Wot I Think: The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain

I wrote my own choose-your-own-adventure books when I was a kid. I suspect we all did. I’d love to see those scrawls now: the breathless, clunky, obvious descriptions, the abundance of useless death-by-spikes scribbles, the cameo appearances from Star Wars monsters, the grotesque unfairness. Relics of a child’s imagination, needing only the basic fact of dungeon-delving to fill in every gap with lurid, thrilling detail. I needed so little to conjure up so much.

This is what The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain is up against. A reimagining of the very first of Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone’s 80s Fighting Fantasy books, its prime directive is to insert 3D graphics into those gaps. Risky business.

I am getting old.

I should say that I don’t have any particular memories of the original Warlock Of Firetop Mountain. It’s not the one that many really remember or, I suspect, love from that series, despite being the first. Deathtrap Dungeon would be the first name to spill from any UK 80s nerd’s lips, but I imagine rights to that are caught up with Eidos/Squeenix somewhere after their 1998 adaptation. So, going into this new PC version of Firetop, the thought is less “I remember this!” and more “I hope this somehow fuels the warmth I still feel towards Panda Pop-stained pages, dice and sudden death in the 1980s.”

I am getting old.

Firetop is cute. It’s full of fondness for The Old Ways, it’s unreconstructed in a way that’s charmingly straightforward rather than cheesily retro, and most importantly it’s not simply a book transposed onto a screen. The recognisable tone is still there, that odd blend of the chummy and the coldly unforgiving, and the copious use of ‘you’. As are the original illustrations, black and white pen art dripping with grotesque details. It’s recognisably Fighting Fantasy. Then it tries to do more, transforming the simple act of page-turning instead into a visual choice as to which passageway to send your miniature-like character down next, and battles not a mere matter of dice-rolling (though that remains) but a more elaborate grid-based, turn-based affair with 3D character models.

This side of things crops up often – in the main, the game alternates between text-based choice of direction and action then one of these battles – and though not at all complicated, it’s a brief battle of wits rather than the source book’s roll a die and pray approach. The meat of the strategy is in guessing which direction your opponent will move/stab next, which is often but not always telegraphed by slight twitching one way or another.

None of this is bad or poorly-implemented, but it’s very samey, and as such I’d argue that it’s just not striking or satisfying enough to justify what is, essentially, an interruption to another, faster game. I’m very conscious that I might just be falling down the Back In My Day well here, but my interest is in finding out what happens and what’s lurking behind the next door and most of all in whatever the next piece of gloriously lurid original art is, not in a long string of slightly stilted turn-based battles that broadly speaking look and feel the same.

I am getting old.

Doesn’t help that many of these battles will be straight-up repeated, given that, in the Fighting Fantasy tradition, this has no shortage of player death. Unlike the original, some of these deaths could be said to be fair – i.e. you were just damned thoughtless during a fight – but there’s a slew of ‘oh you opened that box guess what SNAKES haha dead’ stuff too, as well there should be. Trouble is, that means you’re going to repeat several of those samey battles.

There’s no finger-in-the-last page trickery employed here to recover from an unexpected death, but you do get three respawns, tied to irregular checkpoints. Once thrice-dead you’re perma-dead and have to start over, and though there are forks in the road and different decisions you might make, a fair few encounters will recur and the same battles must be fought again. This is the way of these things of course, but man, there was a frisson to facing a challenge again with only dice and a pencil to tell the tale that the rigid structure of a fully-visualised but very much interchangeable turn-based strategy battle just can’t recreate.

I am getting old.

I should say that Firetop is clearly infused with love and even reverence for its source material. There have been some remixes for the sake of flow, and particularly it introduces the choice to play as one of several different characters in the name of replayability. Their various attributes affect the course of certain encounters in the tale, but this Warlock does not kneel at the feet of the latter-day gods of randomisation or procedural generation. It wants to be The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, not merely be inspired by it.

The original black and white art is lovingly presented as fullscreen as it will go, and with a click you can see it coloured in. (I prefer the b&w, of course. I am getting old). The 3D character models and environments are based as much as possible on what was shown in the original book, but sadly an excess of bloom and other image softening effects drown out much of the detail. Outside of the aforementioned lovely illustrations, it’d be hard to pick this out of a line-up of generally gobliny fantasy games.

I have played a great many generally gobliny fantasy games. I am getting old.

It’s nice! There’s nothing wrong, bloom aside, but I’m not sat here thinking “yes, this is what I always pictured when I was thumbing through a weathered paperback for the eighteenth time.” My point being, it’s not providing extra prompts for my imagination, but rather hamstringing it by being merely Sufficient. Firetop Mountain itself becomes a little 3D board, rather than the hulking, ominous sprawl of fond imagining.

I don’t know if this is anyone’s fault, as such: it’s an inherent risk that possibly cannot be navigated around by anyone. But what might have been a neat tap-tappy gamebook on, say, iPad or a more evolved, gleefully cruel roguelike on PC, winds up caught between two stools, not really playing to the strengths of either.

Hell, I’m conscious that all of this might read like it’s parsed through a “how dare they change anything” old grump filter, but honestly, it’s the opposite. It’s because Firetop tries to be a rigid old book with knobs on rather than a spicy videogame dungeon adventure in its own right that it’s failing to click for me. It really does have the best of intentions though, and if you’re a mega-fan rather than just someone with fond but not entirely specific memories, I suspect you’ll tap right into the rich vein of Fighting Fantasy love here. Me, I need a little more.

Sign me right up for a proc-gen Deathtrap Dungeon, please.

The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain is out now for PC and Mac via Steam or Humble.

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  1. milligna says:

    I just hope they are working up to doing CAR WARS.

    • MiniMatt says:

      Oh god yes, I still have Autoduel Quarterly issues kicking around somewhere.

      I did hear rumblings of Ogre getting a new computer outing, and the old GURPS system strikes me as one with some merits to apply to modern tech, so I think a few people are rummaging around Steve Jackson’s back catalogue for stuff to nick.

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        Addie says:

        GURPS was originally going to be the framework system for Fallout I, until Steve Jackson decided he didn’t like the tone of the game and withdrew it, leading Black Isle to develop the SPECIAL system instead.

        What makes GURPS a good role-playing system on the tabletop is its open-ended-ness and flexibility, which would also make it very difficult to simulate properly on a computer, as it would require a lot of developer effort and foresight. Not that this is impossible (I’m thinking Planescape: Torment as the prime example of tabletop RPG done well on a computer), but I don’t think it’s a magic bullet for solving RPG issues in video games.

    • serioustiger says:

      You, sir, win. Car Wars was (is? I don’t know if it’s still about) amazing. The best SJG title of the 80s, and I include “Illuminati” in that (excellent as it was).

      Even today and as much as I enjoy “Munchkin”, SJG may have peaked with Car Wars.

    • ElElegante says:

      Let me put on my nerd hat for a second: Car Wars may not be as related to Warlock of Firetop Mountain as people think. The former was written by Steve Jackson the American (who also designed The Fantasy Trip, GURPS and Munchkin), the latter by Steve Jackson the Englishman (who came up with a little thing called Warhammer). Both were hugely influential on the hobby industry (the American chap still is, arguably), but they are seperate persons.

      • ElElegante says:

        I mean, I think. It’s not like I have ever seen them in the same room.

      • CartonofMilk says:

        Where it can get confusing for some, at least fighting fantasy fans, is that Steve Jackson US DID write some Fighting fantasy books too. Namely Scorpion Swamp, Demons of the Deep and Robot Commando. The cover making no dinstictions, for a very long time i thought there was only one Steve Jackson, that is, the UK one.

  2. Kefren says:

    I played the book a lot. Since I had all of them, in the unlikely chance that a character survived, I boosted his stats and let him tackle another book with all his equipment and skills. This made some fun combinations when a magic-used from something like Citadel of Chaos then tackled Warlock of Frietop Mountain. Teh advantage of the books is that you can make things up – change your character, send in two characters (or three, as a party), create new options (why would I put my hand in the hole when I could poke it with a sword?) and so on.

    I replayed the boardgame recently too, which was always decidedly average.

    • malkav11 says:

      The boardgame is the main reason I know the name at all. It took me a while to realize that the boardgame was based on a gamebook.

  3. Provender says:

    Warlock was my first FF game so maybe it’s just my nostalgiometer swinging harder than your did, but I’m liking it more than you seemed to. It’s clearly a labour of love, and the way that the new content has been incorporated and the familiar encounters rejigged make for a coherent whole.
    The combat minigame is engaging enough, and once you get the hang of it you can whip through the battles pdq barring carelessness. I think it’s actually less frustrating than the straight up randomness of the original system would be, given that part of the fun is exploring the storylines of the new characters.
    My only major frustration is the maze of Zagor section, which isn’t difficult when you get the hang of it but just seems an unavoidable drag. Anyone worked out how to afford maze jumper yet?

    • Scurra says:

      Same here – as a first-gen player of WoFM (if anything, I was a little too old for it first time round!), this adaptation ticked all the boxes for me.
      I agree that the combat isn’t quite as tedious as is made out (and they even managed to incorporate some of the fun “gotcha” moments, like ignoring the guard at the beginning) and the idea of the different pregen characters works pretty well too.
      Personally, I hope this is successful enough to permit more games in the same engine; it’s a nice companion piece to the Sorcery! approach.

      • Provender says:

        Yeah that guard surprised me tonight, hadn’t happened in half a dozen playthroughs – then spent too long practicing new char’s attack patterns and in he waded.

        The whole thing has been really nicely thought out, I’m with you on hoping they produce some more.

  4. CowboyCurtis says:

    Hah! Loved that bit about creating your own books; that’s exactly what I did as a lad (you are now on Tower Street and it is FULL OF TOWERS). What I’d like to see is an e-version of Trial Of Champions, which was the sort-of-sequel to Deathtrap Dungeon (hard as balls too, as I recall, with those damned gold rings). Also, House Of Hell would be neat. I’d love to virtually stab that smug prig Franklins one more time. Yeah, I’m old too.

    • qrter says:

      Tin Man Games, who have made this version of Warlock, have made quite a few Fighting Fantasy books into e-books, one of them is House of Hell (it’s available for phones and on Steam).

  5. Chillicothe says:


    “Your thoughtless be-hinds didnt buy Crimson Shroud, don’t screw this up twice.”

  6. Marr says:

    I object to this game’s existence in principle, since it robs Inkle Studios of the license.

  7. Snids says:

    Games can be whatever they like obviously. But I always feel that applying board game restrictions on a computer game is a bit pointless.
    But then if you removed the tabletop/FF trappings from this there’s likely to not be much left.

    I probably played through the first fifty FF books as well and this is certainly milking my nostalgia gland though.

    What was that Mad Max-esque book?
    Also, who is seriously going to start a book from the beginning again if you die? Did anyone in the world do that?

  8. RuySan says:

    I played loads of them, but probably only until nrº 22 or something. Even so, the first few ones were the best, specially City of Thieves (the absolute classic) and Deathtrap Dungeon. I also loved Rebel Planet even though it was ridiculously hard.

  9. Emeraude says:

    I was expecting a rework of the DS game, and nope, this is its own thing. Might track it down for comparison/curiosity’s sake.

  10. bill says:

    I loved Firetop Mountain, I love the atmosphere and I love the art. (The original black and white.. dunno why anyone would want the colored versions).

    But I recently tried one the the Tim Man gamebooks on my phone… and it wasn’t bad (it didn’t have the atmosphere of Fighting Fantasy and the art wasn’t half as good, but it had decent die battles).

    But I’d foolishly picked a 3 Bookmarks option at the beginning, and when I died for the 3rd time I discovered that I had ZERO inclination to play through it all again.

    Even back in the day, I can’t imagine anyone ever restarted from page one after dying… because it just ends up with you re-reading the same 3rd of a novel 5 times… not fun.

    So, this game sounds appealing… but 3 respawns and permadeath sound terrible.

  11. syllopsium says:

    Firetop mountain may have been the first, but it wasn’t very good. There’s some lovely descriptions but it’s a real pain to play. Deathtrap Dungeon, and even Forest of Doom (bit more flawed) were excellent by comparison.

    A proc gen DD wouldn’t be a good idea – there’s plenty of roguelikes out there. The strength of DD was that it was carefully designed, and had a number of decent puzzles in it.

    They need to take lessons from Inkle’s Sorcery! series, which surpassed the (great) original gamebooks in every way. It also recognised that most people played the gamebooks with a finger between the pages, so they could undo their last moves if they died..

    I’m getting old too, but some things (such as this) probably shouldn’t have been brought back, whilst Sorcery! was a reminder that other choices can introduce a new generation of players to some of the best the genre had to offer.

  12. malkav11 says:

    I only discovered the Fighting Fantasy series in my adult life and I can’t say as I’m clear why they’re remembered so fondly. I grant that there seems to have been dramatic variance in quality from book to book (some of which must be expected in any series so long), but my limited exposure to them has not revealed any especially great scenarios or design and plenty of randomness and arbitrary death. I’m guessing they must simply have been far more prevalent than the gamebook series that I enjoyed in my earlier years, particularly Lone Wolf (which thanks to the efforts of the Aon Project I can confirm holds up remarkably well), and the Fighting Fantasy spinoff Sorcery!, which Inkle has so incredibly successfully adapted to digital form. It’s a little unclear to me what other than the combat system in those Sorcery! apps is Inkle’s addition/reworking and what is original text and gameplay, so it’s hard to say if I’d still enjoy those original gamebooks to that degree today, but certainly the standard of writing and the magic system seem like advancements over core Fighting Fantasy. And Lone Wolf had the advantage of being a continuing narrative and having a rather elegant skill approach to replayability and character building.

    • syllopsium says:

      There’s a couple of reasons.

      As you say, Fighting Fantasy was much more prevalent, but more importantly at the time there were no real computer based options. FF and Sorcery! were released in 1982-1985 and there were few 8 bit micro tape based RPGs easily available and worth it.

      So far as the Sorcery! remakes go, the first is very close to the gamebook, the second has a fair few differences, whilst the third is radically improved over the original. I can’t wait to see what they do with the fourth.

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