FF32: Slaves of the Abyss

Nicholas Campbell
Per Jorner
Simon Osborne (spoiler - plot)
Chris Page


[Nicholas Campbell]

The city of Kallamehr, along the south coast of Allansia, is under threat from an invading army to the east. Lady Carolina, one of the five nobles of Kallamehr, has summoned you and ten other adventurers to the palace. Unfortunately, her champion, Ramedes the Invincible, is away on a quest to retrieve a very important and valuable relic, so you and the others must defend Kallamehr.

However, no one is sure exactly where this army has come from, or who they are. As you roam the area around Kallamehr, you gradually learn that this is no ordinary army, and there are a lot of twists in the tale. The Riddling Reaver makes an appearance just when it looks like you're doomed; you may find yourself wandering around an illusory forest whose paths are magically determined (I really liked this concept); and you can even travel to another plane - to the Abyss itself! I don't want to tell you too much, though, but the way Paul Mason and Steve Williams develop the story is brilliantly executed, and something that other Fighting Fantasy authors could have learnt from.

That said, because Paul Mason is involved, expect a gamebook that is fiendishly difficult to complete. Choices that lead to death are plentiful, particularly near the end of the book when you are in the Abyss. The illusory forest is another intriguing section; unless you choose the paths in the correct order, you are destined to wander in it forever, but if you draw a map, you will soon learn the correct sequence of paths to take. Finding the correct path through this very non-linear gamebook will take many attempts, and I reckon that you will need an Initial SKILL of at least 10 to complete it. Actually, you could theoretically complete it with a SKILL of 7, thanks to a 'killing blows' rule that allows you to kill an opponent instantly if you roll 12 when calculating your Attack Strength, but this is extremely unlikely, and I usually forgot that this rule existed while I was playing!

I'm not a fan of Paul Mason's other works in the Fighting Fantasy series, but Slaves of the Abyss is a good gamebook, mainly because of the scenario and the way the story gradually unfolds as you learn more about the threat facing Kallamehr. The system of ticking off time boxes could have been done better - it's quite unlikely that you will tick off all of them in the course of the game - but this is a fairly minor flaw. The ending is very different to other Fighting Fantasy gamebooks as well!

Rating: 8/10


[Per Jorner]

In the latest Fighting Fantasy generic item hunt you haphazardly cut down two Rat Men on the road to the Vault of Grahhl, whereupon their corpses yield up five Gold Pieces and a brass pipe-cleaner which is actually cursed and will shave 1 point off your Skill score, but for some unspecified reason will let you pass the Mock Wyvern in the obsidian chamber...

Silly me, wrong notes. Slaves of the Abyss is actually an adventure where you ride out on a mission on behalf of the imperiled city/province of Kallamehr, gradually learning of an advancing threat and how to deal with it. Down the winding road you'll have the chance to fight a zombie wading in wine, pass on foraging advice to a Troll, meet an ant-eater (almost as good as a penguin), battle a gamebook author gone "foul and ulcerous" and encounter the Riddling Reaver (a rare breed of Mutant Toad Man). Some pretty neat stuff, actually.

The uncovering of the plot is well paced, leading first to a sense of mystery and then to one of urgency. For some reason the danger seldom seems as _real_ in a gamebook as it does here; instead of yawning in the face of some sorcerer's abstract threat to an abstract realm, you get a feeling of "how the hell am I going to deal with this?", which of course paves the way for greater satisfaction once you have. Approaching the horde in paragraph 199 for the first time with hornets leaping from the opposite page was rather stirring (pity I died on the following paragraph, but hey, that's gamebooks for you).

Apart from the story and pacing I also appreciated the book's general fairness, by which I do not, this time, mean balance in game terms or lack of bloodthirst. I can't say more than that - play the book and you might find out -, but it's definitely something most gamebooks would benefit from.

There may be a flaw or two, but nothing too distracting. Bythos really seems to hold a grudge against the people of Kallamehr - even in defeat, he thinks of little else -, but we are never told why. Games tend to end in instant death (46 death paragraphs - I like to count them), sometimes because of logical plot hurdles, sometimes less predictably. Many deaths can be avoided using common sense, though, and the book's not too harsh in other respects: it doesn't Test your Luck too often, fights are relatively scarce and getting through with Skill 9 should be possible, taking into account an item that "adds 1 to your Skill in combat". In one place you do have to roll under your Skill in order to avoid almost certain death later on, but this isn't exactly something that other books don't do.

I'm not sure about the time counter; it seems to me that you can only run out of time by advancing pretty far into the game while still doing a lot of bad things, in which case you'll most likely hit some other wall first anyway. The bonus encounter for box 18 would have been better placed in 15 or 16 instead, as after the various brushes you can have with this guy it would have been a logical dramaturgic step to include the showdown as an actual part of the game (for my own part I never had more than 13 boxes). As for the killing blow rule, I simply forgot about it 99% of the time, and when I did remember it I never rolled a double 6.

Though I didn't much care for Bob Harvey's art in FF16, I thought it did the job pretty well here. No real standouts, perhaps (the one for 298 would probably be my favourite - you can tell from the guy's face he objects to the idea of throwing a sword with enough force to lift a man off the ground), but there's a symbiosis with the text. A visual inconsistency: in the picture for paragraph 216 your blade is shown as a longsword with a symmetric crosspiece, but in the illustration for paragraph 298 it's turned into a scimitar with an S-shaped guard. The wonders of Fangthane steel!

Small bits and pieces: It seems a bit over the top to make an anti-cheating device out of the names of the herbs of all things, as I can't really imagine a player who wouldn't know them at that point. Also I think it's impossible to find the sage and not know her name. A textual inconsistency: if you challenge the Gatherer outside the bowl, once you've defeated him you will be in the bowl (and discover the chariot anew). It may not be totally obvious that the "wound which changes colour" is the one you get when you kill the traitor, as one could argue that an ache and a glow doesn't really add up to a "wound" and there's no mention of either being permanent (if it happened to me I know _I'd_ make a big deal out of it). Just in case like me you're mystified by the mention of a crossbow, it is indeed not the one dropped by the Goblin in the forest.

In summation, this is one of my favourite FFs so far, thanks to its eye towards storytelling and striking detail. In my view titles like this and Spectral Stalkers are proof that although the FF system was designed with a plotless dungeon crawl in mind, it can be used to frame a wide range of moods and stories. Pity that even as the series was coming to a close apparently not all contributing writers had fully grasped this.

Rating: 8/10


[Simon Osborne]

The thirty-second entry to the Fighting Fantasy series has always seemed a little problematic to me. Certainly, when I first read the book in primary school, I thought it was awful - I couldn't figure out what was going on, nor could I complete the book. My copy lay unread and uncompleted on my shelf for some time. It wasn't until the release of Return To Firetop Mountain in 1992 that I returned also to the rest of the Fighting Fantasy books to complete them all. And this time I found a completely different gamebook, one that is certainly tough, but also unusual and rewarding.

The book is permeated by a vaguely surreal quality, attributed to the febrile mind of Steve Williams, in which your actions seem almost hazy and unreal, the written equivalent of slow motion. It also seems to be a sequel of sorts to The Riddling Reaver, who appears in this adventure also, but in his ambivalence he can help the player this time rather than hindering them. Also appearing, the Lady Caroline of Kallamehr, still grieving for her dead husband, now attended to by a whole group of backstabbing nobles, each one eager to depose her and take the crown for themselves. To make matters worse, it appears there is an army marching towards Kallamehr from the east, and another from the north. It is into this state of civil unrest and approaching armies that YOU stride, a mighty warrior, summoned to the court of Rangor by Lady Caroline herself. So begins the tale of the Slaves Of The Abyss.

On a technical level, Slaves is a well-thought-out entry to the series. Many of the monsters fought in the book are not only unique, but also intriguing. The Hornet Assassin, illustrated for paragraph 57, is truly a horror straight from someone's nightmare! So too the Ant Symbiote, illustrated for paragraph 268. A new rule for this book is reminiscent of Creature Of Havoc, that of "Killing Blows" - if you should throw a double six in combat, you automatically win. Thus, despite some of the tougher monsters later in the book, there is always a chance of completing the book with SKILL and STAMINA scores at their lowest. However, this only applies if you get to keep your Sword of Fangthane Steel, so be careful not to drop it! Some complain that the book is too difficult, and I would certainly agree that this one would take several attempts to finish. The difficulty lies, not in the statistics of the monsters you must fight, but in finding the correct path, and acquiring the requisite items. However, the conclusion is one of the best in Fighting Fantasy, and well worth the effort. The Time score is also an interesting addition, replacing the colour map with an illustration of a sand timer; as the blurb to the book says, "Among your opponents in this adventure is time itself!"

As mentioned, the illustrations for this book, by Bob Harvey, are good, much use being made of obscuring darkness. One minor illustration shows a cowelled figure, it's face concealed, reaching out from the page to touch the reader with a human hand. Bob's other works include illustrating Fighting Fantasy 11: Talisman Of Death and the Way Of The Tiger series of gamebooks by Mark Smith & Jamie Thomson, which series provides an excellent portfolio of his works.

That isn't to say that Slaves is without problems. The Abyss is a place invented purely for this book; there is no mention of this made in Titan, nor in any other book of the series. We are given no history of Bythos whatsoever, who he was, what he became, how he did it, or why he is imprisoning people in the Abyss. Nor is there any background information given on Sige the Silent, or any reason given for her villainy. Neither are the unusual events after her death fully explained; who or what is Sige? The lack of background material and the unexplained motivation of these characters can irritate. The game play is slightly marred by having to write down certain words as reminders of what the player has done, some of which are necessary for completing the game. Annoyingly, certain key words that need to be written down as a reminder for the end of the game appear in the text, but no mention is made of keeping note of them. Of course you only fall for this once, but it can frustrate. Also, there is also only one true way through the book, leaving no room for exploration. Due to this, it is also possible to "go wrong" almost right from the start of the book, yet you can play through almost to the end before dying, which can seem like a bit of a waste of time.

This difficulty was deliberate. According to Paul Mason, his belief was that Fighting Fantasy readers wanted difficult challenges in the books. He explains, "...that was what I understood FF fans to want (it was the running theme in the letters I answered when I did the Warlock's Quill letters column in Warlock magazine)." He also admits to not reading many Fighting Fantasy books beforehand. "At the time I wanted to ensure that I wasn't 'tainted' by too many conventions." He now views this as a mistake. "In retrospect I would have been better off reading all the books, and making something that fitted in seamlessly, yet which was still distinctively different. If I'd done that, I think I could have been said to have made some kind of achievement with FF, whereas in fact I just did a couple of slightly offbeat books, that certainly match whatever virtues they may have with their annoyances."

The unusual conclusion to this book was inspired by Greek tragedy: all heroic literature involves sacrifice of some kind. The original ending was to have been the player living alone in the Abyss forever, having sacrificed himself for the good of the people. However, "such moral dimensions were apparently taboo in the world of FF." As Paul explains, "Steve J actually wrote to us that he felt that at the end of the book, God should turn up and jolly well give the hero a pile of treasure." Neither Steve Williams nor Paul Mason was happy with this, so a compromise was reached, the now legendary finale to Slaves Of The Abyss.

Despite the inherent idiosyncrasies in this unusual book, and its problems, Slaves is thought provoking and, well, fun. As with all of Paul Mason and Steve Williams' work, there are literary and cinematic tie-ins, though fewer in this book than in their others. Looking out for these can be a part of the fun. For example, an item you can find in the adventure is a golden statuette in the shape of a clenched fist. In one of the smaller illustrations, the fist is shown opening to reveal a gem. This is reminiscent of the hilt of the Mind sword in the 1980 film Hawk The Slayer. There may be others, too. This book also continues Paul's interest in curious folklore and bizarre arcane; for instance, Mema being covered in a strange green paste, which Enthymesis said would protect her, and Bythos' weird broth, which can have unusual effects on the player.

All in all, Slaves is a book, which polarises Fighting Fantasy readers. Some hate it, as I did initially. Some, however, consider it to be a well-written book, and it is into this latter group I now fall. It is both enthralling and frustrating in almost equal measure, but the surreal quality of the text, and the unique conclusion lift it above average.

As a score, I would give Slaves a steady 7 out of 10


[Chris Page]

As the book summary says, Kallamehr lies defenceless and is facing another invasion while the army is away to the north. Only you can help. The first thing you notice is the unforgettable front cover. And you can tell from this alone it's going to be one of those really wierd books. Not long after you start your journey some priests beat you up and steal some trinket which frankly proves to be useless anyway. From there, the plot twists quite often (I won't give too much away) but it certainly does the book good. But there's something odd about the book which you can't quite seem to put your finger on. Not that thats' bad, weird books can often be interesting. But it's weird. Weirdness aside, it's pretty well written and makes a good story. Any faults? Well for a start at one stage you have to face a fifty foot tall giant. Now if you were fifty feet tall and you had somebody about six feet tall below you who you wanted to kill, what would you do. Stand there, running your mouth? Unlikely. Also, the ending involves you doing something which pretty much changes your life forever (again, I won't give away too much for those who haven't read it or completed it) but it certainly wouldn't be what I would do. Finally, what slaves? Perhaps I've missed something, but what slaves, what abyss for that matter? I don't know, have I missed something? An unusual choice for a title. Perhaps a better title would be Armies of Death. And Armies of Death could be called Deathtrap Dungeon perhaps. But minor flaws aside, it's a damn good book, not the best in the series by a long way, but certainly not the worst by a long way. I'd give it a colourful 7 1/2 out of 10.

Rating: 7.5/10