FF25: Beneath Nightmare Castle

Robert Clive
Greg Galon
Per Jorner
Guillermo Paredes
Richard Wood


[Robert Clive]

Ah! What pleasant memories I have of the castle garden in fighting fantasy number 25, Beneath Nightmare Castle. That's not to say that it's by any means the best book, I just have some fond memories as it was one of the first Fighting Fantasy books that I read as a kid.

However, unfortunately for Beneath Nightmare Castle, I purchased this book right after its illustrious predecessor, Fighting Fantasy number 24, Creature of Havoc. Indeed, one of the reasons I snapped this one up was the cool experience of being ruthlessly slaughtered by a merciless Steve Jackson and his fiendish traps in Marr's underground complex.

Unfortunately, while Beneath Nightmare Castle had some interesting bits and that cool front cover of the crazy-looking bird in a suit or armour, I never thought that it measured up. I found it to be a bit of a disappointment when compared to the book that came before it. So much so, I was also put off buying number 26.

Saying that, this book is set in a new part of the Fighting Fantasy environment, so it covers new ground in that respect. Also, your mission is to uncover the suspicious and seemingly sinister goings on in the castle itself that have transpired since you were last there. You get to look around the town below the castle first. However, I found this to be average when compared to other town adventures and lacking in depth. The real adventuring starts when you explore the innards of the castle complex itself!

The writing is okay, the artwork is average in my personal opinion. Also, look out for a particularly cruel game that the guards like to play with intruders they catch in the castle grounds. Overall, this is an average book in the Fighting Fantasy series.



[Greg Galon]

This is certainly a strange one. Hmm... let me see, you return from a long journey to rest with a good friend to find that the town has been taken over by mysterious, southern jackals of the worst description, and that even worse, mysterious beasts of the worst description haunt the town at night. It seems to be inspired by parental admonishes that it is best to lock yourself up at night and not accept candy from strangers... It is not a coincidence that the book's title includes the word "Nightmare". I had nightmares finishing it.

As the book develops, you discover that there is a much deeper plot to uncover, but by the time you find that mysterious glowing green ball, the mystery begins to be a little linear and boring, and the dungeon is not as diverse as "Deathtrap Dungeon".

Oh darn, it seems now that I'm beginning to make the book look really childlish and easy. I'm sorry. The truth is that I've read this book (but not solved it) about 8 years ago, and I've only solved it now that I have re-acquired it. The traps in this book are quite impressive, and if you don't know the way through (check my solution for it), you may have to die many times before you defeat Xakhaz. Your Willpower score makes another obstacle for you on the way to victory, though a high Willpower score is always good to have here. My particular favourites in this book are the Vitriol Essence monster (which you don't have to tackle, thankfully), that darn sorceress Senyakhaz, and the castle. Even exploring the castle is difficult if you don't know the way; dying from a failed Willpower test is always horrifying. My favourite death is that game the southerners play with you - you know, the one where they capture you and drop a rock on you, while gambling on the outcome?

But possibly the most horrible death here is after you meet the man in the dungeon who urges you to free his "sister". The horrible deaths that await you in this book is one reason, though definitely not the only one, why this book should not be read on a dark, moonless night...

I really enjoyed this book.

Rating: 8.5/10


[Per Jorner]

Peter Darvill-Evans started his FF spree with a title that shows more Steve Jackson influence than most; some, like myself, will see this as a good thing. It's a book where you can play several games and find some new path or try a bunch of new options every time, instead of having to stick to an obvious, linear, ever-growing shopping list of must-visit locations and must-do actions. There are plenty of ways to die horribly, reach dead ends, or arrive in the right spot with the wrong resources, but it's all right. Highlights include an "illusory copies" scene that slaps the copycats from Seas of Blood silly. "Which smiling, unarmed, defenceless girl will you strike?" Genius.

The book's theme is one of pseudo-natural horrors let loose in a mediaeval town and castle, with the odd Orc thrown in as if to remind the reader we're still on Titan (for some reason the Dwarfs and Goblins seemed to blend in better). It's those darn berobed and bescimitared southeners who are up to their usual shenanigans. Needless to say, YOU must stop them. In order to do this you are given a Willpower score which, if mismanaged, will turn you into a gibbering wreck. Smashing!

That's not to say there aren't problems here and there. Well, in fact there are several problems. Right at the start you have to roll eight dice, about every other game having to fight six enemies as a result; generally I don't like massive dice-rolling near the beginning of a book. I hope that most people who used to play this with real dice eventually decided to skip this battle as you will almost instantly regain what Stamina points you may lose in it. A little further on, you can undergo a godly trial - eight dice again - which tends to reward characters that already have high stats but weaken others. Then when you leave the temple, the priest gives you contradictory advice, channelling the author in an awkward manner.

There's one event that may occur in any of four places depending on which route you take and which ends up hogging nineteen sections, two of them pure padding. By telling the reader to note down a future destination and using the same sections for three of the routes, twelve paragraphs could have been reassigned for more important things. Padding and uneconomical threading of options also crop up elsewhere, which is odd considering it doesn't seem like the author couldn't possibly have come up with a few more horrible encounters, or more depth to the existing ones.

The latter would have been beneficial not least because making Willpower rolls whenever something scary happens means you don't usually get to make decisions during encounters, but either act in some appropriate manner or else run around like a headless chicken as indicated by the dice. It's debatable whether this actually makes it seem more horrible, or if it just introduces more randomness and detaches you from the character (whose propensity for freezing and freaking out, at least compared to the heroes of other books, is never fully explained). More work could have been done on the unsettling atmosphere part - the art helps a little with that, but showing slightly cartoonish monsters up front, especially when you're about to read a paragraph saying the game is already over, won't really rattle the older segments of the audience.

There's a brace of encounters you can only find if you perform a highly questionable act, and at least one of them deserved a better fate. There is much confusion with regard to Skill/Attack Strength, and several instructions that have little or no effect if applied as worded. I would suggest the following: Let 176, 182, 263, 278 and 341 modify Attack Strength instead of Skill or Initial Skill. Similarly, 389 should perhaps let you deduct 2 from the roll.

Random pedantry: The rules say you die if you fail a Willpower roll at 5 points or less, but in practice there will be extra instructions killing you off or having extremely bad things happen if you fail at 6 points or less, almost making you wonder if that's not what the rules are trying to refer to. In 168 I assume the word "permanently" means you should lower your Initial Skill by the same amount. 199 presumably doesn't mean for you to deduct more than the usual Willpower point. Two kinds of oddities would later be reprised in Darvill-Evans' Spectral Stalkers: one of them concerns opponents that get away even if you deprive them of all Stamina points before their escape conditions trigger, the other is that at one point your eyes need to "become accustomed to the deep gloom" even though you've been in it forever and it just got _less_ gloomy. Should 84 read "are given the opportunity to eat" rather than just "eat", or is it specifically the act of eating that makes you undrunk? The character (but not the reader) is told that when using the Potion of Berserk Rage you must "fight to the death"; is that meant to convey that you cannot Escape, as spelled out in the instructions for the angry axe, or is the priest just being dramatic? 170 should ask specifically what you are using for illumination, since you may possess both items. 176 doesn't actually say whether you have to generate the shaft once per Attack Round, once per encounter, once per fight, or even once period. Should 230 and 351 cost you 4 Stamina points instead of the usual 2, or a total of 6? If the former, 224 should presumably be interpreted as saying "the usual 2 points". 400 should more properly read "If" than "Whether or not", and fails to address a topic that might be of some importance, though it probably isn't. Is 191 meant to affect your current scores as well, if they aren't at their maximum values? Are the modifications in 83 meant to include the effect of the Talisman of Loth? If you lose your weapon, can it be replaced with any weapon an enemy is described as holding, or only one of those you can explicitly pick up? When fighting some undead you inflict only half damage since they "feel no pain" - does that mean FF undead and other mindless creatures usually _do_ feel pain? Why aren't you given the option to use the spearhead in 359, as in 55?

As one can see there are opportunities for niggling for those so disposed; yet Beneath Nightmare Castle earns high points for ambition, ambience and general fun-ness. One of the things I personally appreciate is that for quite a few games you may have little or no idea what are the "right" paths and options, and take this as an invitation to explore, then as you gradually work it out and close in on the true path, there's no need to open every single door or make all the lucky rolls. In fact I wish there had been more convoluted "mystery" books like this.

Finally I submit that if section 386 had been completely free of context other than going insane, it would have been one of the best ever.

Rating: 7/10


[Guillermo Paredes]

Beneath Nightmare Castle has a lot of good atmosphere. The beginning of the adventure in a dark prison with no notion of what´s happening, the night spent in the eerie town of Neuburg, the aura of despair and abandonment which engulf the town as you explore it, the mysterious garden and the encounters within the castle itself all combine to make this book an effective horror story. I remember it was quite disturbing to be lying in bed at the inn and having to face the possibility of exploring outside during the night, not knowing what was prowling through the streets.

My favourite encounters are the mysterious contents of the crate at the Riverside Quarter and the mutant, tentacled woman you find in the castle. Peter knows how to play with psychological fears of people. Everything, from fighting a gang of starving children to being advised to fight an innocent person disguised as a monster, gets the horror movie mood right. The WILLPOWER mechanic, a rip-off from the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, also works quite well to add realism to the game - that is, to include lots of new ways for your character to die painfully.

While people may differ on whether House of Hell or BNC is the best horror adventure, don´t forget that BNC has the merit of being the only FF book which had some of its artwork banned. One of the problems with being an FF author / illustrator must have been the Advisory Board of sorts your work had to pass through in order to make it "suitable" for the youngsters. That´s absurd since at 12 I had already watched all the good horror movies and didn´t have nightmares.

As for gameplay, I agree that it´s not the hardest FF book there is. If you follow the correct path, the strongest enemy you´ll have to face has SKILL 9. However, I found the book a bit frustrating for two reasons. One is that at the beginning of the book you´re likely to get stuck fighting hordes of enemies with SKILLS between the ranges of 4-6. This only made replay tedious since those enemies are more of a delay in the proceedings rather than a real challenge. Second is that the book has too many arbitrary deaths, which wouldn´t be so much of a problem if there weren´t so many near the end of the book, forcing you to follow the "correct" path again, and again, and again in order to win.

The way to victory is quite narrow, too - almost any way through the castle will get you to the final enemy´s chambers, but it is extremely difficult to reach the final villain if you don´t have a specific magical item. Furthermore, if you fail to acquire *two* other items, you´ll end up fighting a final boss with SK 14 ST 32 (and this is no Ian Livingstone book where SKILL-raising items can be found like a monty haul). Finding the correct items requires you to follow a path from which you can´t deviate, and (you guessed it) full of instant death endings.

One thing in which the book really shines above other FF books is the endings. Not only is it possible to be magically transported to far-off lands (which makes for non-typical endings), but also the author displays a rather sadistic tendency in that the "player" is forced to endure the suffering of his/her character. Most of the other FF books either cut out the scene or don´t go into enough detail of painful or slow deaths, almost as if the author were so sorry to see poor Indiana Jones dead that he decided to make it swift, but not BNC. Just to name an example, there is one death paragraph which is quite lenghty and describes in detail the torturing of your character during a period of several days, after s/he is captured by the enemy.

Overall, a very good book. While some enemies are tough, they become much easier if you have the correct items, and while the design isn´t perfect, the book is still very playable and enjoyable.


[Richard Wood]

This book really stands out among the Fighting Fantasy adventures. It is full of the vilest creatures and the most disgusting deaths to be found in any Gamebook in the series. Dreadful things can happen to you. Instead of the usual assortment of zombies, vampires and demons there is a succession of horrible new creatures such as Blood-Lurchers, the Vitriol Essence and the Brain Defiler, not to mention a collection of severed human limbs animated by necromancy, which may kill you in interesting and unpleasant ways, or do worse than kill you...

The sudden death paragraphs are the product of a diseased imagination and really enhance the atmosphere of horror that pervades this book. There are 49 of them, which is probably a record, and they are downright sadistic! They exist not only as a penalty for poor judgment but are also automatically encountered if your innovative WILLPOWER score, which measures your sanity and mental resilience, ever drops below 6. Given that your WILLPOWER can start as low as 7 and decreases each time you Test it, you need to choose your path carefully to avoid exposing yourself to this deadly danger more often than you have to.

This unusually high proliferation of sudden deaths serves to make the book quite difficult, balancing the fact that most of the opponents have very low combat ratings. Beneath Nightmare Castle has been criticised on account of the fights being too easy, but given that you die if your WILLPOWER gets too low or sometimes even if you Test it unsuccessfully it is already dangerous enough without your life being jeopardised by a low SKILL score as well. It has always been the stated aim of the FF books that even a character with dismal ratings should prevail if the player makes the correct choices.

Only one battle is significantly difficult: the last opponent has very high scores and will almost certainly kill you unless you have acquired at least one of the magical items that you may find on the way. It is theoretically possible, however, to increase your SKILL to 18 when you confront him, or even to kill him without a fight at all if you discover the optimum route through the castle. This is another of the book's strengths: there is more than one possible way to complete it. The best route is not easy to find, and if you fail to follow it you will most likely be killed - but not necessarily. I prefer this to books in which you must follow the precise direction ordained by the writer.

Another unusual aspect of this book is the intriguing way in which the plot unfolds. You begin as the captive of a band of strange robed people, knowing nothing about your foe whatsoever and you have no discernable goal other than to stay alive and find out what is going on. Your first step is to escape (far easier said than done) whereupon you find yourself in your old familiar town of Neuberg - except that it has become a very unfamiliar place. The normally crowded streets are mostly deserted, hideous unnatural abominations haunt the night and the mysterious robed figures are ever present by day. There are plenty of opportunities to be killed before you even find out what is going on and what you can do about it, and this makes the adventure gripping from the very start, especially on the first reading. There are not many FF books like this (The Crimson Tide is the only other which springs to mind) and it generally gives the book a more sinister feel.

The best element of Beneath Nightmare Castle however is the general nastiness of it which in my opinion transcends that in the other books. The creatures and possible deaths are horrific and disturbing, there is a reference where you have the opportunity to kill young children, and if you complete the book you have to cut open the bad guy's head and dissect his brain! Maybe if someone had done that to Zagor he wouldn't have been in so many sequels...

Rating: 10 out of 10