ISLAND OF THE UNDEAD
Reviewed by Mark Lain
Sometimes referred to as Plague Of The Undead (and often listed as such in FF title listings inside other books in the series), probably the biggest surprise about FF #51 is that it ever happened at all given that the series was due to be axed by Puffin at number 50. However, the runaway success of #50 (Return To Firetop Mountain) bought the series a brief additional nine book reprieve before Puffin’s series finally rolled over and died on number 59 (Curse Of The Mummy.)
As with the bulk of the 50+ entries, this book uses a far more complex system with new stats to track, natural hunger to contend with, mathematical cheat-proofing galore, and a long and involved mission. Also, it quickly becomes evident that it also suffers from fundamental errors, another feature of the final handful of books! The rules tell us, in their explanation of the Presence attribute, that “There is also a box on your Adventure Sheet for recording your Presence score.” Er, no there is not! There is a box for Honour (which does not get mentioned in the rules and does not feature in this book at all), a box for Time Elapsed (again, not listed in the rules or used at any point in this book), one for Possessions (how does this differ from the also present Equipment List?), and a small Enemy Encounter box (what the hell is this for?) So, the first thing we have to accept before we’ve even started playing is that the Adventure Sheet is a write-off and it’s time to get pencil and paper out and make our own one instead. There’s also a general spiel about an eventual possible need to use Magic which hardly really ever happens so this is a pointless part of the rules too, unless it’s just to make you think some exciting magicky stuff might happen at some point. Not a promising start. However, if you ignore the Adventure Sheet’s numerous phantom rules and just read the extra rule about Presence (which is the only one you need to bother reading if you already know the FF system) this seems like it might not be too hard to get your head around. Presence is basically your kudos. It starts between 5 and 7, can exceed its Initial level, but is capped-off at a maximum of 12 to avoid the saving throws becoming academic. Overall this sounds like an interesting extra stat then and it is well-deployed throughout the book proper.
The adventure itself involves YOU being a fisherman who inhabits a village on the coast of the Strait Of Knives in Allansia. Life there was hard until four wizards randomly showed-up on a neighbouring island (Solani) and struck up a deal with your people whereby they keep storms at bay (meaning your fishing hauls are bountiful) in return for the locals giving them various essentials for their work. Recently the storms have started again and YOU have volunteered to join a mercy mission to Solani to find out what’s changed all of a sudden. Your boat is destroyed in the inevitable storm and you are washed-up on a beach on Solani, the sole survivor from your crew. From here on in you have to roam around the island (that you have never been to and is totally unknown to you) and try to solve the mystery. The first surprise is a combat on paragraph one with a Sea Zombie which has resurrected from one of your dead fellow crew members. It’s pretty easy (Sk 6 St 7) and does at least alert us to the fact that the title’s mention of the Undead is not a lie. Indeed, many of the encounters in this book are with Undead so there is a coherence of title and theme throughout that makes sense. The presence of several Elementals helps you to understand how the Wizards balanced the weather (each Wizard turns out to be a Master of an element – Fire, Water, Earth, Air) and the underlying plot of one of the Wizards becoming a megalomaniac and pitching the others against each other does have genuine intrigue and mystery to it and the enigma is a satisfying one to uncover as you progress through what proves to be a very coherent and logical storyline.
At the same time, however, the sheer effort involved in unearthing everything you need to as the player makes this a very demanding and seemingly endless book in the game sense. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a “gigantic map” type of gamebook. The island is quite small and, by definition, just how far you can travel around is limited by geography itself. The problem comes in the sheer amount of the map you have to explore to find all the information you cannot win without knowing and you just about have to visit every square inch of the island. It is often quoted that this book has one of the longest true paths in real terms (somewhere around 250 paragraphs have to be read to complete it) but it doesn’t seem like this will be the case in the quite fast-moving early stages wherein you are exploring the island’s varied exterior environments. The really demanding part comes once you enter the black tower where the Masters actually lived and worked. This is the stage of the adventure where you need umpteen secret clues, almost all of which involve counting letters, then crunching values to find hidden sections. Most of the information is found in the external trek, but it is in the tower where your brain will start to hurt from all the maths that you are expected to do. Add to this the fact that one of the Wizard’s names you needed to find has a spelling that is down to how you personally interpret the font on a handwritten note (and it’s not totally clear that this is the name of the bloke in question as, when you find the name, which of the Wizards has this name will be fairly abstract detail at that point) and you can see that this is a very hard adventure to complete. Curiously, my first playthrough yielded all but one key piece of information (and sort of a second one, the Wizard’s name from above, because I didn’t realise I knew it!) so I must have been lucky enough to just blunder along the true path for the majority of it which is, of course, perfectly possible. But, the true path in this book is very linear and requires areas to be visited in a fairly specific order which adds to the difficulty. As is often the case with KM’s FFs you are given generally free-rein to explore the external section in whatever order you wish, although this is a mixed-blessing as it creates the illusion of free movement whilst you are actually required to take a linear route so this is a bit irritating. In other KM books the free movement approach is not designed to trap you, whereas here it is something of a curse. Some would see this as an added challenge, some may find it a failing, but I’d rather have a RPG approach that is integral to the structure of the book, rather than a “you must make a map as you aimlessly wander around as you will not find the true path the first 100 times you play” situation like exists here. It’s worth adding here that one of the mathematical clues that yields a key item (the door-code puzzle on the shipwreck) has an error in it, but it will take a while to fathom it out anyway as it repeats the forwards-backwards alphabet puzzle (which I’ve always found fairly impenetrable without using a solution guide) that KM used in #38 Vault Of The Vampire.
So this book can be roughly divided into two parts: Act One involves you roaming the island, getting your bearings, and trying to find out what has gone on; Act Two is a dungeon trawl full of puzzles in the Masters’ black tower. Act One is, for the most part, varied and interesting, although each place you visit seems brief and to exist only to yield information. I particularly like the shipwreck which is quite fun and the monastery adds real flavour and depth to the unravelling of the mystery. There are some red herrings, but almost everything has to be visited in one form or another, it’s just getting the order right that will take a number of failed playthroughs. Act Two is much harder going, both in terms of what it expects of the player mathematically, and also in terms of the way it just goes on and on with all its doors, stairs, corridors, secret sections, etc. In summary, it’s either a very big tower or it has TARDIS-like properties. I have to admit that I started to get both bored and demoralised by the tower section. The Masters themselves are great scenery-chewing NPCs and each is totally unique in terms of how it behaves and where it lives, but the onslaught of maths and “out-of-game” challenges (by that, I mean, the player’s brain is doing the work, rather than the character adventuring, as it were) make this part of the book a real chore. You can see how the overall design and structure works and how well-designed it was probably intended to be, but it does end up being unbalanced structurally and you eventually forget you are on an island and feel like you are just playing an excessively difficult dungeon trawl.
Keith Martin’s gamebooks are generally (with the obvious exception of the very easy #34 Stealer Of Souls) pitched towards the tougher end of the difficulty spectrum and this might well be the hardest out of all of his efforts (notwithstanding the fact that #58 Revenge Of The Vampire is genuinely impossible due to an error.) As in most KM FFs you cannot win without a magic sword – why is he so obsessed with these? OK, some Undead cannot be fought without one, but this is a recurring motif that gets overly-repetitive in his books. The amount of information you need to find is considerable and the maths linked to this can be quite complex. I got sick of working out what letters of the alphabet in usually very long names corresponded to what numbers that then had to be added together or whatever and after a while this stopped feeling like an adventure gamebook at all, which is a shame as there is a fair bit to recommend here. I really like the way your character begins with only a knife as a weapon – you are not an adventurer and must find a sword and shield otherwise you must take Attack Strength and damage infliction penalties in combats until you can get hold of both (although there is more than one of each which is a generous aspect that appears in most KM FFs.) Combats are not too hard overall - interestingly, most of the very hard combats have to be avoided if you are going to win although the confusing rules for the (essential) Hydra-Snake fight might take a few re-reads before you figure out what you are expected to do - and the atmosphere of mystery comes across very well through the text which does make you feel out of your depth and in an unknown territory. At no point do you feel that the odds are ever stacked against your character, but you do get the feeling that they are stacked against you as a player and you do eventually feel that there is a distancing between player and player-character which surely defeats the whole object of role-playing. If we counter this with the inclusion of some very RPG-esque features (KM’s regularly forcing you to eat, particularly as days pass or you do something particularly strenuous, which is certainly very realistic, and this tempered by allowing you a generous 12 Provisions from the start), the repeated option of turning to a given section number when you feel that you are in a position to return to that location to complete an unfinished task, and (particularly unusual and interesting) having to collect empty bottles to mix potions, then this is a rather schizophrenic affair overall. It certainly doesn’t seem rushed in its execution (no adventure that is this long in physical section terms could ever be seen that way as it has definitely taken a lot of designing), it just seems ungainly and in places almost clumsy. That this was the first of the “new wave” post-50 books might just be the aspect that works against it as the new approach of bigger and more complex adventures was unfamiliar to the player at this point. The technique of trying to create a sort of “halfway-house” book where Act One uses a more traditional FF environment then Act Two makes us re-take GCSE Maths and manipulate data ad nauseum adds to the perception of a schizophrenic book.
If it was badly written, its inconsistency might be easier to explain, but it is certainly not. None of KM’s FFs are badly written. His text is thorough, descriptive, and really draws you into the world he is presenting. And Martin’s world is different to that of most other FF writers. His is not a cosy medieval fantasy land of orcs and elves, rather it is a hostile and threatening dark fantasy environment of pestilent undead, disease, and (more often than not) references to acid. KM’s oft-used mechanic of afflictions appears again here, although you can only get Lung Rot in this book, but it does add another layer of RPG depth. As with all the post-50 books, paragraphs are long and involving and encounters can often prove either friend or foe depending on how you as the player react towards them which raises this above the slash-and-stalk approach of some early FFs. Occasionally there are a few parts where you have to suspend disbelief (How do all the empty glass bottles not break in your backpack? Is it really possible to glue an entire shrine back together?) but for the most part there is a plot and textual coherence which, again, does not sit well with the unbalanced construction. Oddly as well, the design of this book is not helped by the way action choices on some paragraphs overlap onto the next page, meaning you can easily miss some options completely by simply not realising there are more on the next page. This is not KM’s fault, it is unsympathetic page layout on Puffin’s behalf, but it does affect the gameplay.
I am a big fan of Keith Martin as well as being a fan of Russ Nicholson’s artwork. But, as seems to be the theme of this review, even the art is inconsistent. In some cases it is as good and frame-filling as RN’s defining FF imagery in the very earliest books in the series (his Undead are always superbly terrifying and his Lizard Men are sinewy and hideous), but in other places it seems over-cluttered and looks like organised chaos (take the Swamp Alligator or the Mermen vs Shark-Kin pictures, for example.) Terry Oakes’ cover, by contrast, is a subtle and controlled affair, largely dark but with a strikingly shimmering ghostly image firing an energy bolt directly out of the frame at you. I really like this cover for its simplicity and there is an eeriness to it that suits the mystery of the adventure itself.
Island Of The Undead is not a bad gamebook by any means, but it can be hard going and this weighs heavily against its intriguing plot. It reads very well but it takes far too long to play (many hours, realistically) and becomes increasingly more relentless in its demands for information-manipulation and hidden section discovery. It is arguably one of the least essential of the series, but it does bridge the gap between the old-school style of book 50 and the revised approach of 52 onwards so, for a gamebook aficionado, it can be an interesting experience. It just tries your patience after a while.