Reviewed by Mark Lain
Previous attempts at Sci-Fi FFs to date had been miss-able at best. The first two were terrible (#4 Starship Traveller, #12 Space Assassin), the third was a novelty Max Max 2 rip-off (#13 Freeway Fighter), and the fourth was irrelevant (#15 The Rings Of Kether), so expectations were not high when FF #18’s forthcoming release under the far from inspiring title of The Aliens Of Arcadion was announced in Warlock #5. Thankfully, by the time it appeared on store shelves it had been re-titled to the better-sounding (but not actually very accurate in terms of what’s involved) Rebel Planet. This is Robin Waterfield’s first of four FFs and his only Sci-Fi outing in a similar writing progression to Luke Sharp, in fact, who also wrote a Sci-Fi FF and then three medieval ones. Waterfield’s books are, generally, very good - he penned the very tough and interesting #23 Masks Of Mayhem as well as the excellent and very ambitious #28 Phantoms Of Fear, and I’m pleased to say that Rebel Planet is no exception. This was the book that made it seem that Sci-Fi was not a lost cause in the world of FF and was the first Sci-Fi FF that I can actually say I ever genuinely liked. I kind of feel sorry for The Rings Of Kether as it’s all but forgotten and is not a bad book, and Freeway Fighter, whilst pretty enjoyable, is so unoriginal that it’s little more than filler in the series, but neither of these could be described as necessarily any good in real terms. Rebel Planet, on the other hand, works on many levels and is very good indeed.
On opening the book, the reader is presented with a lengthy section describing the backstory that has led you to be given your mission and some nice descriptive material on the different species of the enemy alien race (Arcadians), along with some historical detail covering the universe that forms this book’s setting as a whole... and it’s all very interesting and does make you want to visit the various planets and meet the various Arcadian types, so things seem promising from the outset. The rules follow this (unusually) and it’s pleasing to see that there are not endless pages of rules to deal with different types of weapon combat. Weapons are by definition banned by the ruling Arcadian Empire, so no need to cater for these. Your character possesses an illegal laser sword (a rather too obvious nod to light sabres in Star Wars), but this works in the same way as a normal sword, meaning combat rules don’t change if using this. As your character is highly trained in martial arts, there are special rules for unarmed combat but these simply involve rolling a die to determine who has hit who. In addition, unarmed combat allows for instant KOs if you roll a six at any point which, whilst linking neatly into the concept of you being a space ninja, makes it seem that your hands are far deadlier than your (normally pretty lethal, you would have thought) laser sword, so this doesn’t really make sense. But at least you don’t have to get your head around loads of extra rules that inevitably hardly ever play any part in the adventure, as is normally the case with Sci-Fi FFs.
The plot itself involves YOU being deployed (under the guise of a merchant) to track down three rebel cells dotted about on three occupied planets, get secret codes from each of them, then travel to Arcadion itself (the Arcadians’ homeworld) and destroy the super-computer that controls the Arcadians. The Arcadians rule your galaxy with an iron-fist and are part of a Borg-style collective mind that is guided by the queen computer that you need to destroy, thus rendering the Arcadians all purposeless and freeing the enslaved human race. The story moves along logically, with you having pre-defined cover missions as you move from one planet to another. These missions rarely come into the plot much (barring the final stage between the third and fourth planets) and the focus is on you landing on each planet, then locating your contact(s) as quickly as possible without attracting the attention of the authorities. For the most part it all makes sense and even the book acknowledges that the oddest moment (on planet #3) leaves you having no idea what just happened.
The differences between the planets themselves, along with the subtler variations in the behaviours of each of the three Arcadian species, are the real plus-points in this book’s design. The first planet (Tropos) is a very oppressive Police State and you do feel constantly under surveillance, as you get followed and watched wherever you go. There is a claustrophobic and grim feel to Tropos and you really do want to leave it as quickly as possible. A generally more pleasant experience, the second planet (Radix) is fairly laissez-faire (although there is still an Arcadian presence that can cause you problems) and seems more developed than any of the others in this game. The human inhabitants are either decadent capitalists or intellectual right-on students and the cityscapes are high-tech and advanced. By stark contrast, stop-off point number three is the planet Halmuris, which is still in a creation stage, being a fairly barren and foreboding rock with appalling (and potentially lethal) night-time weather and primitive animal inhabitants. The only human presence is still at the researching stage and this is effectively Pluto to Radix’ Earth, I suppose. Finally, you visit Arcadion itself which gets hardly any descriptive coverage and seems to just be a building with a computer in it – this fourth stage is the least well-presented and it seems that the adventure was running out of steam by this point and this planet functions purely as an end to the mission. It would have been nice to get some insight into the Arcadians’ home planet, but this never comes, presumably as, if you’ve made it this far, you are pretty eager to face the final showdown. Tropos and Radix are very well designed and the feel of each of these worlds comes across very well as you move from the dictatorship of Tropos to the relief of exploring the far nicer Radix. Halmuris is, on one hand, dull and little effort has gone into making it interesting, but on the other hand, a pre-evolved planet is hardly going to be very exciting or hospitable so there is something to be said for its lack of party atmosphere.
The three Arcadian variants seem to almost mirror the design of the planets, which is a subtle but clever touch. Northern Arcadians are primevally psychotic and stupid (= Halmuris), Southern Arcadians are mildly pretentious and talk in arty riddles (= Radix), whilst Central Arcadians are arrogant and semi-bureaucratic (= Tropos). Each type can be found on each planet, but they each consistently follow their species’ traits adding interest and variation to what can happen if you encounter them, whilst also demonstrating the level of thought that has gone into ensuring consistency in terms of how the global universe of this adventure functions, which really does make it work very well.
There is little doubt that the first two planet visits are far more stimulating and offer far more playability than the final two, but this does make sense in context, even if it makes the adventure seem lop-sided and there is a feeling that it loses steam half-way through. The Halmuris section in particular seems little more than an outdoors go North, go West, go South, etc path-following plod and there is hardly much to do other than keep dying horribly as this part is pretty tough. The Tropos part (assuming you can get past customs safely), whilst feeling dangerous, is almost impossible to fail as there are various ways to find your contact – it is the design of this part that makes it work so well. Radix is light relief after Tropos, but is intentionally misleading as it is fairly tough and one wrong move can lead to failure by not finding your contact quick enough. As for Arcadion, the challenge with this final section is in surviving the trip on your own ship as you have to deal with a rather tricky incident involving two Arcadians travelling with you. Plus, if you haven’t got the codes you need to access the computer building, you’ve had it anyway, so this final part is a case of either you crack the code or you fail at the final hurdle, as it is possible to get right to the end, only to discover you don’t know what you need to know.... or, more to the point, you simply can’t figure out how to use the codes even if you have them, which is a big aspect of this book’s difficulty level.
Clever construction and planning pervades this book and the key to beating it lies in picking up subtle hints as well as getting the all-important codes from the rebel cells on each planet. The intro section mentions that Arcadians only have two digits on each hand/foot which makes binary an ideal means of communication. If you pick up on this, you can make the connection between the codes being nothing but ones and zeros (bar the second part which requires you to ignore some twos thrown in to muddy the waters) and the Arcadian use of binary. Assuming you manage to acquire all three codes (the first is impossible not to acquire as such but you do still need to decipher the poem it’s hidden in, the second is in a picture and you have to find it visually, so that all adds challenge) you still need to fathom out a table that matches the code itself to various paragraph numbers, ignore the sections that link to zeros, and then add the one-linked numbers together to reach the paragraph that gets you into the computer building. It took me several attempts to even understand the instructions for this, let alone actually work the answer out and I refuse to believe that children (as these books are fundamentally aimed at children) could ever work this out (and I doubt too many adults could, either.) This is one of the most intricate and original ways of winning ever included in a FF book and, whilst undeniably complicated, it is a great bit of gamebook design.
Combat and encounter-wise, there are few real challenges. Combats are rare (which makes sense if you are trying to avoid drawing attention to yourself) and almost always lead to your being followed and/or retribution coming later on. The third planet involves lots of instant death situations, but its harsh environment suits this, plus you would expect the book to get tougher the further through it you get. There are many Luck and Skill tests throughout the book and Skill and Luck of less than 9 gives you little chance of survival. There are also several arbitrary single die rolls that can result in success or failure peppered throughout the book that can seem a little like the cards are stacked against you, but this does make sense as, in real terms, the likelihood of a resistance mission to destroy the heart of the occupation actually succeeding is incredibly low, so this is both logical to the plot and slightly unfair to the player.
Run-ins with the Arcadians themselves are frequent and range from police/customs harassment (that you can normally con your way out of, as the aliens involved tend to be stupid), gladiatorial contests (literal and psychological), or just social interaction in the form of pandering to their egos and showing you empathise with the gibberish they talk. A very interesting element linked to this is the way the book rewards you (with Luck bonuses) if you either behave honourably by not murdering fellow humans, or if you demonstrate understanding of the importance of empathy in surviving under the Arcadian Empire. A little pompous maybe, but still an intelligent bit of game design.
In a similar approach to FF #27 Star Strider, there are some nice elements of humour included in this book, including a trip to the Fission Chips, a night at Porky’s, and the opportunity to attend a boring University lecture that you fall asleep during. Needless to say, two out of three of these take place on the light relief planet that is Radix, but subtle humour is a nice touch all the same.
Unusually for a FF book, the art seems almost irrelevant (except the all-important picture that contains the second clue) as the depth of backstory and description creates all you need to know image-wise in your head. I rarely noticed the art and you could be forgiven for not taking any notice of it as it adds nothing and is not all that interesting anyway, being a schizophrenic mix of comic-strip panel work, dark corridors/offices, and Arcadians striking various poses. The cover is also not particularly inspiring with its white lettering on a black background showing a far more aggressive-looking Arcadian than any of the ones shown in the book, facing off against what I can only assume is YOU. The only real intrigue with the cover is the fact that the “dragon” cover version reverses the picture.
Whilst this is a very well designed and eminently playable gamebook (and it will take many attempts to beat it), there are a few elements that don’t quite gel, but these can go un-noticed due to how good it is overall:
- · Laser swords are surely more powerful than human hands?
- · Why don’t each of the cell contacts all just rendez-vous somewhere, share their parts of the code with each other, then send a volunteer to destroy the computer?
- · Why is the third “human rebel” contact a sort of shape-changing ethereal wind that trades information for decorated wooden staffs?
- · And finally, how is it that, if Arcadians are all a collective entity, they seem to show so much free will when you meet them?... and, given this, why are they so lost when the computer is destroyed?
On a lesser note, the title is a bit misleading as there is no “rebel” planet. Each of the three you visit has rebel cells on it (Radix’ student population in particular seems close to revolt), but there is no one inherently rebellious planet - the rebel is YOU, surely?
In spite of these final slight niggles, this is a superior gamebook and is easily the best Sci-Fi FF ever (not that there’s much competition!) It is extremely well put together, generally consistent to its conceptual creation, and very varied in terms of the places you visit along the way. Its solution is excruciatingly complicated, but it makes a nice change to just killing something/someone at the end or putting the right keys in the right sockets to get to the treasure. A definite contender for re-issue by Wizard considering that they re-released Starship Traveller!