FF34: Stealer of Souls

Nicholas Campbell
Per Jorner
Andrew Makrigiannis
Richard Wood


[Nicholas Campbell]

Titan has been threatened with terror once again. This latest threat comes from Mordraneth, an Archmage who has developed a way of stealing people's souls and using them to create an Illusionary Army that will kill thousands - maybe hundreds of thousands - people, thus allowing him to steal even more souls for his nefarious purposes. Now Mordraneth has kidnapped Alsander, a mage from the city of Pollua in the Old World, and imprisoned him in the Iron Crypts on the Isle of Despair, which lies well off the east coast of Allansia. Another mage has requested that you sail to the Isle of Despair and rescue Alsander, so that his knowledge can be exploited in order to defeat Mordraneth once and for all.

Stealer of Souls is the first of many Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Keith Martin, but I didn't think it was exciting or engrossing, unlike most of his later ones. As far as the scenario, location and gamebook mechanics are concerned, there is nothing new or original here. The book can be divided into three stages - exploring the Isle of Despair, then onward into the Iron Crypts to explore a dungeon, and then entering Mordraneth's Empire of Illusions. Actually, the dungeon is rather non-linear and there are several correct ways through it, which makes things a little more interesting.

There's a lot of combat, although I got a little weary when I saw that I was going to fight yet another bunch of Orcs - there are too many of them in the Iron Crypts for my liking. Nearly all of the monsters you will encounter are ones that any adventurer will be familiar with, although the Diadrone (a bizarre, sphere-shaped monster with green, scaly skin and two clawed tentacles) is a new one to me.

Most of the monsters aren't too difficult to defeat, so theoretically, you should be able to complete Stealer of Souls with average Initial scores. Of course, getting one or two SKILL-enhancing magical items along the way would help, but one of them cannot be obtained unless you have a high Initial SKILL score - and in that case, the rest of the book becomes too easy. In fact, it took me only three attempts to complete Stealer of Souls, and that is not something that I can say about most other Fighting Fantasy gamebooks! There are very few instant death paragraphs, which is a common feature of most of Keith Martin's gamebooks. Furthermore, there are many items to collect, and while nearly all of them have some use, the benefits of using them are generally negligible, so collecting them is worthless.

To be fair, this was Keith Martin's first book, and every Fighting Fantasy author had to start somewhere. However, Stealer of Souls feels lacklustre in comparison with his later gamebooks. It's not a bad attempt, but it's not a particularly good one either.

Rating: 6/10


[Per Jorner]

Keith Martin's first FF book is somewhat deservedly regarded as a "back to basics" adventure. The inclusion of spellcasting and the odd letter-counting exercise leave a very small dent in the impression of a straightforward dungeon trek where you open one door after another, strike down drunken Orcs, add up useless Gold Pieces and collect lots of items, most of which can be used to avoid a minor scuffle or injury somewhere. One way in which it is not like the early FF books is that there aren't really any mutually exclusive stretches, so if you really want to, you can go through almost every encounter in the book in one game - in fact, unless I'm mistaken you can go through all of them but one!

That's not to say the book is too difficult. I won on my second attempt, after running into an unlucky and relatively early instant death in the first. My success had a lot to do with my maximum Skill score, which made most fights into a formality and left me with lots of food and healing items at the end. With a Skill of 8 or 9, or some really poor luck, item hunting and usage will become more of a necessity, but it should only take you two or three games regardless to visit the majority of locations. This is a convenient design if you like to play through an adventure just once or twice and then happily feed it to rats, but it also seems rather lazy.

Russ Nicholson mostly does a good job with the art. I especially like the Dragon, the startled Orcs and the fighting Hobgoblins. A few oddities: A spider is drawn with nine legs. 331 says "ice crystals seem to hang in the air", and crystals are drawn literally hanging in the air. The illustration for 52 should be reversed. Alsander should have a beard but is depicted twice without one. The Diadrone looks a bit iffy.

If you ask about the scroll in 101, shouldn't you get the extra Luck point at the end of the paragraph? 52 makes reference to an item you may not have. How can a tunnel be "dusty and damp"? 334 is slightly odd: if you are intently looking for something that speaks, why would you end your search after finding something that normally does not speak? 287 asks if you want to go west or west (106 is east). The transition from 278 to 103 is pretty abrupt. 259 could possibly be read to mean the grappling hook is discarded along with the rope. You are scolded for killing a sleeping human, but not for killing a sleeping Orc. 42 fails to mention something that is featured in 274 (where it merits an illustration) and in 314. In the "light, airy passage" when you are (apparently) hanging above some sort of chasm you may be told to discard items in order to climb up - but how do you remove chainmail while clinging to a precipice?

Rating: 5/10


[Andrew Makrigiannis]

This gamebook was written by Keith Martin and illustrated by Russ Nicholson. This is the first book I've read by Mr. Martin and I have to say that I enjoyed it alot. The plot of the book is fairly simple like most of the FF books (Creature of Havoc was the only one with a complex plot that I can think of and which I enjoyed). Your goal is to infiltrate the Isle of Despair on which the archmage Mordraneth has imprisoned the good wizard Alsander. You are to retrieve the old man and return to the city of Pollua in the Old World. Mordraneth's power comes from the fears of the dying and the dead.  Furthermore, he plans to use this dark sorcery in his future plans of conquest.

Have we beaten to death the idea of the archmage/archwizard/nasty magic-user as the canonical antagonist? Just once I would like to pit my skills against a different type of ultimate bad guy. Like Snotly the evil, yet cunning goblin terrorist. Or BigDon the fire giant who runs a protection racket.  Zagor, Balthus, Zharradan, and the ArchMage from Sorcery! have delved into this subject already.  I'll stop bitching now.

You are taken by ship to the island and you must find an entrance to the Iron Crypts of Mordraneth.  Once in the Iron Crypts you are to seek out Alsander and assure his safe return. If you can survive long enough to do this you find out from Alsander how to reach the archmage. Because Mordraneth is about to launch an attack on Pollua you are given the secondary mission of assasinating him. What a surprise!

I believe Mr. Martin does a very good job of bringing together many of the elements which made the first FF books classics. The initial wilderness adventure before finding the entrance to the Iron Crypts is reminiscent of the Forest of Doom. Once in the Crypts it becomes a 'Warlock of Firetop Mountain' type dungeon crawl. The adventure is populated by a giant, ogres, hobgoblins, orcs, and undead. I love this kind of basic fantasy, especially when it is engagingly written and Mr. Martin does it very well here. Simple can be successful.

Russ Nicholson is probably my second favourite artist after John Blanche, so my perspective may be a bit biased. I believe along with Mr. Blanche, the monsters and characters drawn by Mr. Nicholson have helped the success of FF books. They give a personality to the type of cut-throat world the different authors are trying to portray. Anyway, enough ass-licking. Russ does a good job here, all the monsters look nasty. One complaint is that the face of Alsander when you first free him and his face in the picture where he is pointing to the wall are totally different. It doesn't look like the same guy.  The cover illustration by David Gallagher was good as well.

The final battle is well written. You first have to find Mordraneth by going through an illusory maze occupied by illusory opponents. Once you locate him you can start the combat with sorcery using the spells that Alsander gives you. I liked the final confrontation, it keeps you guessing. I didn't like a 'Test your luck or die' roll which you are required to make earlier in the adventure, but I guess this is made up for by very few no-warning death traps. The book didn't need death traps, I found it hard to get through because the dungeon has to be carefully explored due to a clever plot device I haven't seen before, I won't give it away though. It should take you about 10-15 tries with no cheating and average skill/luck scores to get through. Very satisfying.

Rating: 8.0/10


[Richard Wood]

Keith Martin's first foray into the annals of Fighting Fantasy is on the whole a promising debut.

A hapless wizard has had the misfortune to be kidnapped by this month's "Most Dangerous Evil Sorceror in Titan" and you have been sent to rescue him and bring him back. Slightly more original than the usual assassination missions, this mandate also permits a minor but welcome plot development towards the end of the book when the duly rescued wizard informs you that the bad guy is even badder than was first thought and must be dispatched immediately by yours truly.

Although predictable, this event adds an heightened sense of urgency to your quest, and enables you to learn a few magical spells that may come in handy in the most dangerous phase of your mission. It is unusual for a gamebook to introduce spells at such a late stage of the adventure instead of at the beginning, and it works well. It serves as a reward for the progress thus far attained, and it accurately forecasts the increased hazards of the final stage of the book.

The action takes place in three main environments: the open countryside, with plains, mountains and a jungle; a dungeon replete with guards, traps and monsters; and finally the magical Empire of Illusions, a labyrinth constructed by the evil archmage who is causing all the trouble.

I invariably find such books to be far more satisfying than those which are set in one location only. The final zone is reminiscent of the Maze of Zagor in "Warlock," except that it is too linear and all routes eventually lead to the exit if you manage to survive them. Had it been a true maze it would have been the perfect conclusion to a generally decent adventure: as it is it is rather too easy, although it is well written and the multi-coloured passages add a great deal to the atmosphere of the book.

There is also the excellent idea of having some creatures which are illusions (but dangerous nevertheless) and some which are real (and even more dangerous), so you can waste a Dispel Illusion spell if you are not astute. Nothing is as it seems, for your nemesis is a master of mirages. Consequently this last chapter makes Stealer of Souls stand out among gamebooks, in that the bad guy's domain is made in his image, instead of the usual castle or dungeon that your typical megalomaniac occupies.

One encounter in particular, the Blue Dragon which exhales not fire but bolts of lightning, really caught my imagination and easily surpasses Zagor's pitiful minion!

There is more than one route through this book, which in spite of making it somewhat easier than others is nevertheless an aspect I prefer since I like the freedom this confers (although it would perhaps benefit from a few extra sudden-death paragraphs), and at least the "any player whatever his scores can win" promise is honest.

Generally this is a good offering from Keith Martin and a foretaste of his better work which followed. Some spectacular illustrations from Russ Nicholson -paragraphs 274, 112 and 169 are well worth a look - complete this above average read.

Rating: 8 out of 10