Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The Floating City


Ruth Pracy

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Warlock #8 offered this short FF submitted by reader Ruth Pracy which forms the first part of a trilogy that would continue in The Land Of Changes and end with In Search Of The Lost Land. From the outset there is a feeling that this effort is rather more mystical and almost ethereal compared to the more conventional short subjects that preceded it, but there is also an air of pretension and, in places, an awkwardly slapdash construction to it as well.

The opening spiel comes across as almost pompous in tone. Whether this is to create the feeling of other-worldliness or is just an example of archly up-its-own-arse writing is hard to say, but the latter tends to overshadow the former somewhat. Your character is presented as an opportunistic drifter who happens across an incident where the story of a kidnapped Dwarf is related to you and you see this as a chance to reap the reward that the Dwarf’s master (Lord Karon) will no doubt be offering for saving him. Lord Karon lives in the fabled Floating City of the title, which lies to the north in the Winterworld Mountains and your mission involves trekking across the frozen wastes of Winter and finding your way into the city to save the day (although there is a twist at the end which you might have already been told about if you've met the NPC who gives it away in the name of advice.)

The nature of the setting here is very interesting and the overall world where this and its two sequels take place is probably these three adventures’ most inventive feature, a world which has no seasons, instead having lands of perpetual Winter and Summer, with an inter-connecting area that variously shifts between Spring and Autumn (the Land Of Changes of the second adventure.) This first part is set in Winter so involves an icy wasteland, inhabited by typically tundra-dwelling creatures and full of the perils associated with these environments (ie glaciers, ice flows, and snow.) I really like ice-based FFs as there is a real atmosphere of peril to be felt in them, you don’t meet the usual fantasy fare of Goblins, Orcs, Elves, etc in this type of adventure, and ice FFs are few and far between.

One of the key features of Warlock mini-FFs is the unique encounters and there are several to be seen in TFC including the Tornaq (an aggressive one-eyed female spirit that lives in rocks), the Quiquern (a six-legged toothless dog that can apparently suck you to death, but never does), and the warped concept of the Radical Regenerative (a mutant humanoid that keeps growing extra appendages all the time and can have a Stamina of 20 unless you find its weak-spot and use a harpoon against it which, for some reason, is the only weapon that can really hurt it.) Throughout Ruth Pracy’s adventures it becomes apparent that she is rather fond of warped creature imagery, unpronounceable naming conventions, and bizarre and inexplicable strengths/weaknesses in creatures. Indeed, there is also some otherwise unheard-of news that Yeti cubs have poisonous bites which, whilst adding an extra danger element along the way, doesn’t mesh with any other FF Yeti that I’ve ever met (and there’s no mention of it in Out Of The Pit either) so this sits awkwardly with me in the context of FF world continuity.

The mission itself is a mixed-bag. On the one hand, it can be quite tough to negotiate and there are several key items that you need, but multiple playthroughs will eventually show that there are (as far as I can tell) three distinct true paths, none of which are mutually compatible with each other. This can both add re-playability and add to the confusion as you try to link-up the map of the game and realise that certain combinations of essential items are not possible to find on the same route (for example, you cannot get both the Angekok’s amulet AND a red feather), meaning it could take some persistence to beat this game, unless you happen to stumble across one of the correct routes quite quickly, or the unusual atmosphere and icy setting make you curious enough to want to see everything there is to see. And this is a big problem with this adventure as, to be honest, other than avoiding traps and using cunning/the correct items at two or three pivotal “test” moments, there isn’t all that much to it and the safest of the three true paths is quite short and fairly uneventful. If you have decent enough stats you can flesh things out by taking a more hazardous route which rewards you with more to see and do, but you will have to deal with at least two very tough combats so whether you will survive remains to be seen. That said, you do have two doses of Potion from the start so you have a reasonable hope of survival even if you do take the dangerous option(s), notwithstanding a potential Skill penalty of -3 if you antagonise some Ice Sprites and they shatter your sword to smithereens.

This Skill penalty highlights a frustrating feature of this and, in fact, all of RP’s adventures, in that they are plagued by textual inconsistencies to the point where they seem quite carelessly put together which is at odds with their conceptual depth in the sense of the area they are set and the sense of awe and almost fairy tale fantasy styles and ideas that they contain:

  • ·         The aforementioned Skill penalty is offset when you find a spear (which you can only take if you’ve lost your sword – a nice “worthiness” touch) which adds 1 to your Initial Skill but ignores the fact that you have lost 3 Skill already and is therefore purposeless unless you use a Potion Of Skill to restore this stat
  • ·         The introduction gives you 5 Provisions and says that these can only be used when the text specifically tells you that you can use them. Annoyingly, I cannot find any section that actually lets you do this, so these are also completely useless to you
  • ·         There are numerous typos, punctuation errors, and incorrect paragraph links – typos and dodgy grammar are an irritant that can be over-looked, but bad section links can ruin a game completely
  • ·         As is often the case with FFs, there are continuity problems where the text will decide you’ve done something you might not have, or requires you to use something you can’t possibly have if you’ve got to where you are at the time, which is just shoddy
The biggest issue by far with RP’s adventures is that they are fundamentally too short, being padded out with ultimately pointless diversions that have no bearing on the true path(s), and containing far too many episodes that are cut down into multiple paragraphs that can only lead into each other as you are told to “Turn to A”, then “Turn to B”, etc, ad nauseum. This adventure could easily have been cut down to 100 paragraphs and still have been the same actual game, minus all the padding.

On the other hand, a very neat calling-card in Pracy adventures is the multiple endings, only one of which is an actual “win” outcome, where you can survive via various sorts of semi-victories, but not the optimum one that actually constitutes winning. Becoming King or just getting out mean you have survived, but you haven’t achieved the intended objective and the text makes you feel that you are settling for the consolation prize when, choosing another option at key moments, could have led to victory. I like this idea as it is nice to not just fail by dying in adventures all the time but to, instead, experience an anti-climax which leaves you alive and almost certainly encourages you to try again in a bid to get a better result next time around.

Pracy’s writing style can be, as we have mentioned, at times atmospheric and almost dream-like, yet also has moments of pretension and even off-handedness (eg: “You are in trouble”) which gives an awkward feeling of prosaic inconsistency. In places, Pracy really wants you to “feel” her world, whilst in others it seems that she can hardly be bothered to finish a cameo off properly at all.

The accompanying art here is by Pete Martin and makes for very full and detailed fantasy art (the Floating City itself is especially fairy tale in appearance), but, for the most part, has very little “ici-ness” to it and several images have out of context backgrounds (especially the Radical Regenerative and the arty Yeti montage thing.) Also, the massive picture of the Sedna gives away her secret as the shadow of an old crone is seen in her shroud which hardly makes the great identity reveal moment much of a surprise when/if it comes. Equally, the incidental art contains far too many clues as to what the key items you need for success might be and, whilst on initial playing you will not pick up on this, once you start to build up the game map you will realise what these images are of and the fact that these are the key items you will need to find to win. This adventure came in the period when Warlock had stopped directly linking its cover art to its featured mini-FF so Chris Achilleos’ cover image of what I assume is a Werewolf is nice and atmospheric but has no actual direct bearing on this adventure in any way. I am inclined to think that the full page picture of The Floating City itself that comes immediately before paragraph 1 is probably meant to be the “cover” and it definitely has a sense of awe to it, even if it does take away the big pay-off of seeing/reading the description of the city when you finally reach it.

I am in two minds about this offering. It is unusual in that it borders on fairy tale/Camelot/Inuit legend motifs and there is a nicely weird ethereal atmosphere in parts. The icy setting is not really used to full advantage but is functional enough to feel right, but its relative brevity (if we see through all the unnecessary padding material/section links), annoying plot inconsistencies, and even more annoying stylistic inconsistency tend to make it all feel like a bit of a let-down given the intriguing and original overall world where this and its sequels take place. The multiple true paths and numerous alternate “lose but don’t lose as such” endings add re-playability, but overall this is a missed opportunity. Perhaps if all three adventures in this cycle had been joined together into one book (which would remove the need for excessive padding-out) it would have been more satisfying, but far more proof-reading and play testing would be needed to remove the over-riding feeling that this is basically a bit of a mess.

1 comment:

  1. After reading this I dug out my copy and went through it. I found it a bit sub par, though enjoyed the repeated references to the egg-squatting dwarfs nakedness quite thought provoking.

    Mechanics wise I liked the idea around turning into a creature that you hold a part of. That's something which I think could be expanded upon. (Gets out notebook; considers plagiarism)