Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Review: The Gates of Death (Fighting Fantasy)


Praise be the gods, the Fighting Fantasy gamebook legacy continues with The Gates of Death, the second new title in the series since Scholastic took on publishing duties (an effective move to ensure that the new generation of whippersnappers get to experience the books), this time written by FF newbie Charlie Higson (British actor/ director/ writer). But is it good?

In the book Allansia is being torn apart by the Evil Dead. Well, pretty much. People are becoming flesh-hungry demons, turning others into demons and generally causing chaos. Early on in proceedings there's a scene where, ducking through the streets of Salamonis, you witness the titular king of the city in demonic form. It was here it was clear Higson was more than happy to shake up the status quo, and not just with the FF universe. There's much more freedom with weapon use here, with different weapons having varying effects - from axes to bread knives to the khopesh gifted to you by Lord Azzur of Port Blacksand (or, rather, his 'eyes, ears and mouth'). Unlike previous entries, you don't start with a weapon or a batch of trusty provisions, which makes every victory worth something in the early game. Late game, however, you could find yourself a bit overpowered depending on what you pick up, making most fights a doddle, though this entirely depends on your SKILL attribute. Make no mistake - this adventure isn't afraid to pummel you and drain your stats.

The Evil Dead comparison isn't inaccurate. Higson essentially flings a load of deadites at you, including a girl in a cellar and emotionally-manipulative demons. While the theme is based on these films, the story itself is one of the better ones in the series. You're looking for an invisible city where priests will manufacture a cure for the demon plague, but also much dive head first through the gates of hell.

If that sounds a little too adult for a Scholastic book, rest assured there are lots of moments of levity. Case in point - a bum-faced demon. That's right - it's a bent-over warrior exposing his arse that happens to have a snarling face on each cheek. Higson doesn't shy away from moments that make you remember that this is for kids. This is an aspect that didn't really play out in previous books, which sometimes got a little grimdark.

On the subject of a new generation of readers, we need to talk about the art. At the Scholastic reveal at Fighting Fantasy Fest 2017 Jackson and Livingstone commented that the art has had a massive overhaul, pretty much in line with what kids expect from those phone apps they have these days (get off my lawn). It was a shock. Fighting Fantasy, in a large part, comes alive with its intricate illustrations. Russ Nicholson, Iain McCaig, Tony Hough, John Blanche - these are the names that brought Titan and other worlds to life. Now in their place we have, well, muddy digital sketches. To be fair, some of the illustrations aren't half bad, but the majority are simply off-putting in comparison to those classic pieces.

While we're talking negatives, I've noticed some bugs in the book. From having characters referenced to you as if you've previously met them, despite never having done so, to a weird time travel loop that occurs after flinging yourself into a demon portal, which I can't imagine is intentional. There's even a paragraph that gives you several options, but if you can't perform any of those actions you're stuck there for eternity. These all amount to being irksome, but nothing that totally ruins the enjoyment of the game.

The Gates of Death is a fun enough ride, with lots of weapon options, some nice characters and a great premise, let down by sub-par art and needless bugs. Higson doesn't mind laying on the fan service for older readers and doesn't shy away from violent descriptions, but doesn't forget that he's writing for youngsters. So yes, to answer my previous question, it's good. It's worth your time, but it probably won't be a fan favourite.