Thursday, 18 June 2015

#36: Armies Of Death


Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Having wowed us with the brilliance of #6 Deathtrap Dungeon and then impressed us with its long-hoped-for sequel, #21 Trial Of Champions, a third visit to Fang’s designer dungeon would probably have been a bridge too far. Instead, IL chose to continue the franchise by expanding on the closing line of ToC that tells you that you decide to spend your winnings on assembling an army. Conveniently, we learn in the opening section of Armies Of Death that this comes at the same time as this week’s scourge of Titan surfaces in the form of the Shadow Demon Agglax. In a slightly forced-seeming backstory you learn of how a scavenger called Drek found a sealed bottle that, on breaking the seal, accidentally released Agglax who immediately headed off to assemble an army of death to destroy Allansia (well, we certainly haven’t had that kind of idea in the series before, have we?)

So, on the one hand, IL has not taken the simple way out and re-built Deathtrap Dungeon yet again which would have been fairly easy to do and would have been a crowd-pleaser, assuming it came out at least half-decently as no-one expects too much from a second sequel. However, on the other hand, and this is the biggest problem with this book, the whole construct seems tired and almost laboured. One thing that strikes you very quickly is how the encounters for the most part just seem to be a hodge-podge of creatures from very early FF books: Gark, Calacorm, Fire Imp, etc, plus a catalogue of monsters in particular lifted from #3 The Forest Of Doom (Hill Men, Fishman, Werewolf, Goblin, Shapechanger, even Yaztromo’s crow Vermithrax has a cameo!) Coherence in terms of creature habitat is always welcome and these have already been established as Allansian species in previous FFs, but it seems to me that IL could not be bothered to include many new ideas, preferring to simply re-use some more memorable creatures from the series’ past. His inclusion of the Shapechanger in particular should not be seen as a shock given his self-confessed fondness for it and, granted, there are still a few new monsters here (the Blog is amusing in restrospect lol), but it does all feel a little forced creature-wise. The incorporation of mass combat rules should be a positive attempt at introducing a whole new dynamic to FF books but the rules for Skirmish Battles where you get to “command” your army in combat do not feature much and are (oddly for IL) more often than not very weighted in your favour eg: a whole 10 Centaurs against several hundred of your troops is not particularly likely to cause you any problems. Particularly odd, given that this book is fundamentally supposed to be about ARMIES, is that the final showdown between yours and that of Agglax requires no Skirmish Battles and only involves select small units of your army and, even then, these are “do you have....?” checkpoints where your army acts as if it were items rather than warriors. This is a big problem that makes the end seem completely un-climactic and you do wonder what role your army was ever really meant to play. Add to this a very crap end baddie who takes very little defeating, along with the fact that it is practically impossible to fail any of the army SIZE counting checkpoints that feature here and there, and you end up with something that fails to live up to either its title or any expectation of an almighty showdown to save the world. It is of course possible to not have certain people in your army (and this will kill you) but getting them to join is easy as is finding them on your journey.

The final section is at odds with the opening part where you are very much in command of a large body of fighters. You start with 100 Warriors, 50 Dwarfs, 50 Elves, and 50 Knights, and carry (an otherwise unheard of in FF) 700 Gold Pieces with which to buy more support along the way. Initially the book has you choosing whether to have them travel by boat or march, but, after a few “group” episodes, the book quickly reverts to a more conventional solo trek through Zengis (which takes up a large chunk of the adventure) followed by a brief solo dungeon in search of a key NPC called the Oracle (hmm, very original!) Then follows a reuniting with your army to head across plains in search of the big payoff that never really happens. If you take the wrong turning right at the start, the book can seem rather more like it really does just involve leading an army as you very quickly meet your opposing force, miss out most of the book, and fail miserably as you have missed all the key items/retainers which are on the solo route. No prizes for guessing then that this is a typically linear one true path Livingstone effort that requires you to amass a long shopping list of essential items and, as it comes post-Crypt Of The Sorcerer, a huge amount of incidental detail information too. But, this time some of the information is unbelievably granular to the point where you have to know how much gold you paid for two particular items (assuming you guessed right and bought them, of course, not that money is an object for once) and, in one outrageously obscure moment, you are even expected to answer a question the answer to which is nowhere in this book and you need to have read Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World to know it (although you do have a 1 in 3 chance of just picking the right answer from the choices, of course.) Similarly, characters with low Skill or Luck scores have no chance as there are many tests of both, and this book contains the single most brutal Skill penalty that I know of where you can be blinded for -6 Skill and -2 Luck – this can potentially leave you with no Skill at all! IL’s use of arbitrary dice rolling to determine your fate rather than any stat comparison is back again and it has to be noted that throwing a 1 is almost always disastrous so there is a predictability in the chance rolls that you don’t normally get in his books – again, this feels a little lazy. To further make the player suffer stat-wise you do not start with any Potions or Provisions and there are only two moments in the game where you can restore lost Stamina, which is very harsh. Unusually for Livingstone though, most combats (either solo or skirmish) are actually quite easy and you don’t need to have all that many battles to get through the book (and the end baddie is not insanely tough for once), although there are two tough fights just before you find him that you might not have much hope of winning purely due to your severely depleted Stamina by this stage. In a logical move, incidentally, if your army is wiped out you are assumed to have died in the melee too which is a realistic touch. Also, in a bid to keep tracking your army size manageable everything works in sets of 5 ie troops die, and are found, in multiples of 5. What makes less sense and, again, makes the whole skirmish/army concept work badly is that you can choose which units your troops have died from –and it does not take a genius to work out that Elves and Knights will probably have special talents that you are going to need, which means your Warriors tend to become sword fodder.

It is not just the execution of the overall concept that seems awkward in this book though, as very little of the army-based element makes much sense: Why does your army just stand around waiting patiently for you whenever you go off on a solo mission? Given the number of spies that Agglax has about the place, your troops are surprisingly loyal. Yes, I realise they join up to fight the demonic threat, but does this really make any sense, especially as you have a tendency to get them poisoned and/or killed at numerous points outside of battle? To expand on this slightly, as you travel through the region that is meant to be under attack from Agglax’ army, everywhere seems oddly peaceful and comes across as anything but under threat. Indeed, even on a one-to-one level, the questions the locals in Fang are asking you about the Trial Of Champions show a hell of a lot of insider information about something that is meant to be secret (ie the Trial itself) so this does not add up either. In fact, you could summarise this by saying that a lot of this book’s plotting makes no sense at all if you try to analyse it!

That said, there are a few very neat moments that can make this book an enjoyable experience in spite of its curiosities. There is a very clever run-in with an Elf which turns out to just be a Hag’s trap and you really do feel the tenseness of the moment when you think you are supposed to be avoiding springing a trap. There is a nice series link when one of your Dwarf troops mentions his time when he was working in a slave mine (a reference to #7 Island Of The Lizard King, presumably), a very clever moment comes where your army can contract malaria from the River Kok (a direct reference to Thailand, presumably), and there are several thematic carry-overs from the previous two Deathtrap Dungeon books (there are lots of traps to fall foul of, you can be robbed of all your gold by a Leprechaun à la DD, and it seems like almost every item you need to find is made of gold à la ToC) so you do still get a feeling of continuity in spite of the dramatic switch of theme.

Rather annoyingly, however, there are a few noticeable moments where IL seems to be boring us and/or being too preoccupied with newer interests than FF. I know it is intended to be a joke, but I find the pie-eating competition to just be childish (serious gaming has no place for a stat for Pie-Eating Skill), a seemingly potential-filled visit to a Gambling Hall produces nothing beyond one game (there isn’t even a choice) that is far from imaginative, and the ramblings on the subject of sailing from Obigee/Ian Livingstone may yield an essential piece of info but we don’t care about IL’s then fondness for yachting. OK, our patience is rewarded in this episode but it simply does not fit. Ditto, the hugely predictable Oracle’s cave “challenge” where you just know by FF intuition that you must drink from Libra’s fountain, and the two halves where right/left turns always lead to failure seem devoid of invention or design effort.

As Ian Livingstone’s FFs go this one is among his weakest, but it is not written any differently to his others. His text is typically colourful and atmospheric. It is the material content that lets this book down. Equally, the internal art by Nik Williams is very effective and the cover is excellent, as is only to be expected from Chris Achilleos. In spite of CA's great cover on the Puffin original, I do also like Wizard's reissue which is essentially the same idea but just made more modern and threatening-looking.

This should be an interesting idea that allows the Trial Of Champions cycle to open out considerably. Sadly, the final product is marred by illogicality, poor deployment of the intended concept of an army FF, a general feeling that perhaps IL was going through the motions, and repetitive info collecting. It is nothing like as hard in real terms as many other IL FFs but it is also nowhere near as good. Yes, the idea of commanding an army is fun but the focus moves away from this for far too much of the book. There is even a rather knowing closing line related to the by now way over-used lunatic of the week theme which says “how long will it be before a new peril threatens... Allansia”... and that just about sums up the feeling of being underwhelmed that this book leaves you with. It fits into the general “meh”-ness that was a feature of most of the 30s part of the series’ books, but IL has sold himself short with this one. Not bad, but by no means essential.

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