FF28: Phantoms of Fear

Nicholas Campbell
Robert Clive
Kieran Coghlan
Per Jorner
Mark J. Popp
Laurence Sinclair


[Nicholas Campbell]

You are a Wood Elf living in Affen Forest, in the north-eastern region of Khul. The Wood Elves have the ability to control their dreams, and in one such dream, you learn that Ishtra, the Demon Prince, is assembling an army beneath the forest. Affen Forest is already being blighted by Ishtra's aura of evil, and if he is not stopped, he and his army will also take over Titan. You tell the other Wood Elves in your village that you must set off to find Ishtra's underground lair, to save Titan from an unimaginable fate.

Phantoms of Fear is one of those gamebooks that has an interesting background, but through a combination of flaws in the rules, fails to live up to its full potential. A new POWER attribute is introduced, which reflects your ability as a Wood Elf to control your dreams. You can also fight creatures in the dream world, but unlike traditional Fighting Fantasy combats, they involve POWER rather than SKILL and STAMINA. Unfortunately, the rules of dream combat (in which you roll two dice to determine who loses POWER in an Attack Round) mean that the battle is always balanced in your opponent's favour. Thankfully, losing a dream combat does not mean that you die - it is just a dream, after all. Later on, you may encounter Ishtra and his lieutenant, Morpheus, in the dream world, but these are fought in the more traditional manner of Fighting Fantasy, with POWER replacing STAMINA. Fortunately, these combats are balanced in your favour, provided you have a sufficiently high SKILL.

As a Wood Elf, you also have the ability to cast six different types of spell. "Great!", you may think - but as soon as you approach Ishtra's domain, roughly one third to halfway into your quest, you are unable to use them, and there are few opportunities to use them even when you still have the ability to cast spells. This situation makes the concept of casting spells worthless. This really should have been thought out much better.

The gamebook itself is divided into two stages. In the first stage, you make your way through Affen Forest. As you progress through the forest and come nearer to Ishtra's underground lair, you witness its transformation from beauty to blight. This is enhanced considerably by the grotesque and chaotic illustrations of Ian Miller. The second stage sees you exploring Ishtra's dungeon, in which you can switch between the real world and the dream world when you encounter paragraphs that are marked with a particular symbol. This is very clever and something that I appreciated very much, although it must have been rather complicated for the author, Robin Waterfield, to implement correctly.

Robin Waterfield's dream descriptions are excellent, although it can be difficult to determine whereabouts in the dungeon you are if you stay in the dream world. You can do what I did, and map out the dungeon in the real world first, before attempting to map it in the dream world. You can also choose to fight Ishtra in either the real world or the dream world, which means that are two ways to complete Phantoms of Fear, and once you defeat Ishtra, you can try again using the other method.

Other good points to Phantoms of Fear are the references to other places and people in Titan. In one dream, you meet the ubiquitous Yaztromo; in another dream, you see a contest taking place in the Arena of Death in the faraway continent of Allansia (a reference to Trial of Champions). You may also meet another former adventurer who got lost in the Maze of Zagor (which featured in the Warlock of Firetop Mountain), and a group of pixies whose master is the Riddling Reaver! If only more gamebooks would make subtle references to Titan in this way... Robin Waterfield has also introduced a wide variety of new monsters - the Angaroc (a cross between a snake and a spider that only exists in the dream world), the Arctolyce (a cross between a wolf and a bear) and Prowlers (bizarre, wolf-like monsters that hatch from larvae) are just some of the many new monsters that you may encounter. You can even fight a group of squirrels!

However, there are numerous flaws that spoil the gamebook overall. As well as the systems of dream combat and spells that I mentioned earlier, there are a couple of situations where you can die merely by rolling the wrong number(s) on one or two dice. Although you start the game without Provisions, you can obtain some early on - but the amount you obtain is determined by rolling two dice, so you could end up with anything from 2 to 12 Provisions! There is also a puzzle known as the Trial of Ghosts, which consists of a 7 x 7 grid of squares, most of which have a number written in them. You have to reach the square in the centre by choosing the correct sequence of numbers. This is entirely a matter of guesswork, and its inclusion is pointless, since anyone who fails the puzzle after one or two goes is not likely to want to try it again. Fortunately, it's not essential to solve it. Finally, the cover is arguably the worst in the entire Fighting Fantasy series! In summary, Phantoms of Fear is a reasonably satisfactory gamebook, but could have been much better if more thought had been given to the rules.

Rating: 6/10


[Robert Clive]

Comment: I always thought that this was a bit of an ignored book. I happen to think it's okay. You have a standard 'kill the villian' mission. However, treats include the fact that you play the role of a Wood Elf and have interesting powers enabling you to switch over to the 'dream world'.Although the spell system is hardly used, that WAS a real shame, the dream world ability in the villian's lair makes up for this I guess.

Good, warped, chaotic looking illustrations add to the feel of the book. The cover was okay, but I don't think it stands out like other covers do. This book is a bit of a ruthless adventurer killer, especially in the later stages.



[Kieran Coghlan]

Phantoms of Fear is a book with an interesting and highly original (for a Fighting Fantasy book, at least) premise. You play as an elven warrior-shaman who lives in Affen Forest and has the uncanny ability to enter the dream world and fight the nightmare creatures within. This ability is what makes you the best candidate to defeat the Demon-Prince Ishtra who is beginning to corrupt Affen Forest with his evil and intends to do the same to the entire world. Ishtra is invulnerable to all earthly weapons, and it is only your ability to fight in the dream world which will allow you to defeat him.

PoF brings a new statistic to the rules: the Power score which is used in casting spells and in dream combat. Unfortunately, it is the book's greatest weakness. You are given an assortment of spells you may cast in the adventure, but each time you do so drains your Power score by 1 point, and you need to conserve your Power for dream combat, thus meaning you will probably avoid casting spells at all. Furthermore, you cannot cast spells after the first half of the adventure, making their inclusion seem somewhat pointless. Dream combat is more problematic still. You are given your opponent's Power score and must repeatedly roll 2 dice. If you roll a 2-7, you lose two power points, if you roll an 8-12 your opponent loses two power points. This stacks the odds highly in your opponent's favour. Thankfully, losing Dream combat is rarely fatal, and your Power score is usually restored after combat anyway, but losing in dream combat can mean you miss bonuses to your Power score that would make the book slightly easier. Dream combat with Ishtra and his second-in-command Morpheus is done in a slightly different fashion, meaning that you stand a good chance against them, which is a relief. Dream combat and the Power score in general really let the book down and really needed to be designed with a little more sophistication. The rest of the book's design is thankfully a bit better. The book offers two ways to victory, which allows for a bit of replayability. One way is to gather several items hidden throughout the book, which is no easy task. The other is to accumulate a Power score high enough to take on Ishtra in dream combat, which again is pretty difficult given the problems of Dream Combat and the fact that your initial power Score can be anything from 8-18; start with a low Power score, and you basically have no chance whatsoever. So despite these two routes to victory, you are unlikely to find either of them on your first try. The book is more forgiving to having low scores for your other stats. Luck is not used that much, and being Unlucky is rarely that disastrous. The enemies are not too tough, but a Skill of at least 9 is probably required. The book has a few arbitary instant deaths towards the end, but thankfully not too many. However, a rather unfair puzzle called the Trial of Ghosts involves you having to choose a route at random accross a playing board. Choose the one route (which is more likely than not), and you die. There is no need to do this puzzle to beat the book, however. In short, Pof has its share of design problems, but they are not so severe as to make the book unenjoyable, though it is certainly challenging.

Robin Waterfiled's writing style captures the weird and chaotic feeling of this book quite well, and his dream sequences are very atmospheric. The secondary characters could have done with a bit of development, particularly Morpheus, who was an interesting villain whose motives for serving Ishtra are never really stated. What really brings the book to life however, is Ian Miller's disturbingly brilliant artwork. He really captures the evil chaos of Ishtra's nightmarish powers and the weirdness of the dream sequences, helping to make this a very creepy and atmospheric book. His artwork complements Waterfield's writing well, making them a good team. Miller's cover is not so good, though. I don't think his style of art works too well in colour, it just looks like the Jolly Green Giant suffering from a nose bleed.

To summarise, Phantoms of Fear is a very well written and illustrated gamebook that allows for a lot of replayability. The problems with dream combat stop it from being a classic, but it is still a better than average gamebook that is well worth a read.


[Per Jorner]

Niggle #1, Cotton God of Snot: On the cover of Phantoms of Fear you will find a green swab with two sets of eyes oozing red serpentoid creatures out of its nose. The image calls to mind an episode in Vance's The Dying Earth, but I don't really care. It is surely one of the most awful FF covers, designed to scare away all customers who weren't already going to buy the book on account of it being the latest FF.

So what's the plot? A demon is being awakened and will take over the world unless stopped by a lone champion. Sorry I asked. But wait, YOU are a "humble Wood Elf" - presumably slightly more humble if you roll Skill 7, Stamina 14; perhaps not so much if you roll Skill 12, Stamina 24 (in which case you can chuckle at the information that you are not "as mighty a warrior as your father"). The thing's set in Khul, not far from where Masks of Mayhem took place (in fact you are probably from the very same settlement that you visited in that book), but there are visionary cameos by a couple of Allansian characters, and even the Riddling Reaver gets a mention. (Two dreams also contain real-world or at least modern-world references, one being a vision of the massacre at Wounded Knee which was apparently on the author's mind at the time. Didn't quite feel like the right place for it.)

Thus you set out into the forest. There are a few nice mood-setting spots here such as the Fog Demon's appearance, and at one point it's possible to fight an army of Squirrels. After the fight, "the ground is littered with small corpses". More of that sort! Randomness soon sets in, though. As if rolling your shamanistic Power score with two dice wasn't enough (accumulating points will be expedited by already having a high score), you effectively start with two dice' worth of Provisions. A difference of 40 points of Stamina amounts to a niggle, I'd say. There's also the spell system, used only in the first third of the book. Without going into too much spoiling detail, it could have been scrapped or saved for another book; it doesn't really go with the shaman theme anyhow.

There are, in a manner of speaking, two principal ways of tackling Ishtra and his domain: one of dream-walking and one of item-hunting. That's not the whole story, but let's leave it at that. Initially you'll likely find both of them confusing and deadly. Yup, just as in FF23 Waterfield has inserted a no-warning death or two knowing that every naturally curious adventurer will just _have_ to press that button on the off chance that it reveals a numbered item. There's also the "roll a die and perish" niggle. The possibility of getting stuck in the fairy glade was hopefully not intended as an unforgiving deathtrap, yet that's how my first two games ended. To liven up the routine of following corridors and opening doors, Waterfield invented a spot in the dungeon where you come upon six doors clustered in a corridor. The twist is that you choose randomly which door to open, which could be pretty hairy if one of the rooms contained something important and one was an unconditional deathtrap.

Niggle #14, Trial of Idiot Savants: Occasionally a writer will get confused enough to jot down something like this: "Bob grinned and shook his head at himself, musing on the finer points of Cartesian dualism in the middle of a great jewellery heist." It's a good bet that if you find yourself apologizing for what you just wrote, you have a problem to fix, even if it's just the existence of the apology itself. For this book Waterfield has come up with a completely irrelevant, arbitrary and unexciting puzzle, and to be on the safe side he declares as much. Well, in this case there _was_ a problem to be fixed: the exercise in section 309 is flawed in multiple ways and will accomplish only that the player dies and never returns for another attempt.

Winning is mostly a process of trial and error. It's the kind of book where you've located the optimal path through the first half of the book well before you make any significant progress in the second. You may be able to find a relatively simple (and largely unsatisfying) route to victory by making a brash assumption or two, but the "advanced" solution is somewhat obscure and potentially frustrating not least because you don't actually know what you're hoping to accomplish. Mostly you just walk down the corridors of Ishtra's HQ, turning into other corridors, having encounters in corridors, and wondering where all those patrolling creatures find space to actually live in. A similar vagueness and inability to measure your progress characterizes the dream sequences; whether they manage to properly exploit the idea is a matter of debate, I suppose. I thought 365 followed by 266 were nice and ominous, but that's about it in terms of nightmarish mood. You almost never have a chance to make an informed decision about when to cross from one world into the other.

Niggle #17, Attack of the Stunt Doubles: There's a system for dream combat which basically amounts to this: you are screwed. Even with a Power above 20 the odds are stacked against you if you face a monster with Power 16. Admittedly, losing such a fight most often only means losing Power and not losing your life. Since they don't use this system, Ishtra and his inventively named henchdemon Morpheus are potentially much easier to battle than their minions. There is also the ubiquitous fight-yourself-with-identical-stats encounter, which under these rules leaves you with much less than the usual fifty-percent-or-better chance of winning.

About Ian Miller it must be said that he possesses a unique style which some people no doubt consider artful, yet it did little to enhance my experience. I guess I'm just not a fan of the curled and spiky and plain unattractive shapes that show up in everything he draws. Add the fact that there are just too many ogrish or orcish creatures depicted (14, 42, 113, 156, 184, 226, 281, 323, 348) and that's another niggle right there.

Things that may or may not be niggles: Elves measure distance in kilometres. 41 contradicts itself: if you can't cast spells in dreams, why do you specifically lose Power for having done so? The riddle in 98 is of the sort that doesn't make you feel very clever when you solve it. The transition from 6 to 321 is slightly incongruous. I momentarily mistook 234 for an instant death. 53 is odd because once you win a battle the outcome of the remainder is inconsequential. 303 tries to talk you into rolling lots of dice for what could be resolved using one, as does 310 (which also lacks an instruction that you shouldn't enter the same room twice).

So, it's a nice attempt at doing many things at once. But, there's the niggles.

Rating: 4/10




In the entire Fighting Fantasy series, this adventure is unique. First of all, you play an elf instead of a human adventurer. Secondly, you can travel in dreams as well as the "real" world. Thirdly, the scenario involves a landscape blighted by nightmarish forces, while also dotted with dreamlike elven magic sites. Expect some of the most weird and creepy images anywhere in the series.

There are at least two ways to complete the adventure. It's doable, although the final battle is tricky unless you collect 6 items along the way; one of these has a 1/2 chance of dying before you get it. This said, the adventure is very playable, with a number of different sidetracks and areas to explore. The dream aspect stops it from becoming too linear - in the later stages you can switch between dream and real planes almost at will. I found it very playable, although the final battle is a letdown (you need ALL the six items or the ones you collect become useless... they are used at once, and don't have special functions... kinda disappointing given the unusual nature of the items, and I've seen this stuff handled better elsewhere in the series).

Story-wise, it's an intriguing scenario focusing on nature and corruption, a tale which is allegorical for industrialisation, viewed from the perspective of the marginal. There's some great observations, too - a nightmare where the nature-loving elf character is transported to a modern future, written from the elf's perspective, is insightful.


[Mark J. Popp]

This is just a capsule review with some of my impressions after playing through Phantoms of Fear. The fact that the book is very unusual can't be understated. You don't play the usual role of a hardened adventurer, but a simple Wood Elf. There are dream sequences that are an integral part of the story, but which are often hazy, confusing and unnecessary (which I suppose a lot of dreams actually are). These dream sequences make things a little difficult to follow. The magic system leaves a lot to be desired, it could have been implemented a lot better. The story is not particularly interesting, nor is there a lot of subplots involved. Some better writing could have made this a winner, but the dream sequences and passages are generally too confusing to be entertaining. Unfortunately, on an overall basis, the book is really just average. But if you're looking for something new in the FF series, you may want to check this one out.

Rating: 6.0/10


[Laurence Sinclair]

For once you play an Elf, on a mission to save your forest from the Demonic presence festering at its heart, the Demon Prince Ishtra!

This book lets you cast spells for a short while. As soon as you enter the realm of Ishtra, your magic is completely useless, and I for one feel slightly cheated by this. So cheated, in fact, that it really soured my opinions to the book as a whole. It really is a book of two halves, as you can choose to travel either the material world or the dream realm in your quest to overcome your adversary. Each has a seperate method for winning, so you could see it as alternate endings if you looked at it a certain way.

The dream world is an interesting idea, but one that could have been implemented better. The combat system, in particular, makes little sense. If you are, as the background claims, a powerful 'Defender-Shaman of the Tribe', then why do all the dream creatures have a better skill at dream combat than you? The real world is almost as frustrating, with rather short descriptions of the people and places that you encounter, and the overall impression is of a book that could have done with a slight re-editing before publication.

Still, it is entirely illustrated by Ian Miller, one of the best FF artists, and the alternate ways to victory provide a modicum of versatility, but in the end it's still flawed.

Rating: 4 out of 10



Phantoms of Fear has a variety of strengths and weaknesses which seem apparent right from the beggining. Character generation seems quite sufficient, with a fourth ability score (magic) and wonderful looking rules for spellcasting. Sadly the story introduction seems almost just a quick excuse to get the gamebook going. Most criminal of all is that the spellsystem is barely used, in fact you must conserve magic points so much that even casting a spell near the beginning is useless. And later we learn that the entire labyrinth you are heading to is shrouding in an anti-magic zone in which only the final boss can operate his spells safely.

The book is not too difficult yet not to hard which was pleasing to see. Although difficult, a character with a SKILL of 10 can just scrap through and other scores should be fine. LUCK in particular is barely ever used although a very poor MAGIC score could be a problem. The enemies are rarely too difficult and those that are can be generally avoided. One very annoying feature is that the game involves the collection of various artefacts, missing out on even one of these items is fatal (unless you rolled a double 6 for your MAGIC score)and due to the maze-like quality of the book often you will scour each room in vain desperately trying to find that last item. One particular annoyance is the large amount of instant death rolls, often regardless of your abilities a single dice roll can easily kill you. Of particular annoyance is a corridor of 6 doors, one of which contains an instant death paragraph and the other which contains an item neccessary to your quest. Unfourtunately you can only open random doors to continue (giving you a half chance of survival).

The book is split into two halves, the first involves walking through a dull forest and is really nothing special. The book really starts to sharpen up once you gain access to 'the pit'. The pit is a wonderfully constructed underground labyrinth which actually is a labyrinth (mapping is advised!!). Many other dungeons in fighting fantasy books such as the infamous Deathtrap Dungeon or Midnight Rogue are pretty much one big tunnel with side passages that branch off and reconnect, often you are told "you come to a junction but decide the left passage looks too dangerous so you head right" just to avoid the complication of walking back into an area you have already been to. In this book you are permitted to head back into areas that are further back in the dungeon and an advantage is given to those players who have managed to map out the area. Further more you don't have to head down the exact right passage to complete your quest.

The most unique aspect of this gamebook are the dreams, these are very well written although at times they can seem a little tedious. Combat is certainly deadly in these areas and has little to do with your stats. In the pit you have the option of progressing through tunnels in dreamstate or realstate. Sadly dreamstate is really not an option as one of the creatures lurking in the dreamworld is nearly impossible to beat.

The artwork is excellent and each scene depicts the surreal world of the twisted forest or your equally chaotic mind. The cover is excellent indeed and almost begs for the book to be opened.

Ah well, at least the book didn't end "you wake up only to find it was all a dream" although that would have been good for a laugh. Not bad but I've read better.

Rating: 6.8/10