FF35: Daggers of Darkness

Nicholas Campbell
Robert Clive
Hugh Eldred-Grigg
Per Jorner
Laurence Sinclair
John Stock


[Nicholas Campbell]

The kingdom of Kazan, in south-west Khul, is in turmoil. Its previous ruler, Segrek, died recently, and the evil vizier Chingiz is threatening to take over the Throne of Kazan. However, Kazan uses a mysterious form of succession to the Throne. Families across the country nominate their children to be one of the so-called Select, and these children undergo a series of rigorous tests to determine their suitability and worthiness to sit on the Throne. Now that Segrek has died, the Select have been ordered to travel Kazan, enter the Mazes of the six tribal clans, seek as many Medallions as they can, and head to the city of Sharrabbas. Only one of them will claim the Throne, but there is no time to waste, because Chingiz must be overthrown - and one of his assassins has stabbed you with a Death Spell Dagger, and poison is slowly making its way through your body! The only cure is to return the Dagger to its maker, Chingiz.

With a story like that, Daggers of Darkness sounds like a promising gamebook. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a rather mediocre one instead. There are several reasons why this is the case. Luke Sharp's writing style here is rather terse and lacking in atmosphere; quite often when you choose which reference to go to next, you are asked whether you want to go left or right, without providing much, or any, information as to what lies down either route. There are very few items to collect, and most of them are of little or no use to you. Most annoying of all is that there are too many situations where you must roll dice twice and compare the results with each other, and if they are not in your favour, you die. Most of the time, the results are not related in any way to your SKILL, STAMINA or LUCK scores, so your fate hangs entirely on chance and not on your attributes.

Then there are the Medallions. Kazan consists of six tribal clans, each with their own symbol, and each possesses a Medallion hidden within a maze. However, it is likely that you will be able to obtain only one of them, and if you manage to find two, the benefits to you are negligible. Of the six mazes in Kazan, only three of them are to be found in the gamebook - although I guess that if all six mazes were included, there wouldn't be much room for anything else.

Daggers of Darkness could have been a good gamebook. Marking off Poison units as you progress turns your mission into a race against time, but the system is too lenient; you're allowed to accumulate 24 Poison units before you die, but it is rather unlikely that you will reach this number. There are also many routes to take and many ways to complete the book successfully, and finding the best route will take many attempts. Kazan also has a rather Mongolian feel to it, and there is a wide variety of monsters which seem to be unique to the region, such as Mamliks, Khomatads, Kalamites, Boulyanthrops and Elkiem. However, there is little information on the origins of these creatures, which is a shame. It's also a shame that the good points are outweighed by so many bad points.

Rating: 5/10


[Robert Clive]

Luke Shape's adventures have a habit of being real killers in places. Not just hard, but downright unfair and impossible like Fighting Fantasy number 30, Chasms of Malice. I personally think that Daggers of Darkness could do with a bit of balancing too.

Some parts of this gamebook are probably inspired by real historical events and people. Such as the main villain, who I get the impression was probably inspired by the infamous, thirteenth century Mongol warlord, Genghis Khan. You can tell this in the illustrations too; some of which have an oriental style in dress and design.

You have multiple missions in this adventure that you have to complete before you confront your evil warlord nemesis, or so you think! In the best tradition of Fighting Fantasy; there's an interesting twist right at the end with the identity of your opponent to keep you interested.

An interesting time limit is also imposed on your adventure in the fact that you start by being chased by a group of mysterious assassins, lusting for your blood, wielding poison daggers!

The front cover is truly unique and quite good. It encourages you to pick it up with a melodramatic image of a warrior, reminiscent of a Mongol soldier, holding the leads of two fierce-looking Sabre-toothed Tigers straining to be released. Cool!



[Hugh Eldred-Grigg]

So here we have you, the player, as one of the prospective heirs to the throne of the Kingdom of Kazan, a large Mongol-Russian type nation in South-West Khul. But you’ve been poisoned, and you must race against time to complete your task, while competing with the other Chosen ­ prospective heirs such as yourself.

Now if you’re like me, you’re thinking "hey, this sounds pretty good!". Like Deathtrap Dungeon, but in a whole country, not a dungeon! This, coupled with the excellent cover art, makes this seem a pretty decent book at first glance, certainly worth plopping down a reasonable asking price for. (I paid $8.95 New Zealand for it in 1990, which I think we can all agree is a decent deal)

Well unless somebody paid you to take it off their hands, you got gypped. This is not a good book. There are worse out there, and it has its moments, but in general it is a negative experience.

The poison system is promising but, beyond the occasional ‘mark off two Poison points’ it never affects the game. There is no real rhyme or reason to when you do or don’t get Poison. The book just slaps you with it every now and then. It’s not that you get too much or too little ­ I’ve never died of Poison, although I’ve come close ­ but it feels like somebody either added it at the last minute, or wrote it to begin with and then forgot about it. So, the ‘race against time’ element is a bit of a non-starter.

The setting doesn’t live up to its promise either. The Mongol-Russian feel is never delivered on. It feels just like any other fantasy kingdom ­ enchanted woods, salty taverns, ho hum. The writing is extremely sparse and low on description. This can be effective if combined with a disciplined writing style, but rather than cut back on the nonessentials and convey only essential points, Mr Luke Sharp prefers to concentrate on the nonessentials and ignore the basics.

As a result of this it is often not very clear what exactly is happening. In one of the Mazes you explore, the Maze collapses because it’s under attack. By whom? Why? How? The book never really tells you except in vague hints. This sort of thing happens frequently, and is extremely annoying.

Daggers has its good points. Some of the challenges you have to go through are quite entertaining, and the twist at the end is satisfying, if not brilliant. The art is probably the high point, and it’s probably the only part of the book which does help give the setting its Asiatic feel. But neither of these make up for its glaring flaws.

Overall, this is not a book I’d recommend buying. If you need it for your collection, go ahead, but playing it is going to leave you feeling pretty done over.

Rating: 2/10


[Per Jorner]

Once upon a time, a reviewer came to a house that held a few chairs with numbers on them. First of all, the reviewer sat down in the chair numbered 39. "This is too soft!" he shouted. Next, he tried the chair numbered 30. "This is too hard!" he wailed, looking even less happy. And finally he tried the chair with the number 35. (Actually there was another chair numbered 27, but it is beyond the scope of the story.) No sooner had the reviewer sat down in this chair than he exclaimed, "This is just right!" Then he squirmed a little. "This is just _about_ right," he clarified. Then he squirmed and chafed some more.

The plot in Daggers of Darkness is well above average for Fighting Fantasy. You are one of the legitimate pretenders to the throne of Kazan, but the Vizier Chingiz wants it for himself, so not only do you have to make your way to the capital evading hostile patrols and slipping through checkpoints, but you have to prove your worth to the clans by picking up one or more Medallions from their respective Mazes... while being hunted by a multitude of assassins who have already infected you with a slow-acting poison (you'd have thought Chingiz could afford to splurge for the fast-acting variety). Scratch the surface of this noble quest and the Mongolian-flavoured illustrations and you find much the same structure and mechanics as in the other books by "Luke Sharp". Ian Livingstone has his own checklist, so it's only fair that the Sharp gets one as well:

* Hectic pace: yes. Nothing is dealt with in very great detail, so the book has been packed with incidents and encounters that span from one to a handful of sections. Sometimes the book takes the time to tell you what's going on and what you see before you, at other times you're told you're fighting a BONECRUSHER BEAST and that's pretty much it. There is of course a lot of handwaving involved in handling all the criss-crossing links, and some rather less than smooth transitions.

* Time limit: yes. In Fangs of Fury this mechanic was represented by a glowing bracelet tied to the breaching of walls and was extremely unlikely to have any effect on your game; here we have the aforementioned poison which actually seems rather well balanced. It's quite possible to die from poisonation, and there'll be some suspense in trying to avoid those last few units near the end. The poison counter as presented on the Adventure Sheet is a bit awkward, but to state the obvious for the record, you can simply treat it as a numeric counter going down from 24. The instruction to "not mark off the next Poison unit" can then be handled by increasing the counter.

* Death by matching dice: yes. In numerous places you are instructed to roll one or more pairs of dice, and getting one or more matches results in injury or not uncommonly death. This is tedious not least when you're following what seems to be an otherwise perfectly valid path, and a slightly different roll of the dice would have seen you on your way with not so much as a bruise.

* Capture sequences: yes. In the land of Kazan, taking someone prisoner is much like saying hello, and in this book you get something like a dozen opportunities to be flushed out, trussed up, carted about and subjected to trials of every description. If it's not your enemies, it's your friends, and if it's not your friends, it's some random people bored out of their wits. Often these events serve as scene transitions and involve you getting knocked out, choked, put to sleep or hypnotized; like pretty much everything else they will be over in a few paragraphs. Most gamebook heroes avoid the heck out of getting captured since it tends to mean the end of the line for them; for Luke Sharp's protagonists it's just part of the daily grind.

* Nondescript player alternatives: yes. In fact the book could appropriately have been titled The Left or Right of Darkness, since it seems you keep choosing between left and right regardless of context. Lost in undergrowth? Left or right. Running from some Trolls? Left or right. Jumping off a careering cart? Left... or right? For all you know, one option will have explosions going off all around while the other will have sugarplum fairies raining from the sky. Sometimes you choose between going down "the lane" or down "another road", or, if the book is feeling generous, between travelling on "the road" or on "the plain". Ed once pointed out how selecting random items in the Snow Witch's larder could have benefited from simply suggesting how each item might come in handy, even if most of this would never be of any relevance, and Daggers of Darkness should have been there taking notes. There are a few places where you might read subtle indications into the wording of options, and feel a sense of accomplishment if you make the right choice based on this, but there are about as many unfair traps or deaths where logic is of no use.

* Graphics and minigames: yes. The game in paragraph 77 was actually remarkably involving, even if it's mostly random and I believe the author underestimated its effect on your Stamina, as well as that of the Maze which follows. A snakes and ladders game in gamebook form is a neat idea, but the execution leaves something to be desired. The entirely random game in 266 is too hard considering it's unlikely enough that you'll come across both the game and any one of the places where its reward could be of any help (or "help").

* A smattering of amusing details: yes. For instance, in one place you meet a forgetful wizard who, when annoyed, "kicks a rock, which explodes". 375 provides a brief but interesting look at city life in Sharrabbas which is entirely incidental to your quest. The question is why there aren't more of these details and asides; you get the impression that most of the time Sharp wasn't putting too much energy into it, only occasionally feeling the need to amuse himself with a spot of randomness.

* Allies and competitors: yes. Besides the ubiquitous Mamliks and Necromancers (those are the bad guys), there are agents of Astragal to help (or "help") you as well as a few fellow Select who are also trying to get the Medallions. A Sensewarrior from Chasms of Malice makes an appearance, and you can befriend a tribe of birdmen who might then show up from time to time. None of which gives Throm any reason to quake in his barbarian boots, but it's a lot better than nothing.

* Numerous but relatively easy fights: yes. You will seldom come across an enemy with Skill 9 or above. This allows the writer to keep the pace up (or down, depending on your attitude towards combat) without making the book impossible for characters of low or middling scores. At the same time, combat is by far the most common way of acquiring Poison units, so those Skill 7 Orcs you stumble across may not be your true adversary at work.

* Twisting paths and obscure deviations: yes. As in any Luke Sharp book, when you've beaten it there are likely several encounters you've never come across. However, this might not be such a terrible loss, since most of them are probably just flavour variations of the same things you already did elsewhere (matching dice etc.), and a lot of options not taken hide nothing but some minor bonus or penalty. Even the really hard-to-find encounters will rarely provide crucial help or information.

As indicated in this list, the book feels underdesigned and underdeveloped, relying in large part on routine (even if it's not the worst routine) and falling well short of its potential. Letting the player character pick up tricks and abilities is a great idea, but then it turns out that the writer hadn't fully considered the likelihood, the usefulness or even the possibility of first acquiring and then using them. Even the Powers, which could have been an excellent way of rewarding the player for getting to the end, seem thrown in as an afterthought. For every somewhat flavourful passage there is an equal and opposite piece of insipid handwaving. The clans of Kazan have their own culture, but this only shines through occasionally, and it's not really there for you to reflect on or interact with; the towns and cities are largely bereft of such flavour. I believe Daggers of Darkness could have been a cut above the rest of Sharp's books, but ultimately it is trapped in the same formulaic design.

Martin McKenna's art however does not disappoint, and I appreciate that it's not as inky and scratchy as in some later books. One complaint I do have is that some mediaeval European flavour creeps in unnecessarily, especially with the picture from the jousting game. I also wonder why there are several goblinoids among the Yigenik in the illustration for 346.

* The introduction mentions that the Select have been raised "in the approved manner", but there is absolutely no reference to this in the adventure. Apparently the ideal competence and conduct of a Kazanid ruler are exactly those of a generic Titan adventurer, and no foreknowledge of Kazanid customs or creatures is required. Also, there's no mention of several concurrent batches of Select, even though the ruler should reasonably be able to snuff it while the Select are still infants or even before they're selected. Also also, if the old ruler died last year and the Select weren't told, why are _all_ of them swarming into Kazan at exactly the same time?

* 179 should say to deduct 3 Stamina points for using Treffilli instead of 1. You can't know how to use Treffilli in 243, so 10 (which also gets the cost wrong) is unreachable. This leaves just two places where you can use it, meaning you can exhaust no more than half of your original supply; yet there are three places where you can acquire more Treffilli, one of them on a path where you can't know how to use it.

* In 381 you kick your way through a castle wall, after a few stones have been "loosened" by a rock thrown from the top of the same wall. How is any of that possible? At this point you haven't acquired the Power of Castle-Kicking.

* You can't have Darkfight in 317. You can't _not_ have Darkfight in 3 and 135. And those are all the fights that reference Darkfight, so the book shouldn't ever have to ask if you have it!

* The book sometimes tells you that you take Provisions, rest and restore 4 Stamina; I assume that if you have no Provisions at that point, you don't get any Stamina back for merely resting. It doesn't say whether you get to keep the Medallions after using them in the Fortress. You should probably not mark off Poison in 247 if you aren't hit, or in 358 if you don't fight. 125 should not say "continue until" since you only have a choice (assuming you win the first game) whether to play one more time. 175 should not say "again". If you hand over a bribe in 23 and then go to 274, it says the cart driver retrieves his bribe, but not that you do; maybe he took yours too. Why doesn't 315 list a penalty for having to take a detour, as 245 did? I assume 145 means you can be hit more than once. There is no Green Gem in the book as far as I can tell; also I don't know what 55 means when it speaks of "phials" in addition to "potions". The instruction in 98 not to re-enter a guild is not important. In 186 you mark off Poison after being bitten by poisonous snakes, but in 77 and 143 this only chips off Stamina. The map prominently features something called the "Bogomil Deeps" crossed by the "Paths of Ushun Koja", none of which you come across when travelling from Bogomil to Sharrabbas. It's anyone's guess whether you get a ring in 174; the words "any ring" in 52 could be taken as an indication that you do. The usefulness of the Power of Fortune increases greatly if you decide it can be used in combat. 369 should perhaps not say to mark off Poison units if you used a Power, as this doesn't happen anywhere else. Why is it that Invulnerability to Sword-Strike makes you immune to random stabs, but you conduct fights as usual? One of the Powers has no use, yet it's possible to die and be scolded by the book for not possessing it!

Rating: 6/10


[Laurence Sinclair]

This adventure, in which you play the part of an heir to the throne who must battle adversity (and poison!) to claim your right of succession, is set in a small corner of Khul that bears a resemblance to Mongolia. Not that you'd realise this from the text, however. The only clues you get are from Martin McKenna's awesome artwork.

The writing style of Luke Sharp is, in the end, what kills this book's appeal for me. He writes in a very matter-of-fact way, rarely giving descriptions of the creatures he is attacking you with or the places he is dragging you through. This is a greater loss than it may seem, as many of the creatures, like Mamliks, Khomatads, Kalamites and so forth, are encountered nowhere else on Titan, and seem very cardboard cut out in behaviour.

Necromancers are presented in a totally different light, following rules that seem contradictory of, for example, Crypt of the Sorcerer. Scenes are jumped between very rapidly, again with little or no explanation, and many of your decisions are made for you, choices, when they come, are very simplistic (left or right?) and often have no consequences, so it doesn't matter which one you take.

On the combat front, the book is quite easy, but along the way are several tests, which merely require the rolling of two sets of dice and comparing them to decide whether you live or die. What few items you find are of limited use, there's no need for a large backpack here. The poison marker is innovative, but it is pretty unlikely that you will expire at any time soon.

The plot involves you supposedly journeying between several mazes to retieve medallions, but despite space on the Adventure Sheet for all six, no more than two can be found, a plot twist that annoys more than surprises. The final confrontation, when it comes, is similarly a mix of cheap shock tactics and disappointment.

This is a gravely miscalculated book that might have worked had there been more attention to detail and devotion to the original plot.

Rating: 2 out of 10


[John Stock]

In the run up to Christmas we come to FF 35, Daggers of Darkness. The product of Luke Sharp, a fair author, if rather unfortunately endowed in the names department, this book takes place in the kingdom of Kazan, a rather Mongolian-type place in Khul. Kazan just so happens to be a neighbour of Gorak, the setting for Chasms of Malice, and involve the Grand Wizard Astragal, also from Chasms of Malice.

Well, first impressions? The plot was nothing special but I appreciated the idea of Poison Units to be marked off on your adventure sheet. And I assumed that Kazan was meant to be rather Mongolian in feel, what with names like Kazilik, Segrek, Korkut etc. Then I noticed the fact that the player had only 24 poison units to go through and within five paragraphs I had already marked off 4 of them! Gulp! Then two paragraphs later I had marked off 6! I begin to get frustrated here.

On the writing front, I give it one and a half thumbs up. Sharp, as ever, makes a little bit too much use of capitalisation, but there's nothing too confusing here. However, I did notice that the poison units are marked off for each enemy you fight, which means that 24 fights later is start-again-with-fresh-dice-rolls-time! Actually no, make that 22 because two poison units are marked off before you even get a chance at making any choices.

So, like Sharp's previous attempt, it's a good idea, but due to his trigger-happy poison tracking, it suffers from mediocrity. Don't go out of your way to get at it.

MY RATING - 6.3/10