Saturday, 26 October 2013

#40: Dead Of Night


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.



4 comments:

  1. I'd say that there are a few more horror FF books than you have listed here: Stephen Hand's other ones (#44 Legend of the Shadow Warriors and #48 Moonrunner) and the Lovecraft-esque #25 Beneath Nightmare Castle.

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  2. Loving all your thorough reviews Matt, been great revisiting some old classics (the horror trilogy esp).
    It may just be me and my aging eyes, but I've found the white text on brown pretty difficult to read - any ideas, or am I alone?
    Keep up the sterling work :)

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  3. Just finished Dead of Night near the end of a big FF binge I have gone on recently. After going through the Livingstone gauntlet (DO NOT make me find one more item!) this book easily stands out in a myriad of ways.

    1)The multiple LEGITIMATE paths you get to take combined with a very useful map.
    2)The fact you can actually beat the book with a weak stat roll.
    3)The overall mood/atmosphere of the book carries throughout the book
    4)The skill system has no must-haves or worthless skills, even if a couple are better than the rest.

    Add many of these together and you get a game that really does feel like a role-playing game. Loved it!

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