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Clever idea, but frustrating and disturbing
on 1 October 2007
Like all of its kind, this Fighting Fantasy gamebook is part story part game, with the reader playing the role of a first-person character in the story and having to solve puzzles, fight enemies and make dice rolls to succeed. The setting is high-fantasy with a Chinese inflection, but a lot of the interaction is with humans and humanoids, and the monsters and magic included are very atypical of the series.
Be warned - this is possibly the darkest, most disturbing gamebook in the series. Powers of mutation which fuse living people into a living, heaving mass, maddened convicts set adrift in monstrous inflated bladders, people frozen in place into a mass of mud and parents entombing their child alive are just a few of the things a player will encounter, not to mention similarly disturbing illustrations, and the fact that the player character is unaware of his identity for most of the book. The majority of characters encountered are either tragic, treacherous or insane. If the aim was to create a psychoscape of confusion and misery, the authors have succeeded magnificently.
The book has considerably more of a story than most gamebooks - the player character wakes up in a tomb with no idea of who he is, and fumbles towards recovering knowledge and ability as the story progresses. The story even incorporates a "flashback" like sequence where the character is taken back in time to make choices which will affect the future outcome. Unusually for a Fighting Fantasy gamebook, the story is not simply a series of miniquests and encounters, but involves existential choices and "character development" issues of a kind more familiar from novels.
As a gamebook however, it is very frustrating. The correct path is narrow and extremely linear, and the book is quite cruel to the reader - wrong choices, missed items and failed rolls lead to sudden death with alarming regularity, and there is little predictability or discernable structure. Basically the reader is left trying to guess (not figure out) the correct path and quickly dying if s/he fails to guess correctly. Very often for instance, the player is faced with a choice between using five different magic abilities; usually, one of them is successful, and all the others are fatal. Given the sparsity of alternative routes in most of the book's structure, and the resultant length of the correct path, this becomes frustrating well before the eventual resolution is reached. There's a ridiculously long list of items, skills and allies the reader has to accumulate to succeed. Amazingly, the reader even has to fail one dice roll to successfully complete the gamebook.
In addition, the setting is geographically dubious - flat agricultural plains fuse into dense tropical rainforest, temperate woodlands and rocky areas without any apparent regularity. And the Chinese names for magic spells add more confusion than atmosphere.