FF42: Black Vein Prophecy

Nicholas Campbell
Alan Halpin (spoiler - plot)
Jonathan Hughson
Per Jorner
Robert La Vallie (spoiler - win condition)


[Nicholas Campbell]

All is blackness. You wake... you seem to be lying in a sacrophagus. You get out... you are in some sort of chamber which is beginning to collapse. You must escape - but who are you? Where are you? Why are you here, anyway?

Black Vein Prophecy begins with you knowing nothing of your situation. There is no background, and you roll your Initial scores several paragraphs into the game, rather than right at the start. It is the first gamebook in the Fighting Fantasy series to be set in the relatively unexplored Isles of the Dawn, which feels alien in comparison with the rest of Titan.

When you escape from the chamber, you find a city in ruins. You then meet a woman called Velkos who guides you through much of the book, and from there you wander through forests, hills, caves and jungles. You may begin to acquire magical powers with strange names, and you may be able to use them later on. Even when you've acquired these powers, you still have no idea who you are, although the reactions of some of the people you meet hint at your social status. It's only much later on in the book that you meet someone who tells you who you are, and what is going on in the Isles of the Dawn.

However, even if you complete Black Vein Prophecy, many questions remain unanswered, and I was left very confused and baffled. It took me a long time before I realised what the final section of the gamebook was about; it's a flashback to when you were a child, but one scene within the flashback sees you looking into the future, and ultimately determines your destiny. An appearance by the Riddling Reaver hints at what is going on, but it's still bizarre.

Black Vein Prophecy is one of those gamebooks where you must find an exact route and stick with it throughout, otherwise you will not win the game. Finding the correct route is very difficult indeed, and the book claims that "you are unlikely to find it unless you play fair!" I reckoned I was only going to complete this gamebook by cheating, such was the number of dead-end paragraphs that I turned to. Most of the time, working out the correct choice to make is a matter of guesswork and trial and error. This becomes particularly noticeable in the final battle, when you must guess the correct sequence of four magical powers to use; if you choose the wrong power at any time, you die and must start all over again. You must also fail a dice roll to complete the book, which is something else that I find extremely irritating, and there is not much combat, although the fact that your character is not much of a fighter (your Initial SKILL is 5-10 rather than 7-12) justifies this.

I do not like Black Vein Prophecy much. Most of the time, I didn't know what I was doing when playing it, and the lack of knowledge of who and where you are and what you must do reduced what little enthusiasm I had for the book. You will need to read and play the book many times before you understand the storyline, but actually playing it is not fun at all.

Rating: 4/10


[Alan Halpin]

This review is spoiler-soaked, but, as a rule you should never believe anything you read...

BVP has an undeniably alien feel to it. To be honest, it feels completely foreign to the world of Titan. In my opinion, that’s no bad thing at all, and that’s what made the additions to Titan fun. Other authors have brought in different genres and settings before and this book certainly continues in that ‘vein’, if you’ll pardon the pun!

The book is set in the exotic, and at that point unexplored, Isles of the Dawn. I believe that the ‘Titan’ compendium had already hinted that the Isles were a peculiar place. No kidding. In this book, you assume the role of an unknown, with no memory but the odd snippet that comes occasionally to mind. You awaken in a tomb, and your journey of self-discovery begins there. As you pass through the book you must collect objects that will ease your passage, which is pretty standard for FF. The acquisition of powers such as ‘harmonization’ or ‘disruption’, however, is an interesting diversion and adds to the book’s abstract feel.

Eerie and unrecognisable landscapes and protagonists flash by. Something of both the orient and Europe influences the book, both in character/place names and illustrations. Overall though, the feeling given is one of utter uniqueness and unfamiliarity. That’s disquieting, but intriguing and very welcome.

The book is light on required combat and if you play it on common sense choices, you stand a good chance of getting through it. There is, however, one large random spanner in the works here. You must fail a luck roll to complete the book. This feature, it seems, thumbs its nose at cheats! Such miscreants would obviously be lucky all the time, and therefore unlucky overall! In my opinion, this also makes the book very hard, and short of exhaustive repeated ‘option scanning’, it does make the solution a little obscure. A little pointer in the paragraphs, or on the back of the book saying "Unlucky you..." or something like that might have helped.

This is all especially frustrating, given that the roll takes place when the character’s luck would be at its strongest. On the positive side, however, it did mess with the boundaries of FF a little. Certainly, if you look at the story as a whole, the hero would indeed have to be unlucky to find himself in the situation he does at the beginning of the book... and maybe that’s the point!

As far as other interesting tidbits go, there is also a "Turn to 400" reference that is pure masquerade, and quite delightful, now that I attempt a deconstruction-based perspective! Never fear, child... ‘Panurge’ will lead you from your ill-considered expectations of victory... How appropriate, Mr. Mason.

A cameo from one ‘Riddling Reaver’ is also hinted at. If it is he, he’s only recognisable from his camp demeanour and habit of talking useful/less gibberish. Terry Oakes had illustrated him here and he seems slightly more "rakish" than before. Maybe a touch of Errol Flynn about him, I felt! I certainly didn’t even spot him back in the year the book was published. This ‘same, yet different’ encounter adds to the air of unfamiliarity and dream-like quality, which permeates the setting as a whole.

The final battle with the villain is fairly difficult (the chief difficulty being sufficiently prepared), and the whole book leads up to it. It takes a little intuition and replaying  to work out why, although he’s the preferred heir, he presumably escaped the tomb seemingly in full possession of his memories and with foreknowledge of his mission. It’s not obvious. Reading Paul Mason’s explanation of the workings helped greatly, once I’d finished the book and pretty much finished the review. One thing I still don’t understand is how you’re supposed to know what powers to use, and in exactly what order. It’s not really apparent from their description. This could be down to random chance. Oh well...

There’s a lot of instant death paragraphs about towards the end...

If my understanding of the genesis of the brothers ‘Maior’ and ‘Feior’ is correct, your character starts the adventure as essentially a child in a man’s body. I imagine that the lower-than-usual Skill score represents this in some way. I would have enjoyed more clues to this effect throughout the book and some reference to the implications. Even if they’d been cryptic, they would have been appreciated. This would have possibly added to the sense of revelation when the machinations of ‘Bezenvial’ are revealed in flashback. By this time, on my original read back in ’90, I seem to remember I was thoroughly and utterly confused!

The victory paragraph would’ve probably benefitted the book by explaining a little more about the history of the missing 50 years, the foundation of the claim to the throne by the Child-King, ‘Poo-Ta’ and the mechanics of how the brothers grew up, whilst being effectively dead. Still, in drama, sometimes it’s what you don’t know, or see that holds more power because of it’s absence. There’s a certain famous film maker who should remember this when he feels compelled to tinker with his own work, to ‘perfect’ his vision!

In summary... The writing is evocative. The book is strange, yet refreshing and complex. Difficult, yet rewarding. In certain places it is also maddeningly frustrating, and definitely not one for the casual reader, which was probably the intention. Full marks to Terry Oakes for his illustrations, which greatly enhanced the enjoyment I took from the book.


[Jonathan Hughson]

Black Vein Prophecy ranks amongst my least favourite books in the series. The cover isn't exactly awe-inspiring and when start reading you realise that there is no Background section to read. This is apparently "an adventure shrouded in darkness", so you start knowing nothing. The first paragraph is interesting to say the least.. The authors just had to go one better than Creature of Havoc, so you awake not knowing who you are and in your own tomb. Hmmm... The adventure itself isn't too bad once you get going and realise your identity, but the the deliberate lack of information at the start works against the book rather than making it more interesting. Creature of Havoc had a really good background that described the region around Trolltooth Pass etc. without telling the reader anything about the character they played. I think that BVP should have done this also, as since there are no other FFs set in the Isles of the Dawn except for BVP's follow-up FF#49 (correct me if I'm wrong), so the average FF fan will know very little about the region.

BVP is in set in the Isles of the Dawn, which I have to admit aren't my favourite location in Titan. The authors seemed to have decided to give everyone and everything odd sounding names to fit in with the setting. Many of the events and situations in the book are confusing -check out paragraph 366 for some weird options. The sequence after the battle is a bit too surreal and it took me a few attempts to work out what the hell was going on.

My major problem with this book is from the battle onwards. The difficulty raises unfairly, with pretty much every section having an instant death option that you can only avoid using a trial and error process rather than through your own skill. The magical battle with Feior is completely unbalanced, with each paragraph having 4 or so spells to choose from. The spells are called odd names instead of "Fireball" or whatever, and a wrong decision results in instant death. Great fun...

Black Vein Prophecy has some good writing and a decent plotline but is let down by confusing paragraphs and options. Using the "waking up not knowing who you are" trick draws inevitable comparisons with Creature of Havoc, which is an infinitely better FF adventure.

Rating: 4/10


[Per Jorner]

This one's tricky, in more ways than one. It's hard to get to grips with ("What's my character's motivation for this scene?"), hard to win ("You mean all the Glorf spell ever does is make my head explode?"), and I even find it hard to judge ("But how much do these books suck, relatively speaking?"). Mason's and Williams' second FF title again comes with an unusual depth of story and distinction of ideas, leaving many answers out of reach even when you're finished with the book. Although I find the ambition and writing admirable, BVP is not as effective as its forerunner at carving a solid playing experience out of its concept, and I am fraught with ambivalence.

At the start you wake up in a tomb - your own - with no memories. Well, that's cool. During the first stage you get to roll your stats; Skill, it turns out, is only one die plus 4, maybe to reflect that you're not the fighter type. The rules have been placed at the end of the book for a change, though I don't exactly see why; after all, if it was a good idea for this book, why shouldn't it be a good idea for all the others?

As you emerge into the world you'll no doubt come across lots of stuff that appears dreamlike and confusing. Some of it is cool (climbing the sea wall, the prisoners on the water), some of it is puzzling (what's the deal with the Cressents and the Polybleb?). Your choices will often have less than predictable outcomes. For instance, when Velkos asks if you want to "flee" or "hunt", what happens next is not apparently related to your choice; she might as well have asked if you want to go east or west.

Like FF32 the book features plenty of instant deaths (58 to be precise), some representing points that require the player to have covered certain bases, others being the unforgiving consequences of failing to second-guess the book's logic; invoking the wrong spell power in particular will usually leave you with little time for regret. A vague impression I recognized from the earlier book is that Mason and Williams didn't fully trust in - or weren't overly interested in - the number crunching aspect of the FF system. Losing 1 Stamina point from failing a Luck roll doesn't exactly spread ripples of significance, and the next moment you find yourself eaten by frogs anyway. Putting a strong emphasis on having to find the correct path is fine, but marginalizing the game mechanics also means forgoing the prospect of defeat through accumulated punishment which is an integral part of the FF concept. After all, wouldn't the magical battle have been a more rather than less effective climax and gamebook feature if, instead of one correct choice and three lethal ones, there had been on average one choice that led onwards, one which meant some pain, one which meant a lot of pain and/or having to satisfy some special condition in order to stay alive, and only one which was unconditionally lethal?

To win you must fail a certain infamous roll, something which, in combination with the need to make other rolls, will seriously hurt your chances of winning. Even if you consistently cheat in this one instance you could be looking at something like two dozen games before you can be victorious. If you're not in the habit of making notes to relieve you of future page-flipping, you may want to consider starting.

Another disputed feature is the sketchiness of it all. Merzei is a great character, but what's his story, what's up with his almost metaphysical fighting ability, why did he need those prawn cracker creatures? Is Velkos this terminally cynical person, or is she mostly an instrument with which the book controls the flow of events? (Tentative answer: yes.) How much time passed between Feior's and Maior's respective departures from the tomb - minutes, days, months? In a brilliantly inserted sequence at the end, something about the nature of your character is revealed which explains one or two things about your behaviour, but which is seemingly at odds with others. All of these things can be food for thought, or sources of frustration, or both.

You have to pay attention to the names of some items; I had "the Shrivelled Claw" noted down as "lucky charm", and "the Battleplans" as "map". Through no fault of mine a "clay figurine" became "the Clay Effigy". You can find two scrolls, one of which is described as soggy and later becomes "the Soggy Scroll", which I missed the first time as my notes only said "scroll". I dunno, the capitals and definite article look so very specific, as if you'd know beyond a doubt if you actually had found this item.

When it comes to the art Terry Oakes does some interesting stuff working almost exclusively with textures, but while I must salute his effort most of it didn't work that well for me. Many of his people look slightly warped even before you hit them with the Mutation spell, and the backdrops are mostly vague and scrawly. No doubt the art serves to reinforce the book's aura of weird, and I'm wondering if it might not have been a better idea to have it serve as an anchor. Matter of taste, of course.

An oversight: the instruction to deduct 4 from your Skill if you have no weapon (which may seem a little much - usually it's 2 or 3) is missing from several battles; if only the rules had been at the front as usual, this could have been stated there once and for all. A nice tautology: "a sixth sense warns you to rely on unknown instincts". A continuity error: if you take to the mountains after leaving Credas for the first time, you can find yourself appointed general for no apparent reason at all. A double entendre: "You wake up with a jerk." Another oversight: for the most part the book is very careful not to fix Maior's gender (e.g. using the word "fleshkin" and even "they"), but it lapses in a few paragraphs near the end using the words "he", "son" and "boy" (I suppose this is retconned by FF47 anyhow). A visual and/or textual inconsistency: the statue's weapon is first identified as a "large, serrated sword", which is supported by the illustration for paragraph 147 showing something like a scimitar, but from that point on it's a "shortsword". A design mistake: paragraph 231 asks for an item you cannot have. A question of logistics: how is it that someone who commands an army cannot get their hands on a weapon if needed?

Some minor typos: Paragraphs 187 and 325 tell you to note down the number 152, when you should in fact note down the number of the current paragraph. 160 should point to 395, not 394. 190 should probably point to 19 instead of 29, seeing that every other resolution of that scene does. 49 should perhaps point to 375 instead of 197, unless the drifters disappeared during the minute you spent in the ale-house.

Rating: 6/10


[Robert La Vallie]

There is a saying, "It is better to be lucky than good."  Well, in this book, if you are lucky all of the time, you are dead. Without giving too much away, in the beginning of Black Vein Prophecy, you must be unlucky to acquire the multi-colored scales. Without these scales, you cannot win this book.

Now then, in this book, you have awoken from your slumber with no concept of who you are. At first, I thought this was a cheap rip-off of Creature of Havoc, but, keeping an open mind, I continued to read.

Anyway, you have to relearn your Skill, Stamina, and Luck skills. In addition, as you progress through this adventure, you can acquire certain skills, such as The Power of Disruption, or the Power of Harmonization. As typical in standard Fighting Fantasy fare, you must also acquire an array of artefacts.

And so, toward the end of the book, you do battle against your evil brother. And that's when the twist comes in. It caught me off guard. It will do the same for you.

Black Vein Prophecy does an admirable job of incorporating innovating skills into your adventure without making you feel as if you were not reading a Fighting Fantasy adventure. There is only one true path for you to complete this adventure. And when all is said and done, all of the clues, which seemed so trivial, are actually very important and vital to your success.

Rating: 9.5/10




Like all of its kind, this Fighting Fantasy gamebook is part story part game, with the reader playing the role of a first-person character in the story and having to solve puzzles, fight enemies and make dice rolls to succeed. The setting is high-fantasy with a Chinese inflection, but a lot of the interaction is with humans and humanoids, and the monsters and magic included are very atypical of the series.

Be warned - this is possibly the darkest, most disturbing gamebook in the series. Powers of mutation which fuse living people into a living, heaving mass, maddened convicts set adrift in monstrous inflated bladders, people frozen in place into a mass of mud and parents entombing their child alive are just a few of the things a player will encounter, not to mention similarly disturbing illustrations, and the fact that the player character is unaware of his identity for most of the book. The majority of characters encountered are either tragic, treacherous or insane. If the aim was to create a psychoscape of confusion and misery, the authors have succeeded magnificently.

The book has considerably more of a story than most gamebooks - the player character wakes up in a tomb with no idea of who he is, and fumbles towards recovering knowledge and ability as the story progresses. The story even incorporates a "flashback" like sequence where the character is taken back in time to make choices which will affect the future outcome. Unusually for a Fighting Fantasy gamebook, the story is not simply a series of miniquests and encounters, but involves existential choices and "character development" issues of a kind more familiar from novels.

As a gamebook however, it is very frustrating. The correct path is narrow and extremely linear, and the book is quite cruel to the reader - wrong choices, missed items and failed rolls lead to sudden death with alarming regularity, and there is little predictability or discernable structure. Basically the reader is left trying to guess (not figure out) the correct path and quickly dying if s/he fails to guess correctly. Very often for instance, the player is faced with a choice between using five different magic abilities; usually, one of them is successful, and all the others are fatal. Given the sparsity of alternative routes in most of the book's structure, and the resultant length of the correct path, this becomes frustrating well before the eventual resolution is reached. There's a ridiculously long list of items, skills and allies the reader has to accumulate to succeed. Amazingly, the reader even has to fail one dice roll to successfully complete the gamebook.

In addition, the setting is geographically dubious - flat agricultural plains fuse into dense tropical rainforest, temperate woodlands and rocky areas without any apparent regularity. And the Chinese names for magic spells add more confusion than atmosphere.