FF36: Armies of Death

Nicholas Campbell
Per Jorner
Jeff Poteralski (spoiler - win condition)
Phil Sadler
Laurence Sinclair


[Nicholas Campbell]

Against all the odds, you braved the perils of the notorious Deathtrap Dungeon and lived to tell the tale - but now a new challenge awaits you. An army of Goblins, Orcs and Trolls has been seen near the Forest of Fiends which lies to the east of the town of Fang. The locals claim that their commander is Agglax, the Shadow Demon - and it seems that this is the case, even though it was thought that he had been banished to the Demonic Plane for ever. Using the 20,000 Gold Pieces you were awarded for completing the Trial of Champions, you have recruited an army of 220 men consisting of Warriors, Dwarfs, Elves and Knights, all ready to destroy the latest threat to Allansia.

Since Armies of Death sees you playing the same character who completed Trial of Champions, it would be entirely reasonable to start with a character with maximum Initial SKILL, STAMINA and LUCK scores, because otherwise you would not have stood a chance of surviving Deathtrap Dungeon. Well, in Armies of Death, you can roll your attributes as normal, but as with most of Ian Livingstone's gamebooks, you won't win with low Initial scores. Furthermore, as with Trial of Champions, you start out with no Provisions or a Potion of Strength, and you cannot obtain any of these things during your quest, which seems strange when you have a long trek east ahead of you. Worse still, there are only two chances in the entire game to increase your STAMINA! Now you might understand why you need high Initial scores if you are going to defeat Agglax.

Along the way to the Forest of Fiends, you can visit a couple of villages, wander around the town of Zengis, and explore the Starstone Caves, where a mysterious being known as the Oracle resides. This sub-quest is essential, but to be able to get the information you require from the Oracle, you have to collect several objects which seem to have choosen totally at random - and you only have a 50% chance of obtaining one of them, regardless of your current scores. A lot of the objects have numbers (again chosen at random) associated with them, and you know what that means. Ian Livingstone has a rather sneaky trick in store, though... You can also collect weapons which supposedly increase your SKILL, but since you can't increase your SKILL above its Initial level, the SKILL bonus becomes an irrelevance. Why?

Although you start off with 220 men in your army, you can recruit more along the way. The book introduces a new system of combat known as Skirmish Battles, but it's rarely used, and it doesn't work all that well, since the battles are nearly always weighted in your favour, allowing you to win them easily. It's also a shame that this combat system was not used in the final battle against Agglax's army. Even so, most of the 'normal' combats against opponents take place at the end; for the rest of the book, Allansia seems like a fairly peaceful place, and your journey feels more like a pleasant countryside walk - really!

Armies of Death is OK, but it's not one of Ian Livingstone's better books. The atmosphere doesn't feel menacing, your army isn't used as much as it should be, and the book itself is rather linear as well. One interesting remark I must make is that one of the characters in the book - Obigee, the owner of one of Zengis' inns, looks remarkably like Ian Livingstone himself! Look at the picture of Ian on the back covers of any of the later Fighting Fantasy gamebooks from Return to Firetop Mountain onwards, then look at the illustration of Obigee, and you'll see what I mean.

Rating: 6/10


[Per Jorner]

In this book you play the person who got through the Trial of Champions in book 21. That being the case, it would be perfectly logical for the rules to set your stats to 12/24/12. They actually don't. Funny.

What's new is that you have an army (in fact more like a company) which you'll be using in very small chunks (for some reason) to fight minor battles along the way. To my great disappointment, I didn't get to use the Skirmish Battle rules at all in the conclusive battle. Instead you go through a few choices and personal fights, making deductions as instructed. Take into account some potentially illogical outcomes and a completely inconsequential roll to determine losses, and it makes you wonder if Livingstone knew exactly what he was doing at this point. In any case the paperwork surrounding the army wasn't very burdensome, for which I'm grateful.

What's old is that you must pick up a fair number of objects with numerical references attached to them. (Also used is the trick from FF26 to ask the player for numbers you had no reason to note down at the time. Since I refuse to die from failing to memorize such a thing, I just look it up when necessary.) As is typical of this kind of adventure, the way in which you acquire these items usually has nothing to do with your main quest but rather the willingness to constantly be distracted from it.

You don't start with any resources for restoring lost Stamina, and after spending a night at an inn and having a good meal I was dismayed to regain only 2 points. In fact there's just one more way to restore Stamina in the entire book! For this reason a high Skill is vital, as if you hadn't already guessed. However, if you stick to Skill 11 characters and experiment a bit you can probably win in ten attempts or so, which makes a change from the norm. The book just doesn't feel that long, and the head villain will not make the Hall of Fame. Pretty middling as Livingstone item hunts go, and that in itself is a bit limiting, but at least it's a step forward from Crypt of the Sorcerer.

There's one point where the book can hijack your decision-making and force you to abandon a subquest for no apparent reason. Annoying. At another you have a set 50% chance of acquiring a critical item. Also annoying. In the pie-eating contest there is no need to calculate Big Belly Man's score: he will always finish in the third round, which incidentally means you will statistically win with a Skill of 10 or above. The maze felt like a bit of a waste, as it's either a formality (most likely) or a total deathtrap; a better idea would have been to hide the secret better (for instance by splitting up its two parts, or presenting them in the form of a riddle) but allow the player to suffer some pain taking all the wrong turns. A weird thing of little importance is that if you have very few Elven Archers when you reach Agglax' army you will probably die, but if you have none you'll be perfectly all right.

Rating: 4/10


[Jeff Poteralski]

When I originally saw that this book followed Deathtrap Dungeon and Trial of Champions, I was extremely excited since I thought those two were the cream of the Fighting Fantasy crop. Actually, it turns out that this book just follows the plot line of Trial of Champions. It starts out with you in Fang, just after finishing The Walk, and you are constantly being bothered by the nosy townfolk about your adventures. You soon tire of this, so you hire an army with your Gold Pieces and set off east to fight Agglax, the Shadow Demon. Incidentally, you start off this book with 700 gold pieces, which has to be some sort of record.

I really liked the concept of having an army of 100 warriors, 50 elves, 50 trolls, and 20 knights. Along the way, through various cities such as Zengis and Karn, you can recruit more (which really helps since the final fight is a real massacre). But the book is somewhat deceiving in this respect in that you think you're doing great because you just hired 10 warriors, but actually you went the wrong way and missed an essential piece of equipment. As in the typical Ian Livingstone fashion, you need several items to complete this book, so the path to victory is extremely thin. In fact, in some instances you have to go against your instincts to be victorious (at one point, when your ship is being attacked by river raiders, you must allow them to come aboard and fight hand to hand instead of having your Elven archers pick off the little fools in the water in order to get a certain piece of equipment).

As you travel through the various cities, you realize that everything is important, so never pass up a store or tavern. In addition to finding more soldiers, you also need to pick up several items that are necessary later on in the story. Actually, most of these items are needed to visit the Oracle, who lives in the Starstone Caves. You must visit him for his "sage" advice, but not before going through a fairly simple dungeon (as long as you know the secret). When you arrive you then must give him almost everything you own and answer a bunch of questions. It's really kind of frustrating, because the information he gives isn't that great, and you don't even get a luck bonus or anything. What a rip-off.

On the way, you get to fight several Skirmish Battles, where a group of your soldiers get to pound on some puny foe. These fights are almost too easy (since your army is so large), so it would have been neater to fight larger groups at once. Fighting 10 Centaurs when you have over 200 soldiers in your army doesn't exactly make you quiver in your boots.

After progressing to the Forest of Fiends, you face Agglax, but not before a pretty devastating blow to your army (which is why it needs to be large) and several individual fights (which are fairly deadly since there are very few instances in this adventure to gain stamina and you're pretty weak by this point). If you survive to meet Agglax, show him your Crystal of Light and he'll "make like a baby and head out".  If you can defeat his Elite Fanatic that he leaves behind, victory is yours. The end of the book is very satisfying, especially since it took me about four tries to win this.

All in all, although this book is no Deathtrap Dungeon, its still very good, just in a different way. There are some really clever ideas in the book, such as a pie-eating contest, a dip in a sewer, and the concept of being able to fight people to get cheaper or free soldiers for your army. Nik Williams' illustrations are very good and bring a lot to the story. The passages are well written and there's lots of fighting (which always rates high in my book). If you liked City of Thieves, then this book is right up your alley.

Rating: 8.2/10


[Phil Sadler]

Here's the plot for this book: a madman wants to take over the world and you must stop him. Nothing like originality - and that was certainly nothing like it ;)

Wait a moment though; this is one book where you do not (inexplicably) set out on the quest alone - you have an entire army at your beck and call! You wonder why all the other heroes never thought of that...

Hold your horses though, because although this is a solid adventure with few faults and a lot of fun, it leaves one thing to be desired - an army! Most of the time you could almost forget that it's even there at all, because half the time it just seems to make little difference (!) and the other half you just head off alone.

That's not to say that this isn't still an enjoyable read though, it offers a lot of entertainment and, despite the above sentiments, it least it tries to do something different. What's more, this book is slightly fairer than the usual Livingstone tomes in that there isn't too many monstrously powerful foes set against you. Having said that, there are still a few nasty moments (including what I believe to be the single highest skill loss of any FF adventure - 6 - from a single object) and a fair sprinkling of instant deaths, not too many though. For once!

So, we have a pretty good yarn that's a little different from other FF books and is certainly less harsh than some of them, but there just aren't too many memorable events that take place. It's just a good, honest fun. Well, I'm not too sure about the honest part...

Overall Grade: 7 (out of 10)


[Laurence Sinclair]

After experimenting with companions in his last book, Crypt of the Sorcerer, Ian Livingstone finally dives right in, giving you not one, not two, but two hundred and twenty able fighters to follow you around!

Why would they do such a thing? Well, this is the sequel to Trial of Champions, and having defeated the ultimate challenge you feel a distinct lack of thrills in your life. As soon as you hear that yet another ancient evil (this time the Shadow Demon Agglax) has been awoken, you promptly gather an army to defeat it and its unspeakable minions.

As the central lure of the book, the mass combat rules really have to work for the book to do so, but unfortunately they don't. For a start, as you start off with over two hundred at your disposal, the groups of twenty or so Orcs that you encounter on your journey aren't much of a problem. And, as you can choose where you take the casualties from your various trrop types, it'll usually be no surprise that your lowly Warriors take any minor casualties, while your elite Elven Archers and Knights suffers none, allowing you to overcome any future obstacles that require their special abilities.

There is more to this book, however, although for once Yaztromo doesn't help you, and you have a sub-quest to seek out an ancient oracle, who will tell you of the Shadow Demon's weakness. Standard object collection ensues, most of it more to appease the whimsical Oracle than to actaully kill Agglax.

There is more epic journeying also, across river and hill, forest and dungeon, up to the final conflict on the plains of battle. But as you have an entire army travelling with you, there's never any sense of danger, especially since the lands you travel through are perfectly peaceful. Had the adventure taken place in an already war ravaged country, it would have been much more engaging.

All in all, a standard FF treks, but with a few mass combats thrown in for good measure. But how come Agglax's undead army contains only four Zombies?

Rating: 7 out of 10