Reviewed by Mark Lain
At face value this book has little appeal. By that I mean that its cover does it no favours and is amongst the worst FF covers ever: a purple gargoyle is confronting a green humanoid bug in a wizard’s hat whilst gold-coloured sheep-grubs graze in a pasture with a Germanic fairytale castle standing on a cliff-face in the background – look a little harder and you’ll see a vague spectral outline behind garish yellow splatter-letters announcing this to be “Spectral Stalkers”. Oh dear, this does not look promising. What madness is this?
Open the book, however, and the interior seems rather more interesting – a colour map of a maze with a poem, Tony Hough artwork depicting a vast array of material from Medieval Fantasy through to what seems to be Sci-Fi, very long paragraphs (almost always at least half a page in length), and loads of creatures that we have hitherto never heard of in FF. Intriguing enough to want to give it a go I’d say. After all, FF #28 Phantoms Of Fear has an abysmal cover but is well worth reading/playing, so hopefully we are in for a pleasant surprise with Spectral Stalkers too. And indeed we are!
This book is without doubt one of the most high-concept and hugely inventive of all the FF series. YOU begin by having your fortune read (Darvill-Evans always loves to use the “start in the middle of something” approach to throw you straight into the action, rather than providing a context-setting intro) which does not bode well for you as you draw a blank card that does not actually exist in the deck and the fortune-teller tells you to prepare yourself for a destiny that does not lie “anywhere in this world”. Dark clouds then ominously approach and you encounter a wounded giant human lacewing thing that gives you a sphere and tells you to “beware the Spectral Stalkers”. What then follows is a truly bizarre trip through Darvill-Evans’ fertile imagination starting with a visit to the Library In Limbo (with its bespectacled Dragon receptionist), followed by numerous dimensions within the Macrocosmos that the Aleph (the ball the dying lacewing gave you) contains. The Aleph essentially contains all that has ever and will ever exist, meaning that possession of it gives the holder total power over absolutely everything, something the baddie of the piece (the Archmage Globus) wants so he has sent out the Spectral Stalkers of the title to track it down and bring it to him. YOU need to get to Globus and stop him from becoming Overlord of Everything. And that is the plot in a nutshell: avoid the Spectral Stalkers, find Globus, defeat him, save the Multiverse, return home to Khul and live happily ever after. Unusually simple for a book in the quite densely-plotted 40s part of the series, but what really carries this one through is the variety of worlds/dimensions that you can find on the way. It is, of course, possible to cut to the chase by going straight to the Ziggurat World where Globus lives (and very unusually you can still win by doing this) but you will miss out on all the fun and not really see the point of how the Aleph works and the huge impact it has on this adventure. Plus it will seem very short too!
The Aleph itself uses (for the most part) two mechanics to determine how the trip progresses. The less common one is effectively your desire influencing it (Do you want to go home to Neuburg? Do you want to get straight to the point and go to the Ziggurat World? Will you place yourself at the mercy of the Aleph? Do you want someone to explain what all the stuff you’ve collected might be for?) but, more often than not, you move from one place to the next by rolling a dice. An even number sends you one way, an odd number another. This then opens out further along where any number from 1 to 6 can send you off in any of six possible directions. Which brings us to the first important feature of this book: there is no true path and it would be grossly unfair if there was one given that you have very limited control over your dimensional route, instead you can go in basically any direction and still have a chance of victory. Plus, even in the slightly more linear final section on the Ziggurat World there are still two routes through, both of which can lead to winning. It’s always nice to be given freedom to explore in gamebooks rather than analysing the map to find the author’s one true path and this is a welcome approach. Conversely, this also means that there are no essential items or information to find - although most items will make it a bit easier for you, you will not necessarily fail without any of them. Furthermore, the randomised nature of how the Aleph works means that no two playthroughs are ever likely to be the same and with 14 worlds to visit (including the Ziggurat World) there must be thousands of possible different routes through. This is clearly a very unique gamebook.
Another feature of this book is that it is very short on combats (assuming you do not decide to kill everything you meet, of course, as the option is there if you want to take it) and it is even possible to complete it without a single fight and/or by curtailing many of the fights if you do get into them. The idea of putting the overall concept over the tradition of fighting being essential to role-play is a mixed-bag and, on the one hand it is a refreshing change that makes you focus more on the ideas being presented, but it can make this feel like it isn’t really FIGHTING Fantasy as such. Whichever way you look at it, it’s different and new ideas were needed by the 45th book in the series so it is still a good thing. In a similar vein, the final showdown with Globus involves no combat at all, instead you need to use your cunning to defeat him based on a piece of detail that you can pick up along the way. Of course, you can still stumble across the solution without knowing the info by just picking the right option so, again, this can be completed whether you find the info or not.
Equally, this is one of those rare FFs that can genuinely be beaten even with rock-bottom starting stats. The lack of combats helps this a lot, although I would suggest that a low Skill could cause you more of a problem if you take a more perilous route on the Ziggurat World as there are several Skill tests (and some combined Skill+Stamina tests that can involve rolling six or even seven dice in logically unlikely to be survivable moments) on certain paths at that stage. There are, however, very few Luck tests which also helps your progress. There are even quite a few bonuses to be had to your Skill, Stamina, and Luck which will make it even easier for you, especially if you have a weaker character. As with all later books, we have a new stat in the form of Trail, but it is unlikely to really cause you any problems unless you are taking the psychotic approach. It starts at zero and only increases if you draw attention to yourself too much (which makes sense as you start to leave a trail of where you have been) and testing it involves rolling THREE dice, a test that you only fail by rolling UNDER your Trail, which means that failing a Trail test is quite an unfortunate achievement. If you do fail, the Spectral Stalkers will get you and take you to the end of the book (rather than killing you) where you have as much chance of still winning as if you had not fallen foul of them. I’m not sure how I feel about this, but it seems to be a missed opportunity to scupper careless players – any sighting of the Stalkers can give you a frisson of terror, but once you know that they don’t do anything to you, you kind of stop being bothered about them. Globus wants the Aleph, not you - you just happen to be its custodian right now, so in that sense it just about works. Generally, Trail does not really add much, but it does allow the Stalkers to play a recurring role and also adds a slight element of fate to the proceedings.
What really makes this book work so well and come alive is the various dimensions that range from fantasy to Sci-Fi:
- Neuburg 400 years into the future – which seems just like Neuburg now and basically involves you avoiding a potential murdering by an unscrupulous innkeeper
- A world where skeletal beings are fighting a war that you get caught in the middle of
- A dune planet with a Golem problem
- A human chess game being played so that the giant girl being that is playing can avoid being forced to get pulled by her opponent giant boy being
- A vampire circus (with a main protagonist with a rather transparent anagram name)
- A futuristic alien specimen hunter’s ship (where Robbie The Robot can be shorted-out with a fire extinguisher)
- A world where funny little things called Felitis seem to think you’re their God or something
- A redneck Elf witch-hunt world
- A world with giant shape-changing hunters
- The home of a talking musical instrument that is being ruled by evil pig beings called Zwinians
- An eerie haunted Toy Museum/Castle world
- A mapmaker’s Sci-Fi world (who looks like Davros)
- The complicated Maze World mentioned above (although it’s worth negotiating if only to meet the hilariously bizarre Logic Dog)
- And the linear Ziggurat World where Globus has his lair
Some of these are more fleshed-out than others whilst some just form very brief cameos and some can just be avoided completely in terms of getting to the end, but the enjoyment is to be had in exploring each of them to see what weird and wonderful ideas are in this book. The longest and most exploited by a long way is the Ziggurat World which (whilst it should be big as it’s the climax of the piece) is a bit of a pity as it’s easily the least interesting of the bunch. The Crystal Garden is curious and the narcissistic talking doorway is a laugh, but too much time is taken up on climbing hills and dealing with a couple of alien races that live there for this to be interesting compared to the rest. Other than this one, all the other possible dimensions/worlds are very imaginative and the world-hopping section of the story mixes Dr Who motifs with Terry Gilliam’s films and the Quantum Leap idea of body-swapping to create a really varied, intriguing and entertaining adventure experience.
In spite of its totally off-the-wall nature, this book still reads like a Peter Darvill-Evans adventure. It is “set” (or at least it starts and ends) in Neuburg in Khul which was the setting for PD-E’s first FF (#25 Beneath Nightmare Castle) and his repeatedly occurring fixation for acid and toxins comes back again here, particularly in the final part. This gives it a slightly unsavoury flavour but, assuming you’ve gone via the various worlds to get there, this may not seem too over-bearing in the way that it did in BNC. A big element of PD-E FFs is his inclusion of unique and original creatures and there are none as unique as those found in SS as, given that you jump through dimensions as well as time, literally anything is possible, be it variations on fantasy fare, futuristic ideas, horror imagery, and some stuff that is just wacky fun, but it all adds to the variety and inventiveness on show here. What Darvill-Evans also does very well in his books is laying on the atmosphere thickly with long explanatory sections and, particularly in-depth descriptions of creatures and locations that are genuinely believable in their detail, in spite of the bizarreness of it all. An interesting added element of SS, though, is the way that some material is truncated for the sake of pacing and avoidance of digression. For example, you are often told that you walk for hours to get to places which must make some locations pretty featureless, but it does add to the effect nicely. Also, unlike some FFs, certain moments of peril are presented efficiently such as an electric staircase that requires you to first decide which step is safest but then, rather than just repeating itself over and over in a bid to reduce your Stamina, the book decides that you have cracked the puzzle and lets you literally skip the rest. There could have been some extra challenge included in this part, but it does avoid too much focus on minutiae when you are really supposed to be exploring the Aleph’s possibilities, so I’m happy with this as it is.
Everything about this book is undeniably bizarre and Tony Hough’s very varied and weird internal artwork (with more than a hint of Whovian influence to be seen in places) is the perfect accompaniment to your brain’s attempts at getting your head around it all. It’s not necessary to have every slight detail presented graphically, but there is just enough of the main moments (every opening arrival section for each world has a picture, for example) for you to be able to switch between the worlds effectively. As for Ian Miller’s hideous cover, it is just that (hideous and garish) but it does present a major plot element so there is some saving grace to it.
Spectral Stalkers is a bonkers, but highly original and thoroughly enjoyable gamebook. It is unbalanced in that the less interesting second section is as long as the world-hopping part, is very very easy to beat, but its one-of-a-kind construction allows for ample re-play possibilities, and it is really good to find a FF book with as many paths through to success as there are possible combinations of routes. The lack of either combat or item-hunting may not be to everyone’s taste but there are so many things going for this book that it is hard not to recommend it. Almost, but not quite, brilliant, but unquestionably a tour de force of imagination and gamebook design. Well worth playing if you are looking for an antidote to the more traditional FF fare, plus it mixes fantasy and Sci-Fi in a fun way that few 100% Sci-Fi gamebooks ever could, whilst still being a Titan-centric entry. It probably makes rather more sense if you are off your tits, but who cares when there is this much fun to be had!