Saturday, 26 October 2013

#40: Dead Of Night


Jim Bambra and Stephen Hand

Reviewed by Mark Lain

All-out Horror FFs are few and far between. The only ones that could really be said to qualify as Horror as opposed to Fantasy (or Sci-Fi, of course) are #10 House Of Hell, #38 Vault Of The Vampire (and its bug-riddled sequel #58 Revenge Of The Vampire), and this book, number 40 in the original series.

This book is easy to accidentally overlook for two reasons: 1) The title is hardly inspiring and doesn’t have the usual luridness and sense of inevitable doom that many FF books’ titles have; 2) The cover picture is pretty insipid and gives no indication at all of what lies within. And these two factors are a great shame as otherwise, this is a great effort and really injects some much-needed design originality and energy into the series after the fairly routine nature of many of the books that appeared in the 30s part of the series.

Unusually for FF, the plot here is largely personal. Yes, you also have a secondary residual task of saving the world (for a change), but your primary driver is to rescue your parents from the Demon Lord Myurr with whom you have had a long-running feud. He has now abducted your parents and wants to use them as the sacrifice in his demonic ritual to unleash himself and his nasty hordes on the land and generally ruin everything for everyone, and you have to travel from the South of Gallantaria to the North, passing through areas that show increased evidence of demonic infestation, to ultimately find Myurr’s stronghold and try to save your parents/the world before it’s too late. Even more unusually, YOU even have a name (or more of a title really: Demon-Slayer.) Yet more unusually, the plot works really well, flows logically and all makes sense. YOU are a specialist demon-hunting Templar which means you have quite a starting arsenal of kit and tricks to help you on your way, including a horse (that either runs off or dies at the half-way point depending on which route you take), holy water, a cross (all very logically Templar-esque pieces of equipment), and a sword called Nightbane. All this stuff proves variously useful or useless (depending on the situation you are in) and adds layers of realism and depth to your character as you try to decide what to use and when. Most importantly (in terms of characterisation) is that you have special demon-hunter-type Talents: Banish Undead, Dark Veil, Heal, Holy Circle, Meditation, Sense Demon, and Speak Demon. You get a choice of three (and, in a couple of neat later plot twists, you can gain a fourth one or even lose one and be reduced to only two Talents) that can be used as substitutes for combats, help you gain clues as to what is on the cards, ingratiate you with the locals (normally in return for goods and services like Gold Pieces or free food/board), or just generally give you an option other than brute force by which to progress. I really like to see this idea used in FF books and it makes those books that feature the concept of using character-type-specific special abilities stand out (some other excellent examples of special skill deployment to enhance gameplay are #20 Sword Of The Samurai and #56 Knights Of Doom.) It is very important that, in cases where a ”pick from a list of skills” option is offered, there is not an optimum combination (which is a problem with the use of this feature in #29 Midnight Rogue where you are screwed if you don’t have particular skills) – this adds re-playability (to see what happens if you have other Talents) and removes the problem of losing before you’ve even started simply by making a bad choice of useful or interesting-sounding abilities that actually turn out to be hopeless. In Dead Of Night, there is no perfect combination of Talents – each is handy or otherwise in certain scenarios, but there is always an alternative option should you not have a given talent or it doesn’t seem right to use it and there are some occasions where using the wrong one is bad news, especially Meditate, although common sense will often tell you whether using a Talent seems sensible and adds to your feeing the character, as a trained demon-hunter would surely know how to use his/her own talents to best effect.

Comments have been made by some reviewers that the plot just seems to be a series of unconnected cameos, but that is surely not the case. In the South people are growing concerned due to rumours of demon infestation, but the further North you go the worse it becomes. The Midlands are in the midst of fending off an ongoing demon attack, and the North itself is already lost to the demons. This makes perfect sense and really makes you feel that you are gradually entering the eye of the storm. Admittedly, each location you visit involves a cameo of sorts, but each is part of the overall plot concept and it would hardly be much of an adventure if nothing happened anywhere you went. Even the weather gets worse the further North you go and it really does start to feel oppressive as you make your way through the book, with sudden heavy rainfall, deep mud to wade through, and increased attacks from increasingly powerful types of demon. The Northern sections themselves are the highlights of the book. There is a plague town (Astonbury) that adds conceptual atmosphere but is totally unreachable, but the final third or so of the book is where the imaginativeness and superbly-handled atmosphere really kick in hard, especially in the towns of Axmoor (totally swallowed-up by a living demonic unpleasantness called a Land Blight) and Dunningham (protected by an illusion and watched-over by the eye thing from Mordor.) The Axmoor episode is one of the most warped concepts in any FF ever, mixing steampunk ideas with body horror and something out of a Jeunet-Caro movie. It is also brilliant in its execution. When you first arrive in Axmoor you are offered two ways into the “thing” you are faced with – either through the “door” or, hilariously, via a hole in the ground that turns out to be its arse (I kid you not.) If you choose the arse route it is possible to die from fart asphyxiation (although the book phrases it more subtly) and eventually either route results in travelling through the creature’s innards including a prison containing the captured locals who will fuel the Land Blight and a heart room where you need to turn the correct dial to cut its heart’s blood supply off and kill it. This is a key moment in the book which rewards you very well. The Dunningham section starts with you being “helped” by a character who gives you conflicting information from which you need to extract the truth. There is the option to play dress-up and infiltrate an Orc base, but the main task here (and the second key event) is to put out the deadly Mordor eye that looks out from a bell-tower. Either from (or on the way to) Axmoor you can also visit the village of Stamford which is in the thick of a major demon infestation. Help the local family to defend themselves and you are, again, rewarded richly. This adds even more plot logic and depth as you can see more of the demon scourge taking hold, but there is also a glitch here (even if it is one that can be exploited to your advantage) as it is possible to go between Axmoor and Stamford an infinite number of times, gain hundreds of Skill and Luck points, and render yourself immortal ready for the final really tough showdown. Not a problem if you are a cheat (or realise that you’ve already been there once), but it does detract from the challenge somewhat.

The subject of difficulty level is always a thorny one in FF books. More often than not the really good ones are extremely hard to complete or some that have good design turn out to be too easy. Dead Of Night is not really all that difficult in real terms, but it is also far from simple as Myurr's tricks and traps are everywhere. The combats are not too tough and combat can be used very sparingly by substituting battles for use of your Talents (you are a holy man of sorts, after all.) There is one seemingly impossible combat with a group of Moon Demons (Sk 11 St 24) but circumstances intervene after a couple of attack rounds and you don’t have to see this one out to its conclusion. Double-figured stats are used very sparingly and you can count on one hand the number of extra tough foes you have to fight and they are all in very key moments of the book so seem to suit the plot when they appear. It is more in the use of Talents and the making of certain bad decisions that the tougher aspects of this book show through. You have an Evil stat which reflects any deeds you do that might be more akin to a Demon than a Templar. It starts at zero and only increases on rare occasions so the feeling that some FF books give of inevitable failure due to a potentially lethal stat increasing every other paragraph is not present and will only ever increase if you use Talents that include a “demonic” act (Dark Veil, especially) or if you walk away from locals in obvious peril and leave them to die (ie mostly by not helping them to defend themselves in some way.) At critical points (again, used very sparingly) you are asked to Test Your Evil which works in reverse to how Skill or Luck tests work – ie you want to roll OVER your Evil score, so the lower the Evil the better. Fail the test and you will normally be seduced by the dark side. This adds an element that the player can really dread happening and that seems all the more important on the rare occasions that it is used. In the more traditional sense of FF difficulty, the number of instant deaths is very low (only 25) and they all seem very logical and fair when they happen (eg: straying too far into an obviously dangerous quagmire or trying to ignore the advice not to go to the plague village), plus they are described in such juicy and graphic detail that it is worth going the wrong way just to find out how you die next! There is nothing obviously arbitrary anywhere in this book and it is very well designed and all the more enjoyable to play for this.

There are some moments where this book is exceptionally generous in how it rewards you for passing key plot tests. Notwithstanding the accidental Axmoor/Stamford cheat, it is also possible to gain 4 Luck points for defeating a Necromancer, plus Stamina bonuses can be found in many places (normally for doing the things that you’d gain Evil points for not doing, so there’s a double-incentive to properly play as a Templar and “be” your character.) There are also some very clever twists along the way, in particular a stage where, by using the secret paragraph reference you can have discovered earlier in the book, it turns out that it was a trap and that you have walked straight into it by accessing the hidden section. You do not see this in gamebooks very often and it is a refreshing change to the usual FF approach where you cannot win without finding whatever secret references you need to reach – it is almost as if the writers are trying to deconstruct a standard (and by book #40, pretty tired) FF concept here.

In terms of design, we have already covered the logical flow and overall well-planned plotting of this book (especially well executed as it was written by two people) and almost all of what is included is original (except for the blatant Lord Of The Rings rip-off in Dunningham), interesting, and well-paced to give a sense of urgency to your mission. Once you reach Axmoor and then Dunningham it becomes apparent that the writers are not just aiming for atmosphere and coherence of theme, but that they also want to really make this book stand out as highly original in terms of what it throws at you. As the book progresses, it moves from voyage of discovery (in the South), through survivalism (the middle part in the rain when you lose your horse, then come up against evidence of demons quickly taking over), then into very dark horror territory (the North.) Having survived the Land Blight and the Mordor eye thing, the book switches into another even darker mode entirely with a series of twisted puzzles for you to make your way through. First comes a house that keeps teleporting you back to its front door if you take a wrong turn, followed by a trial/test involving a Sorcerer who has been duped by Myurr into thinking his intentions are all for the good. Successfully convince him otherwise and he helps you, fail to put him right and he makes you undertake a very tough (in fact, it’s the hardest part of the book by far, but it is avoidable) test involving negotiating a MC Escher stair network. Following this comes a manic almost Vincent Price-esque moment where you have to deal with an insane (and evil) musical instrument called (and I love this name!) a Demonic Pandemonium. Next comes a maze of doorways that is confusing but doesn’t go on so long as to get irritating (like The Maze Of Zagor does in The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain) and then an encounter where you must fight Myurr’s final guard using combat only. This is quite interesting as it forces you to not always avoid combats by relying on your talents and reminds us that this is still FF. Finally comes the very climactic and elaborate showdown with Myurr himself. Being the final baddie he is very strong (Sk 14 St 25) but this is one of the best designed and most involved final combats in any FF book and easily equals the superb wizard battle at the end of The Citadel Of Chaos. You have various options in each attack round (including traditionally hitting him with a weapon, if you have the correct magical one, that is) and can substitute fighting for throwing holy water at him or trying to find his Achilles’ Heel by smashing up the objects in his chamber. It’s tough, but it is also the final showdown so it needs to be tough, given the mess he’s managed to make of Gallantaria, and demonstrates how powerful an adversary he really is. With the number of stat bonuses you can have gained (even without going backwards and forwards between Axmoor and Stamford) and the fact that combats can often be avoided by using your Talents, this combat is less unwinnable than it may initially seem and there is a lot to be said for the various choices/options you have during this battle.

The book as a whole has a very dark Horror tone to it and this comes through very well in the writing. In addition to this, the art by the always brilliant Martin McKenna emphasizes the atmosphere even more and the overall “feel” of this book comes across particularly effectively. The cover, on the other hand, shares little in terms of theme to the contents but, with a book this good, the cover could just as easily have been a blank white page. In some ways, the brilliance of the book itself is a welcome surprise and the cover could even have been deliberately misleading!

All things considered, bar the jarring Lord Of The Rings steal (which doesn’t fit in well with the otherwise original and imaginative material presented here), and the uninspiring cover, this is a brilliant entry into the series and the all-out dark horror genre approach works very well. This book and #38 Vault Of The Vampire were the beginning of a return to form that would be apparent in many of the FF books released going forwards. This is one of the as-yet unre-released books from the original series that desperately needs to be re-published.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

#33: Sky Lord


Martin Allen

Reviewed by Mark Lain

That this book would be the last Sci-Fi FF is no great surprise. That it was ever even remotely considered worthy of being released in the FF series is rather harder to believe as this is easily the worst FF book of all time.

The one great failing of this book is that it is almost agonisingly inane and it tries to pass itself off as a decent entry, but after a few paragraphs you find yourself becoming frustrated with its total lack of obvious purpose. Is this supposed to be an ironic book and, if so, why try to play it straight (or is that the irony)? If it is meant to be a satire, then make it come across that way as is the case with the “lighter” Sci-Fi FFs such as Appointment With FEAR or Star Strider. If this book was ever intended to be taken seriously then Martin Allen is frankly deluded – did he really believe this book was good or was this an intentional coup de grace for FF Sci-Fi? I’ve got this image in my head of the FF production team trying to find a submission that is so excruciatingly bad that everyone will be grateful never to see another Sc-Fi FF again and they certainly excelled themselves with this one! God forbid that anything worse ever got put forward...

Some FFs are criticised and categorised as “bad books” due to their excessive ease or (more often) unfairly hard difficulty levels. Sky Lord is inconsistent with this to the point of seeming schizophrenic, swinging from seemingly impossible problems that there should be no way out of (eg: the several times you can crash-land your ship) that you suddenly survive, through to situations that (as far as you can tell) seem to be going well but suddenly end in a one-sentence instant death section (of which there are loads the further you get into the book.) For example, it seems that writing your ship off by hitting the surface of a planet just leaves you with a few bruises and you can step away from the incident and brush yourself off. However, crash into another ship and you are vaporised. You might think that trashing your only means of space transport is bad news, but a run-in with someone who can conveniently reverse time soon sorts that problem out. A little bit of wacky disbelief suspension is all well and good, but this is just the first of a catalogue of ridiculous situations that this book presents. The only way to really appreciate this problem is to play it, but, amongst other daft episodes, the reader can be presented with:
  • ·         A character called Woderwick who is actually called “Roderick”, but the NPC can’t pronounce it (yawn, we’ve all seen The Life Of Brian, which is actually funny, incidentally) – oh, and he has a talking cat too
  • ·         Confused (and borderline psychotic) robots called Bric and Brac (the sort of thing you find in kids’ programmes)
  • ·         An in-flight assault on your ship from a sort of Space Moron called (oh so wittily) a Redneck (it wears a red scarf around its neck – in fact, it’s the thing on the cover)
  • ·         A game very similar to the Vortex in The Adventure Game where you have to trace the safe route across a grid (this also happens in the only very slightly less abysmal Space Assassin) using a very vague clue to help you
  • ·         A truly baffling series of choices involving pitch and yaw of your ship during encounters with large ships that is nothing more than pure guess-work and will more often than not end up killing you
  • ·         A stop-off at a space station that has been infested with orange gelatinous blobs that are running riot and causing mayhem – although they mostly chase you around a bit, leading to another arbitrary and incomprehensible series of choices that aren’t really choices as you have no idea what it is you are electing to do (and will more often than not end up killing you – see above!)
  • ·         A sort of surrealist final world with different “Domes” in it that are so random that they have no obvious association with each other, save for having been presumably designed by an architect under the influence of very strong hallucinogens

...And the effects of very strong hallucinogens are one of the over-riding feelings that this book gives you. It is easily the trippiest of all the FFs (far unintentionally weirder than the actually very pretentious and intentionally bizarre Black Vein Prophecy) and reading it really is an indescribable experience as it hits you with silly scenario after silly scenario, intermingled with a huge number of arbitrary ways to die.

We’ve already briefly mentioned the inconsistent difficulty level and this is no more apparent than in the two different styles of combat that the rules cater for (and the rules were not very well planned as the first combat you are likely to get into is of a third type that the book “guides” you through when it needs to.) Standard (ie traditional FF –style) one-on-one combat is unusually easy with most opponents being so weak as to present no challenge at all (unless your stats are very bad) – even the supposedly highly trained killing machines called Prefectas are useless and have low stats. The special addition of small craft combat is a whole other ball game. You have a Rating score which is your combat prowess from 1 to 6. In a combat, whoever has the higher rating automatically attacks first. This does add a sense of realism when faced with experienced opponents and your Rating even goes up by 1 point every time you win one against something with a higher Rating than yours so this book actually includes Experience Points, which ought to be a good thing. Sadly, this is ruined by the fact that many of your opponents have higher Ratings than you, putting you at a regular disadvantage, plus you cannot ever realistically have a Rating above 6. Added to this is the Lasers stat. You roll one die and need to roll under your Lasers which are between 1 and 6 again. All well and good, until you encounter either of the two foes with Lasers of 5 (not likely to miss) or the one with a Lasers score of 6 who cannot ever miss. The small craft combat is so weighted against you that you are unlikely to survive more than one or two skirmishes. The third combat type you can find yourself in is that against big ships which, as noted above, involves a series of meaningless choices where you are highly likely to either collide and die or set some sort of thermonuclear device off by accident and, er, die. The accidental deaths are made all the more likely as the names of the weapons you are offered the chance to use are also fairly confusing so you might as well just toss a coin to decide what to do next as you are otherwise pretty clueless. Other than combats, almost every other element of challenge is similarly unbalanced throughout. There are two “plot the safe route across the grid” games that are mostly just guesswork and luck rather than a challenge of any kind – they do involve looking at printed grids in the front cover, but these don’t really aid you at all and are even missing completely from the later printings which makes no difference to whether you make it through them or not. There are several situations where doing the most counter-intuitive thing turns out to be the correct option (is this surrealism or just more stupidity?) such as several episodes where NPCs ask for your help or offer you their help with the outcome normally being bad news for you. Unfortunately, you need to go along with most of them to find the true path so the element of your using your common sense and problem-solving skills is totally absent which is very annoying and it seems that the stupider the decision you make, the better it turns out to be.

If you can (be bothered to) wend your way through all the ridiculous stages of this book, the end is actually quite good (or the surprise twist is, anyway), even if the final foe (the last living Prefecta) is as pathetically weak as every other Skill/Stamina-based combat in this book. This brings us to the actual plot itself. YOU are a four-armed space warrior thing called Jang Mistral (not often you have a name in FF, probably to avoid you feeling distanced from being YOU) who is sent on an assassination mission (typical FF fare there then) to kill the space fugitive called L’Bastin who jumped planet after getting indicted on your homeworld for getting various of his colleagues/underlings fired, replacing them with exact clones, and then embezzling their wages. He has now holed himself up on a planet he’s built and defends himself with his crack troops called Prefectas (half-dog creatures that are also known rather un-funnily as “Yappies”.) The opening intro is long but vivid and is by far the best part of the book. The background does motivate you to go on your mission (the ones that involve killing off loonies and getting glory in return are always quite satisfying) and it is well written in what seems to be a semi-humorous style. Sadly, from paragraph 1 onwards, the rest of the book is total drivel. Yes, the plot concept makes sense, but the deranged way that everything then unfolds in front of you just defies any description at all. This is way beyond anything that disbelief suspension can allow for! FF is supposed to feel real, this just feels stupid.

The indescribably bad structure and design of this book does not just encompass unbalanced combats, dramatic swings in difficulty level, and desperately puerile episodes, but also the NPCs and encounters are named in such a way that you cannot see them as anything other than a very bad joke and there is certainly no feeling of foreboding created when you meet any of them. A select list of stupid and/or crappy encounter names includes NPCs with names like Captain Big-Ears, Fog Farkin, Ruthless Rod, and Ludo Kludwig, alongside general encounters with naming conventions including Crafty Corporal, Pugnacious Private, Snappy Sergeant, Fat Spider (this actually is a spider, by the way), Clumsy Mutant, Drooling Mutant, Big Hulk, Even Bigger Hulk, Foppish Dignitary, and something called a Gobblepotamus.

A frequent problem with Sc-Fi FFs is the lack of much to collect and that is similarly the case here. You can pick up a few bits and pieces along the way (and some are essential to success), but the bulk of the item-finding happens early on where you are presented with a series of lists to pick two things from each time. These listed items quickly get used, though, so you are mostly just left counting your 10 Provision Tablets (this particular future’s development of Provisions that each restores 4 Stamina so they have not progressed in the strength-restoring sense at all) and the 10 Credits you start the game with. The 10 Credits make it seem like there might be some astute purchases or trading to do along the way. Unsurprisingly (for a book that is such a mess) this is not the case and you only get two occasions where you need Credits at all.

The way this book is written should be its saviour, but contributes hugely to its downfall. The initial tongue-in-cheek feel that the intro gives is not maintained beyond the start and the rest of the book swings between being either smug (in a knowingly-surreal way) or the work of someone who really is doing their damnedest to destroy their own book in that it never seems to know what tone it is aiming for or whether this is all-out farce or something else. The sad thing is that this is not at all badly written (barring the very off-hand one-liner instant deaths), it’s just the material is so bad that the lack of an obvious register is made all the more apparent. Whilst the prose and descriptions work in the strictest sense of the two words (but certainly not in quality of material), any moments of dialogue are risible, especially with robots that call you “mate” and that always seem to have gone haywire. 

The artwork in Sci-Fi FFs is almost always panned, but the art here is probably the book’s best feature. I’m not saying the art is necessarily good as such, it’s just not as bad as the actual book, even though some of it is from a Third Party perspective where you can see your ship taking off and the like which does remove the element of the pictures being what you are seeing. The very bright yellow cover really appeals to me as it is very different to the often dark or menacing FF covers. It’s a shame the contents are so bad.

Sci-Fi FFs are often also very linear and that is definitely the case with Sky Lord. The true path (ie the one that avoids the numerous instant deaths) will take several attempts to find, assuming you can face replaying this book. Given the relative impossibility of the ship-based combats, it’s very likely that you will quickly find yourself cheating should you be curious or masochistic enough to find out what happens in the rest of the book.

If you want to experience what the sound of the bottom of the FF barrel being scraped is like, then play this just for curiosity’s sake as I guarantee that the only way to properly understand how diabolical this book is is to read it. If you want to play a better FF, just select any other one ever released!