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!

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