VAULT OF THE VAMPIRE
Reviewed by Mark Lain
My opinion of this book is influenced by two major factors: 1) I really like the vampire mythos, but I am very old-school with my take on how vampire stories should work – Bram Stoker and Hammer Films’ gothic interpretations with the vampires being dapper toffs is how I see the ideal vampire concept, not the modern angst-ridden teen approach where vampires are an allegory for teen disillusionment and they always prefer the out-of-place miserable teen girls that have no facial muscles rather than the upper class beauties that more than vaguely resemble their long-dead brides (Stephanie Meyer, you have a lot to answer for); 2) I am probably not the only FF fan who was really hoping that the series was not going to peter out into a catalogue of so-so books that aren’t a patch on what had come before – the series needed a re-boot by number 38 and Vault Of The Vampire would be the kick up the arse that it desperately needed and would set the tone for the very gothic, dark books that would make the 40s-numbered offerings generally so much better than those from the 30s.
This book could very easily have appeared in the first ten or so and not have seemed out-of-place what with its very straightforward plot where YOU are drawn to the Old World’s region of Mauristatia (read Transylvania) in search of rich pickings. You spend the night at an inn called the Hart’s Blood (there used to be an extra letter in its name before the locals decided it was a bad omen) where everyone seems oddly taciturn and agitated. Eventually a loose-tongued old woman blabs to you that the local Count has been abducting virgins from the surrounding area and that her grand-daughter Nastassia is the latest to go missing. A one-armed former warrior then joins the conversation and adds colour to the theory that the Count is evil and that his castle (Castle Heydrich) is not a place you would especially want to go to. Being a brave adventurer you immediately take on the challenge of going to the castle to rescue Nastassia and a black carriage with a suspiciously headless driver pulls up outside the inn and beckons you to get in. So, we are back to the good old days of FF YOUs that just want fame and fortune regardless of how suicidal the mission seems to be. From here the adventure involves you getting to the castle (either by riding in the carriage or deciding to walk) and then making your way through its three levels, gathering information from the castle’s other inhabitants and collecting items that are handy for killing vampires. Eventually you enter the crypt, locate the Count (called Reiner Heydrich, as you discover fairly quickly) and despatch him. But, the real beauty is in the execution of the concept and what is essentially a “find and kill the baddie” plotline is raised above this by the inclusion of many NPCs that you can meet including four other members of the Heydrich family, none of whom are vampires themselves, who add a lot of depth to the identity and nature of a) Heydrich himself, and b) the dynamics of the Heydrich family in general. This makes Reiner seem, whilst obviously evil, not necessarily the only unpleasant person in the castle. His sister, Katarina, whilst very vampish and seductive, is actually just trying to bump her brother off so she can be top dog and she will try to enchant you into aiding and abetting her including potentially forcing you to kill someone you really need to get help from. There are three Heydrich brothers to meet too: Wilhelm who has lost it completely (kill him and you are penalised for murdering someone who, whilst obviously nuts, is basically harmless); Gunthar who is a sort of sage figure whose good-neutral-evil allegiance is all very ambiguous and he wants Reiner dead simply due to his nastiness but is moral enough to not be able to face killing his own brother, vampire or otherwise; and Siegfried (or rather, Siegfried’s ghost) who was the previous head of the family until Reiner murdered him and desecrated his grave – Siegfried proves to be the most important NPC to find (which can happen twice) as he yields the most information on how to kill Reiner. Katarina can also be encountered twice and whilst the first possible run-in makes her appearance at the end flow better, the initial encounter is not an easy one to negotiate and can cause more problems than it is worth in the long run, plus her appearance may not be a surprise anyway as you are told early on that she is 76 years old but has a dubious method of keeping herself young-looking. There are also several secondary NPCs to find, including a rather arrogant alchemist and Lothar the Castellan, all of which adds much rich depth and detail to the Heydrich family and the world they live in. There are a couple of side missions you can get involved in, but neither are essential as the focus here is to rescue Nastassia and kill Heydrich (as the mission progresses the importance of the latter quickly over-rides the former) but they do allow for re-play options to add variety.
As would be expected, the castle floorplan is a very traditional square-shape with towers in each corner and the adventure flows in an extremely linear fashion as you are guided along corridors, deciding which doors to open along the way, eventually reaching sets of stairs that lead up to the next level, then finally down into the crypt. However, as this is a Keith Martin FF and he likes to give a certain amount of freedom to roam, it is still possible to visit every single location, provided you follow a certain sequence if you want to visit the irrelevant red herring rooms as well, and the more important locations are offered many times whilst the pointless ones quickly stop being offered once you’ve made your initial choice at any given juncture. After a while it becomes fairly obvious where you want to be going and you can even backtrack in certain places if you happen to have visited a particular batch of rooms in the wrong order meaning an item needed in one room is found after you might have already tried the room where you needed it – don’t worry though, once you have the item the book lets you return to try the room(s) in question. All very fair, then, and the linear path will lead past every key location that you must visit to complete the book so there are no “one wrong turn and you’ve blown it” traps here. This approach may seem restrictive but you do not really notice it as the castle and its contents are so varied and lurid that the sheer entertainment value overcomes any design shortcomings that the “straight line” structure may have.
A feature of Martin’s adventures is his use of puzzles and there are less than usual here but there are still a few cheat-proofing moments where you need to know the number of a hidden paragraph and in one case there is a message to decode that is not necessarily complex once you’ve cracked it (a NPC will give you a subtle clue early on) but that will take ages to work through, letter by letter. There is otherwise very little real cheat-proofing in this book, the bulk of the checkpoints just being “do you have item x” questions which makes it quite easy to cheat, not that that’s necessary as the book is very forgiving in terms of what items you need to find to win. There are four possible combinations of the absolutely essential final showdown items that you must have and all four are valid. As is normal with major vampires, you are required to destroy Heydrich’s spare coffins, but you only need smash up two of the three that can be found which is a relief as one is very well-hidden compared to the other two. To aid you further, there are two lots of holy water and, more importantly, two magic swords (without which you cannot fight Heydrich at all) and there are many ways of regaining lost Stamina as you start with 10 Provisions plus you can find more food and drink (especially brandy) along the way. Incidentally, you are expected to be conscious of the central concept which means drinking red wine (actually blood) is to be avoided and there is a fairly gruesome moment where you must give your own blood to prove your worth – I like these little moments of context as they give yet more depth to the overall atmosphere of the book. Overall, the difficulty level is very balanced with most combats being fairly easy and only the real “specials” have stats in double figures eg the Major/Minor Thassalos’ which are Heydrich’s crack defence mechanisms and should naturally be a challenge to beat. Logically, the final showdown with Heydrich is extremely difficult (he has Sk 13 St 21) and you have to fight him a second time once his Stamina is reduced to 4 or less (and he gains 8 extra Stamina ie his St is then between 9 and 12) to finally kill him off. There then follows a third consecutive combat with Katarina who immediately sets about trying to claim her birth-right, although she is weaker at Sk 10 St 10. This (series of) combats may seem unfair and it is undeniably tough, but you can use several items to shave points off Heydrich’s stats before the first fight (including 12 Stamina if you have both holy waters) and you are required to use your ingenuity to make him less powerful before you take him on. This is a neat feature as it involves you directly influencing the outcome rather than just throwing a super-strong end baddie at you and watching you almost inevitably die by dice rolling alone.
Probably the hardest aspect of this book is the extra stat that is involved (Faith), starting at between 4 and 9 which is unusually low for a FF stat, especially one that has as much influence over the proceedings as it does here. Faith tests are very common and some key discoveries or achievements are driven by passing these which can get very difficult given that most Faith rolls have adjustors to make them even harder (up to +6 in one case) and you are more likely to lose this game due to a failed Faith roll than for any other reason. Skill and Luck tests are quite abundant too, but do not have the same scale of impact as Faith does. However, unlike the usual saving throw situations, depending on the specific scenario rolling either under or over your Faith score can have a positive outcome as too much belief in yourself can be just as bad as not having enough. Obviously, in the most important moments, rolling under your Faith is necessary to be successful, but there are also times when rolling over your Faith will avoid your having to fight additional foes as too much faith will attract unwanted attention from evil and you can find yourself having to deal with numerous extra undead simply because you are too “good”. This is easily one of the better deployments of an extra stat in the FF series and it really does drive the proceedings, rather than just being an extra way to kill you as these extra stats so often are in FFs. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the other two extra elements in this book, Afflictions and Magic. Magic only appears in the final act and it is possible to miss the encounter that can give you magic powers completely as this is not an essential to victory, rather it just makes things easier for you if you can get it. On meeting the NPC who bestows the ability to use spells on you you roll one die three times (or until you get three different numbers), the numbers you roll dictating which three spells you get. The spells are the usual mix of combative and restorative and, at best, can do extra damage to Reiner and/or restore your stats in preparation for the end battle sequence. I’m not convinced that the magic aspect really fits and, although its inclusion method makes sense in plot terms, it doesn’t seem to make sense to suddenly acquire spells so late on in what is a fairly conventional hero vs villain piece and it really adds nothing to the experience other than if you are very weak by this late stage in which case it’s something of a relief. Afflictions are quite awkward and seem to be a novelty inclusion – there are only a small number and only the Lycanthropy Affliction plays any noticeable or effective part in how the adventure progresses as such, in that it is given to you by a Werewolf (in an avoidable episode before you even reach the castle) and only affects you whenever you climb a staircase by a window as that is where the moonlight can get at you. In a neat touch, Lycanthropy can develop into Major Lycanthropy (ie one step away from total wolf-out and failure) causing you to become one of Heydrich’s unholy minions, but Lycanthropy can be cured several times in the castle so its inclusion just seems forced. On the subject of transformations incidentally you can variously meet Heydrich pre-showdown in his wolf, bat and rat forms which is a great added touch of vampire folklore that adds to the suspense as you hunt him out in “human” form, especially the rat version that taunts you.
The folkloric aspect is evident from the start and this is certainly one of the more thematically consistent FF books in that it stays focussed on the main subject and goal throughout. The atmosphere is laid on very thick, but in a classy way in that we are made to feel that Heydrich is rather cultured and debonair (library, expensive decor and plush furniture, dining room, etc) and there is no sense of decay or putridity other than in the encounters, which are almost entirely with undead and wraiths, but that suits the concept as well. We are even told that the castle feels both evil yet also good at the same time – an indication that help can be found. There is a distinctly Victorian feel to the setting(s) with very little real medievalism giving the impression that Mauristatia is slightly less archaic than most of Titan and much of this book is straight out of Bram Stoker and/or Hammer: the inn where everyone acts nervously, the black coach with its headless horseman, Katarina’s method of bathing in virgin’s blood to remain youthful emulates Countess Dracula (itself based on the gory habits of Elizabeth Bathory), and the whole dress-sense of Heydrich himself including the widow’s peak is very much the Christopher Lee take on vampires. Even the idea of the girl being called Nastassia has Hammer overtones as Nastassja Kinski was in the final Hammer horror of the original series (To The Devil A Daughter) in 1976, plus it’s a very Eastern European feeling name which adds to the whole Mauristatia = Transylvania principal. The Hammer overtones are a real plus-point for me and are one of many reasons why this book is such a winner.
Of considerable importance is Keith Martin’s very vivid descriptive prose and the way he keeps everything feeling urgent and snappy makes time fly when you are playing this. Add to this Martin McKenna’s perfectly partnered internal art (easily FF’s most Hammer-esque all-out horror-inspired artist) and you get a fantastic horror genre piece that is both fun and exciting. I especially like the picture for section 400 where Katarina is rapidly aging post-defeat and this mirrors the closing scene of Hammer’s Countess Dracula wonderfully. For once, a FF cover gets to the point with Les Edwards’ attacking red-eyed vampire and huge “V” in blood red within the title and this mixture of image and title leave absolutely no doubt as to what this book is all about.
Only occasionally did FF go for full-on horror genre outings and this book is a fast-paced and very rewarding experience that, whilst very linear, deals with this in a positive pro-player way rather than creating as many ways for the reader to fail as is possible. That it came at a time when FF books were becoming very by-the-numbers makes it seem all the better, but it would have been brilliant no matter where it had fallen within the cycle and it has the feel of the very early scene-setting FF books in that it concentrates so intently on itself rather than trying to expand the FF world with yet another historical or political detail. Yes, it gives us another part of Titan that seems familiar to somewhere on Earth (Romania in this case), but that is no bad thing and it helps us to put some sort of understandable perspective on the proceedings. FF was crying out for a Dracula clone and when it came, it was written by one of the few FF writers who can really do justice to gothic horror (the others being Stephen Hand and Jonathan Green), which ensured it was truly memorable. Get it, play it, love it.