The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 11)

In the previous episode of my Fighting Fantasy review series, I finished off the Fighting Fantasy releases of 1988 – an era when it seems like quantity was prioritised over quality, with some absolute clunkers slipping out (including Sky Lord, far and away the worst gamebook I have covered yet). There were some signs of hope – the best of the four books I covered in that article, Stealer of Souls, was really very good, perhaps the best Fighting Fantasy book I’d yet tackled in the series not written by Steve Jackson. On the other hand, a tepid contribution by Ian Livingstone – Armies of Death, most charitably described as an experiment which doesn’t quite work – highlighted how the scaled-back involvement of the series’ creators was causing issues.

Remember, Steve Jackson wrote his last gamebook for the Puffin series way back with Creature of Chaos, and Ian Livingstone’s contributions have become more and more sparse; in fact, we’ll only see one more gamebook by him in the remainder of the Puffin series. (He’d be credited with two solo works, but one of them was ghostwritten by Carl Sargent.) This time around, we have another clutch of gamebooks written by other parties, under the “Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone presents” banner. This has historically had mixed results; some of these gamebooks have been very good, some of them have been outright terrible, and of course you have the recurring issue where whenever you have a new person beginning to contribute to the series, they always seem to have a period of growing pains as they feel out best practice.

The four books in this review cover all the main Puffin-series releases for 1989 – that’s right, after this we’re out of the 1980s and coming into an era when increasingly sophisticated videogames become serious competitors with gamebooks when it comes to solo fun. That means Fighting Fantasy really needs to pull up its socks now if it’s going to keep up. Does the series manage this? Let’s see…

Portal of Evil

Scenario

For ages the dense forests at the foot of the Cloudhigh Mountains of Khul have been considered totally inhospitable to humans, occupied as they are by dangerous monsters and hordes of goblins. However, a while back an expedition from the frontier town of Kleinkastel went exploring the forest. The survivors came back with important news – there’s gold in them thar woods! The region has now become the hub of a gold rush, with Kleinkastel becoming a boom town and the centre of mining activities for the region.

Now, however, miners have been disappearing from their camps and villages within the forest. The mining leaders suspect that something is up; you’d previously passed on an offer to come to Kleinkastel and work as a caravan guard, but this sounds like a more serious matter, so as the adventure begins you are travelling into the outskirts of the forest, intent on reaching Kleinkastel and discovering what the problem is…

Portal of Evil is the second Fighting Fantasy book by Peter Darvill-Evans. His first one was Beneath Nightmare Castle, which I generally enjoyed, but knocked down a few marks for a slightly thoughtless recycling of racist tropes. Here Darvill-Evans looks like he is potentially getting into dodgy territory again. Having a gold rush naturally nudges the reader to think of the US one, so the gold being found in lands previously held by inhuman goblins is a little troubling. That said, the introduction does suggest that Darvill-Evans is entirely aware of the colonialist impulses associated with gold rushes, so maybe this will be handled better than expected.


System

Absolutely straight-down-the-line vanilla. No system experiments here.

Gear

You start with a map of the region (on the inside front cover – an increasingly common convenience at this point in the series), leather armour, a sword, and two Provisions.

First Run

Skill: 11
Stamina:
 18
Luck:
9

My first encounter is with an elf in the company of a wounded dinosaur – and after I save them from pursuing soldiers, it turns out that the dinosaur can talk! No time for singing songs about whether the dinosaur loves me or I love the dinosaur, mind – it turns out there’s some sort of eldritch Portal hidden in the depths of the region, and that’s what’s causing the problem, with its agents kidnapping people, turning them into brainwashed slaves, and transforming some of them into the forms of prehistoric beasts found in the realm on the other side of the Portal.

As my adventure progresses, I fall in with a group of ex-miners fighting a valiant rear-guard effort against this strange force which enslaves human and goblin alike. This latter part does somewhat help with the US gold rush comparisons, because it does at least reassure me that I’m not going to be fighting hordes of goblins crudely modelled on Native Americans. Indeed, one of the ways you can get sent in the direction of the wise wizard of the area who can brief you on how to defeat the Portal seems to involve being sent by the King of the Forest Goblins – that didn’t happen to me on this run, but I saw it was one option of several – and the backstory to the Portal involves its last awakening taking place during a time before humanity, when only goblins lived in the area, and saw its dark forces defeated by a goblin hero, so Darvill-Evans isn’t signing up for Goblin genocide here.

I did run into a “dark-skinned southerners acting as bandits” encounter – but they seemed to be pretty civilised and honourable bandits, so that’s something. In addition, the world beyond the Portal turns out to be ruled by a black warrior-woman who, in my interactions with her, revealed that the world beyond the Portal was just as much a victim of the main villain’s evil as Khul – in other words, it’s not the world beyond the Portal which is evil, it’s the Portal, itself, and the hideous influence it exerts on the minds and bodies of those who travel through it. It really feels like there’s a bid here at an anti-colonialist Fighting Fantasy narrative – the villain turns out to be a mine owner who was corrupted by the Portal and who frog-marched his workers through it to form the nucleus of his army, in fact – and whilst you can debate how successful it is, it’s nonetheless an unusually clever and thoughtful plot for the series.

I actually beat the gamebook this go-around, but I think I was lucky. There’s definitely some flexibility in which route you can take through, but I spotted at least one instance where I’d have been screwed if I had not picked up a particular item (though there may be alternate ways to find the item in question – you get lots of opportunities in this to pick up a mirror, for instance). Some of the fights are quite tough, but you can get a magic sword at one point which will, three times only, allow you to end a fight by insta-killing your opponent, no roll required, which is a nice way to assist low-Skill characters.

Thanks to all that, I think Portal of Evil actually puts the lie to the idea that Fighting Fantasy books need to be astonishingly fussy about their One True Way to provide replay value – replayability doesn’t have to be bashing your head against a gamebook’s obtuse and finicky demands, it can be about the book offering a range of different ways to progress and getting to experience those, with different character stats lending themselves to different routes. If Beneath Nightmare Castle was a promising start, Portal of Evil finds Darvill-Evans going from strength to strength as a gamebook author.

Vault of the Vampire

Scenario

Chasing up rumours of great riches to be found, you have come to the mist-shrouded land of Mortvania seeking adventure. Stopping by at an inn called the Hart’s Blood, you hear terrible stories of the local Count and his predation on the locals from his fortress, Castle Heydrich; indeed, just recently he kidnapped the granddaughter of one of the locals who warns you of the Count’s evil ways. Even as the villagers implore you to seek the destruction of the Count, it seems like the Count himself has his own plans – for a carriage rattles up to the inn and its driver slams open the door and beckons to you to come with him. And it’s no use asking him who has summoned you and for what purpose, for what answer can you expect from a headless coachman…?

Vault of the Vampire is the second Fighting Fantasy book (after Stealer of Souls) to be credited to “Keith Martin”, who was in fact celebrated RPG designer Carl Sargent writing under a pseudonym. It’s pretty evident from the concept that Sargent’s going full horror with this one, and part of me wonders how much he was influenced by Ravenloft. On the one hand, “misty land ruled over by a vampire” isn’t exactly original, every Dracula adaptation under the sun has riffed on that concept. On the other hand, the original Ravenloft module was a big hit for TSR and would have put the idea of transposing a Dracula-like scenario into a D&D-esque fantasy world out there.

Furthermore, 1990 would see TSR releasing the first AD&D 2nd Edition-era Ravenloft boxed set, which turned the Ravenloft concept into a full-blown campaign setting. (A revision of this box, mildly updating the setting and folding in material from the Forbidden Lore box, would later come out in 1994 and be the version I reviewed here.) This is interesting because, though he still generated some material for WFRP, by 1989 Sargent was also working fairly closely with TSR – they’d put out his King’s Festival module for basic D&D in 1989, and from around that time until the mid-1990s he’d be a major driving force of the 2E-era rehaul of Greyhawk. One has to wonder how much scuttlebutt Sargent heard from TSR colleagues about the coming Ravenloft set. (For that matter, I’m sure by 1989 TSR were putting out some teasers for the upcoming boxed set, though the release of 2E would have been the big D&D news of the year.)

System

More or less the vanilla system, at least at first. There’s references to the possibility of learning spells during the game, or suffering Afflictions (basically curses), but these apparently get explained once they come up.

The big experiment here is the Faith stat – rolled on 1D6+3, it’s a measure of how much you believe in good and justice and righteousness. High Faith apparently means some creatures might be repelled by you, but can also attract unwanted attention. We’ll see how that shakes out.

Gear

Sword, shield, leather armour, backpack, lantern, 10 provisions. We’re going old-school with this one!

First Run

Skill: 7
Stamina:
 19
Luck:
8
Faith: 9

With stats like that, I had little hope of being able to handle significant danger, so I decided to accept the coach ride to the castle in the hope that bypassing the journey on foot would at least give me a chance to gather intel there for later runs. As it turned out, this was useful! I not only gathered some leads about what stuff might be useful when, but it also transpired that Count Reiner Heydrich was not the only member of the family in residence – Gunther Heydrich, for instance, seems to be a benign healer who is aghast at what the rest of this family gets up to, but is powerless to stop them because he balks at slaying his own kin. My Faith also seemed to help out at a few points, allowing me to avoid some combat and pick up some clues. I ended up dying to a vampiric mist because I didn’t have a magic sword, but now I know I need one (and have some hints as to how I might find one), I can at least have a bit more confidence in tackling later runs.

Oh, and if “Reiner Heydrich” being the villain hadn’t already put me in mind of Reinhard Heydrich, Butcher of Prague, ardent Nazi, architect of the Final Solution, and That One SS Guy That Even Hitler Thought Was A Bit Heartless, I also encountered a sage named “Adenauer“, who seemed to turn a bit of a blind eye to what his liege had been up to. So there’s some 1st Edition WFRP-tier satire for you.

Second Run

Skill: 8
Stamina:
 17
Luck:
7
Faith: 9

I got somewhat further this time – even infiltrating the Crypt before a horrid Necrotic Jelly slew me, my Skill having been ground down to 5 by various mishaps. Lacking a magic sword really hurt this run – I knew what I had to do to get it, but that involved willingly going along with the plots of Katarina Heydrich, the Count’s sister, and I balked at murdering an innocent man on her behalf. Maybe next time I’ll just kill him to get the damn sword, but Sargent does a great job of both playing on your conscience and making her seem sinister. The sense of the castle as a living place with ongoing relationships between the residents, rather than just a series of monsters waiting for an adventurer to show up to fight them, is especially appreciated. I am reminded a lot, in fact, of the climactic sequence of the WFRP campaign Death On the Reik – not a Sargent design, but one he’d have been familiar with. There’s also a certain stylistic parallel with Sargent’s own Castle Drachenfels adventure.

Third Run

Skill: 11
Stamina:
 18
Luck:
9
Faith: 6

This time I beat the book! It was tough going – it includes a fight against Heydrich himself, who has a bullshitty Skill of 13. There’s at least two ways that I discovered you can boost your Skill beyond its starting value, one of which gives you extra bonuses against vampires, and there’s other means by which you can weaken him, but I was still fighting him with an effective Skill of 13 and just decided to cheat, since in a replay I would use almost the exact same route anyway. The expected twist (that Katarina has got an Elizabeth Bathory thing going on and is trying to take over the castle) was also overcome, and I ended the adventure feeling like a big damn hero.

Vault of the Vampire isn’t a perfect Fighting Fantasy book; I’d make some quibbles here and there, particularly when it comes to Sargent’s tendency to give the reader healing items and spells which can’t be used in combat – which by my reckoning is bloody stingy. Nonetheless, it’s an incredibly atmospheric one. The series has touched on horror before, but Sargent does a good job of it, and Vault of the Vampire is a significant landmark in the turn towards a darker, more gruesome style of fantasy in this phase of the series. It’s the only book not by Jackson or Livingstone to get a sequel, and it richly deserved one – but I’ll get to that when I get to it; suffice to say that the original Vault is perhaps the best book in the series to date.

Fangs of Fury

Scenario

Yet another evil army is besieging yet another city. This time, the victim of the siege is the capital city of Zamarra, a kingdom in Khul that the evil Ostragoth the Grim seeks to conquer. The citadel does have a crucial advantage in the form of its Sentinels – six massive dragon statues which breathe fire on the city’s foes. It also has a major disadvantage: the flame of the Sentinels has gone out! The wizard Astragal and his colleagues have selected you to sneak out of the city with a magical torch, which you must kindle in the flames of the Fangs of Fury volcano if you are to restore the hopes of Zamarra.

Fangs of Fury is the fourth and final Fighting Fantasy gamebook to be written by Luke Sharp, whose record so far has been inconsistent. His debut, Star Strider, was a sci-fi effort undermined by a bad habit of punishing the reader for not being aware of aspects of the setting which your character really ought to have known – but which the book hadn’t told you. The followup, Chasms of Malice, was the first of his fantasy genre entries in the series, and was one of the worst gamebooks I have covered in this series to date, partially due to lacklustre prose but primarily due to absolutely horrible game design – it had a variant combat system which amounted to “toss a coin, on a heads you are instakilled”, and occasionally extended to “toss a coin several times, you are instakilled if any of them come up heads”.

To write a good Fighting Fantasy gamebook you really need both rudimentary game design skills (particularly when it comes to probability as applied to dice mechanics) and decent prose craft, and Sharp had so far exhibited neither. Things perked up with his third book, Daggers of Darkness – I didn’t think it was amazing, but it was reasonably good and found him both honing his prose and not trying any ill-advised game design experiments, and therefore showed clear improvements over his preceding work.

Fangs of Fury is the third of what you could call the “Astragal trilogy”, because Sharp had the wizard Astragal act as your quest-giver in Chasms of Malice and Daggers of Darkness as well. At least in terms of its setup, it seems to be an essentially conventional Fighting Fantasy gamebook – at the risk of being cliched, since “a city is under siege and you need to go on a quest to sort it out” got used for Battleblade Warrior and Slaves of the Abyss comparatively recently. (If you also consider how often Fighting Fantasy goes back to the “a baddie is amassing/actively deploying an army and you must stop them” well, it’s even less original.) However, as far as Sharp is concerned, originality is dangerous – he screws up when he tries to be clever, but as we saw from Daggers of Darkness if he just aims for a fairly generic Fighting Fantasy experience he can deliver acceptable results. Will that hold true here as well? Let’s see…

System

Basically the straight-down-the-line vanilla system, plus there’s a mechanic where every so often a magical bracelet the wizard council put on you glows to indicate that one of the 14 walls of the citadel have fallen – you need to keep track of that, because when the last wall falls, you fail (and the bracelet kills you – the wizard who slapped it on you did so in order to make sure you didn’t just run away and abandon your quest).

Gear

Fairly standard – choice of potion, 10 Provisions, sword, armour, and so on. You also start with four Black Cubes, which are little magic items which will let you survive a torrent of flame (but are consumed in doing so).

First Run

Skill: 7
Stamina:
 19
Luck:
10
Potion: Luck

Urgh.

I really couldn’t get into this one.

This is almost unique for the series so far. I bounced off Sky Lord, of course, but that’s because that’s a fever dream masquerading as a gamebook. This isn’t the same – there is at least enough of a strong core plot which Sharp keeps in mind here to stop things becoming completely illucid. Nonetheless, the prose seems phoned-in and in terms of tone and atmosphere, Sharp seems to have little to no idea of what he wants to go for; sometimes he seems to be writing a fairly straight-down-the-line adventure which takes itself at least somewhat seriously, at other points he’s throwing in Jack and the beanstalk parodies for shits and giggles.

Between this and a tendency to “make this roll or die” or “choose the right arbitrary choice or die” game design, Fangs of Fury left me absolutely cold. It’s not without some good aspects; it’s quite puzzle-heavy, but with brain-teasers which seem fairly constructed rather than arbitrary, and there seems to be a plethora of different ways you can successfully beat it, even with low stats (I muddled through to the end on this run even whilst missing a lot), giving it decent replay value. At the same time, however, it tries to cram too many incidents and too wide a vista into its 400 paragraphs; one thing Vault of the Vampire does exceptionally well is give you lots of avenues of approach when investigating this very constrained location, which helped make it feel more cohesive; Fangs of Fury too often makes you feel like you are bouncing from incident to incident in an essentially random manner.

Frankly, this wouldn’t have been so hot of a gamebook even had it appeared earlier in the series – but with other authors stepping up their game, with this book coming hot on the heels of two outright classics, Sharp’s shortcomings as a gamebook author are only further highlighted. This is the last we’ll see of him in this review series, and I can’t say I’m sorry to see the back of him.

Dead of Night

Scenario

Once upon a time, your brother was attacked and slain by a demon, which was only driven away by the intervention of the village priest. After a mysterious ghost appeared at the funeral and spoke to the priest, he told you and your parents that you had a special destiny: you were to join the Templars and train at their Sacred Citadel in Royal Lendle as a Demon-Stalker, a righteous defender of the innocent against the forces of infernal evil.

In your career, you have run into many foes, but none so dangerous as Myurr, the demon lord. One day, you have a nightmarish vision of your parents screaming in the clutches of Myurr. You have no way of knowing whether this is real or an illusion intended to guide you into a trap – but filial loyalty demands you at least check. And so you set off for your home village, not realising the horrors you will soon be facing in the… Dead of Night.

This is a milestone for Fighting Fantasy in two ways. The first is that it’s the 40th book in the series; the second is that it’s by Jim Bambra (bam-ba-lam) and Stephen Hand. Whilst this would be the sole gamebook Jim Bambra (bam-ba-lam) would pen for Fighting Fantasy (he’d be more active as a D&D and WFRP contributor), it’s the first of three which Stephen Hand would write – all of which have the reputation for being among the darkest and most gruesome material the series has ever produced. I certainly remember his books having a dark edge to them, but are they really as grim as all that or am I just recollecting through gore-tinted spectacles? Let’s see.

System

Hand and Jim Bambra (bam-ba-lam) aren’t shy of making little tweaks to the Fighting Fantasy system here, though both of the major changes they make to the baseline system are along the lines of the sort of thing we’ve seen before. First, there’s the Evil stat, which starts out at 0 and increases whenever you commit acts of evil. It’s not the first time we’ve had a game mechanic for tracking appropriate behaviour in the books; for example, Sword of the Samurai had means of tracking your honour. The difference here is that whilst Sword of the Samurai had a maximum amount of dishonour you could accrue before you automatically lost, here no automatic fate is specified for accruing a high Evil score – though there’s apparently paragraph-specific rules for making tests against your Evil score, so racking up a high one will probably cause problems at some point.

The other major addition is Talents. These are basically special powers – kind of like our superpowers in Appointment With F.E.A.R., in that we just pick them from a list and they open up new options in some paragraphs, rather than running off a spell point system or similar, the difference here is that we get to start with three powers/talents rather than just one. They represent techniques we have learned for defending against (and turning the tables on) evil and protecting the innocent; for instance, there’s a Heal power, but it doesn’t work on yourself, only for other people, and there’s powers like Banish Undead (like your basic D&D Turn Undead) and Holy Circle and so on.

That said, not all your Talents are necessarily so squeaky-clean – the Templars are willing to learn about of demonology in order to better fight demons. You can Speak Demon if you wish – though if you do it’s easy to guess that there might be perils and temptations there – and there’s a Dark Veil power, which conceals you from foes but will make your Evil go up because it uses sinister magic. (As the book helpfully points out, “veil” is an anagram of “evil”.)

Gear

You start out with a fairly varied set of gear this time – 10 gold pieces, 3 vials of holy water, 5 Provisions, a silver cross, your trusty sword Nightbane, and your faithful horse Godsfire. Shoot! A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Port Blacksand with all that stuff.

First Run

Skill: 7
Stamina:
 19
Luck:
9
Talents: Banish Undead, Heal, Holy Circle
Evil Score At End of Run: 0

After getting back to my home village to find that my parents were thought dead – but, in fact, had been substitute for demons, whose burial in the village graveyard had blighted the land – I banished the horrors and set forth to try and rescue them. Meeting up with the local seer, Sharleena, she was able to give me some information – they were held in Myurr’s fortress somewhere in the north – but was slain by a demon which intruded on her summons. Clearly, Myurr is not messing about. From there, I followed up on a clue left behind in my parent’s grave, only to find out it was a trap, and then got killed trying to defend the villagers of Weddonbridge from a horde of Moon Demons. I suspect Weddonbridge is, itself, a bad option to take – there were two other places I could have gone to instead, but I steered from there because the map clue prompted me to, so now I know it’s a trap (and, really, should have half-suspected it) can steer to other towns which might be more productive in later runs.

The thing which jumps out the most for me about Dead of Night is its magnificent atmosphere; we’re now hitting the rich, dark, WFRP-influenced Fighting Fantasy of the Puffin series’ mature run, and it’s glorious. Martin McKenna’s art is fantastic and really helps add to things, whilst the prose itself, whilst fairly simple, is packed with flavour. It seems unlikely that Stephen Hand and Jim Bambra (bam-ba-lam) were influenced by the success of Vault of the Vampire – this came out close enough to that that they must have been well into the design process, if not finished at their end, by the time it came out – but if they and Carl Sargent didn’t have some sort of cross-fertilisation of ideas going on, it’s a notable parallel evolution.

Whether intentional or coincidental, having two Fighting Fantasy books with such prominent horror themes come out in such close proximity to each other feels like a sea change in the tone of the series, and it’s certainly one which Puffin were happy to roll with for a while, as we’ll see. This is more or less where I came in – I’d have been 7 when the book came out, which is a touch young for this material, but I got a lot of my Fighting Fantasy books from the local library when I was young so I’d have been at just the right age to appreciate this when it percolated into the kids’ section. Either way, this is “my” Fighting Fantasy – the stuff which was hot when I got hooked on the series – and it’s the era of the series I’ve been looking forward to covering ever since I started these reviews. I’m so glad I hadn’t misremembered how cool the atmosphere of Hand’s books was – he, in particular, turned out some of the grimmest and most flavourful material of this period.

Second Run

Skill: 7
Stamina:
 23
Luck:
10
Talents: Banish Undead, Dark Veil, Heal
Evil Score At End of Run: 0

One of the nice things about this book is that even if you have fairly miserable stats, you can still evade a lot of combat and Luck tests and similar by making the right choices – especially if you have the right Talents. Banish Undead seemed to let me auto-win several early fights last time, so I took that, and indeed I intended to go full-defence on this run and also take Dark Veil instead of Heal. I then misremembered and ended up using Heal several times on the run – but I never used Holy Circle, so I guess that’s fine. Having the right Talents to hand means you can tackle some encounters and poor stats won’t drag you down – which is really good, because it means there’s some fun to be had as a Skill 7 character even without playing in a totally avoidant fahsion.

That said, of course, not having the right Talent at the right time can get you into a lot of trouble. On this run I ended up encountering an evil necromancer who was working with Myurr; I slew him, but later on I found a Moon Demon trying to reanimate him. Stepping into stop this, I didn’t have Speak Demon, which seems to have missed an opportunity to disrupt the reanimation more cleverly; the abomination I had to fight then ended up tearing me to bits. I could have used Dark Veil to escape the fight – but the narration did such a good job of convincing me this monstrosity had to be stopped I passed up the chance to save myself. That is a good Fighting Fantasy death: the result of a choice deliberately made, because your assessment of the situation based on the narration made you decide it was worth the risk, rather than because of pure randomness. Ian Livingstone, take notes.

Third Run

Skill: 7
Stamina:
 17
Luck:
7
Talents: Banish Undead, Heal, Speak Demon
Evil Score At End of Run: 2

Indeed, I was able to beat the game on this run, despite having miserable stats. It helps that if you play your cards right and are somewhat lucky you can get some nice boosts here and there – including a badass sword which gives you huge bonuses when fighting demons. Despite having lots of ways to avoid peril, it felt like there was a lot of danger involved in the scenario itself, which is testimony in part to the power of the prose, in part to the tricksiness of some of the set-pieces. I only beat Myurr at the end because I correctly guessed where his soul-gem allowing him to manifest on this plane was hidden, and I’m sure I might have had a possibility, had I taken a different route, of gathering intel which would have guided me in that direction.

Another thing I appreciated is that, once you realise which side-detours either only provide minor information or are just trap options, you can avoid them – making subsequent playthroughs faster as you optimise further.

Between all this and the rather phantasmagoric quality the gamebook takes on towards its end, Dead of Night is by and large rather excellent. I did spot a few editing goofs here and there – at least one bit where I was guided to flat-out the wrong paragraph (luckily I could go back and infer which paragraph I was meant to go to by checking through other options in the section in question), and a bit where you can in effect go in a loop by going from one village to a different one, and then return to the first village again via the river, and some parts which assume you found something out in a previous paragraph which, if you chose different options, you likely didn’t know about. As a result, I can’t just stick it right at the very top of the big chart at the end of these articles.

At the same time, it still ranks very highly despite these flaws, largely because none of them are so overwhelmingly serious as to ruin the experience. Though this is the last we’ll see of Jim Bambra (bam-ba-lam), Stephen Hand would go on to produce two more gamebooks with a similarly eerie atmosphere. These would be highlights of the late series. However, the editing issues I have highlighted would start to creep in more and more in the late phases of the series, as Puffin put less and less effort into the editorial process…

The Canary Says

No question about it: 1989 was a very good year for Fighting Fantasy. Sure, we had one clunker (Fangs of Fury), but the other three books here are very, very good indeed – I’d say the only patch I’ve covered in this series which has hit remotely the same level of high quality, and has this current four beat on consistency, is Sorcery!, which of course as the work of a single author has the advantage when it comes to consistency (you didn’t have Luke Sharp blundering in to botch one of the episodes of that.)

In addition, we still have further books to come from Keith Martin/Carl Sargent, Peter Darvill-Evans, and Stephen Hand – which means that at this point, Fighting Fantasy had managed to develop a cadre of writers who could take the series forward in the absence of regular contributions from Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, which is what I’ve been saying the series needed to get in place for several articles now. In fact, those three would write 9 of the remaining 19 books in the Puffin series between them (and another one would be by a returning Ian Livingstone).

By any measure, then, this round of books sees Fighting Fantasy enter into something of a golden age. Will it last to the end of the Puffin series or fizzle out? We’ll have to see in later articles.

All’s that left is to update the big chart:

----------------------------------------
Vault of the Vampire                   😀 (Sheer delight)
                                       |
Appointment With F.E.A.R.              |
                                       |
House of Hell                          |
                                       |
Dead of Night                          |
                                       |
Portal of Evil                         |
                                       |
Sorcery!*                              |
                                       |
Stealer of Souls                       |
                                       |
Midnight Rogue                         |
                                       |
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain        |
                                       |
Robot Commando                         |
                                       |
The Rings of Kether                    |
                                       |
Island of the Lizard King              |
----------------------------------------
Space Assassin                         🙂 (Recommended)
                                       |
Battleblade Warrior                    |
                                       |
Beneath Nightmare Castle               |
                                       |
City of Thieves                        |
                                       |
Seas of Blood                          |
                                       |
Daggers of Darkness                    |
                                       |
Talisman of Death                      |
                                       |
Freeway Fighter                        |
                                       |
Demons of the Deep                     |
                                       |
Creature of Havoc                      |
----------------------------------------
Forest of Doom                         :S (Collectors only)
                                       |
Phantoms of Fear                       |
                                       |
Armies of Death                        |
                                       |
Temple of Terror                       |
                                       |
Citadel of Chaos                       |
                                       |
Slaves of the Abyss                    |
                                       |
Crypt of the Sorcerer                  |
                                       |
Sword of the Samurai                   |
                                       |
Rebel Planet                           |
----------------------------------------
Caverns of the Snow Witch              😦 (Downright bad)
                                       |
Masks of Mayhem                        |
                                       |
Starship Traveller                     |
                                       |
Fangs of Fury                          |
----------------------------------------
Deathtrap Dungeon                     😡 (Pissed me off)
                                       |
Trial of Champions                     |
                                       |
Star Strider                           |
----------------------------------------
Scorpion Swamp                         D: (OH GOD WHY)
                                       |
Chasms of Malice                       |
                                       |
Sky Lord                               |
----------------------------------------

* Assuming that you:
- play it as a wizard
- play the books in sequence
- and take then end of each book as a "save point".

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