cluttered. For once, Wizard have managed to succeed in modernising and updating a FF cover, but it is a bit too dull with its brown-on-brown look.

So, in summary, this is a really good, very well-written and enjoyable FF. It is undeniably very tough, but this is not to its detriment and should be put alongside the likes of House Of Hell in the sense that its difficulty is to be seen as a challenge to be savoured due to its remarkable atmosphere and the level of effort that has gone into giving it a sense of place and context. Certainly a much better debut than most of the other FF guest authors managed to put together.

1 comment:

  1. I got a 3.7% chance of winning. It's all down to lucky die rolls. Not counting combat, either.

    What got to me was the mind-boggling amount of required items. I don't think there's that many more than other books, it was just more noticeable.

    Actually, it might be the very long true path that makes for the huge item hunt. I recall using most of the ridiculous amount of items in Eye of the Dragon, too.