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.