Friday 4 September 2020

Switch Review - Warlock of Firetop Mountain

While many digital adaptations of novels are just words on screen, Tinman games have taken steps to make the choose your own adventure book into a more traditional game. But do new combat mechanism work when you’re still trying to remain an interactive novel?


Developed by Tinman Games

Published by Tinman Games

Released in 2018

On May 17th 2020, Ian Livingstone CBE, made me laugh. The co-founder of  Games Workshop, former  Life President of Eidos and "the father of 'Tomb Raider'" posted a picture of the Supreme Leader of North Korea. The accompanying caption said "I never knew he was a fan". To many I’m sure this remark makes no sense, but behind Kim Jong-un are rows of green books with green spines, the exact same colour as that spines of Livingstone's "Fighting Fantasy" books that were hugely popular in the 80s.

Created alongside fellow Games Workshop founder Steve Jackson, these books were the most successful "branching narrative" novels in the UK. The first in the series, 'The Warlock of Firetop Mountain', came out in 1982 and established the structure of these pre-teen literary essentials. After a passage of text, a reader has to make a decision about how the novel should continue. "Turn to section 341 to open the chest with the key or turn to section 202 if you'd rather hit it rapidly with an axe just in case there's a goblin in there". According to Livingstone each book had around 400 decisions to be made. For each one, I would tentatively flick to the page of my preferred option and quickly skim read to see if the outcome was a good one. If it wasn't I'd turn to the page of the other option and then try to convince myself that's what I wanted to do all along. I wasn't alone in doing this, Livingstone even had a name for the technique; "the five finger bookmark". “You used to see it on public transport everywhere” he says. “It’s like peeking around the corner. You can’t call it cheating – it’s taking a sneak peek.” But choosing the path through the book wasn’t all a reader had to do, there were also monster battles that were fought by rolling dice. "Combat is a simple case of rolling six-sided dice, pitching one creature's stats against another" says Arcane magazine's former editor Paul Pettengale. "It's fun, quick and easy, which explains its popularity" .


As a reader you really did feel like you were sculpting the story, controlling the flow of the narrative. I didn't play or read a ‘Fighting Fantasy’ book until I was around nine years old, some years after 'Warlock of Firetop Mountain's publication – but once I did I continued to collect them into my early teens. "My ‘Fighting Fantasy books’, got a whole generation of kids reading, because you were the hero, and you were engaged in where the story went" says Livingstone. "In the traditional, linear media, the director [or author] controls the action, but in interactive media, the player controls the action. It's all about them, and It's more rewarding, I would say". The majority of the titles followed a fantasy theme, although science fiction, post-apocalyptic, superhero, and modern horror game books were also published.

 The ‘Fighting Fantasy’ books enjoyed huge sales. The series sold 20 million copies in the 80s and 90s, but the increasing dominance of digital entertainment bought about their demise. In 1995 the series was thought to have ended with 'Curse of the Mummy'. “Video games were around, in force; they’d had a pretty good run. Thirteen years of being at that level was huge,” says Livingstone.

Despite being the ruin of the original run of books, there have been many video game versions of the ‘Fighting Fantasy’ books over the years. Starting with adaptations on home computers like the Spectrum and Amiga, more recently there have been digital versions available as apps on mobile devices. According to Neil Rennison, Creative Director, Tin Man Games have “been one of the digital custodians of the Fighting Fantasy license for a number of years now”. This Australian company had bought eight different books to digital platforms originally as simplistic text on screen computerised books, but later including on screen dice and inventory management. In 2015 they had a much more ambitious ‘Warlock of Firetop Mountain’ project in mind. They launched a Kickstarter campaign to make “a digital re-imagining of the classic adventure game book written by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Tin Man Games is bringing it closer towards its tabletop role-playing game roots, complete with a rich interactive 3D map, collectible digital miniatures, an updated combat system and the ability to explore Firetop Mountain with multiple characters.” According to the company it was a “first step towards a grand vision for the ‘Fighting Fantasy’ universe […]we know just how much further we can take it in the digital space”.


Moving away from simply being a digital book, the company took inspiration from Video Game RPGs, to create a game that will capture the attention of a modern player, while remaining true to the choose you own adventure mechanics of the books. “We're going for a really different approach “ says Rennison. “we have gorgeously rendered the world in which you play so it's not just words on a page that you're reading, you actually see where you are and the place around you,  in order to bring Firetop Mountain to life in 3D”.


The game feels like a large evolving board game with little digital miniatures skipping along tiles and panoramas. It's an ideal choice that will remind many players of Livingstone’s other great fantasy creation; ‘Warhammer’.  “We've decided to focus on tabletop Miniatures” says lead technical artist Edward Blanch.  “We're working with a company that creates physical miniatures, that we scan in and then digitally paint, so that we can really capture that sense of a hand-painted model as you would have in your own games at home”. Like a dungeon master revealing plot to you in a tabletop game of ‘Dungeons and Dragons’, rooms form and manifest in front of your eyes based on the paths you choose to take. Marrying with this look is the integration of the books original art that flashes up when you get to particular scenes,  meet specific monster or cross paths with new non playable characters. It’s a nice combination that, like so much of the game feels modern yet respectful of the source material. As detailed and charming as the player pieces are, if we had to solely rely on these miniatures some of the scenes would really fall flat. The drawing of the Iron Cyclops for example is much more menacing than the plastic model that you fight on the digital isometric board.


The story is largely true to the books, but greatly built upon in an attempt to sustain multiple play throughs. “We [developed] additional content to expand the stories surrounding the legend of Firetop Mountain” says Tinman Games.  “You are no longer simply “The Hero”, but many potential heroes or even the inhabitants of Firetop Mountain themselves, each with their own motivations. This allows for many different adventures that will access hidden locations and give you new ways to interact with characters and creatures you meet.” However, while the story is bigger it is still worth noting that the majority of the game remains based on an experimental debut novel, written by two inexperienced authors at a time when few readers knew about the fantasy genre. Our expectations in the quality of storytelling we expect from fantasy isn't the same as it was 40 years ago. We have been spoilt by epic cinematic adaptations of the works of Tolkein and George RR Martin. The original ‘Warlock of Firetop Mountain’ book is filled with all the archetypal tropes which have really become obvious stereotypes today . There's an orc barracks, a nest of spiders, an ancient dwarven Hall. There's a lot of goblins, there's a cursed maze and of course there has to be a few skeletons and a creepy castle. Because this game is largely faithful, all the clichés of the genre are present here and due to the nature of the story telling there’s very little description of any of them.


The story you sculpt in ‘Warlock of Firetop Mountain’, regardless of what character you pick, unfolds in a similar manner every time. Like someone picking up the book again and again, you always start at the same point and have to make the same opening choices. This isn’t a ‘Rouge’-like adventure where events or rooms shuffle around and occur at different times.  On your first play you will start by picking to head East or West down a corridor and every time you play the game after this you will have the exact same choice. Picking the correct options will lead to a complete play through of around two hours. However, it is very unlikely you’ll get that far on a first play. The starting four characters aren’t strong enough to survive anything but a perfect run, so multiple play throughs should be expected. Fortunately as you play, each foe defeated gets you a soul and these can be used to unlock more powerful playable characters. Like ‘Dark Souls’, while you may lose hours of progress at least some of the things you’ve earned can be carried over to the next attempt. In total there are eighteen playable figurines to unlock, with additional hidden characters to find. Each brings some new snippets of dialogue, but also they all come within a unique individual stats  for stamina, luck and skill.  More importantly they have unique traits that also affect how you manoeuvre through the world and interact in certain scenes. But, I wouldn’t be surprised if many players don’t notice the changes as most are so slight and subtle.


It is no surprise, given the source book, that most of your interactions with the game involves simply picking between multiple choice situations.  Most boil down to “yes” or “no”, “do this” or “do that” decisions, but there's also an abundance of dead ends and pointless side quests. Most decisions are in the moment dilemmas, and few alter the story like you would see in a Telltale game for example. Occasionally if you picked up a specific item earlier you’ll be able to use it later on, but the game can’t hang off this since players who don’t have the item still need to be able to progress.


Some encounter require you to test your luck or skill. Opening a chest, pulling a lever or running across a collapsing bridge all demand rolling two dice. If you score less than your current luck stat you are successful, if not bad things will happen. However, there is no sign posting for when these luck challenges will occur and ultimately success is down to random chance. On one occasion I had depleted my luck after a series of unfavourable dice rolls. I then crossed paths with a beggar, whom I didn’t want to fight but another bad luck roll meant I had to. After defeating him I then came across a statue and had to roll for luck again. The problem was, the previously unavoidable events had depleted my luck stat, meaning anything other than a double one roll, would mean I failed the luck test. The inevitable failure led to the game informing me that staring at the statue made me feel bad for killing the beggar and so I died of guilt. It was incredibly frustrating. I appreciate that this is no doubt all true to the original novel, but as explained before if you fail an unfair test in the original ‘Fighting Fantasy’ book you could simply pretend it didn’t happen and continue anyway. Here everything is played honestly, so I lost because the game decided I had to. Scattered through the game are save points in the form of benches. You can return to each three times, which does lessen the frustrations slightly. However, you have no idea when you will find another saving bench. Sometimes loading a save means you’ll lose twenty minutes of progress and then the game takes an additional two minutes to return you to your previous position! Of course, unless you’ll taking notes you will struggle to remember which items you picked up on which attempt, as no progress made after passing a save point is tracked. You will very likely get to a point where you need a certain item and end up kicking yourself that you had this on an earlier attempt but somehow missed it on your current attempt.


At least in this “gamified” version ‘Warlock of Firetop Mountain’ combat isn’t entirely luck based in the way it is in the books. “For the first time we've actually created a miniatures based combat system so you can actually battle your enemies in a real-time compact” says Rennison. “Combat has always played a big part in the ‘Fighting Fantasy’ series. We have developed a new combat system, known internally as GridBluff, where both you and your opponent move or attack simultaneously. Enemies use different attack patterns and you must anticipate their moves whilst positioning yourself for the fatal blow.” In battle, on each turn you can move, attack or perform a character specific special ability. Learning enemy attack patterns is essential as you can only take hits equal to your current stamina total. When that’s depleted its instantly the end of your game and a return to a save bench if you’ve activated one. Initially combat all feels very overwhelming, but soon you’ll be able to handle battles with the more familiar enemies taking minimal damage. For new and powerful foes though, it always remains daunting, as single mistakes can see your character die. For example boss encounters are unfair simply because you don’t have enough time to learn their battle strategy before they kill you. Now, once again ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’ descends into random chance. Given that some attacks are unavoidable, if your character is left with 4 stamina hits, and the opponent is about to perform a 5 damage attack you simply have no choice but to watch an inevitable death. You may have picked up stamina increasing provisions on your adventure, but these can’t be used mid combat. Many battles literally come down to who can roll a higher number quickest and there's really not a whole lot you can do to influence that. The original ‘Fighting Fantasy’ books were sold on the idea that you controlled the story, so it is ironic that often in this game you feel like your character’s destiny is taken out of your hands.


I can appreciate the length that Tin Man Game have gone to modernise the book’s mechanics, but many of these additions haven’t removed the randomness they’ve just prolonged it. Being able to save and reload at any point would have been far better, and in many ways would have reflected the “five figure bookmark” that Livingstone was very much aware his readers did. Rather than flicking to an earlier section of the book to make a different choice, it would have simply been reloading a save state when a battle goes bad. Let’s be honest, we all do this when playing RPGs in emulators! I would enjoy the game so much more if every run through led to a narrative conclusion, even if I had to keep re-loading save states to achieve this. I would still want to play again to see the results of paths not taken, but with this system in place I wouldn’t be bored by the text in opening rooms as I wouldn’t have had to have read it twenty times prior.


“’The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’ was the entry point to the Fighting Fantasy series” says Rennison. “We have a grand vision and want our version to do the same for a new digital generation of adventurer.” While this audience is probably there on the Switch, if anything this elaborate adaption introduces so many frustrations that the game may just drive players to explore the original books instead. Although the idea that children like reading seemed ludicrous to publishers in 1995, today they seem to have more faith in the youth. The Fighting Fantasy series of books has been revived twice; once in 2002 and more recently in 2017. Livingstone isonce again putting pen to paper, but today for these books he has new co-writers. Joining him is Rhianna Pratchett, daughter of famed novelist Terry Pratchett and one time writer for the recent 'Tomb Raider' reboot. With younger writers, it’s likely these newer books, will be written with a more fantasy-savy reader in mind.


This game may be ambitious, but it has essentially been too faithful to dated novels. Ian Livingstone has always pushed for forward thinking ideas and it feels like Tinman Games have not considered how people today play. When thousands of games can be accessed in seconds, not everyone wants endless repetition; this is why ‘Demon Souls’ has a niche audience.  It is great to see the novels I loved as a child bought up-to-date, it’s just a shame not all the mechanics were modernised in a way the combat and visuals have been.  If he really is a ‘Fighting Fantasy’ fan, hopefully Kim Jong-un isn’t playing this game. I get the impression he’s not a man you want to frustrate.



Where did I get this game from?

It is always worth keeping an eye on the eShop sales. Often even the biggest titles get reduced significantly. While I certainly don’t think anyone should buy this game for £19.99, if like me, you see it for £1.99 its worth a try if you’re a fan of the original ‘Fighting Fantasy’ books.  

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