Sunday, 15 December 2013

#37: Portal Of Evil


PORTAL OF EVIL

Peter Darvill-Evans

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Darvill-Evans’ second FF sees a return to the same region of Khul where his first (#25 Beneath Nightmare Castle) was set, with its Germanic-sounding naming conventions, but names and locale apart, this is otherwise a very different-feeling and less successful book than BNC. There is no sign of the eerie gothic atmosphere that pervaded BNC, instead PoE is far lighter material. The inclusion of large numbers of dinosaurs and very little creature diversity beyond the basics of elves, goblins, and dwarves, almost make this feel like an entry-level adventure.

The idea of a dinosaur-themed FF is something of a rarity in the series. The only other book that really has this feel is #7 Island Of The Lizard King (which is more akin to the Raquel Welch sun-drenched One Million Years BC version of prehistory) and the parallels are made more evident as both books also feature Alan Langford’s very appropriate-looking internal art. But there is a twist with PoE inasmuch as Lizard King’s Fire Island is a very primitive environment, whereas the area surrounding the Cloudhigh Mountains where PoE takes place is the equivalent of 19th Century America with its themes of gold rush fever and proto-capitalism so, on initially starting this adventure, you do find yourself wondering quite where the dinosaurs are going to fit in. This is not Valley Of Gwangi or 2000AD’s Flesh so do not expect cowboys farming dinos. Instead, dependant on your level of realisation (and the secret is hardly much of a secret for anyone who can read between the far from subtle lines here), it turns out that the dinosaurs that are roaming around wreaking havoc are actually people who have been turned into dinos as part of the arch-baddie Horfak’s evil plans. Opinion is that the dinos are passing through the titular Portal from another world (which is true) but they are seemingly just ex-people who fell foul of Horfak’s machinations. The Portal itself was accidentally uncovered by Horfak whilst digging mineshafts and it has gradually warped him into a hideous mutation (which is why he’s banned mirrors, incidentally) and this is where YOU come in, as a warrior who has been commissioned to try to establish what’s going on and stop it from going on anymore.

There is an interesting take on linearity in this book and, whilst it is definitely pretty linear, it seems (I emphasise “seems”) to be possible to visit certain key locations out of order, especially on initial playthroughs given how areas that are presumably miles apart link very closely into one-another, and working out the correct order is as surprising as it is frustrating. On starting out, you can go directly to a key town or the forest/mountains – should you do this, you can get the feeling that there is hardly anything to this adventure as you will quickly a) get close to the Portal, and b) fail completely. Once you find the correct route, it becomes clear that this is actually a pretty long slog involving a seemingly endless and pretty uneventful ride down a river (a good excuse to get a Plesiosaur into the proceedings though), interspersed with constantly being forced to either eat or lose Stamina due to hunger. And this part is the book’s biggest problem as it is boring and repetitive – ride along, do nothing, have something to eat (repeat ad nauseum) – but yields essential items and information that you can’t win without. There are some slightly baffling moments in this part’s latter hill climb section (especially involving an existentialist ex-person Ape that just accepts your suggestion that it bugger off somewhere else rather than killing you, as it will no doubt be far happier that way) and an initially intriguing but actually pointless run-in with some Goblins on a jetty. Get through the tedium of all this and you reach the first real tour-de-force in this book where you need to negotiate a brilliant and almost Arthurian trial lake to get to a Wizard who holds a key piece of information, not to mention his aiding you in going to the next key stage – handy given the fact that you will by now feel that you are about to fall off the edge of the World considering how far you have travelled to get to this point. From here on, the pace of the book increases noticeably as you go to the town of Kleinkastel to undertake a really well designed and fun series of trials to ensure you are good enough to be the champion who can sort out the region’s problems, followed by a trek through a forest to try to find various contacts and get important facts from them, and then on into the Cloudhighs themselves.

It is this interim stage between the never-ending river ride/eating and the actual Portal sections where the real depth of thought that has gone into this book becomes apparent. All the different races you can meet have very distinct behaviours and cultural idiosyncrasies that you need to figure out and navigate your way through. These are interspersed with increasingly frequent “dinosaur” encounters along with similarly growing numbers of mindless zombies roaming around the place that are also a product of the Portal. There are moments where you need to decide if the beings you meet are what they seem or if they are just more zombies and you will need to use a modicum of mental wit to survive this part and manage to get your hands on the items you need.

The final section involving getting through the Portal and passing into another dimension is fairly brief and maybe a little rushed considering the unnecessary length of the first section, but it also allows you to get to Horfak quickly and try to win. Surviving the Portal section itself does involve needing several items that can take some finding (as well as remembering to leave some explosives at the door – are you really likely to think this is a good idea given the likelihood of someone else blowing it up and trapping you in another World?), but the other dimension itself is quite easy to get through, plus Horfak doesn’t take much beating once you realise that/why he hates mirrors. The cultural aspect from the forest/hills episodes is continued here and there is nice fleshing-out of the primitive peoples who live in the other dimension so you can put them into some kind of context as you meet them.

So, as hit-and-miss as the plotting is, swinging as it does from tedium all the way through to highly innovative ideas and good contextualising of the region this is set in, there is certainly a lot to recommend and, once you’ve figured out what’s going on (which is hardly difficult given the relative simplicity of the overall idea here), this has a lot going for it if you can bare with it through the really dull first third.

I have to say I was left a little disappointed when I realised that this isn’t really a FF about dinosaurs, although a real plus-point for the book is the way the numerous dinosaur encounters are handled. Some have “handlers” (ie their non-transformed friends) who are using them to extort money from people by threatening menaces of dino-combat, whilst others are trying to defend themselves from hunters and/or just mind their own business for as long as they are stuck in their dino-bodies. The various dinosaurs’ combat stats are especially well thought-out in that they have low Skill scores (dinos should be essentially stupid and should react on instinct alone) and very high Staminas (anything as massive and leathery as them is clearly going to be hard to hurt.) Additionally, in some cases they will have special attacks that you also need to defend against (horns, big tongues, etc) so they are handled very realistically and also, importantly, very consistently. There is also a nice touch where some will lose interest in fighting you if they realise they can't get an easy meal and will just wander off. Another nice aspect of the dinosaurs’ inclusion is the balance of well-known famous species (Ankylosaurus, Pteranodon, Stegocephalian, Oviraptor, Triceratops, Plesiosaur) and some of the more obscure types (Dromaeosaurus, Noasaurus, Phororhacos, Struthiomimus) which, mixed with the fact that these are all real species that existed on Earth, gives the impression that these are not just thrown in for a laugh and that they are intended to fit in well with the plot. Of note is the fact that all these species are described as extinct on Khul. Khul must be distinctly different in its evolution from Allansia, as Triceratops and Pteranodons are alive and well there, but long gone on Khul. This is subtle but interesting in terms of the development and expansion of the FF universe and this book adds value in that respect. Plus, D-E avoids the obvious fall-back of using any Tyrannosaurs which I was pleased to see.

One of the best features of Darvill-Evans’ FFs is the atmospheric writing and the sheer depth of description in his long paragraphs. He uses the cultural aspects of each race to create vivid encounters/locations and Kleinkastel in particular is a hive of gold rush mania mixed in with determination to find a strong enough champion offset against the sheer megalomania of its Margrave leader who is one of the more satisfyingly arrogant yet also easily flattered NPCs in the FF series, making him a lot of fun to interact with. My only gripe with the excellence of Darvill-Evans’ writing in this book is that the lengthy descriptions do somewhat amplify the endless nature of the first section, but at least it’s boring in a thorough and expositional way and we certainly can’t complain about lack of depth or involving prose here.

The generally light nature of the material on offer here contradicts the dark, gloomy cover which, whilst suitably mysterious in its depiction of the Portal, is not an accurate reflection of the tone and feel of the book, and in this sense it is something of a surprise when you play through it and see just how un-claustrophobic and non-threatening the adventure is, hence my opening theory that this is intended as a Beginner’s book. There is none of the terror (not to mention the difficulty) of Beneath Nightmare Castle and, once you’ve found where the items you need are hidden, this is one of the easier books in the series.

To summarise, this is a decent (but not brilliant) offering that sums up the feeling of general “meh-ness” that many of the books in the 30s part of the series leave you with. It’s OK, but it’s hardly ground-breaking, and its intelligent second and third parts are let down by your having to drag yourself through the initial part. Give it a go for the dinosaurs and the elven/dwarvish/goblin culture and for Darvill-Evans’ writing, but I’d recommend playing it after you’ve attempted Beneath Nightmare Castle, if only to prove that D-E is a genuinely good game creator.

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