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.