Saturday, 27 October 2012

Blood of the Zombies

It's been 30 years since the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, was published. To celebrate, series co-creator Ian Livingstone penned his first new book in god only knows how long - and, based on my first go at it, it could be one of his best.

To begin with, it certainly doesn't feel like classic FF though - for starters, it's set in the modern world, so instead of gold pieces you're trading dollars, a sword is nigh on useless when you have a shotgun and provisions are now Medi Kits. OK, that's more videogame world than modern, but it makes more sense than wolfing down food to heal wounds - although, as we'll discover soon, that still works. If chocolate is food (I'm glad to report that according to Ian, chocolate is indeed food - and healthy food at that.)

Anyway. So, on opening up the book for the first time, the first thing I notice is there's sweet fuck-all in the way of instructions. It'd be fair to say most people playing this book would be well familiar with how FF works, but surely Ian expected a few newcomers? Turns out, he did - the rules aren't missing, they've just been streamlined, gutted, completely disemboweled - like going from Civilization IV to Civilization V, Ian's pretty much worked out what made FF interesting and what was just complexity for complexity's sake, changed it completely, and it works.

Yeah, I was skeptical that simplifying an already idiot-proof system was going to turn BotZ into a glorified Choose Your Own Adventure book, but I was wrong. It works.

Example of a non-glorified Choose Your Own Adventure Book. (And yes, I'm aware Turn to 400 used this joke before me.)

Ninety-five percent of the baddies you're going to come up against are mindless zombies, so what's the point in giving each skill and stamina scores? They're just cannon fodder. In FF books past, fighting a couple of zombies when you're armed with a sword was a big deal. But this is now - we have guns and old records, so four, six, 12 zombies - who wants to roll that many dice? Most fights I had were over in three or four rolls. That's awesome.

Right, so rolling my stats - or should I say, stat - the book said stamina is 2D6+12, but I know since its release Ian's upped the stamina stat to 2D6+20, so I used that. Apparently the zombies kept winning.
Your character is a bit of a geek, travelling around Europe looking for things like vampires and ghosts, without much success until you're kidnapped and imprisoned in a dungeon beneath a castle.

Switching into the first person now - I woke one day, five or six after being captured, determined to escape. Every now and then a drunk, fat guard called Otto would bring me some disgusting food, and I came up with a plan.

"Otto!" I shouted. "Ottoooo!" After several minutes of shouting, an angry Otto shows up and kicks me in the ribs, doing three stamina of damage and cracking a rib. Yeowch.

The next time he comes in, I do some kind of ninja move and try to grab his head between my legs - badly. He beats me into unconsciousness, and I only awake to discover I'm being torn apart by zombies.

So, using one of Ian's "five-finger bookmarks", I do what Daniel Faraday said couldn't be done and change the past, instead going for his waist. I pull him down, we fight, I win.

Turns out he took the job as a prison officer 'cause it paid good, but now feels like a prisoner himself, since he can't leave. I could stick another Lost link here, but you know.

Not feeling particularly sorry for poor Otto, I lock him up and leave - the first room I find is his so I go through his belongings, of course. In his Jimi Hendrix-adorned backpack I find pencils, dice (woah, meta), a book with half its pages missing and a magazine about accordions  "None of it is of interest to you", the accurately text tells me (what if Weird Al was reading?) so I eat his meatloaf instead.

Before leaving I take another look around and find my first weapon - a penknife. It's not exactly a cricket bat, but hey.

There's also $15, which I'm sure despite inflation is worth far less than 15 gold pieces.

The next people I come across are Boris and Gregor (is a weird name), stocking shelves. Boris says he can tell me what's going on in this place if I give him $10 - or I could just read the blurb at the back of the book, but I decide to pay him anyway, 'cause it's probably essential for the book's plot.

Boris reads the blurb on the back of the book, explaining how Newt Gingrich is planning - sorry, Gingrich Yurr - to take over the world with a zombie army he's creating by kidnapping people and injecting them with genetically engineered zombie blood. He says it's up to me to kill Gingrich and all the zombies, without explaining why he and his bandage-headed mate don't do it instead.

He's got loads of stuff for sale, but I've only got a few dollars left now, so I have to choose carefully. This being my first attempt at BotZ, I've no idea what to choose - can't even use past experience of Ian Livingstone adventures, 'cause this one's set in the modern day. In the end I settle for glue, tape and batteries. Who knows, maybe I'll find a light sabre, a model airplane and a ripped sheet of paper?

Before I go I ask if they've got any food, so Boris gives me some chocolate which reverses the damage done when Otto broke my rib, and off I go!

The next door I come across is very small - but it can't be goblins or anything, right? This is 2012, not 1982. Nope, it's old newspapers, rat poo, $2 and some bullets! Which, according to the instructions are infinite once you've found them, even if the text specifies a certain number of cartridges or boxes. Not complaining.

A few doors later, I come across my first group of zombies - finally - and I cut them all down with my penknife, and after the second batch, I've acquired a pistol.

Soon I've ascended some stairs to the first floor of the castle, out of the depths of the dungeon, and come across some portraits of the Gingrich family - now,  there's no magic in this world, right? It should be safe to look at the portraits. I find Gingrich Yurr, wearing a yellow waistcoat and carrying a bunny, looking somewhat like Richard Branson posing next to a light blue 1960s sports car (that little observation comes courtesy of Mrs Dantasy).

I did look for a picture of Richard Branson with a "bunny", but couldn't find any suitable for under-12s. If you know what I mean. 'Cause I've always written for 12-year-olds.

Behind his painting, there's a slim passageway - I shimmy down it, and find a shotgun. Now we're talking! If only this castle had some old LPs lying around... for the first time in BotZ I regret not being able to test my luck.

The switch to a modern setting certainly increased the range of random items you can find, and Ian really went to town. In the next room I picked up a calculator (in case I find Brainy Zombie), reading glasses (Nerd Rock Zombie), tape measure (Metrosexual Zombie) and a Romanian-English dictionary (Vlad the Zombie Impaler?).

Lucky I found that Hendrix bag, eh? I guess I could wear the glasses, wrap the tape around my fist, pop the calculator in my pocket and um, strap the book to my foot as a rudimentary shoe? I dunno.
The next massive group of zombies I mercilessly slaughter with a grenade, but little do I realise I should have saved that grenade for the dogs.

Yes, DOGS. In a castle full of zombies, I'm killed by a pack of dogs. I even tried cheating, and still died. I'd initially put on an awesome set of medieval armour I figured would help me, but instead it slowed me down, allowing the pack of dogs to catch up and knock me over, nibbling me to death in the parts of my body still exposed. 

Using the five-finger bookmark, I didn't don the armour, and was instead torn down the old (new?) -fashioned way.

Well, it's hard to say from a single reading whether BotZ is worthy of being part of the FF lineage, but I feel that Ian's really pulled it off (Wait, isn't this entire blog based on judging FF books from a single playthrough? Shut up, ow... ).

Despite the hackneyed setting - oh, zombies, how... original - the new rules and the switch to the modern day, BotZ felt like classic FF. Without a doubt.

The font was old-school, which helped, and the illustrations were also very, very FF - as in there was no attempt to go colour, manga, '3D' or anything. If you just turned to a random page and looked around, you wouldn't know it was a couple of decades removed from the classic era at all.

And despite my initial impression, once I got reading, it felt like classic FF, which for me, counts the most.
I might change my mind if I ever make it so far to see Gingrich face-to-face, but based on this first play, Ian nailed it.

Now, I'm going to go read all the other reviews I've put off reading until now, and hope like god to avoid spoilers.


thekelvingreen said...

There's quite a few fun easter eggs in this one.

At first I was a bit put off by the changes to the rules, but it does work, and it's a fun book. One of Livingstone's best, as you say.

Zanafarr said...

I had a very similar experience with this book, its gameplay is very different from the previous books in the FF series, but in the end the atmosphere and fun factor are definitely in place. if you want to see it :)

LupLun said...

It's well-written and fun, but after a few playthroughs it became apparent it was of the "one true path" school of gamebook design. It also has a lot of those annoying left/right choices where left takes you right anyway after finding something, making the adventure feel on rails. And the TRUE true path requires a lot of die-rolling. I beat the book fairly, but exploited the bookmarks mercilessly.

Still fun. Might have a review up on the Goodreads group at some point.

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Frankymole said...

Is that Richard Branson in the illustration, or prog legend Rick Wakeman?

Anonymous said...

The App is available in the UK! I hadn't got the book, but I completed the app on harcore mode on my third attempt. Do I get a medal?

The story is pretty silly, but it fits the genre well. It follows Livingstone's usual style. Either catch all 333 zombies or you've lost the game.