Sunday, 5 October 2014

#59: Curse Of The Mummy



CURSE OF THE MUMMY

Jonathan Green

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Puffin’s last FF book to be published before the axe finally fell on the series is the third by Jonathan Green, whose previous efforts, #53 Spellbreaker and #56 Knights Of Doom, were both impressive if incredibly difficult entries in the series. Curse Of The Mummy is probably more known now for the high prices it commands amongst collectors which, although less excessive than those paid for books 57 and 58, still routinely come in at £25+. I would imagine the reason for the lower value of the final book is that Wizard Books re-issued it when they revamped the series in the early 2000s, making it less of a Holy Grail than its two predecessors which have not seen the light of day since Puffin’s original printings, even though the Puffin version of CotM is slightly different in that some of the more ridiculous combats have lowered stats in the Wizard edition (as also happened with Wizard’s version of Spellbreaker), not that this made either book any easier to beat!

...And therein lies the real problem with CotM – it is just too difficult and not in a good, challenging way that gives you a feeling of satisfaction when you better it, but in a relentless manner that leaves you feeling that, no matter how many difficult number-crunches you do, impenetrable riddles you figure out, and well-hidden items you can proudly say you’ve somehow found, you know that, inevitably, yet another pitfall of one sort or another is going to scupper you. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a repetitive catalogue of ways to make you fail, as the various check-point devices are very imaginative and varied, it’s just that there are far too many of them to make you think you are ever going to win. For example, there are around a dozen hidden numbers to find (ranging from how many of something there are on an object through to the more conventional secret paragraphs that are revealed to you by various NPCs or on written documents), some of which you need to multiply/add/divide/subtract more than once and every one is a win/lose situation sooner or later. The fact that some of these are very off-handedly mentioned when you find the relevant items means that, on initial playthroughs, you are only likely to note down all these crucial details if you happen to do so by pure chance. Subsequent attempts at the game will make it more apparent that you need to pay very close attention to the text, but you cannot realistically hope to get very far at all on the first handful of plays. Whilst I accept that this is designed to prevent cheating, some of the “can you figure it out?” moments are so complex and/or obscure that you can find yourself growing frustrated with the book very quickly, especially as the first one where you are asked if you know the location of the tomb is probably the hardest of the lot and also involves intuitively knowing that you need to go to a hidden section to even get to the point where the maths part kicks in, which brings me to another problem with this book: there are just too many hidden paragraphs. We have Steve Jackson to thank for this concept, which made #10 House Of Hell and #17 Appointment With FEAR so fiendishly difficult, and CotM is no exception, but it seems to be even harder to work out when to randomly check for a hidden section. Yes, some are sign-posted, but there were at least two entire parts of the book that I’d completely missed (that, of course, yield essential items) every time I played it until I resorted to the online solution to knock this one on the head once and for all.

If having to guess when to look for hidden sections and regularly losing by not being able to play Numberwang very well don’t already make this book almost impossible to beat, it is linear on as extreme a scale as FFs such as #53 Spellbreaker and #26 Crypt Of The Sorcerer ie any slight deviation from the one and only true path will lead to failure due to the sheer weight of essential items that you need to find, along with lots of information that you cannot win without knowing. Needless to say, some of these items/facts are protected by some very tough adversaries and the criticism levelled at Green’s earlier Knights Of Doom definitely applies again here in that many of the combats are with enemies with stats in double-figures (sometimes several at once), but not only that, there are also numerous combats that involve adjustors that reduce your chance of surviving even further, amongst which the toughest are:

·         4 x Xoroa (in one battle) – all Skill 10 or 11, Staminas ranging from 9 to 11
·         Great Serpent Sk 8 St 14 – a high Skill will see it off quick(ish), but you still need to inflict seven wounds to kill it and each time it hits you you add 2 Poison and take -3 St damage, plus it automatically eats you if it wins two Attack Rounds in a row
·         Dracon Sk 9 St 14 – you must fight it with your Attack Strength reduced by 1 because it is basically bullying you and you have hurt feelings (although you need to make friends with it anyway so this fight is avoidable if you intend to get anywhere)
·         (up to) 15 Mummies (in one battle) – all Sk 9 St 12
·         2 x Accursed (in same battle) Sk 12/11 St 10/11 – roll one dice every time they win an Attack Round (which is likely to be almost every time unless you have a Skill of 12) – a 5 or 6 means they’ve stung you for +1 Poison in addition to the normal -2 St wound
·         Tomb Stalker Sk 8 St 6 – not very strong but it will grab you by the neck if it wins two Attack Rounds on the trot, causing you 1d6 of damage, followed by this happening ad nauseum until you win another Attack Round
·         Giant Scorpion Sk 10 St 10 – this one has gone down in FF folklore as it comes very early in the book, has two claws that must be fought as if they were two foes with Sk 10, plus if it ever has an Attack Strength of 22+ it does -4 St damage and also inflicts +3 Poison from its tail
·         Death Spider Sk 14 St 9 – every time it wins an Attack Round (which will be almost every time regardless of how strong you are) you make a saving throw against your Poison, roll under it and you are paralysed and dragged back to its demonic dimension
·         3 x Snapperfish (same battle) – each wound does you -3 St AND -1 Skill, plus you are fighting them will your AS reduced by 2 due to being in water. Be grateful that they only have Sk 6 St 2/2/3!
·         A second Mummy showdown, but this time with (only!) up to 8 of them
·         Amentut Sk 9 St 8 – roll one dice every time he wins an AR, a 5 or 6 means he ages you taking 2 from your current and Initial Stamina along with 1 from your current and Initial Skill for good measure
·         ...and then there’s the small matter of the end baddie, Akharis who has Sk 13 St 25. Win this battle and, two paragraphs later, you have to fight him again, this time with Sk 8 St 10

So, it is pretty clear that, unless you have Sk 10+ St 20+ you have no chance at all of getting beyond the first few major combats here. But, the ridiculous level of difficulty does not end there, as there are many Skill and Luck tests, most of which will result in death (or consequential failure later on) if you do not pass them. Even the final “turn to 400” moment involves passing a Luck test so a Luck score of less than 12 will give you no chance either. To compound all this you have a fourth stat to contend with: Poison. You start with zero and, if it reaches or exceeds 18 you die of toxic overload. It might seem like this is the final nail in the “do I have any hope?” coffin, but it is actually highly unlikely that you will ever reach a Poison of 18 unless you get poisoned at every opportunity for it to happen, many of which (outside of combats) are fairly avoidable, so that’s at least one gesture in the player’s favour.

Interestingly, there are a few other saving graces along the way that will go at least some way to making you think this is not a lost cause, including being able to acquire quite a lot of Provisions (even though you start with none) and a room that’s “magical pyramid geometry” will (at the very least) restore your Stamina to its Initial level, reduce Poison by 4 and add 1 Luck and, if you happen to get very lucky with the roll that determines its effects, you can even have all three stats returned to their Initial levels plus your Poison reduced to zero AND your sword is sharpened so you will subsequently always increase your AR by 1. It’s even possible to fight Akharis the first time with him taking a -12 St penalty if you use two items on him before the fight starts. So not all of the book is weighted against you, then!

So what exactly is it that you are trying to do that gets you into a place that is so insanely lethal? The plot itself revolves around you trying to stop an ancient mummified Pharaoh despot from being resurrected by a cult and (as usual) wreaking widespread carnage. You initially run into an adventurer who talks you into trying to find the hidden location of the Pharaoh’s tomb and, once you’ve located it in the Desert of Skulls, you have to track down and destroy him for good. A simple enough premise that follows a logical route through the desert to find the tomb complex (very similar to the series’ other Desert of Skulls romp, #14 Temple Of Terror, in that sense), then a dungeon trawl through a tomb to eventually locate the temple where the mummy itself (Akharis) is about to be raised from the dead. Sadly, this brings us to another failing of this book, which is that the subject matter of mummies, as rare as a theme it is for gamebooks in general, is not particularly inspiring. Mummies always seemed to be the weakest and most one-note of all the horror staples – they just shuffle around and get burned a lot – and it does make for a rather inconsistent gaming experience. In places, the book is inventive in what it throws at you, but in other parts it just seems very dull and laboured. Some parts of the inside of the tomb are particularly uninteresting, with endless corridors and rooms (not to mention many instant deaths), none of which really motivate you to keep going. There’s even a maze which can be got through in three moves, but can also go on so long that you might give up at that point through boredom, plus it eats up paragraphs that could have been put to better use making more of the better-designed incidents. Add to this all the win/lose check-points and the book as a whole just seems to be an overlong and frustrating slog with not enough rewarding cameos or parts where you can feel that you are achieving something (and, in keeping with the 50+ part of the series' books, it is very long – there is a short route but you can’t win by taking it so there’s not much point in even trying to.)
Within the FF world as a whole, mummies have always played an awkward role in that they tend to haphazardly appear, often in dungeons that have been man-made as some sort of challenge, rather than them being in their proper environment. In this book’s favour is that an attempt is being made to contextualise a less-used horror construct. The desert parts of Titan also suffer from normally being a route to something hidden (eg Vatos in Temple Of Terror or the secret location of the prize gemstone in The Dervish Stone) rather than their's being an understandable rationale in their own right and what CotM does well is create a logical setting for a mummy (or in fact, loads of them) to exist in. If Hachiman in FF #20 Sword Of The Samurai can have developed a feudal culture along the lines of Earth’s Japan then there is no reason why the desert region of Allansia cannot have taken the same approach as Earth’s Ancient Egyptian world. This naturally allows for pyramids, temples, hieroglyphs, numerous traps to stop grave-robbers, cultists, and labyrinthine routes to find the all-important main man. All this makes sense to the reader, but does it feel a little too Egyptian to fit into Titan? Personally, I can live with the idea but there is a feeling of distance from the medieval fantasy world of Titan and this is one of a handful of FF books that could just as easily be set on Earth and still work in exactly the same way. A few attempts have been made to give it its own identity, the language of Djaratian being a key feature that runs throughout the book and, like Egyptologists, you can learn it which makes it possible to read hieroglyphs and even speak to the ancients you meet, but for the most part the concept as a whole seems a bit alienated from Titan. On the plus side, this does give this book a one-off feel and it is certainly original, in spite of it coming so late in the series.
The subject of this book’s position in the series is worth considering in its own right. That Puffin chose to finally kill FF off at number 59 seems a little numerically odd and it is well-documented that number 50 (Return To Firetop Mountain) was intended to be the last one, but it was such a success that FF got a slight reprieve. Equally well-known is that a 60th book was on the cards (Green’s Bloodbones) that proved to be far better than CotM when Wizard finally published it. Number 50 would have been a tidy point for the series to stop at and would have topped-and-tailed it logically with the first book. However, this would have deprived FF fans of two of the series’ better books (#52 Night Dragon and #53 Spellbreaker) which would have been a great shame. For me, the last genuinely really good Puffin FF was #56 Knights Of Doom so this would be my stopping-point of choice if only for the cycle to end on a high (if dementedly difficult) note. It would have been a great pity if the series were allowed to fizzle out and just become rubbish (Carry On Emmannuelle springs to mind as a way to pathetically end a classic series) and CotM is far better than the ignominious conclusion we would have got if #57 Magehunter had been the last or the carelessly un-proofread mess that is #58 Revenge Of The Vampire. CotM is not a bad way to close, it’s just not worthy of being the last one when you consider how much better an ending FF could have had. But at least Puffin allowed us to get an unusually-themed final book, if nothing else.
The parallels with Ancient Egypt are blatant but are also very well-deployed to give cogency to the atmosphere and events in CotM. I personally like the way all the encounters are suited to the theme (cue lots of mummified things along with some unique horrors such as the very warped Accursed and the satisfyingly manic Guardian Of The Dead) and the mythos of pyramids being riddled with vicious traps and curses is exploited nicely. Equally, neat little touches such as Akharis’ right-hand man having been buried alive with him, papyrus documents, the total disregard for architects/construction workers that was common in pyramid building, and amniotic jars containing vital organs are all present and correct. It is elements of this kind that make Green’s FFs really stand out for me and he always tries to include as much rich historical detail as possible to help it all make sense. Sadly, this is also why this book tends to feel sub-par by Green’s standards as, in spite of what is included, it just doesn’t inspire the reader/player in the same way that his other books do as there is only so much mileage you can get out of sand, decay, old bandages, hieroglyphs and lethal traps before it all starts to grow tiresome. This said, Green’s other great plus, the quality and always involving nature of his writing, is in evidence here and it is this aspect that raises this book above just being simply dull. Had it been written by a less talented storyteller, this would have been pretty unbearable considering how difficult it is and, I’m glad to say, Green avoids his annoying reversed codeword mechanic completely here which is another plus. If I have one criticism of the way this book is written it would be that the tone occasionally lurches awkwardly into attempted moments of comedy and the Don Huan episode is genuinely inexplicable and really doesn’t seem to fit.
Green’s prose is skilfully complemented by Martin McKenna’s always brilliant artwork and this is a rare occasion where the cover and internal art are by the same person meaning we have a consistency of style throughout. I’m not fond of the cover itself (it seems a bit camp) and the title font is typical of the crappy lettering on many later FFs, but at least the picture of Akharis is consistent (in every detail) with the much scarier extreme close-up on paragraph 397 (which would have made a far better cover, if you ask me.) McKenna’s art is superb throughout and his slightly Hammer-esque imagery suits Green’s writing style perfectly. If I have one gripe it would be that the only thing more stupid than the idea of a mummified cobra is a picture of one and it really does look very silly indeed, but that’s just a minor detail. Also, what the hell is going on with the Death Spider – on paper this seems scary, but the picture is almost comical. Overall though, McKenna really nailed this one and his mummies and other undead are truly horrifying. Interestingly, the first Wizard cover (which re-uses the Puffin edition cover art) looks better to me as the Puffin version's more garish colours have subsequently been muted and the bandages are made to look much more realistically yellowed with age.
The Wizard Books edition of CotM tries to address a couple of the less fair combat situations by reducing your enemies’ Skill scores, but that really makes no difference to the fact that this book is bordering on impossible to complete. Even if you decide to win every combat and pass every Skill or Luck test by default (which will remove the more irrationally difficult elements), the cheat-proofing will prevent progress any further than your finds and information will allow. Cheat-proofing is always a welcome feature in gamebooks as it makes you really work hard for your victories, but there is so much of it here and it is, in some cases, so tough to fathom out the answers, that the cheat-proofing also acts as win-proofing! This must be one of the toughest FFs ever as it combines most of the aspects that, even in isolation, can make a book incredibly hard and I do not believe anyone can have completed it fairly and I doubt many have finished it at all as most will have simply given up and got fed up with it. With a little more play-testing and its longer and less exciting parts reduced, this could have been a good and original way for the Puffin series to end. As it is, it’s horrendously hard, too long, and suffers from its overall theme being too limited in scope, making it certainly not a bad book, but one that is definitely unlikely to get many repeat playthroughs.

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