Top critical review
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Repetive, dull and outclassed, but not unreadable
on 9 August 2012
So after a long gap we finally have another new Fighting Fantasy book, this one with a novel premise... in theory. A zombie horror survival fighting fantasy book does sound interesting doesn't it? Moving carefully through the city, scavenging for supplies and trying to avoid unnecessary combat. Sounds fun, right? Sadly that is not this book.
After starting with a superficially unusual premise (your a mythology student on earth, walking the globe (goodness knows where a student would get the money for that....) trying to find real monsters) you find someone captured and trapped in a dungeon by the usual crazed, evil megalomaniac who is trying to raise a zombie army to take over the world (Of course!). You get out of the dungeon and start exploring the castle, raiding every room you can for items, and fighting off zombies you come across. And if that still sounds different to a normal Ian Livingstone book in theory, it sadly isn't in practice. You pass through many right/left corridors (at least unlike the awful Eye of The Dragon you are often hinted at a difference between them, though often you will have to pick blind), go into various rooms, loot it for every item you can (with the usual this item will be used once to get another item and if you miss out on one of many items, you are going to die somewhere down the line), and fight off any zombies you come across. And you do this again, and again and again.
It might have been interesting if you had to play the risk/reward aspect, trying to avoid as many zombies as you can, while getting as many useful items as you can, but you HAVE TO kill EVERY Zombie in the book or you will get a bad ending at the end of it. If you miss even one, he'll find where you live and zombify everyone. And theirs over 200 zombies in the book (though at least divided into various sized groups), scattered in various places, some that would be fairly stupid to enter in a normal Fighting fantasy novel. Adding to the annoyance, aside from the right left thing the book is very, very linear, making multiple playthroughs extremely repetitive. You WILL explore the same rooms and sections ad Nausem, until you get up to the bit where you died, and get just a little bit further. It does not help that there is an awful lot of trial and error in this book, with several sources of damage that are hard to avoid if you don't know there coming, and a few instant depths scattered around (though at least less ridiculous ones than Cyrpt of the Sorcerer or such), which doesn't help when you are expected to search everywhere or miss out on a vital zombie or item, causing you to lose the book later, or get to the end and find out you wern't able to get all the zombies and thus you die horribly, and your quest was a waste of time.
These two things make the book quite crushing to playthrough, and after a few attempts it will soon feel like a chore. Left,right, grab, stab oh I died, guess i better do the same thing again but go left at the next junction instead. The linearity also means that a given path will be long, but given the structure of this book will have little variety.
The writing of this book is fairly standard for the series, but extremely drab. The descriptions are minimal but do not evoke any feeling or much atmosphere. Its very much not what I would expect from the man who wrote Return to Firetop Mountain, and its going to seem especially dull if you read it after Night of the Necromancer, which was a much better book in just about every area. Frankly considering his experience and the better writing in his other books, I wonder if he just didn't put his heart into this one, or if its a very very old book he wrote shortly after Eye of the Dragon (it shows an evolution over Eye of the Dragon, but doesn't compare favorably to most of his other works, either in writing or gameplay).
Combat tries to be innovative, and while its novel for a little bit, it soon becomes, very, very, very repetitive, samey and fairly mindless. Their is no Skill or Luck stat, the only stat you role is Stamina. This is good in the sense this book doesn't need a skill of 10-12 to have a hope of beating it or that you can die because one luck test went wrong, but it does diminish the variety of the book. Your weapon deals a certain amount of damage,1d6-2 for the dinky pocket knife you find early early on, 1d6 for most melee weapons, 1d6+2 for a pistol and ammo, and 1d6+5 for the lovable Boom Stick (aka shotgun). You need to find ammo to use the guns, but thats very easy to get in several places, and once you ammo the book assumes you have an unlimited quantity of it.
While choosing to walk right and left, and raiding everything that isn't nailed down (and some things that are), every so often you will run into a group of zombies and have to fight it out. To do so you just roll your damage, kill that many zombies, then the remaining zombies deal 1 stamina damage to you, and you roll again, possibly killing them all. You will have to do this A LOT, and if you miss even one small group of zombie, or the odd zombie hiding in odd places YOU LOSE THE BOOK. Also given the books structure, no matter how smart you are, you will die a lot by trial and error and have to keep doing these fights again and again and again.... and it will very soon stop being fun. Its also quite easy to die by luck, even if you find the best weapons, and if you die by luck, back to the beginning and get ready to go through the gauntlet all over again!
As you can see my biggest problems with this book is that its immensely repetitive, and all the faults and niggles synergise to make a much worse experience. The trial and error gameplay is confounded by the linearty of the book, meaning you will and walk the same rigid path again and agains, broken up by repetitive combat against similar foes(this book has next to no human enemies, and very few "exotic" zombies to spice things up) again and again. And you will have to do all those fights each you lose by luck, trial and error or a simple human mistake. And you WILL notice the bland writing on every attempt.
Overall this book isn't flat out awful, but I find it very hard to recommend, unless you have read and adored his other books, and you have read Night of the Necromancer, Howl of the Werewolf or Storm Slayer, all of which are a good deal better than this book. I'd say I'd recommend this if you like Ian Livingstone books, but this really isn't one of his best. Return to Firetop moutain was frustrating and had similar trial and error elements, but was a lot more engaging than this book and had far more interesting encounters. So I guess I can only recommend it if you can't find anything better (in the new series or old series), and have either read better fanmade books like Outsider or Midnight Deep, or are bothered that you can't read those on the move. If you like zombies and horror, Island of the Undead does it much better(though in a fantasy setting), and even that book isn't considered a masterpiece. I guess if you have the hunger for a Livingstone book and your standard aren't too high it WILL fill it but not much more... although at least its better than Eye of the Dragon.
Edit: To people downvoting this or insisting it deserves 4 or 5 stars, what scale are you using? Would you honestly give this book the same amount of stars as Legend of the Shadow Warriors or Moonrunner? Or Citadel of Choas? Is this book even as good as 3 star fighting fantasy books?
Edit 2: Stormslayer and Island of the Undead (which feels like this book, if it was a bit better) are my baseline for a 3 star FF book. It is not as good as those, and by a long shot, but distinctly better than my baselines for a 1 star ff book (Space Assassin, Eye of the Dragon and Star Strider)