Reviewed by Mark Lain
Taking a different approach to gamebook design, the Fantasy Questbooks series ultimately ran to six books, only two of which are directly related to the FF cannon, and, always the series’ innovator, Steve Jackson (unsurprisingly) created the first of these two.
Rather than following the “make a choice and turn to paragraph x” format, the Fantasy Questbooks use a running narrative setting a scene on one full A4 page, accompanied by a full A4-sized detailed colour picture on the facing page. The picture contains clues and information in the form of puzzles which then allow you to progress to the next stage. These books are 100% linear – there are no decisions or choices to make as the point here is to find the answer to each puzzle and use these to crack the final puzzle and win the game. Likewise, there are no items to collect, no dice to roll and no stats or combats to manage. These books are purely puzzle books, but with an ongoing storyline that acts as the “adventure”, so this is an interesting if simplistic take on the gamebook concept (without the diabolical childishness of other non-combat/dice-rolling systems such as the risible and seemingly-endless Choose Your Own Adventure series of abominations.)
There is a lot of plot background considering this is not a traditional gamebook. This book has four A4 pages of introduction explaining the history of the realm of Gallantaria and that YOU are to undertake the Tasks of the title, of which there are twelve just like the Labours Of Hercules (SJ does like to reference Greek Mythology in his books.) The tasks are intended to allow the wizard Tantalon to identify the brightest people in Gallantaria to overcome the problem of there being too many rival (presumably stupid) knights in senior positions in Gallantaria, which is causing wars and disputes. What your motivation is to get involved (other than power) is a bit lost in the text, but the idea of attempting twelve difficult tasks including rescuing kidnapped nobles, freeing Princes that have been turned into frogs, vanquishing a big nasty fish that’s disrupting shipping, and retrieving some pilfered trinkets of power, is obviously enough for an adventurer to want to give it a go. In a way it’s a sort of less life-threatening Trial Of Champions in the open, but with kudos and seniority rather than a massive amount of cash as the prize.
The difficulty of this book (and it is incredibly difficult) rests purely on the complexity of the puzzles. There are no combats and no ways at all to die. You simply follow each page in the order they are presented, read the explanatory spiel that gives you each task, then try to figure out what the hell the picture is trying to tell you. The first few times I attempted this book, I could only complete five of these puzzles unaided and even then I had no idea whether I had got the answers right – there is no turning to 400 and being showered with applause and praise going on here, you are seemingly just left in the dark. Having played it through using an online solution (http://arek.bdmonkeys.net/FF/sols/sol68.html) I cannot believe that anyone could realistically be expected to figure out some of the tougher puzzles as they are just too vague and the method of solving them is unbelievably obscure in some cases. Also, even with the answer in front of you, some of them are still damn hard to beat (I cannot for the life of me find a key with number 15 on it, for example!) The simpler (and even then quite satisfying when you beat them) puzzles involve things like finding hidden objects/NPCs, or working out traditional puzzle book-type things such as mazes with only one exit, linking valves to outlet pipes, and solving pulley/cog systems. These are tricky enough as they are very elaborate and the pictures are highly detailed and busy rather like a Where’s Wally puzzle meaning your eye is led away from what you are trying to achieve all the time. I guess in the sense of this being an adventure this does make sense as your goal would be in amongst a load of irrelevant other stuff going on around it (eg: trying to count cloned witches in a busy town square, which is one of the puzzles.) SJ likes to use ultra-tricky puzzles in some of his tougher FF books (House Of Hell, Appointment With FEAR, Creature Of Havoc) where you often have to make judgement calls on whether you should be using a certain piece of information or jumping to a mathematically-determined paragraph to stay on the true path without necessarily being prompted. This is also in play in Tasks Of Tantalon as some of the harder sections involve you having to apply knowledge or detail from other already visited pages as well as the intro section. The problem here is that there is no explicit clue at all (with one exception) that you are meant to do this and, unless you are willing to spend hours poring over one image and re-reading the whole book over and over trying to fathom out that one section in case you missed something screamingly obvious (which I can assure you, you won’t have!), you are highly likely to give up on this book through sheer frustration and just look at the pictures after a while.
...And Steven Lavis' art is where this book really comes into its own. Some of the illustrations are purely puzzles and come across as such - some even look a bit boardgamey such as the frogs vs toads rescue mission section and the guess the key puzzle. However, in the cases where the puzzle solution is less obvious the art is much more traditional fantasy art and there are two or three truly stunning examples of fantasy art in this book (Morphus’ lab, Windswept Moor, and the Medusa montage are particularly impressive.) Indeed, Morphus’ Lab is very much a predecessor of the now very popular hidden object PC games, although this is the hardest hidden object game I’ve ever seen, especially as the “clue” to the location of the one thing you’re looking for gives you false information to go on and the item is so small and so well-hidden that you are not very likely to notice it (you are told that it can camouflage itself which is a bit, but not much, of a clue!) I quite like the (also very hard as, again, you are given little chance of solving it) fish food chain puzzle picture as well – quite random and almost like a collage, but very well-rendered. The cover belies the contents because, whilst it is well-drawn as well, it seems to be aimed at a young audience with its smiling old Santa Claus image of Tantalon himself on a red background. But this is definitely not a book for children as the internal art is very adult and the puzzles would be beyond any child (and most adults, for that matter.)
Added to the general confusion created as you start to wonder a) if you are getting anything right as you aren’t told otherwise, and b) what is going on in half the puzzles full stop, is the final straight of this book. If you do manage to blunder your way through all the answers (which means you are a genius, by the way!), the final section is as tough as any final section can be as you are told to add all your numerical answers from each puzzle together (there's a red herring, incidentally, where one answer is zero!) and look through the book for the tile with that number on. The said tile will have a message on it that then guides you through to the prize. Even with a magnifying glass it takes some time to even find the message(s) you are meant to work your way through and they are written in such minuscule letters that you will struggle to decipher them. If any copies had any printing errors, you would have no chance of winning – mine is a totally clear copy but even then it’s hard work unless you can magnify things to the power of about 100. Even when you reach the intended end, you don’t really know this as it’s never made clear – you are somehow just meant to know, rather like how you are just meant to know when to use info and clues from one puzzle to solve another.
A solution pamphlet was published at one point due to so many requests for an explanation and answer to this book and, whilst it does finally explain everything, it also makes it clear just how insanely difficult much of this book is.
In summary then, this is an original and very challenging departure from the FF norm, but it is so extremely obscure to crack that you will get fed up and assume it’s either impossible (not far from the truth) or too radical a departure from the FF formula to be of interest (which is not the case as this book is certainly intriguing, and does fit firmly into the cannon plot- and setting-wise.) Where this book really succeeds is as a picture book of really nice full colour artwork in the same vein as the much later-released Fighting Fantasy Posterbook of large format FF cover art that FF fans were treated to. Incidentally, ToT was the first FF-related book to be released in hardback format (by Oxford University Press) - this edition makes no reference to this being a Fantasy Questbook, whereas the softcover edition (published by Puffin) has a banner message referring to this series.