Monday, 24 October 2016


Hey guys, I've got a special annoucement that I'd love to let you in on: I just joined Patreon!

In case you’re wondering, Patreon is a simple way for my fans to contribute to my writing career every month, and get great rewards in return. such as advanced previews of my Fighting Fantasy blog posts, exclusive short stories and much more!

Go checkout

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Master of Chaos playthrough

(You can follow Justin McCormack on Facebook and Twitter. You can also support Justin on Patreon and receive exclusive content. Justin is the author of two bestselling novels, a collection of horror stories - "Hush!: A Horror Anthology", and the young adult coming-of-age comedy "Diary of a gay teenage zombie".)

Written by Keith Martin, artwork by David Gallagher

So, Masters of Chaos. Here we go, this should be interesting!

The storyline is as standard as they come for Fighting Fantasy adventures. An evil wizard is causing some chaos (maybe he's the master of the chaos, you could say?) and I have to go and kick him a bit with my Mighty Boot. There's a handful of variations on the sheet, namely that I have the option to select a few specialist skills for my character. I choose Acute Hearing, Climbing, and Move Silently, assuming that these will be the ones that are most likely to be the ones that will prevent instant unavoidable death sections.

The game also has a notoriety score, which measures how alert the city guards are to the devastation that your character will surely leave in his wake. Evidently the author is quite familiar with my roleplay group, then.

The adventure begins with a mage telling you that you're being sent off to stop the evil wizard, because he has nicked their ancient staff of power. The mage is so keen that you maintain a discrete profile that the only help me can offer is two gold coins, and passage on a rather unpleasant boat. And by 'passage', I mean that he arranges for you to be captured by the captain of a slaving ship and chained to the rowing party. I'm not even kidding here. Honestly, the first section reads less like you're on a covert mission to save the world, and more like you just lost a really unfortunate bet.

In all seriousness though, I like the idea of starting the adventure as an oarsman on a slave galley, it's very Conan. Might have worked better for you to learn of the adventure as you progress, rather than this convoluted idea of the mage's. But nevertheless, it isn't long before the crew of the ship get tired of my attempts to stir up a revolution and take over the ship, so I'm promptly fed to the sharks.

Restart the game? Restart the game.

This time I decide to keep my head down and avoid trouble - but when the ship is attacked by a kraken, I save the captain's life by beating the tentacled monstrocity away with my ball-and-chain. In gratitude, the captain orders that I no longer be fed food that gradually reduces my stamina points each time I eat any. You have no idea how grateful I am that the crew are no longer poisoning my meals - so grateful that I'm almost tempted to resist the urge to steal one of the lifeboats and row away to freedom. Almost. But I steal it anyway.

I row my way to the nearby city, and in traditional fantasy adventure fashion, head right for the grimiest pub I can find, only to find that it has actually been turned into a trendy wine bar. I sit around sipping wine, feeling vaguely less than adventure-ish, until I catch sight of a couple of vagabonds who are sneaking out through the kitchen. I follow them, only to be attacked for no apparent reason. I quickly dispatch one of them, but the second takes a hostage. I manage to rescue the hostage, but the book informs me that I'm feeling too tired to interrogate the hostage, so I instead go to bed. All in all, it's been a confusing day.

The next day turns even stranger. I buy a mongoose from a rather unusual gentleman at the market, only to discover that it's a talking mongoose called Jesper. Fearing that I've tragically acquired a comedy sidekick, I'm desperate to get rid of the demonic spawn of darkness that is the talking mongoose. However he is determined to stick by my side, and eventually leads me into what is euphemistically called 'the entertainment district' of the city. The mongoose insists on doing some backflips for a crowd of onlookers, and then informs me that there is a lady moongoose he wishes to visit before we leave the city.

With my comedy sidekick away getting freaky mongoose sex on, I manage to overhear the two people that I killed the night before as they are conspiring their plans. This is, of course, impossible. I can either put it down to a problem in editing for the book, or time travel. I ignore this, and instead go on to have various adventures across the city.

By the time I am done with my escapades, I am left with very little knowledge about the evil wizard. But I do have a considerable amount of gold, the cutlass of the captain of the ship that I had fled, and a camel. Content with my camel, I ride it off into the golden sands of the desert, my trusty talking mongoose by my side. This is all very weird.

It's roughly about this point in the adventure that the game begins to hate me. As we ride through the desert, I am attacked during the night by a hideously mutated orc, who I beat down. I show mercy on the creature, and he tells me the story of how he was kidnapped from his happy little orc village and turned into a mutant by the evil wizard. I'm so touched by this story that I leave him in the middle of the desert and go on my way.

Over the course of the next few sections, my stamina points go into abject freefall, with my provisions quickly turning rancid in the hot air. Without a magic ring of endurance, I am soon losing more stamina points than my remaining provisions can heal, and it's not before long that I am attacked by something called a chaos manticore. The creature flies up and shoots barbs at me, killing my camel in the process! No! That camel was just like a camel to me!

So there I am, struggling to survive, impaled by manticore barbs, stuck in a life-or-death struggle with the manticore. I manage to kill it, with only two remaining stamina points left. I then promptly die from exhaustion, because I don't have that bloody magic ring.

Masters of Chaos isn't an especially difficult adventure, and it's laid out very nicely. In fact, it reminds me quite a lot of Bloodbones in how the city section of the adventure is laid out. I really can't fault that part. It plays smoothly enough, although at the end of the day it feels very generic and you wind up wishing that the clues that I feel you're meant to acquire in the city are more readily telegraphed. The difficulty spike I came across is no doubt mitigated a lot with more careful item selection whilst shopping, but without any significant indication that the ring of endurance was in any way important, it's all a bit of a gamble.

(You can follow Justin McCormack on Facebook and Twitter. You can also support Justin on Patreon and receive exclusive content. Justin is the author of two bestselling novels, a collection of horror stories - "Hush!: A Horror Anthology", and the young adult coming-of-age comedy "Diary of a gay teenage zombie".)

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Dead of Night playthrough

(You can follow Justin McCormack on Facebook and Twitter. You can also support Justin on Patreon and receive exclusive content. Justin is the author of two bestselling novels, a collection of horror stories - "Hush!: A Horror Anthology", and the young adult coming-of-age comedy "Diary of a gay teenage zombie".)

Written by Jim Bambra and Stephen Hand, artwork by Martin McKenna

I haven't read this one before, I think. No excuses. It has Martin McKenna's artwork though, which is always a huge plus for me. His moody, dark work always seemed a great fit for a lot of the later Fighting Fantasy books.

In this book, you play a noble paladin, who battles the forces of evil and demons etc. In fact, you even have a score called 'evil' which indicates how seduced by the dark side you're becoming. I guess I'll have to get all the 'evil' out of my system now, so please excuse me while I laugh maniacally and kick a nearby box of kittens. Mwa-hahahah!!

The book gives a very simple background for your character, who is on a quest to find the evil demon lord Myurr and say to him "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my brother and kidnapped my parents. Prepare to die." It's not exactly Shakespeare, but it's significantly more than is typical in a Fighting Fantasy book, whose character backgrounds usually involve the words 'sword for hire'.

I take three skills with me - heal, sense demon and meditation. There's a decent list of skills, one of which is rather interesting as it's called dark veil, which will make you invisible to enemies, but at the risk of increasing your evil score, evidently because the word 'veil' is an anagram of 'evil'. No, really, that's what the book says.

Enough of this, let's get on with the adventure. Having just received a message from the demon lord Myurr telling me that he's captured my parents, I rush back to my childhood home. It starts off fairly badly, because I come across a skeleton hanging from a gibbet by the roadside. It tells me that I am too late and that all is hopeless, so I opt to thump it with my sword, which causes the gibbet to fall on top of me. Oh yeah, this bodes so well.

Sure enough, my parent's home is empty. I rush to a nearby tavern, hoping to find someone who knows a little more about it all, but I'm met by an old friend. He asks me to meet him later, but it turns out that most of the villagers are terrified of me. I try to meet my old friend, but a group of angry villagers tell me to just get out of town and spare them all the trouble. So naturally, I beat the living snot out of them. Which... earns me two points of my evil score... Okay, I think I know to be a bit more careful from now on.

Leaving town, I opt to head to go and see a Seer. I wish I knew what it was about these books that caused my characters to so frequently pay visits to Mystic Meg. Anyway, I pause at a nearby wagon to heal an old woman who's been bitten by an undead demon monster thing. Following this, I help a group of torch-wielding villagers put a stake through a vampire's heart, both very quick little missions, but in the process I've lost track of how to get to the seer. Oh well.

There's a little road-side temple I stop in to meditate at, during which I manage to find a holy amulet, which I was apparently destined to find. It's just hidden in a little alcove, I don't know who put it there, maybe the gods themselves. Anyway, I nick it from the temple, but because I was 'destined' to find it, I don't earn any evil points for this blatant theft. Soon arriving at a nearby village, my horse decides to make a run into the woods, leaving me stranded for the evening.

My demon-sense (kinda like spidey-sense, but not as fun) warns me that there's a demonic presence in a nearby wooden house, so instead the book tells me that I avoid it and stay in a stone house instead - eh? I want to go in and fight the bugger! I guess I'm not much of a demon hunting paladin. Maybe the only reason I've survived this long is because I know where to hide from the demons. Anyway, the book immediately gives me a chance to redeem myself, because it throws a bunch of demons at me nonetheless. Not all paladins are great. Hell, in Ultima 9, your character doesn't even know what a paladin IS, despite the fact that he's the physical incarnation of all Paladins, grrr...I don't even know what made me think about this, despite the fact that I've been re-playing Ultima 7 this last week.

A bunch of villagers rush up to me, armed with torches and pitchforks... y'know, I really wonder where these rampaging mobs get these torches and pitchforks. It reminds me of a scene in the 90s X-Men cartoon, when a village were rather scared of the mutant Nightcrawler, and decided to form an angry mob armed with pitchforks and torches... in the very middle of the 1990s... it just looked very weird. Anyway, the villagers enlist me to make their little hovel safe for the night. Over the course of that night, I fight three demons for the ungrateful buggers, who don't even open their purse-strings in gratitu - oh wait, I'm meant to be a goodly paladin hero in this one, aren't I? So I guess that no reward is necessary..... crap....

The next morning I press on, snarfing down breakfast as I go in order to recover some stamina from the battles of the night before. I assume that we've managed to recover my horse along the way, as well. No sooner am I a few feet down the path, then I start to hear the beating of giant wings. I am swept up by a giant elemental beast, which flies away with me into the air.

Yes, I am picking on Ultima 9 today. What of it?
I'm all ready to chop the thing apart, but the fall is not too appealing. Plus, the book makes sure to mention that I experience the sensation of a magical aura around the beast, and sense the wizard's name "Aha," I think, "Maybe a kindly wizard has sent this beast here to escort me to safety." When the beast sets me down in the middle of a puddle of quicksand, I start to think I may be wrong.

I pull myself free of the quicksand and head into a nearby mill, chopping apart a few wandering zombies as I do. I sense great magic inside the mill, so I assume that the kindly wizard who has summoned me is barricaded inside, hiding from the zombies. I climb in through a hole in the wall, and meet the wizard, who is a necromancer lord of the undead, and probably isn't as kindly as I had hoped. A few villagers give me five gold coins for the act of slaying the foul necromancer who is the enemy of all who live - hey, big spenders!

I rest up at another road-side temple, and as I meditate I receive a vision from the gods warning me of a horrible course of events going down nearby. Being especially heroic, I rush along the road until I start to hear some ominous chanting in the woods. I charge on in, sword drawn, and encounter what I can only describe as a satanic ritual.

In the clearing of the woods, a moon demon has put the body of the mage I'd killed the night before on an evil-looking pedestal, and is in the process of resurrecting him as an undead demon monster hybrid thing type of a thing. I find it a bit hard to believe that I wouldn't have chopped the wizard's head off in the first place, but eh, whatever. I rush on in and kill the demon, but it's too late as the ritual has already taken place.

The wizard's head then splits apart and a load of tentacles shoot out. I am already pretty damn low on stamina by this point, but this creature (called an Abomination, and rightfully so because the wizard is now pretty much composed of tentacles and one giant mouth) is tough to kill, but not impossible. Except for a slight problem in which you get an instant-death if the monster's attack roll is five points higher than yours. Guess what I rolled. No, go on, have a guess. If you guess that I've rolled the instant-death option, no shit!

So yeah, the git which looks like Cthulhu's dangly bits then wraps me up in his tentacles in a way that's not been seen since Japanese porn, and yanks me into its giant mouth, which falls like a guillotine. The book tells me "Your adventure is most horribly over." That's no exaggeration. Has anyone been keeping track of how many deaths by tentacles I've suffered in these books? I'm sure it's a lot...

I've talked previously about the books 30-39 in the Fighting Fantasy series being rather samey and dull, and I really do think that the ones 40-49 did pick up a lot on it. They're far more atmospheric, often more experimental in how they deliver the story. They cross over a lot more into the gothic fantasy subgenre, which I really do care for. This is all personal sentiment though.

I rather like this book. It's got a dense, moody atmosphere with a lot of darkness and creepiness. The things you encounter along the way do seem a little episodic and self-contained though, but it's all held together by the overarching quest to recover your parents from the demon's grip. It's not quite to the same heights as Vault of the Vampire, but it's definitely on the level with Legend of the Shadow Warriors. In short, I'd recommend giving Dead of Night a shot if you haven't had the chance to do so before. It's enjoyable, and worth it. And I'd really like to do a play-through aiming to be as evil as possible.

(You can follow Justin McCormack on Facebook and Twitter. You can also support Justin on Patreon and receive exclusive content. Justin is the author of two bestselling novels, a collection of horror stories - "Hush!: A Horror Anthology", and the young adult coming-of-age comedy "Diary of a gay teenage zombie".)

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Fangs of Fury playthrough

Written by Luke Sharp, artwork by David Gallagher.

Yes siree, time for another playthrough. This time we're delving into Fangs of Fury.

This is yet another one of the books I didn't own as a kid. In fact, the only experience I had of it was with the Fighting Fantasy poster book, as it included the cover art as one of the posters. It's a rather confusing image showing what I assume to be an orc, wielding a small axe and a GIANT FLAMING SWORD. The orc seems to either be in the middle of being caught by a giant snake, or riding it from tree-top to tree-top. Both of which are unusual situations to be in.

This book changes up the formula of "go and kill evil wizard" for a bit, by asking you to go and restore the power of six stone dragons that are protecting a kingdom. Said kingdom is under attack from a typical evil baddie type person, and the eponymous YOU are asked to head off to steal some sacred fire from the heart of a volcano, so that you can re-ignite the power of the stone dragons.

And just to make sure that you don't decide to ditch the quest and go off on holiday or anything, the court wizard fits you with a bracelet that will blow you up if the kingdom is invaded. Because he's a dick like that. Honestly,  this is definitely not the kind of thing that you would expect the good guys in any conflict to be doing. Therefore my new theory is that the invading army is actually trying to STOP the council of courtly wizards in this kingdom from summoning some kind of horrible dragon-type monster, and they've just sent me off to go and get their last requirement they need.

I know that's not the actual storyline as written, but it makes more sense. So I'm going to refer to it throughout this playthrough. Deal with it. I need some small amusement here, the book is by the same writer as the truly awful Chasm of Malice, and it shows.

My character isn't much of a combatant, but that doesn't seem to matter much because I don't run into all that much in the way of combat. The adventure starts as I'm thrown into an emergency exit tunnel at the basement of the king's castle, with words of very forgettable advice ringing in my ears. Before long I've emerged from the tunnel and I'm promptly spotted by a few goblins.

The goblins talk to me for a while, and I have the chance to try to convince them that I want to join their invading army. It seems that they think I'm just a really big, non-green goblin, because none of them even mention that I don't look at all like one of them. And neither do any of their friends for the remainder of this adventure. I don't know why, maybe a wizard did it. Anyway, the goblin eventually chucks me into a cell.

The cell hosts a crazed old priest, who tells me that he is there purely to help me on my quest. He then attempts to explain some kind of very metaphysical concept involving dice, which outright doesn't make a lick of sense. It's so badly explained that I had to read over it several times to make any sense, but I think it amounts to something like this - if I see an illustration in the book that incorporates cubes, I can roll dice and have a chance to acquire some cubes. The priest doesn't explain why I should want to do this or what benefit it has to me, and the entire thing just doesn't make much in-character sense either. This is just so jarring and poorly explained that I don't even know what the purpose of it is supposed to be.

After confusing me with his rambling diatribe about cubes, the priest breaks us all out of jail. I promptly turn to run, but am immediately caught by a goblin general who assumes that I'm one of his soldiers. Again, no idea why he'd think this. He asks for a bribe, and when I refuse to pay up he sets two of his soldiers on me. Upon killing them both, I'm promptly chucked into his regiment, who spend a few hours either training arduously or sitting about doing very little (the writing is so poorly constructed that I'm not sure which nouns the verbs are referring to at any point).

At some point, there is either a large battle or a small skirmish. I don't know which it is, because the writer doesn't tell me. I get caught up in the middle of the fight, and before long I have the chance to rescue a knight who I'm familiar with. I save his life by slaying one of the goblins, but the knight opts to take his own life instead. I can only assume that a wizard genuinely did put some kind of 'goblin disguise spell' on me at some point, because there is no justifiable reason for the knight to commit suicide at that point if he doesn't genuinely feel that I'm about to kill him anyway.

I don't get any time to figure out this predicament, though, because no sooner so I step away from the knight's body, does the goblin general knock me out and drag me away to get my head lopped off. Just before the orc executioner can chop my head off with his axe though, I am rescued by an indeterminate amount of people. I suspect it's just a lone warrior woman, but again, the book is so unclear on this that it's hard to say for sure and oh fuck why am I still reading this?

At this point in reading, I took a break to cook dinner and watch Les Miserables.

By the time I got back, the warrior woman was leading the character away from the goblin encampment and into a forest. She wouldn't or couldn't speak, so instead opted to draw some stick figures in the ground, and then ran off to fight some kind of forest monster. She leaves me alone with no indication as to who she was, or why she rescued me. Possibly this is expanded upon later in the book, but I don't survive that long.

Soon after this, I trudge along to a small cliff. I clamber down it, and meet an old sailor sitting on the beach. I know that he's a sailor because he's wearing an eye patch, because all pirates have eye patches, unless you're Johnny Depp. Who, by the way, had his first film appearance in the first Nightmare on Elm Street character, where he played a character who was entirely unlike Captain Jack Sparrow (which is now every single character he plays, even when he isn't in a Pirates of the Carribean film. Typecasting is a horrible fate).

The sailor gives me his small boat to ride out to an island, or a harbour, or to somewhere. Again, the book doesn't really give a clear explanation. What it does do, though, is tell me that when I get out into the middle of the lake/ocean/sea/body of water, I am immediately pulled under by a giant octopus monster which eats me. Which frankly comes as a bit of a relief.

This book is second only to Chasms of Malice in how dreary and awful it is. The only redeeming feature it has over Chasms is that it doesn't include that awful instant-kill attack mechanic. But this is just awful, it really is. And it comes right at the tail-end of the '30's of the series, which is no small help here. Just to explain, I tend to think that the books in the 30s were the worst the FF series had to offer. From 1-10, there was a lot of experimentation that either paid off or didn't, they were breaking new grounds. From 11-20 you had the cementing of formula and strength in ideas, and by 21-29 you had a real sense of dynamic worlds and varied encounters. I think that around 30-39, it all rather hit a bit of a wall, with books that felt samey and uninspired, and felt as if they were being rushed out to meet a deadline and to fill up the bank accounts. I think that turned around with the 40-49s, who tended to have a wealth of setting and atmosphere to fill up the gaps, and the ones released in the 50s did genuinely feel as if the series was winding down to its conclusion. This one ranks right in with the 30s.

I want to have something positive to say about this book, I really do, because I think that the internet lacks a lot of positivity. There's too many 'grumpy' or 'angry' reviewers, and it's become cynical and stale. God damn it, I want to have something GOOD to say here!!

(If you've enjoyed this article, be sure to check out Justin MacCormack's bestselling collection of horror stories - "Hush!: A Horror Anthology", and the young adult coming-of-age comedy "Diary of a gay teenage zombie".)

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Vault of the Vampire playthrough

(If enjoy this article, be sure to check out Justin MacCormack's bestselling collection of horror stories - "Hush!: A Horror Anthology", and the young adult coming-of-age comedy "Diary of a gay teenage zombie")

See the way my stamina plummets even though the rest
of my sheet looks otherwise flawless? Yeah, that
means I got my butt handed to me in this book too!
Vault of the Vampire - Written by Keith Martin, Artwork by Martin McKenna

Vault of the Vampire was the first Fighting Fantasy book I ever played. The very first. For a lot of people, their first would be an iconic one like Warlock of Firetop Mountain or Deathtrap Dungeon, but mine was a far more humble one. And it's one I love the most.

I can still remember borrowing it from the local library, utterly entranced with the cover's vampire. Always loved vampires. And the terrifying visage of Count Reiner Heinrich (which has become less terrifying over the years) just leapt right into my imagination.

The interior artwork in this book is without a doubt my fave in the entire series. The dark gloom of the castle is amazing, and all of the villanous monsters look genuinely creepy. So let's get stuck in.

My stat rolls were pretty good to start with, although my luck and faith were rather low. Never mind though. You start out in a town in distant not-Transylvania, where an old woman begs you to rescue a girl who has been kidnapped by the evil count. Before you can even leave on the journey, you encounter the count's coachman, who becons you over. But he doesn't speak - indeed, how can he? HE HAS NO HEAD!! Damn, I love that bit.

The strange thing is, nobody in town
mentioned that he's a vampire, even
though he dresses like this...
As a kid, I would normally just ride along with the fiend in his carriage, but this time I thought I would take a bit of a trek through the forest. This wasn't that great an idea though, because the moment I stepped into the forest, a forest ranger shot me with an arrow. I suppose it was a mistake to wear my 'deer costume' on that day. Anyway, to make up for it, she convinces a rather suspicious gnome to take me across the river in his boat for free.

From there it was only a short trek to the castle, through swirling mist. Along the way, a nice old man told me who I could trust in the castle, which is always useful to know, although it pretty much came down to "Trust the person who doesn't try to either kill you, or put magic spells on you." He also gave me some garlic, and insisted I wear it around my neck. Which would make more sense if anyone had even mentioned that the count was a vampire at this point - but they hadn't, so I was walking around with garlic hanging from my neck like a mad person.

Anyway, upon getting into the castle, I ran into a door at random and was immediately beset my zombies, who I ran away from. I climbed up a tower, and upon trying to enter the topmost room, was beset by bats. I failed my luck roll and had to flee the room, and was then given the chance of going back into the room. Tried again, failed my roll, ran away. Tried again, suceeded, and walked right on in. Yay for playing with the loops in the gameplay!

In the tall tower, I found a silver bell. When I struck the bell, the ghost of a paladin materialised and told me where I could find a magic sword. Satisfied with that, I tried to enter the crypt, only to be attacked by a shadow monster - which I could easily dispatch with the magic sword. I suspect that this sword is pretty much vital at this stage of the game, and I can imagine you'd wind up very dead without it.

"Indulge me!" Oh yeah, what are the chances
that ANYONE will get this reference?
Entering the main house of the castle, I ran into a bit of a problem - none of the doors have any name plates. It became very difficult to navigate my way around, and I suspect that I'd probably need to map the entire place. I'd had two cans of cider at this point, so I really didn't feel like making any damn maps. I will trust in my impressive faith score to guide me... yeah, so I got lost.

I somehow stumbled into a Doktor's office, where the Doktor told me (for the price of all my remaining gold) that the count kept the keys to the crypt in his bedroom. As I left his office, I fought a couple of zombies who just happened to be lounging around in the hallway, and continued on my way.

I've no idea what the correct layout for this part of the castle is, but I entered three important rooms. In one room, the count's sister asked me to kill someone, and when I refused, she tried to put a spell on me. She didn't suceed, so I fled the room. Yeah, she's a nice lady. If I remember right, she turned out to be the main villain of the book, too. Despite her description and picture, I can't help but imagine her as being a slightly crazier version of Elizabeth Bathory. Who, by the way, was also the host of the vhs board game 'Atmosfear 4', called 'Nightmare' in the US. Now that was a very strange game.

I fled that room, and the next room I tried contained something even worse than Elizabeth Bathory - a dodgy looking spider. It was so terrifying that the book insisted I choose another room. Uh, right. In the next room, I met the Castellan of the castle, who gave me his keys and a stake coated with silver. Why was it coated with silver? Just to make sure that the count isn't a werewolf too, of course. Hey, it could happen.

I was feeling so confident at this point. My health was high, although I was out of meals. I'd had some very fortunate rolls, and my faith had increased. I hadn't gained any afflictions (curses or mystical poisons that might affect you during the game), so I was in high spirits. I eventually found my way into the count's chambers, where I was beset by a vampire bat and... a vampiric weasil! Yeah, you might laugh at the idea, but that weasil actually did a bunch of damage to me. The bat itself was easily dispatched, but that damn weasil kept biting me. Don't trust weasils, guys. Especially vampire ones.

Entering the count's sleeping chambers, I was able to smash his coffin to pieces and rob him of the keys to the crypt. It was at this point that I ran into the Spectre, who I was able to defeat, but not without losing half my remaining health. It was a very tough fight. "Right," I said to myself, "All I have to do now is get out of this part of the castle, and I'm sure I'll find health potions or food somewhere before I die."

Yeah, great idea. The book then asked me "Have you fought a Minor Thassalos yet?" No, I had not. "Well," said the book, "Now you're gonna!"

The Minor Thassalos clearly leans
his power from Darkseid
First, it shot me with its eye lasers before the fight began. Then during the fight, it kept on shooting me with eye lasers - and would not stop. Sure enough, it killed me. And this is a MINOR Thassalos. I assume that the MAJOR Thassalos doesn't even fight you - it just looks at you, and your head melts as if you'd opened the arc of the covenant.

So yeah, I've now played through three of the books, and have beaten a grand total of none of them. Woo, go me!

In the interest of being totally fair and unbiased, I'll say that this book has several flaws, namely that it's so difficult to navigate inside the castle. A map will definitely help you out. But even despite that, it's so full of interesting characters and the descriptions are so vivid that it's a great read. The combat ramps up from easy at the start to get more and more difficult, so it doesn't feel cheap even when a Thassalos is shooting you with omega beams. I'd rate this book exceptionally high though, due to its sheer nostalgia factor and its strong atmosphere. It's definitely one of my favorite FF books, and one I'm glad I got the chance to play again!

And what of the foul Count Reiner Heinrich? He later rises from the dead (again) in the sequel to this adventure 'Revenge of the Vampire'. I had that book as well when I was a kid, and remember that due to an error in the printing, I wasn't able to finish it. Fantastic. We'll see how that one goes when we get to it. Stay tuned....

(If you've enjoyed this article, be sure to check out Justin MacCormack's bestselling collection of horror stories - "Hush!: A Horror Anthology", and the young adult coming-of-age comedy "Diary of a gay teenage zombie".)

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Portal of Evil playthrough

Written by Peter Darvill-Evans, artwork by Alan Langford.

Right, so, Portal of Evil. Never played this one before. The front of the cover tells me that it involves a goblin with a pet stegosaurus or something similar, and the back of the book tells me that an evil something-or-other has awakened in the mountains. It's not very specific, but at least it doesn't jump right into wizards with unpronouncable names raising undead armies again.

The back cover also has a sticker on it which the book seller put on, stating that the quality of the book is 'verygood'. Sadly this sticker can't be removed without tearing the cover. Book sellers.... don't do this. Ever.

On first glance, the book looks simple enough in terms of system, no additional 'time' or 'honour' scores to keep track of or anything, just skill and stamina and luck etc. So let's dive right in.

Long story short, there's a mountain full of gold, people are mining there. But weird stuff has been going on, miners have vanished, so the mine owner has asked me to go look at it. The book tells me that I've bought a map of the area, which is duplicated on the inside cover of the book. Uhh.. no, it's not. The inside cover of the book is blank. Maybe it's just my copy of this. Hmm.

Anyway, with or without a map, I head off to meet the owner of the mine. During the travel, I bump into an elf and her pet dinosaur. They're being pursued by some soldiers, and after I fight them off, the dinosaur tells me that he's actually an elf who has been put under a spell by an evil portal. It doesn't make much sense, but who am I to argue? It's a talking dinosaur, man! I'm just wishing that the book gave me the option of locking a chain around its neck and selling it to the circus.

The dino-elf tells me that I should go and talk to Gartax, an old miner, who is organising a resistance movement against the portal and its worshipers. This doesn't seem like a very profitable way to spend my time, but hey, maybe it'll be good for a laugh. It's not long before Gartax sneaks up behind me, holds a knife to my back and demands to know who I am. After spilling the beans about who I am, Gartax leads me back to his secret rebel base camp, which I'm secretly hoping will look like the ewok village.

It seems that the leader of this group is happy to hear that the mine owner has hired me, and tells me a few useful details. Such as that the mine owner in question is a dwarf, but doesn't want anyone to know that he's a dwarf, so he shaved off his beard and wears very tall shoes. I suppose even a dwarf can have a bit of a napoleon complex. He also tells me that there's a wizard who lives near a lake to the south who can help me.

But first, he wants me to protect his camp from an attack by the minions of the portal, who are all brainwashed zombie types. Gartax's soldiers are all useless, but so are the zombies, so I kinda imagine that this attack just involved groups of people all swinging swords around blindly and missing with each attack. Over the course of a few hours, my character has trudged around the battlefield, killing all the enemies single-handedly.

Taking only a bunch of food and one of the portal zombie's evil magic amulets with me, I head off in pursuit of the wizard of the lake. It's not too long before I find a cave near the lake, which I proceed to stick my head into in the hopes of finding the wizard living there. Instead, I find that the cave contains a giant lizard monster called a Stegocephalian. It's not much of a threat, possessing only three skill points. It does have a 19 in stamina though, so although it's an easy fight, it takes forever to whittle it down.

There's no wizard in the cave, keeping the lizard as a pet or anything. I continue to follow the lake along, until I find an actual proper hut. I knock on the door, hoping to meet the wizard this time. Instead I find a hungry dwarf who, in exchange for a meal, gives me his boat. "Right," I say to myself, "I'll just take the boat and find the wizard. He's got to be around here somewhere!"

I hop into the boat and head out into the middle of the lake. And, this being a Fighting Fantasy book, it's only a few pages later that hit some rapids, and only a few moments later that I'm washed up on the shore of the lake, having lost all of my belongings except for my sword. And by sod's law, I am immediately attacked by bandits.

The bandits insist that I tip out my backpack, so I upturn the soggy, empty bag and let them decide how much of the water and fish they're going to take from me. Telling me that they're unhappy with my offering, I duel with their leader. When I win and then spare his life, the bandits let me leave with their respects.

By this point I've all but given up on meeting the wizard, when I stumble across a shadowy cloaked figure on the side of the lake. I tell him that I'm looking for the wizard, and when I answer his rather easy riddle, he admits that he's the wizard I'm looking for and that he will help me out. I catch a boat out to his little island, where he gives me a magic anti-zombie ring. Makes you wish the chaps from Walking Dead had one of those, eh?

He also hands me over a magic sword, and tells me that he's going to head off to the nearby town in order to arrange for the people to get their act together and fight back against this evil portal and its army. The wizard, whose name I don't think I've been told at this point in the adventure, promptly climbs onto his robot horse and offers me a lift. If you've ever seen the old 1959 Mexican Santa Claus movie (or its MST3K episode), I'm remembering the scary-ass robot reindeer at this point. And you really should check it out if you want to see Santa Claus fighting the devil.

Having rode through the air on the back of the wizard's terrifying robotic abomination of nature, I stumble into town and sleep for the night. Rising the next morning, the book offers me a chance to beg for food, but I decide to just pay for my dinner instead. It seems that the wizard, the mine owner I was supposed to meet but never got around to it, and the Margrave (the head of the town, for those not up to speck on their outdated semi-medievil titles) are having a council meeting to discuss what they should do about the portal's evil army.

It is announced that they will put together an army of their own, with a champion to lead it. The champion will be chosen by means of a tournament, which is an excellent way to make sure that the best fighters in your city are all crippled or dead by the time the huge battle comes around. Seriously, why does that never occur to anyone in these kind of books?

Anyway, it seems that they're wanting to go for the less lethal kind of tournament, because the first test is to stay still while the mine owner puts slugs on my face. The second test is to do some maths. No, I'm not joking.

It's only the third test that involves any combat, and when I get to this point, I remember that Gartax mentioned that the mine owner loves a bit of a duel himself. So I challenge him, and it proves to be one of the hardest fights in the book so far.

Nevertheless, as the battle draws to a close I'm given the option to throw the fight, which I do. Following Gartax's suggestions from earlier, I applaud the mine owner and tell him that he is as strong as a very tall dwarf. He's so happy that he invites me back to his place, where he gives me the horn. No, really. He has a magic horn, which can summon some eagles, and he lets me have that valuable artifact. After the sex.

The town is very happy to have a new champion, so much so that they decide to abandon the idea of forming an army and send me off alone to stop the invasion of the portal people. I'm given more food, some gold, a magic potion, and sent off on my own to fix the world. I stumble hopelessly into the forest, without a clear direction in mind, sure to face a horrible and gruesome fate.

After killing another dinosaur and its portal-zombie owner, I wander into an abandoned village. Hearing a bunch of people approaching, I hide in an abandoned tavern, only to be attacked by giant maggots. The bunch of people are some of the Margrave's soldiers, and they have to come and rescue me from the giant maggots, which is suitably embarrassing. By the time they finish interrogating me and let me go free, I'm wondering if this is worth the paycheck.

Stumbling blindly through the forest a while longer, I come across a nice garden, belonging to the inhabitants of a tree house. I decide to be friendly, climbing up to the house to say hello to the inhabitant. The elf witch inside threatens to hit me with her touch of death spell unless I go and clean up her garden. So, while the forces of evil are crawling over the planet's face, I spent a few hours gardening for an unhappy person. In return, she gives me a pair of budgerigars, which is just weird. "Thanks for cleaning my garden. Here, have a budgie."

After a few hours of exploring, I find myself surrounded by wood elves. They offer to take me to their forest home for an evening of dancing, singing and whatever else elves do. I take a sip of my magic potion, and it shows me that the entire elven settlement has been possessed by portal-zombies! For some reason, the book won't let me fight my way free from them and insists that I let them escort me back to their treehouse.

That evening I try to sneak out, but find that the door is magically sealed shut. The spell on the door says that it'll let me through if I can guess its number, but I can't do this, so I instead have to leap out of the window and fall to the ground below.

I survive, though.

Meanwhile, the entire village of possessed-elves go off to invade the Margrave's town. Yeah, hope you all changed your minds about putting together an army of your own! So, I push onwards. There are more and more portal zombie patrols, and I'm needing to sneak through the undergrowth to make progress. Before long, I catch sight of a path leading towards a mine.

Clambering over the fence for the mine, I head into the tunnels. And then, completely unexpected to me, I come face to face with the portal. I wasn't quite expecting it to be sitting there, all happy and content. I'm told that it feels ancient, like a thing from beyond the dawn of time. And then it begins to probe my brain.

I'm a bit confused at this point. Is the portal a sentient thing? Is it GLADOS? Is it a shoggoth? I don't know. All I know is that the fall from the elven treehouse took far too much damage from me, meaning that I just wasn't strong enough to resist the portal's mind-whammy. I turn into one of its mindless zombie minions, and promptly toddle off to chew on the Margrave's kidney.

Portal of Evil was a lot of fun. The combat is quite sparse, but it makes up for it by being pretty damn hard-going on the dice rolls. The atmosphere is very nice, and I'd definitely score this book highly. Eight portal-zombies out of ten, or whatever.

No cake at the end, though.

(If you've enjoyed this article, be sure to check out Justin MacCormack's bestselling collection of horror stories - "Hush!: A Horror Anthology", and the young adult coming-of-age comedy "Diary of a gay teenage zombie".)

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Armies of Death playthrough

Written by Ian Livingstone, artwork by Nik Williams

Did you ever wonder what happens AFTER you win the adventure and get the big box full of treasure? The answer seems simple enough - you buy a massive army.

Personally, I'd buy a giant statue of myself made out of solid gold. But that's just me. Hell, I wasn't able to win the Deathtrap Dungeon, and I've been there twice now. But the character in Armies Of Death got through it no problem, and has spent his treasure on recruiting an army of his very own.

And before we've had the chance to invade all of Westeros, we learn that Aggrax the evil is amassing an army of his own, in order to take over the world etc etc. Of all the Fighting Fantasy books, this is published around the 30s, at which point pretty much every storyline is "Evil wizard A is amassing an army, find the magic B and go to his castle at C to win the day." Having the strength of an army behind you really does change the feel of it all.

We start out buying a ship from a grubby old man in the middle of the road, which can happily accommodate my 200 or so troops. We all cram into the boat and sail down the river, singing sailing songs. Eventually we catch sight of a barrel floating in the river, which contains a load of apples (and not hobbits, as I was expecting). My troop happily chow down on the apples, unaware that they were all poisoned by an evil crone. An evil crone whose main source of happiness in life is to float barrels full of poison apples down the river, hoping that a group of people eventually find and eat them...

Pirates, pirates everywhere!
Ah, it's an Ian Livingstone adventure. That explains it.

In Fighting Fantasy books, my luck with going into rivers is almost legendary, resulting in drowning, being eaten by piranahs and eels and ambushed by pirates. So naturally enough, we are immediately attacked by pirates. Fortunately my elven archers are able to see them away, and the day takes a turn for the fortunate when I find a dead body in the river which is holding a clearly useful key.

My army is soon bolstered by a group of wild-men who offer their services, and one of their number is kind enough to give me a yeti's tooth which will magically keep werewolves away. This is startling like something that happened in my real life a few days ago, when I bought a magic hat that keeps the opposite sex away. I'm so grateful for the wild-men joining my army that, the next morning when we are attacked by poisonous wasps, I let them have the glory of dying in my place.

After seeing another ship full of pirates on their way, our noble ship eventually docks and my army merrily skip along to a nearby town, setting up camp nearby. The town's officials don't seem to be too bothered about the massive army of a few hundred bloodthirsty warriors camped up near their settlement though, and are quite content to let me ride into their shopping district to do a bit of retail therapy. I manage to find a rather nice gold ring, and an exotic pet pokemon creature that can turn invisible (at least, that's what the store owner told me, although I suspect that he just sold me an empty cage!)

I manage to find a small gym type building, which I take to be a local fighter's guild, and after proceeding to beat the living snot out of the manager (technically we call it 'bartering for a good price'), I manage to recruit a bunch of fighters for my army. I'm running a little low on funds, but settle for a nice quiet little inn to stay the night. We meet a very familiar looking gentleman at the inn, who tells me long and involving stories about his old sailing buddies, and eventually gives me a rather nice sword as a reward for listening to his rambling stories. Lovely!

The next morning I get lost in town, and eventually find my way back to my army's encampment. We set out to explore the nearby forest, hoping to find some clue as to the demon lord chap's location, and instead stumble upon an elf village. Having a closer look, it seems that the dark lord whosisface's forces have massacred the village, so I suppose we're on the right track after all.

I then proceed to make a complete fool of myself by trudging into the middle of a giant puddle of mud in order to recover an old wooden box, and get bitten by a whole load of insects in the meantime which causes me to develop all kinds of horrible diseases. My army laughs at me. And for all the effort, the box contained a load of useless bones... Who is putting boxes full of bones in mud pits? Eh. Doesn't matter.

We rescue a group of dwarves from some especially unpleasant ogres, or hobgoblins, or whatever. In gratitude, the dwarves join us, and it's about at this point that I start to see a few similarities between the combat system as used here and the one later used in Blood of the Zombies. See if you can spot them too. We now get to the part of the adventure that I call 'getting lost in the forest'.

After stumbling around for a while, I find my way into a cave. Chopping apart the giant ant who's no doubt just happily sitting in the cave (which is probably just the giant ant's bedroom, which I have invaded). I grab a small box, which contains a flash-bang bomb that blinds my character utterly. My skill score, which was at a rather health 10, plummets as a result. Oh, giant ant, why do you even have this item in your cave?

We stumble through the forest for a while longer until we meet a group of knights who are guarding a bridge. In order to allow us to cross the bridge, they ask us a riddle. Well, not really a riddle. They just ask us who one of the big important Fighting Fantasy wizards was. I'm not even sure if this wizard was mentioned in the book prior to this, or if the book is just asking a general bit of trivia to test the reader's knowledge of the setting, but either way I guess at the illustrious Yaztromo being the correct answer. And it is.

The knights join the group, and we cross the bridge, setting up to make camp for the night. During the night, I look up and see that there is a full moon tonight... somehow, I can still see this despite being blind. I just assume that the book means that my trusty lieutenant tells me that there's a full moon. Anyway, this means that the camp is soon attacked by a werewolf! It howls viciously, but my trusty yeti tooth holds even greater power, causing it to be frozen in place while we dispatch its foul lyncanthropic hide. I'm actually fairly impressed that the damn thing worked. I guess I owe my respect to the poor, dead wildman who gave me the thing.

Still, after having killed the werewolf, we're able to get a good night's sleep. The next morning, we wake up and continue on our trek, only to come face to face with an army of Chaos Warriors. Sometimes, you can see little things like this which remind you about the whole warhammer connection to these gamebooks. I wonder why Games Workshop never took advantage of this link and published any of their own gamebooks... anyway, the Chaos Warriors butcher my dwarves without breaking a sweat.

The Chaos Warriors then unleash a horde of goblin war machines, which tear through a large chunk of my army. The entire forest turns into the battle for Pelinor Fields at that point, and I am personally drawn into a fight with a Hill Troll. As you'll remember, I'm now blind, but my blind fighting kung fu skills are amazing and I manage to slay the troll. Barely. I have three health points left.

So once I've killed the troll, a Mountain Orc takes his place and finishes the job. I no doubt die in a horribly gruesome manner. My blind fighting kung fu skills have abandoned me. Perhaps I should have played a Pandaren Monk instead.

Armies of Death is a pretty solid and exciting book. Its system for large scale combat is really easy to use and flexible enough to work really smoothly without cutting into the flow of the story. This is good. Buy it. Then get me a new pair of shoes. Mine are muddy.

(If you've enjoyed this article, be sure to check out Justin MacCormack's bestselling collection of horror stories - "Hush!: A Horror Anthology", and the young adult coming-of-age comedy "Diary of a gay teenage zombie".)