Monday, 28 September 2015

Rogue Mage


Graeme Davis

Reviewed by Mark Lain

With its Nikita-style second-chance-to-redeem-your-fallen-self-by-being-given-a-choice-that-isn’t-really-much-of-a-choice plot idea, Rogue Mage initially gives the impression of potentially being a genuinely juicy hunter-killer dungeon trawl adventure. The lengthy intro section sets the scene well as, instead of being either executed or maimed, you are forced into accepting an assassination mission from the Guild of Magicians to locate and despatch the rogue mage of the title, a certain Galthazzeth. Sadly, as soon as you start playing, it quickly becomes blindingly obvious that this is justifiably considered by many fans to be the weakest of all the short subjects published in Warlock magazine.

Essentially you start at the dungeon entrance (Galthazzeth’s lair), fight a Goblin gnawing on a human bone (which immediately provides you with some of the key items you might need), then enter the dungeon proper, taking various inter-looping paths before quickly and easily finding Galthazzeth’s inner sanctum, fighting him, then chasing him a bit and finishing him off effortlessly, before entering a maze where his life/power source is hidden, destroying this, then rather suddenly and anti-climactically facing your final challenge (a Luck test, rather lamely) before reaching paragraph 200 after a very short amount of playing-time has elapsed.

The first problem, then, is obvious – this gamebook is way too short and appears to amount to rather less than its 200 sections should suggest it will be. On my first playthrough I somehow took the shortest possible path and found Galthazzeth far too quickly for it really to make much sense why. I had very few items, but still managed to defeat him, then I had similarly little difficulty in reaching the win outcome. Very unsatisfying. So I tried a different, and curiously possible, approach whereby I literally took every tunnel and turning and went basically everywhere in the dungeon, before finding the exact same outcome. I had all the items, but this made very little difference other than making my victory all the simpler. So then I tried it with rock-bottom stats (Sk 7, St 14, Luck 7) to see if there was any challenge to this at all and suddenly things got a bit harder as a major design element became massively apparent – there are so many Skill and Luck tests in such a relatively short amount of space that anyone with Skill sub-10 and Luck (literally) sub-11 or-12 is going to struggle. Or, rather, they would if it wasn’t for the overly-generous availability of Potions. You start with the standard-issue single option from Skill/Strength/Fortune, but this adventure uses the WOFM rule (common in Warlock magazine’s short FFs too) where each bottle contains TWO rather than one dose. Yes, there are several Skill penalties along the way, so a Potion for this is justified, but you can find a second one along the way, meaning you can restore your Skill THREE times as you go along. Likewise, there are an incredible TWO additional Fortune Potions to find (raising your Initial Luck to ridiculous levels if you think to use them quick enough), plus two doses of a low-impact Strength Potion that each restore 6 St points. If you find all these, along with the two doses of whichever one you choose to start with, only the Skill tests are likely to really present a challenge. But, I’d suggest the brevity of the dungeon is the challenge here as you are unlikely to find the time to actually consume all these potions before you reach the rather sudden ending (although subsequent playthroughs might make this rather more obvious!)

A little more challengingly, death by Stamina loss is of course quite possible as the familiar Warlock FF error of the rules telling you you have 5 Provisions that you can only eat when told to in the text - a text which never actually allows you to do so - could scupper you somewhat. Indeed, many of the combats in this book are with tough foes which increases the likelihood of dying in battle. Galthazzeth (understandably as he’s the focus here) has Sk 10 St 15 and various spell-casting attacks whenever he wins two consecutive ARs, a Giant Beetle has Sk 9 St 16, the Slithering Horror has Sk 10 St 14 (x two, as you fight each tentacle with the same stats), and Galthazzeth’s right-hand man-monster the Clone Slime has Sk 4 St 30 and makes you fight two Slime Figures every 3 ARs (although killing these costs it 10 St per Slime Figure so you won’t have to fight many of them!) These stats all do make sense in the context of the foes and, in that respect, this element is well-designed and quite balanced. The remainder of combats are with Goblins in the early section of the dungeon and Antmen in the later parts, both of which form Galthazzeth’s guard minions and are easy prey for YOU. The Goblins seem to exist mostly to supply you with items to make the Galthazzeth showdowns easier although the second one just lets you kill him without a fight either way.

For a short (no, VERY short) subject, there are many items to find, along with the abundance of potions and some money (that you never need), but none of them are actually essential to victory. An Ian Livingstone dungeon, this is not, instead the items just make certain parts a bit easier. As I’ve said, the bulk of the items come in the early sections and these areas of the dungeon loop about and inter-connect in a seemingly impossible way. Add to this the fact that you can endlessly backtrack and re-trace your steps before finding Galthazzeth’s badly-hidden hiding place and you may quickly get bored with wandering around aimlessly constantly re-visiting the same unexciting locations. It could be that the maze-like nature of the dungeon is meant to make this seem deceptively long but, by mapping it, you will quickly find the inner areas that you are looking for. And the back-and-forth routing reveals one huge problem with this adventure – the reset button. Be prepared to suspend disbelief as creatures you have killed illogically come back to life if you return to their locations and you end up carrying loads of each item (including, in fact, even more Potions!) If the dungeon in its basic form is not boring enough, re-treading it infinite times will make it seem all the more unbearably uninteresting. You do have the option of varying your approach here and there by taking one of the many options to listen at doors instead of bursting in on things, but this only ever tells you either nothing whatsoever or that there are sounds coming from inside that suggest life. How exciting, NOT! At least this uses up some spare paragraphs to get closer to the full 200 being employed. Likewise, a few cut-and-paste alternative approaches eat up a few more precious sections that could be put to better use making the adventure longer and more satisfying. Even one of the “alternate” possibilities where you might not have met a Goblin Shaman gets cocked-up when it just appears out of the blue, but the text refers to it in such a way that it thinks you know about it.

Structurally, then, and plot-wise (what there is of it after the compelling introduction), this is quite shoddy, and to add insult to injury the common Warlock typing-pool gremlins have been at this adventure in a big way. There are many typos and rogue full-stops in the middle of sentences which make reading this a frustrating experience at times. In particular, “eat” is always written as “cat” and “east” is always “cast”, for some reason. The fact that going “cast” or finding Goblins that “cat” human flesh is pretty common here will amplify this even more.

As this is a traditional (if underwhelmingly short) dungeon trawl, we would expect traps, challenges, memorable foes, and moments of bravura imagination and originality. Granted, there are several original encounters here (the clone species and a Scitalis/Treasure Snake add some interest), but GD has to fall back on Livingstone-isms to get the few available surprises into the proceedings – the Scitalis idea is good but is basically just an illusional treasure trove gimmick, whilst the Imitator disguised as a door is straight out of Baron Sukumvit’s far better-designed dungeon. Luck-testing is a given in surviving dungeon trawls, but here there is far too much reliance on testing Luck (as well as Skill) and this primarily governs how the plot pans-out for you, especially with finding items. For an adventure as short as this, a lot less leaning on stat testing would make it flow far better. Also, very unusually for a dungeon trawl (or a gamebook in general), there is only one instant death in the whole thing and that is caused by, surprise, surprise, running out of Luck and getting irretrievably lost in a maze. The presence of a maze might make you think that there will be some lengthy wandering trying to get out but, instead, you just test your Luck or get straight through it with a map. Not much challenge there then!

Other than an interesting background gambit and a few unique encounters, for the most part this is an uneventful, excessively short/boring, relatively easy, and badly proof-read adventure. So, why the hell was this chosen to be re-printed in the 10th Anniversary Yearbook that appeared in 1992? I would take any of the Warlock shorts over this one any day. I don’t know who Graeme Davis was talking nicely to but surely this did not deserve a second outing. However, its re-publication did allow for the typos to be eliminated so this version reads far slicker and more professionally. In fact, for the eagle-eyed, there are actually several differences between the two printings:
  • ·         A few section numbers have been moved around (for what difference that makes)
  • ·         Two of the already pretty weak “sword-fodder” foes have had their stats further reduced so they die even quicker (although the tough ones all remain as per the Warlock version so these are no easier)
  • ·         Almost every paragraph has had slight wording tweaks and paraphrasing
  • ·         The introduction (the only good bit, really) has been truncated and also heavily edited to remove any of the more graphic references to hanging, cutting hands off, and ripping still beating hearts out of chests (sorry, is FF not meant to be graphic, then?)
  • ·         The Guild of Magicians has had a re-brand and become the Guild of Wizards (the difference being....?)
  • ·         All art is removed (the original only had three large images – the exterior of the dungeon, a Ghost, and Galthazzeth himself – along with a few incidentals, but these are all well-rendered and do help us visualise at least some parts of the adventure)
  • ·         The adventure now has a setting specified, the town of Wolftown, where the original existed in a nameless void with no location or context being given
  • ·         All references to Dungeons & Dragons rules are gone

The lack of errors/typos is welcome, but I’m not sure that any of these other changes really amount to much other than saving space for the necessary page format of the 10th Anniversary Yearbook.

The excising of any D&D mechanics was probably essential as the original version was published in the very brief two-issue era when Warlock’s mini-adventures catered for gamebooks to be played using either FF or D&D systems. It has to be said that, of the two, Rogue Mage utilised D&D rules far more effectively than The Land Of Changes did and the nuances built into the FF rules as regards stat manipulation/penalties are also felt properly if you play using D&D rules, so there is some potential for system-flexing. Sadly, this does not take the focus away from the over-riding dull-ness of Rogue Mage as a game.

It is worth noting that the cover of Warlock #10 (where Rogue Mage’s first iteration appeared) does actually feature a wizard of some sort, but he is not Galthazzeth. Instead he is the result of John Blanche re-working a reader’s competition-winning entry to design the “Warlock” of the magazine’s title. Still, there is a connecting theme with the mini-adventure and this is a good thing as, by this stage, Warlock’s short FFs were usually unrelated to the cover images of the magazine. As for the cover, JB’s bright evocation of the Warlock bristles with energy and is one of the magazine’s more animated and colourful cover images and I like it a lot. For historical completeness’ sake, Citadel Miniatures released a Limited Edition metal miniature of the Blanche Warlock which is now quite collectable (mine was painted for me by a certain Mr Steven Leicester who you may remember from another post on this Blog!)

In summary, Rogue Mage is a weak and uninteresting short adventure with the emphasis on the word “short”. Little of any consequence happens, it is rather too easy (notwithstanding failure by loss of Stamina or Luck), Davis offers little in the way of description or immersion in his text to give an image of the environment we are in, and its best feature by far is the introduction which, as I said earlier, really does grab your attention and make you want to play this massive disappointment of an adventure. The use of the words “gripping solo adventure” in the strapline is, well, a lie, and I struggle to believe that this is from the same mind that gave us the wonderful Midnight Rogue (other than the re-use of the “rogue” tag, of course!) Take my advice - just don’t bother with this.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

#20: Sword Of The Samurai


Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Samurai culture has always fascinated me, be it Akira Kurosawa’s classic samurai movies, my ex-house mate’s worrying collection of katanas, or the various museum exhibits of armour and weapons. There is just something very elegant and dignified about it all, along with a lethal efficiency and the importance that honour plays too. The ubiquitous duo of Smith and Thomson have released a vast number of gamebooks together, as well as each of them individually having penned several others, and, for this, their second entry into the FF cannon they present us with one of my favourite gamebooks of all time.

I’d imagine many peoples’ initial reactions to this title would be confusion over just how feudal Japan fits into Fighting Fantasy and the simple answer is that it does not. Instead, the basics are uplifted and deposited in the region of Hachiman, an area cut off completely from the rest of Khul that has, coincidentally, developed in exactly the same way that Japan did. OK, this may seem like a point is being stretched but there is no real reason why this could not have happened and it avoids MS/JT’s second FF having the same problem as their first (#11 Talisman Of Death) in having to be set somewhere other than Titan, making it not quite fit with the bulk of the series. In fact, the “orphan state” nature of this second book actually works in its favour and makes the setting all the more plausible. The plot is the real glue that binds this alien setting to the overall Titan concept as it fuses Japanese samurai concepts with the standard FF plot of retrieving a key item from an evil uber-baddie who intends to wreak havoc with it (oh, and killing him too, of course.) The baddie here is Ikiru (also the title of a non-samurai Kurosawa movie, incidentally), the Master of Shadows who has nicked the sword of power (the dai-katana, Singing Death)  and taken it into the Pit of Demons ready to unleash all hell on everyone. You are the Shogun’s Champion (that old FF chestnut of being the elite version of something-or-other) and you are despatched to retrieve said sword. At face value, this is fairly straightforward, but the execution of this book makes for something much more involved and involving.

Firstly, you can be one of four different kinds of samurai by choosing a Special Skill. You must pick one from Kyujutsu (archery), Iaijutsu (fast draw), Karumijutsu (heroic leaping), or Ni-to-Kenjutsu (fighting with two swords). Thankfully there is no optimum choice, meaning the book can be completed using any of these and each allows for huge re-playability as they have different effects on how certain moments in the book will play out. My personal favourite is the archery option as you get a bow and four different types of arrow in addition to your standard equipment, and each behaves differently, although sneaking around picking off opponents rather than stepping bravely forward and fighting them with a sword can affect your honourable samurai status at times. I am also rather fond of the two sword combat skill as this gives you both a longsword (katana) and a shortsword (wakizashi) (normally you only get the long sword/katana) and allows you to act like the cover image and also to stand rather more chance in combat, especially if you have a Skill of sub-10. Fast draw is handy for getting auto-hits in combat but you have to remember it’s there otherwise it will do nothing so this one is a bit of a sleeper. Heroic leaping plays a big part in certain plot instances but it is just not all that exciting to be able to jump around when what we really want from a samurai book is fighting with samurai swords!

The second key feature in use here is the extra stat of Honour. This exists to force you to play out the role of a samurai – act honourably and your Honour increases, do something dishonourable and your Honour decreases. Very logical, really, but there is more to it than that as, should your Honour drop to zero you are forced to commit ritual suicide (sepukku) to eke out one last honourable act from your fallen existence (is this really meant to be for kids, out of interest?) There are a small number of key moments where your Honour score is checked, although these will rarely lead to failure, rather they will just make you do a bit more to progress. In a neat opening gambit, whichever direction you initially choose will lead first to a scenario where your ability to play the samurai role is tested. This is good to see as it really brings you into your character and gives an indication of what is expected of you in this book.

Interestingly though, only one route (the easier one) really develops your actual Honour score, the other takes a more situation-based approach and it is this difference which adds the third important element to this book – there are two, wholly distinct, paths through to victory. Head west and you will first have to deal with the rise of a rival opportunist Shogun (this is avoidable but most options will lead to him) who has seized power, followed by a trek through the Forest of Shadows, then on to your target (the Shios’ii Mountains) where the entrance to the Pit of Demons lies. Going east takes you through loyal territory which is blighted by a nocturnal problem with Undead, followed by a tricky episode at a river inhabited by Kappa, then into either the dangerous Spider Fens or the somewhat dream-like (and very dangerously linear) Enchanted Garden. The westerly route is the easier of the two, although it does involve a short-lived (and rather ambiguously-allied) companion, a tough riddle-solving moment with a Tatsu (wingless dragon) that I defy anyone to fathom out, then a brilliant cameo with the Zombie Samurai and river full of animated skeletons from the cover (which does take a bit of nowse and/or item-holding to beat.) The harder eastern path is longer overall and requires you to have decent stats otherwise you will struggle, although it does generally exploit your skill selection more effectively. If you can find the map that allows you to access it, the Enchanted Garden is probably the toughest (albeit non-essential to victory) part of this book as any false move will kill you but it does add an extra challenge once you’ve beaten all the other parts. Once you’ve taken your chosen path, both routes converge in the mountains where you are faced with The Hub and things get weird, but this is actually one of my favourite parts of this book as it really is totally unexpected and it makes sense of the seemingly disparate and unconnected encounters and item collecting that both paths will present to you. The Hub is effectively a waiting room with eight doors, each leading to a different plain of existence, bar the eighth which takes you to the penultimate showdown of the book, the Tourney of the Planes (sic.) You can visit as many or as few as you wish in a bid to get allies to help you face the four opponents that you have to deal with in the Tourney itself, but which allies will help you depends a) on which route you took to get here, and b) on which items you have or actions you chose on the way. This is really clever as it stops this part from being so easy it becomes academic whilst also meaning each playthrough can, in theory, produce a different outcome here. Having made some allies you can then decide that it’s time to go to the Tourney and fight four opponents, all “specials”. As this is a book with a great variety of potential plots, you can survive with just one ally (the first opponent can only be defeated with an ally) but you need the right allies to beat the right opponents, otherwise you have three very tough battles to contend with here. Beat this part and you then reach your final goal, the Pit of Demons, and your final showdown with Ikiru himself (a toughie with Sk 12 St 12.) As with the rest of the book, there are numerous ways to tackle him (the easiest is by using Singing Death, assuming you have found its secret, of course), ranging from straight combat to outright killing of him with a successful Luck roll (although this is only possible if you have Singing Death.) If you don’t have the dai-katana this fight is much harder and Ikiru gets the Luck advantage in that if you fail a Luck roll he can kill you instantly. The latter is rather more akin to a FF final baddie battle and it does make the end more climactic as well as much harder, even if it does mean you don’t retrieve Singing Death until after Ikiru is dead and removes the plot mechanic of using his ill-gotten gains against him.

What is probably becoming apparent from all this is that this book is not particularly difficult and is more of a book to re-play to freshly discover all its different plot-threads rather than a book to try to unravel a solution, given just how many there are here, and ample re-playability is one of its big plus-points. None of the routes are unpassable (bar one sub-route that gives you loads of warning not to take it) but it must be said that most combats (especially those on the easterly path) are actually quite hard (Skills of 10+ are generally the norm), but the four different approaches to combat dependant on your chosen Special Skill do take the edge off this to an extent. What I find odd is that any Samurai you fight (notwithstanding a fairly strong Ronin who hates you) are by far the weakest opponents you will take on – are they not supposed to be elite warriors, or is this designed to imply that Hachiman is a really lethal place? Even the rogue Shogun, Tsietsin, is not that hard to defeat and I do struggle with this idea. Similarly, key checkpoints are just the “do you/don’t you” choice type and nothing other than the Tatsu riddle episode really tests whether you are cheating or not, which makes this all the easier.

The sheer variety of different versions of certain routes and episodes leads to a necessity to have a lot of cut-and-paste paragraphs but this does result in every option making perfect sense and aids continuity enormously (Tsietsin’s castle, in particular has several variations on a theme/approach to discover.) A curious by-product of all the possibilities you have is that only certain specific options will lead to you seeing the art for creature encounters (and most here are unique, given the setting), which, again, demands that you re-play if you want to know everything there is to know here and, as this is the only FF to be set wholly in Hachiman, you definitely will find yourself wanting to know as much as you can about the region. This book is our only resource on Hachiman, and it thankfully allows you to travel around most of the region, seeing its unique and original monsters, and being immersed in its fundamentally Japanese idiom.

Alan Langford’s art is the perfect complement to MS/JT’s to-the-point but very thorough writing style and this book oozes with Eastern atmosphere. Langford brilliantly captures exactly how the mind’s-eye interprets the descriptions and some of the art is truly phenomenal in its combination of horror and exoticness. Take the Rokuro-Kubi group image or the attacking Undead Samurai as cases in point, although almost any illustration from this book could be cited as perfectly suited. The Eastern horror sense is countermanded with the awe-inspiring nature of certain creatures, especially those intended as allies in The Hub and/or the almost “deity”-level opponents such as the three Demons in the Tourney of the Planes. Likewise, Peter Andrew Jones’ cover is phenomenally good featuring, as it does, one of my favourite foes from the book (even if you only meet it on the Westerly “easier” route, but I guess that’s another thing to discover on subsequent playthroughs!) Mel Grant’s reinterpreted cover picture for Wizard’s Series 1 re-release takes a more horrific and “modernised” approach to the Undead Samurai image but the excessive use of red (the river is red, but so is the sky) does not work as well for me as the darker Puffin cover. Still, Wizard’s cover is pretty good and is far better than most of their botch-jobs.

On the subject of the Westerly route, it is interesting to note that you can amass a massive amount of money, none of which is of any use to you. Is this a clever deceit to remind us that this book is about Honour not Wealth, or is it an awkward oversight? I’d prefer to plump for the former and give another mark for excellent design as MS/JT don’t really drop the ball at any point with this book, notwithstanding its ease which is impossible to ignore but does work in the re-play and multiple possibilities stakes, and the rather jarring Tatsu riddles section.

Needless to say, I rate this book very highly and everything (even the relative ease) works and holds together thematically and contextually really well. Thankfully, Smith and Thomson’s FFs were re-issued in Wizard’s first iteration making this book all the more findable for those who don’t have it, although it is one of the later issues which are tougher to locate so you are more likely to pick up a Puffin original which is worth it as the Puffin version has the better and more suited cover to complete a quality package.  Essential reading/playing.

Monday, 14 September 2015

#19: Demons Of The Deep


Steve Jackson (II)

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The fact that the Atlantis myth has not been exploited very much in the world of gamebooks is slightly baffling as it has considerable potential, assuming the execution is done right. Steve Jackson (the American one) obviously saw the concept’s mileage, moved the legendary lost city to Titan and set his second FF gamebook there, in the process creating a unique and very original gamebook experience.

The plot is simple. YOU are the sole survivor of a pirate ship’s attack on your vessel and, to reward your staying power, the pirate Captain (the crappily-named Captain Bloodaxe) kits you out with a load of heavy food and throws you into the sea where you sink to the ocean floor, only to land in a magical pentagram that gives you gills meaning you can breathe under water and go off in search of your revenge on the pirates who got you into this predicament (and maybe steal all their booty and become rich into the bargain too.) There is a snag, though – if you surface and/or dusk settles, your gills will disappear and you will not be able to survive under water any longer. So this is essentially a race against time revenge outing, but the beauty of it all is in the exploration itself.

One thing that quickly strikes you is how difficult this is to map and it is indeed quite labyrinthine in the way that various sections inter-link with one-another but that is because it uses an ingenious multi-levelled 3D structure to make the most of your being under water and therefore able to rise and dive at will. In places, you can get sucked into under-currents and head down watershutes, as well as being able to pass over areas from an elevated position. As confusing as this is on paper it really does give the feeling of being under water and adds massively to the (literally) immersive nature of this book. What is very important to understand, though, is that this being a SJ (II) adventure, there are multiple paths through as well as numerous different endings, so mapping is not especially essential to victory as such, given that you can blunder around and get sucked into or ejected out of various areas without it necessarily meaning you are going to lose. Granted, there is what seems to be an optimum ending where you defeat the pirates and become super-rich, but there are many other less successful but still acceptable end results which adds hugely to re-playability. Equally, there are several ways to defeat the pirates and, in fact, to get to where they are hiding-out, as well as there being several ways of finding the clues that can help you locate them (although you can of course just guess by simply picking the right option when you are prompted as well.) Unusually for a SJ (II) book this one is linear in that you cannot double-back or revisit previously explored areas, but you do have the standard SJ (II) option of exploring just about every option at each juncture, or at least until you pick the best one at which point you are sent to the next stage of the mission and can disregard the “lesser” options. Similarly, paragraph 400 is just a normal game section making it less obvious which outcome is the intended definitive one, if there even genuinely is one.

Furthermore, as is also the case with SJ (II)’s FFs, this book is very easy unless you surface too soon (and you can die two paragraphs in if you do this) or one of your stats gets reduced to nothing and the multiple paths/outcomes make it even easier as there is no true path to hunt for. Instant deaths are quite rare, although there are at least two moments where your Stamina can be instantly reduced to 1. That said, there is a plethora of opportunities for your Initial scores to increase, your Stamina to rise by 10(!), and/or your Attack Strength to rise a lot, and there is even one moment where you can quite literally become a “new person” and are made to re-roll all three of your stats (which could be good or bad for you, depending on how you started out, of course), so this is definitely a book that can be completed with rock-bottom starting stats. Add to this the fact that finding key items and NPCs is not that hard (you can even gamble gold pieces and black pearls to an infinite level) and you have a book that is not going to take much defeating, but that’s not the point – the idea is to explore and re-explore as you find all the various paths and outcomes with each playthrough. This is a book that allows you to discover fresh moments over and over again, rather than the sometimes frustrating usual FF approach of either find the one well-hidden route and win, or die trying.

For the most part, you are required to move around Atlantis hunting for useful items and allies to help you get your revenge, although some allies are more trustworthy than others and the sly Sea Dragon will certainly make you work for your victory if you choose to use its “help” (incidentally, several times the book sneakily tries to convince you that this is a wise choice, which adds a bit of unpredictability to the proceedings.) Nothing’s help can be got without you having certain items, but the different options remove the “true path” aspect that can often be soul-destroying in these books. If you want to use the Dolphin’s help (far safer than the Sea Dragon) you literally have to fight for the right when a Shark attacks it and this combat highlights a very noticeable feature of this book – physically strong, but technically useless foes resulting in long but easy fights with enemies that have low Skills but very high Staminas. As you are under water, the encounters are often unique whilst being perfectly-placed within the undersea environment, and many of them are animal types which, whilst acting largely on instinct, are quite big and tough. The vast majority of the fights here are with enemies with Staminas in excess of 10, with the logically toughest two being the legendary Kraken (Sk 10 St 30) and the Sea Dragon (Sk 10 St 24), although neither of these are necessary for victory. Many foes are fish or crustaceans and, in an interesting touch, fights with the “stupider” creatures can be avoided by feeding them, whilst fights with more “evolved” types (Water Elemental, Merman, etc) can be avoided by simply bribing them not to hurt you or by doing them services. To emphasise the Atlantean concept, numerous Mermen and at least one Mermaid come into the mix, as do some sea versions of familiar fantasy fare such as the fishy-looking Sea Ogre, the Muck Demon, and the Deep Ones (sort of frogmen with delusions of grandeur.) To add a nice fantasy twist to familiar Earth species, we meet a Swordfish (which thinks it’s Cyrano de Bergerac and really is an expert swordsman!), the cathedral appropriately houses Angelfish as well as Devilfish, and there is even a Lionfish which has a lion’s head and can roar! If that isn’t enough to get the undersea world message across, the Mermen use various species of Toolfish (as can you), which reminds me somewhat of all the different animals that are used as household tools in The Flintstones!

The various creature types show both a clear focus on the setting as well as some wry humour and there are other moments where this book does not take itself too seriously as well, although it never lets itself down by seeming trivial in the way that the satirical FFs such as #27 Star Strider often did. We meet a Deep One Champion called Sharkspear, the tight-arsed Sea Dragon refuses to lend you two gold pieces if you ask it to, you have to kiss an ugly female Deep One to raise her from her slumbers, Cyrano the Swordfish is pretty bonkers (although the stat rewards for fighting him are well worth having), and there is a location called Gorblimey Rocks at one point too. These moments of humour are strangely suited to the generally very other-worldly feel and tone of this book, although there is a curious moment where a Merman asks if you are a Deep One and expresses relief when he finds out you are not as they are at war – a war which he presumably has only heard about otherwise he would know that a human and a Deep One look nothing like each other, but we can forgive this one inconsistency in what is otherwise a very well-designed and controlled concept.

One encounter worthy to be singled-out is that with the Bone Demon. Whilst this is not a unique creature and is certainly not restricted to an undersea locale, the encounter is memorable for two things: firstly, you have to fight three parts of it as three different foes, and secondly, it is the creature featured on Les Edwards’ cover. When this book first came out (and still now if looked at from a certain distance) I genuinely believed this cover had been rendered by photo-manipulation, it is that real-looking. The cover also perfectly suits the location with its sea blues, green seabed, and even air bubbles rising from the Bone Demon. This is probably one of my favourite FF covers due largely to how well it fits with the book, as well as its eerily realistic appearance. Sadly, the internal art is by Bob Harvey, a man whose work has never quite done it for me, but he does actually do a better job here than normally and his Mermen and buildings are especially effective, although I’ve never liked the way he draws people. Thankfully, the writing is so atmospheric and SJ (II) captures his atypical locations so well in the text that the art is almost incidental to the prose itself, rather than being a function of the overall experience of the book.

I briefly mentioned black pearls above and acquiring these is essential if you want to achieve the revenge-plus-riches ending. The search for these is more akin to the traditional Ian Livingstone style of gamebook where you quickly realise that you need to amass a certain volume of one recurring motif or another. Black pearls can only normally be found by defeating the toughest foes (killing the Kraken will yield the largest haul of three in one place) and, if you can find out how to use them (and the person with the info is not that hard to find) you will reach one of my favourite parts of this or any other FF gamebook where for every two black pearls you can create a Skeleton Warrior to fight the end pirates for you. OK, I admit it, I’m a huge fan of Jason And The Argonauts and this has been blatantly plagiarised from that movie, but the image of Ray Harryhausen’s Stopmotion skeleton army always comes to mind when I reach this point of the book and, that alone, is enough to make this one so memorable for me.

In terms of gamebook design, there is nothing unusual here other than its complex multi-level game map, and it avoids any special mechanics, relying instead on superb exploitation of its theme and concept. The multi-path/multi-ending approach is uncharacteristic for FF in general, but is standard fare for SJ (II) and I think it is all the better for its lack of gimmicks. Likewise, the revenge plot is very simple, leaving the player to focus on the unique world that SJ (II) has created in this book.

This is a fantastic gamebook which has a certain dignified elegance to it which is often missing from the generic stalk-and-slash “ultimate hero” FF books. It makes excellent use of its atypical setting, and its unusual and imaginative encounters and locations are perfectly matched to the writing and ethereal atmosphere. For these reasons, along with the Harryhausen steal, this is one of my favourite FFs. It’s a little too easy, but that only increases playthrough scope. I highly recommend this for something a bit different.