Wednesday, 23 March 2016

#46: Tower Of Destruction






TOWER OF DESTRUCTION

Keith Martin

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Picture this: YOU have been to market all day in Zengis and, on returning to your village, YOU find that it has been devastated by a huge flying sphere that rains fire down on everything that it passes over. Being the only villager left alive YOU decide that you are going to pursue the pesky sphere and make it answer for its crimes. On catching up with the sphere and climbing aboard it becomes apparent that it is in fact being piloted by an evil wizard (or rather the illusion of him) in the employ of a Demon called Relem that, surprise surprise, wants to wipe out all of Titan (starting with Allansia) by going around in a big flying tower and blowing it all up. So you head off to an Ice Palace populated by the spirits of the long-extinct Ice Elf race to acquire a bunch of useful stuff to help you combat said Demon in his tower, followed by finding the tower itself, killing the wizard and the Demon and then destroying the tower so Titan can survive the threat of yet another homicidal maniac. Thus is the essence of the plot of number 46 in the Puffin series. Now, let’s just go back over that and see if it really makes any sense at all for a moment, shall we: 1) your village is wiped out by a flying sphere that torches everywhere it goes – that I can live with as it’s the start of the book and does create intrigue from the outset; 2) the ancient Ice Palace – yes, that’s fine too, this is fantasy after all; 3) a flying tower being used by a Demon to destroy the world – oh dear, it’s just got ridiculous: why would a Demon who presumably has no end of potential powers at his disposal build a vertical stone bomber and spend ages flying about blowing the world up one small stage at a time... and what the hell is a flying tower anyway?

Therein lies one of the problems with this book: if you try to rationalise or spend more than a few seconds thinking about the plot, it just becomes so far-fetched that it is genuinely ludicrous. However, curiously, this does not detract too much from the actual experience of playing this adventure as the plot is quite epic in its scope and its good points are so very thoroughly developed that, only occasionally, do you stop and think that the flying tower idea might be a bit silly. A lot has gone into making the key stages seem very real and believable and the combined atmosphere of snowy wasteland and almost supernatural fantasy is enough to carry this one through. Indeed, the final showdown in the tower is mercifully brief, leaving you to focus much more on the earlier stages and this book is effectively in three parts: a trek across the icy wastes in pursuit of the sphere, followed by the exploration of the Ice Palace, and finally the big pay-off with the Demon in the tower itself. Rather annoyingly, though, the plot is presented with such extreme linearity that you basically cannot diverge away from KM’s intended route at all and this isn’t Ian Livingstone-style linearity in the sense that there is a true path that needs to be found, this is a literal “you will follow this route and you will not be given any options to go anywhere other than this route” approach. The only real scope for digression is in the sense of which cameos you get involved in but even these will always return you to the linear path and they hardly constitute much of a “choice” as such as they are literally just side-steps along the same path. In fact, KM is so determined that you will only use his route that there are very often cases where, should you diverge slightly, once you return to the defined path’s linking section again, the paragraphs will read very awkwardly as if the book assumes you will only ever follow the exact correct routing. This is proved by the fact that, should you then read that particular part in the “definitive” routing, it will make perfect sense and read seamlessly as you go from paragraph to paragraph. Another slightly jarring aspect is that, when you enter the sphere and discover what the real menace is, the book seems to think that the tower’s existence is some sort of secret... er, what’s the title again, Keith?

So, obviously there are some logic issues with how this has been designed and anyone who is familiar with KM’s FFs will not be surprised to learn that many of the Martin-isms that both enhance and seriously mar his books are very evident here:

  • Maths cheat-proofing – KM loves to hide secret sections behind maths puzzles and this book is no exception with umpteen names to render into numbers
  • Free-roaming – KM generally favours a RPG-style approach where you use central points from which to freely explore a key area in any order you wish, in this case, the Ice Palace

  •  Insanely hard puzzles to crack – linked to the maths cheat-proofing, two puzzles in particular (involving clock faces and musical notes) are practically impossible to fathom out, especially as the clock puzzle has a visual error in it and the music tablature puzzle requires knowledge of, well, music tablature!

  • The book is plagued by errors – this one is well-known for having more than its fair share of errors, with mis-linking sections, illogically-linking sections, typos, mis-calculations in KM’s own maths (er, that makes the puzzles even harder, right) and some paragraphs that simply make no sense at all (see below)

  •  You are forced, in the first section at least, to eat (or suffer a -2 St penalty) frequently which exhausts your Provisions pretty quickly and gets very repetitive

  • Magic – KM likes to briefly endow the player with magic late on which is almost always unnecessary to victory and just throws more stuff in for you to try to think about as you play

  • Time tracking – you are required (again, in the first section only) to keep track of how many days it takes you to reach the sphere. This might seem key to your success but, in fact, it hardly makes any difference at all how long you take and just makes a couple of encounters slightly tougher if you have taken a bit longer to get there, so this is, as always with KM’s time trackers, completely pointless and not worth worrying about

  • Honour – KM likes the concept of being honourable and, especially as you need to get the Elves on your side, Honour does play a major role and can easily be the difference between winning and losing. Kill in cold blood or plunder graves and your Honour (which starts at 6) will decrease, do good deeds and it rises

  • Magic swords – KM loves magic swords, you always need magic swords in his FFs, and there are magic swords galore in this one

This list of factors that are fundamental to how this book works might suggest that it is heavily weighted against you but, in fact, this book is very well balanced and actually very fair to play. There is enough challenge here to make it satisfying, but at no point do you feel that you are fighting a losing battle. However, what is absolutely essential to state at this point is that a character with a Skill lower than 11 has no hope and an above average Skill is essential to victory due to several tough combats (with a lot of adjusters) and umpteen Skill tests. This might seem harsh but there are many opportunities to increase your Skill (both in combat terms and increasing your Initial value too) and it is possible to face Relem with a Skill as high as 16 if you have all the pre-requisite demon-fighting gear and drink the akavit just before the fight. Relem is not to be taken lightly (he has Sk 14 St 25) but the ice sword will do him -3 St damage on each hit and should you drink the Potion of Speed before the fight you get two attacks in each of the first three Attack Rounds, so this fight can be much less un-winnable than it might initially appear to be. You also have his wizard minion to contend with but this should not pose any problem as long as you know his weakness for cold and attack him with the Wand of Cold (which incidentally always does 5 St damage in general combats) which shaves 8 Stamina points off him instantly. The Provision-sapping first section could leave you with no outlet to restore Stamina, but there are loads of opportunities to acquire more food along the way and, although you are limited to only being able to carry 10 portions of Provisions, if you collect Elven food it does not count as encumbrance so you can carry loads of Provisions potentially which is very helpful in keeping you alive. Equally, if your Honour is high enough you can have your Stamina boosted to 25 and there are a few Strength potions kicking around as well. The only really tough part of this book is the Ice Palace episode which must be negotiated in a specific order. Although you have the illusion of choice in that all nine sections can be theoretically explored in any order, there is an optimum order and it can only really be found by trial and error. If you do not explore this part in the correct order you will never find the plethora of essential items that are hidden there and you will have no chance later on in the book as some parts of the palace directly grant you access to other parts through unravelling the puzzles hidden within. Obviously it is always possible to just blunder your way through first time and get lucky, but this is probably not going to happen really. Interestingly, a particularly fair inclusion is that instant death sections are very rare (I can only find three) and you will only reach them by doing really stupid things such as climbing into a fire or jumping out of the bottom of the flying tower! There are even two non-win endings where you save the world but die in the attempt which adds a lot of replay potential in a bid to reach the ultimate ending.

One of the real winning points that always features in KM’s FFs is the depth of imagination and originality that he always tries to include whilst always sticking closely to his central themes to really draw you in. The ice theme is well presented with lots of atmosphere, locations, and encounters that all suit icy areas. If there is a niggle with the laying on thick of the ice concept, it would be that KM seems to be trying to set some sort of record for how many times he can get the word “ice” into a book. In fact, no, he’s trying to set a record for getting it into a paragraph... no, scrub that, into a SENTENCE, as many times as possible and this will begin to grate after a while. That said, it is only fair to KM to emphasise some good points and amongst some of my favourite touches in this book are: a Potion of Fire Breath that allows YOU to breathe fire; the Ice Palace episode and its associated extinct Ice Elf concepts including a stunning ice mausoleum, helpful spirits as well as tormented ones that have gone nuts, and considerable latent magic to exploit;  credit is due for trying to create unusual puzzles with the musical notes and the clock thing, tough as they are; and there are several creative encounters including all the Ice Elf episodes, along with a talking Owl, many types of Demon and Golem, lots of “ice” beasts, a Pegasus to ride on, and the highly original and macabre Ice Gaunts.

It has to be said at this point though that the Ice Palace is clearly the part that KM has thrown the kitchen sink at and the whole book centres around this pivotal section. This is where you find almost everything that you need to have to win and this makes it feel so focussed on your collecting loads of items that it seems rather like a manic shopping spree. In fact, there is so much item grabbing and puzzle deciphering going on in the Ice Palace that, in spite of its impressive and almost Sci-Fi-esque and dream-like feel, it derails the fast pacing of the preceding sphere chase section and does make you grateful that the final (tower) part is comparatively brief. At the end your character is exhausted and so are you as the player as this is a long epic book that involves navigating a large number of sections to beat it.

This book is undeniably big on imagination and concept, but it also seems somehow odd and disjointed in its execution, in part due to the arch-linearity of KM’s approach here, but also due to its errors and inconsistencies. None of the errors are critical problems (this is not in the same disastrous league as #58 Revenge of the Vampire), but they are certainly very self-evident and can make this book seem rather messy:

  • There are several mis-linked sections that lead quite simply to the wrong next section. Surely this could have been avoided with closer play-testing?

  • Several other sections link to sections that don’t quite seem to make sense, but this is partially due to the “true path or nothing” way that this book is designed

  • If you find an Ice Fox and take its pelt it will transform into a Silver Fox... or rather the book will incorrectly refer to it as such when it comes to needing it!

  • Certain paragraphs simply make no sense at all as they will give you one instruction, then instantly change it to something else further into the paragraph

  • Time is handled in a very woolly way and the prompts to add 1 to your Time are vague and generally only mentioned in passing rather than telling you what you have to do... not that this makes any difference in the long-run, to be fair

  • The essential Ice Bird and Book item is unfathomable if you try to think it out – you are told they are “as one” yet they seem to work independently and it’s not easy to visualise what the hell this item actually is!

  • As with all KM books you are expected to pay very close attention to the text to pick up on the numerical prompts and record all the various names you need to know, but, whilst this does demand that you immerse yourself fully in the material, it also means you cannot miss any of the bits that make no sense due to them being errors in the text which will leave you fairly baffled (and maybe a little frustrated as you try to figure out if you’ve missed the point somewhere) at times
KM’s well-designed and nicely executed worlds deserve art that does them justice and, for the most part, Pete Knifton’s interior illustrations are suitably dark and imposing. His Dark Elves work very well and his Ice Ghosts are especially impressive. A very striking aspect of PK’s art is the way his Golems are drawn with forced upwards perspective giving the impression of their enormity and awe-inspiring size compared to you – this is a very successful technique. A special mention needs to go to two images which are clearly throwbacks to earlier FF illustrations which is a neat example of consistency in terms of creatures’ physical appearance, as well as continuity within Allansian species – the Fire Demon looks to be heavily influenced by Malcolm Barter’s version in FF #3 The Forest of Doom whilst the Ice Demon looks to be exactly the same one as that shown in #9 Caverns of the Snow Witch. Terry Oakes’ cover image is of an event that never comes (hopefully, otherwise you’ve lost) as it depicts the incomprehensible flying Black Tower concept fire-bombing a small village within a frozen environment. The frozen part captures the essence of the book well, but depicting the tower merely adds to just how weird an idea it is, plus the clear blue sky is unthreatening and more akin to an Alpine skiing holiday backdrop than the end of the world. 

Tower of Destruction is not an easy book to formulate a definitive opinion on either way. It has many good points (balance, pace, imagination, originality, conceptual delivery, art) and is well-written, but the combination of niggling discrepancies, over-emphasis on the Ice Palace episode, insanely hard puzzles, and an over-arching illogicality, all make it hard to see this as up there with KM’s best (#38 Vault of the Vampire and #52 Night Dragon). It certainly isn’t as dull as #51 Island of the Undead or a total trainwreck like #58 Revenge of the Vampire, it’s just not slickly finished-off enough to be anything more than a slightly sub-standard entry in the high-concept (and otherwise generally very good) 40s part of the series. Don’t get me wrong, there are many FFs that are inferior to this and this is still a decent and worthwhile book simply for the unique ideas it includes, but it will probably leave you a little bit underwhelmed and very confused. Give it a go if, like me, you are a fan of KM’s FFs and want to experience all of his interesting creations but, if the vast improvement offered by the 40s part of the series over the 30s part motivates you, then this book might let you down.

2 comments:

  1. Terry Oakes’ cover image is of an event that never comes (hopefully, otherwise you’ve lost) as it depicts the incomprehensible flying Black Tower concept fire-bombing a small village within a frozen environment.

    That happens towards the end of the first paragraph of section 309. The clear blue sky in the picture is wrong, though: the text calls the sky 'ominously dark' and refers to 'clouds [...] boiling'.

    Annoying though the clock puzzle is, it isn't absolutely necessary to solve it to win. And while familiarity with musical notation does help with the music puzzle, standard codebreaking skills can also do the trick, especially if you remember the name of the Elf you most need to find, which gives you about half the letters in the encrypted message straight off.

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    1. I don't agree that you can say with all certainty that the cover picture illustrates the section you quote. As you state "the text calls the sky 'ominously dark' and refers to 'clouds [...] boiling'" so this might not be the event you are referring to.

      ... and I'm not convinced that the average person has any "standard codebreaking skills". The fact is that the puzzles in KM's book are often very hard. Unless you worked at Bletchley Park in a past life?

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