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The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Talisman of Death Review (PS3/PSP)

If there’s one thing I hate to read in a games review, its pointless reminiscence about the reviewer’s childhood that’s tenuously related to the game they are writing about. As a result, I WON’T tell you about the Fighting Fantasy books I found secluded in my primary schools reading corner as a child; books which filled my mind with images of dragons, wizards and man eating treasure chests. No instead of all that pointless background scene-setting, I’ll get straight into the review. *ahem*

The history of the Fighting Fantasy series of books is bound inextricably with the history of videogames. Today, the highly evolved entity that is the mainstream RPG has Fighting Fantasy deep down in its DNA. Its not just in RPG’s that Fighting Fantasy books cross over with gaming; one of the two key authors of the series is considered a founding father of modern videogames: Mr Ian Livingstone.

As such, the Fighting Fantasy series of books are more than just some funny pen and paper roleplaying games you could play solo. They are important to our gaming heritage and as such they deserve to be treated respectfully and faithfully when reproduced in digital formats.

It’s a relief then to see that Laughing Jackal have done a pretty good job of bringing the games to the PS3 and PSP. While there are a few minor issues with the conversion, these books retain their quality and are great to experience whether you see them through rose tinted glasses of nostalgia or for the very first time.

The “game” part of Fighting Fantasy books consisted of a combination of a simple combat system using three attributes and dice rolls, and a choice system to determine story events. For example, if the player/reader could choose between heading west to the forest or east to the dark tunnel of impending doom, they would turn to page 23 to go to the forest and page 98 to go down the tunnel. Thus lots of page turning (and page folding if you were a cheater like me) would ensue. When I was a youngling, I would skip the combat and dice rolls entirely as I found that kind of thing in a solo game dull, and instead focused on the story and the choices I made.

One of the most fun things about these games was the macabre deaths you could experience. As a child these were incredibly exciting. In a library full of sanitised kids stories about intrepid child detectives, I was far more excited by the prospect of horrible monsters and grizzly deaths. The fantasy worlds these books laid out always seemed to me inspired by horrific HP Lovecraft tales as much as Tolkein or LeGuin. I can remember being smothered and suffocated by ghostly bed sheets, torn apart by dungeon traps and digested by slime monsters… or at least those fates would have been mine had I not been cheating so much.

The two books released here are two of the best (and earliest) titles in the vast Fighting Fantasy series and as such they represent some of the most straightforward but also best examples. While The Warlock is standard fantasy fare, Talisman of Death is darker and has many bleakly humorous encounters and a fair few horrifying moments. From encounters with Dark Elves, to battles with sentient trees or avatars of death itself, there are some original, daunting challenges to face. For me, Talisman of Death is a high point in the series and my favourite of the two. Being transported to the strange fantasy world at the start of the book, there’s a sense of 0ther-ness and palpable danger that you feel throughout. You arrive so unprepared for the dangers you face that you feel like a child trapped in a house owned by serial killers.

With the quality of the source material established, the only way Laughing Jackal could go wrong is if they made a mess of the conversion… and I’m glad to say they haven’t. There are some issues, but none are too galling. Firstly, as with many Playstation Minis, the up-scaled graphics look pretty bad when blown up on an HD television. This doesn’t need to be the case; careful use of art assets can make this less of an issue, but in this case you are looking at some nasty looking golden coins on your virtual desktop. As a side issue, the depiction of the text as an onscreen book is a little unadventurous and for accessibility issues surely there should be an option to use all of the screen real estate to show the text. Although a nice evocative visual, did we need to always look at the wooden table while we read?

A more serious issue is the text itself. Light-ish brown on a beige background is a poor choice. It’s not terrible, but we now know a great deal about how to make text easily readable on a digital device or HD screen and it seems Laughing Jackal could have done better here.

The part of the books where you would roll a die has been replaced with a simple mini game involving turning cards on a grid. While some may take issue, I was happy with this. I found I rarely failed this card game, but it was nonetheless a fun distraction and took away from the random frustration you would otherwise feel if you failed the game due to blind luck.

Navigating the pages is easy enough with the controller and it’s great to no longer have to flick back and forwards looking for a page number. You don’t need to keep track of your items or stats, the game does it for you and you can’t cheat (for the most part). There’s an appendix section with pictures and details of all the NPC’s and enemies you meet which is a neat touch and something not present in the books. Little touches like this will appeal to fans of the original books. The music is stirring fantasy stuff too, and I wasn’t tempted to turn it off and replace it with my own soundtrack.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed revisiting these classics in their new format. As I progressed further I thought carefully about each choice I made, aware that I couldn’t cheat this time, and a mistake would put me all the way back to the beginning. While there are some niggles, playing through both of these classics absorbed me completely for hours. If you didn’t try them before you’re in for a treat. If you loved them first time round, it’s time to strap on your adventurers sword one more time!

8 literary classics out of 10

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