FF45: Spectral Stalkers

David Anderson
Nicholas Campbell
Per Jorner
Robert La Vallie (spoiler - win condition)
Ldxar1
John Stock
Wampyre

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[David Anderson]

Out of nowhere, a strange creature gives you a magical sphere that contains the entire multiverse, and asks you to deliver it to its master for safekeeping.

Some gamebook fans really don't like this book. That's all right for them, but this is easily one of my favorite entries in the Fighting Fantasy series. Rather than hacking your way through a slew of monsters to reach your goal (although battles do occur and you must be prepared), you instead need to hop through a series of strange dimensions to get closer to your ultimate destination. All the way you are dogged by a pack of strange, Lovecraftian terrors called the spectral stalkers, which sounds interesting but takes a lot of the fun out of the book if you're caught. I'll let you read it for yourself to find out why.

I like gamebooks that try to depart from the usual "dungeon crawl" feel, which to be perfectly honest I find dry and tedious. Spectral Stalkers tries to do that, and I felt it did a fairly good job coming up with strange and wonderful places to visit, although the last world on the trip leaves something to be desired. I won't say it's perfect, but it's unique enough to be worth a look-through.

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[Nicholas Campbell]

Now here's a cool storyline! While walking to the town of Neuburg in Khul, a strange creature falls out of the sky and gives you a sphere called the Aleph, which contains everything - absolutely everything - that exists. It allows you to be transported to an infinite number of other worlds and eras of time, which in turn means that the author, Peter Darvill-Evans, was able to mix a lot of non-Fighting Fantasy elements into the book. You can visit locations which definitely don't belong anywhere on Titan, including a few which are more appropriate in a science-fiction gamebook - but then again, maybe these locations are set on Titan, but far in the future? Who knows? I really like this mixture of worlds, and it makes for an extremely entertaining adventure. Of course, the Aleph is an extremely powerful object, and Archmage Globus (a wizard from another world) and the Spectral Stalkers want to get their hands on it!

Another unusual aspect of Spectral Stalkers is that the path you take is determined randomly. After visiting a location, the Aleph takes you somewhere else, and you must roll a die to determine where. It means that you'll almost never play exactly the same game twice, and playing the game again is more enjoyable as a result. However, it also means that you won't need to collect many items to complete the book. There are seven objects, known as Signs and Portents, which you can collect, but you need to find your way around a maze to make use of them, and if you don't have all seven of them, you won't really benefit from collecting them. The random nature of the game means that it's likely that you won't collect all of them, so it's largely a waste of time to try.

Thankfully, Spectral Stalkers isn't difficult to complete, and it can be done with minimal Initial scores - although you shouldn't look for the Signs and Portents if this is the case. Interestingly, you don't need to engage in any combats at all. Normally I would criticise this (combat is an essential element of Fighting Fantasy!), but in this instance, it actually enhanced my enjoyment of the book; in most encounters, it isn't usually obvious how to avoid a potential combat and use your brain instead of brawn.

Spectral Stalkers is a thoroughly enjoyable gamebook with a few flaws, mainly as a result of its random nature. There is also a TRAIL score which hasn't been mentioned; unfortunately, it's a waste of time and could have been used to much better effect, but this is a fairly minor flaw which didn't mar my enthusiasm. It's very different from the other Titan-based Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, and there are a lot of very interesting people and creatures to meet; the Feliti (humanoids with green skin and hair who can metamorphose into hunting beasts) and the Logic Dog (a two-headed dog which asks confusing questions, with hilarious results) are just two examples. It's certainly a welcome change from the traditional Titan-based books.

Rating: 8/10

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[Per Jorner]

The book begins as you are entrusted with the coveted Aleph and told to bring it to the Archmage Globus... or perhaps you are warned of him? In either case, the Spectral Stalkers seem unfriendly, and they want the Aleph as well. Dimension-hopping ensues.

At first it may seem a little strange that for most of the time, your progress between worlds is determined randomly. There is however a certain symmetry behind this, and in the end it adds to replayability as you never know exactly what's going to happen next. When you're done touring the multiverse there's a maze to negotiate, and then a final terraced world whose different levels and creatures could have been plucked from a classic fantasy novel.

When at the start of the book I found myself in the Library in Limbo face to face with a bespectacled dragon, I had a hunch I was going to like this one. Peter Darvill-Evans, the man responsible for it, has prepared a different experience without losing his grip on the FF fundamentals. The worlds in which you make brief sojourns are darkly entertaining, though of necessity lacking in depth. The maze is of a nasty design but still gratefully non-frustrating, as the book provides you with a map if you keep your eyes open and your wits about you. The last world is of course the most detailed one - more so than I expected by the time I got there -, and even contains two separate paths leading up to the final confrontation.

With the random world progression it is to be expected that you won't be relying heavily on the items you pick up. All of them but one has at least one use, though many of these are rather obscure and/or insignificant. They are also often slightly warped and oddly humourous in a way that brings the Monkey Island games to mind (where items were frequently used in non-obvious but strangely appropriate ways).

Spectral Stalkers is not overly difficult, which should please those who complain that FF titles are generally too rigid and punishing with regard to winning. At the same time this is one of the points of mild criticism I would personally aim at the book. Simply put, the trials at the end could have been improved with some tuning to increase the puzzle factor somewhat. When you finish the book you may well find there are several locations you haven't visited, but replaying should not feel like a burden.

Another debatable item is the use of the Trail score, which in the current state of affairs is mostly reduced to decor; in none of my games was I even remotely close to being captured by the Stalkers. The reason for this is threefold: firstly, Trail typically increases only in situations which most players would tend to avoid; secondly, you test your Trail with _three_ dice and not two; and thirdly, you have to roll _under_ your Trail to be caught. Hence the first time you can be caught the chance is 1 out of 216, and that's only if by some miracle (or more likely a conscious effort) you have acquired the four Trail points that can be had before then. In later games it's unlikely you will ever have more than three or four. Still, I assume this is intentional and you're not really supposed to get caught except if you do all the wrong things or some fluke of the dice occurs. A couple of reviews state that you can win after being caught by the Spectral Stalkers, but this information should be taken with some amount of salt. While it may be strictly true, it would be no less of a feat than winning normally; in any case it won't happen near the start of the book, and it won't happen if you play it safe.

Spectral Stalkers makes 400 paragraphs go a long way. It's painless, set in 12/13 Palatino instead of the usual 11/13, and inspiring. My favourite part is the second tier of the Ziggurat World, and I must also mention paragraph 38 which creeped me out more than anything in House of Hell ever did! Tip: as Skill and Stamina are checked more than Luck, it doesn't hurt to spend a Luck point in combat every now and then.

Quandaries and discontinuities: In paragraph 185, are you supposed to be able to go to the Ziggurat World if you haven't heard of it? The physical appearances of the Spectral Stalkers and Silica Serpents are only described the first time you have a chance to meet them, which could lead to confusion if you don't. In paragraph 344 "your eyes adjust to the gloom", which makes no sense if you've been asleep. Going left from 317 or straight ahead from 285 should take you to 206 instead of 153. On the map of the maze there are two pieces of wall missing, making it seem as if there are junctions which in actuality do not exist. This could be intentional, I suppose. In section 9, why are you in effect forced to Escape after two rounds, even though you are probably winning and may in fact already have won?

Rating: 8/10

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[Robert La Vallie]

Do Not Track Down "Spectral Stalkers"

How often is it that a book has a maze, a quest, and an innovative concept (a Trail score), and the result is a sub-par novel? Well, Spectral Stalkers fulfills that category.

You start your quest on the run from the Spectral Stalkers, who are chasing you because you possess the Aleph. When you hold the Aleph, you are actually holding "the whole world in your hands." (As an aside, that song was so cheesy!!!) Anyway, I digress. So, you bounce from world to world, all the while, the Stalkers are, well, stalking you. Here is where your Trail score comes into play. Once your Trail score reaches a certain limit, you are captured. Is this a bad thing? It should be, but it actually is not. I'll explain why soon enough.

Anyway, you are travelling among worlds, and one world contains a rather complex maze, which is interesting in and of itself. Once you complete the maze, you reach the object of your quest. Without giving away the ending, let's say that by giving, you end up receiving.

Sounds interesting enough, right? Well, hold onto your hats, pilgrims, because Spectral Stalkers has so many flaws, you can drive a mack truck through it. First of all, if you are captured, you are not put into a prison. No, sir. Instead, you are transported to the end of the book, where you can win.  So, in essence, you do not have to fight a single creature to win. Next up, as awesome as the maze is, you do not need to enter it to complete the book. In fact, you will be more successful if you avoid the maze. Third, nearly three quarters of the artefacts you acquire are useless. And the hits just keep on coming.

Spectral Stalkers is an example of a book that needs an editor. The concept is great. However, the mistakes ruin what could have been a top-10 Fighting Fantasy adventure.

Rating: 6.0/10.0

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[Ldxar1]

*****

This is one of the few truly surreal gamebooks. Its plot - an adventurer obtains an artefact which contains the entire universe and teleports the player to various random and unusual locations through space and time, pursued by otherworldly demons - provides a leitmotif connecting a series of scenarios and mini-adventures. Unlike similar attempts (the Lone Wolf Dazhiarn novels come to mind), it really does give a constant feel of otherworldliness - the scenarios include the player being cast in a chess game, confronting gods on horseback in a world of dreams, visiting a library in limbo populated by bespectacled dragons and practical-joking archivists, reasoning with a "logic dog", helping the bearer of a talking harp in a world of pig-men, and in theZiggurat World itself, which features a living doorway, insectoid bulls and soldiers who wear black glass to entrap flying centipedes. Other scenarios provide variety with fantasy, horror and sci-fi themes - a haunted mansion, two different futuristic sci-fi scenarios, an apocalyptic future of the adventurer's own homeworld, an underground cave of elves, a skeleton army and so on. Some of the scenarios contain tricky puzzles and some interesting reflections on the nature of belief and the effects of scientific reasoning on the world (one character literally disenchants magic items).

It's a clever book, genuinely non-linear and very replayable owing to the complexity, diversity and depth of the scenarios. Typically the rewards of the scenarios have to be attained by finding a "good" path through to the end, as opposed to simply surviving or escaping. Many of the situations are intriguing and have numerous non-lethal outcomes, leaving the player wanting to return to each particular world to find out where s/he went wrong.

My biggest criticism with the book as it stands is that it can be finished successfully with very little gameplay (a player with good stats can beam straight to the Ziggurat World and bypass the world-hopping entirely, and still win). The maze - the most challenging aspect - is inessential to completion and it's nearly impossible to attain its benefits, rendering it superfluous. Because the choice of "worlds" depends on luck (even/odd rolls), the attempt to collect all seven portents is pretty much doomed. The book is intriguing enough that I wanted to replay and explore it even after "beating" it, but I feel it would have been even better had the world options been chosen and the maze section necessary for completion.

This is still one of the best Fighting Fantasy books in my opinion, a truly immersive gaming/reading experience which keeps the reader coming back for more.

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[John Stock]

It is fully expected that somebody who is a connoisseur of Stephen King's Dark Tower series and has a link to www.thedarktower.net on their website should like this one.

The premise is that you, the player, have been entrusted with The Aleph, a mystical orb that is infact the entirety of creation, yet at the same time a part of creation. Your mission is to prevent this Aleph from falling into the hands of the Spectral Stalkers or the Archmage Globus, who is only prevented from ruling the whole of existence by not having the Aleph. In short, it puts you in the same sort of position as was put Frodo in The Lord of the Rings and with the Spectral Stalkers being the nine Nazg├╗l. Get my drift?

Well... the adventure itself is very, very, imaginative, almost to the point of derangedness. The diversity of the worlds you can visit is astounding, including a futuristic museum, a chessboard, The Library of Limbo (rather like the Restaurant at the End of the Universe from The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy), a secret tribal garden in which you happen to appear as their Champion, and many other disturbing and deranged places. I especially liked the Logic Dog... see for yourself.

Another interesting feature is the Trail Score. This increases as you flit between the planes and every so often you must roll dice against it to avoid being caught by the Stalkers. However, this is where the first defect arises. If you are caught, you are not killed. You are not put in a prison or anything else remotely bad. You are taken to the Archmage Globus. Specifically, near the end of the book. And you can win from here. That's no way to write FF.

Another problem which arises is also related to the Trail Score. It's not increased very much, or at least it doesn't seem to be. That's also no way to write FF.

While I don't agree with Robert LaVallie's review of this one entirely, I must admit that it is a very good idea that falls apart rather in the execution. In all, I'd say that if it was better done, it could easily score 8.6 or 8.7. As it is, it has to make do with...

MY RATING - 7.3/10

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[Wampyre]

This book has stuck in my mind as my favorite gamebook, yet I was never certain why. So I decided to return to the bizarre book and see why I liked it so much. Upon reading it again I decided it was not the best book written, but still highly enjoyable. To sum it up Spectral Stalkers is a "short story" Fighting Fantasy book where you leap from adventure to adventure continually, carrying on items from book to book. Where Spectral Stalkers excels is it's variety, from the future to deserts to strange alien worlds. It is interesting to note that in all cases every roleplaying game has a fighting fantasy counterpart - Spectral Stalkers is the Fighting Fantasy equivalent of AD&D Planescape. The artwork is of excellent quality. The game is very well balanced in terms of dice rolling and VERY non-linear, almost every game is completely different. It falls short of excellence in several key ways, however. Firstly, a large section of the game revolves around a giant labyrinth which is utterly pointless (although the logic dog is very entertaining). Secondly, I believe too many of the worlds are stereotype fantasy worlds, I would have preferred a few more bizarre places. I enjoyed the fact that the final battle required skill and wise thinking rather than just incredible dice rolls. Finally, each world is maybe a little too short. But otherwise an excellent book, a refreshing change from the dozens of stereotypical "slay the wizard adventures".

Rating: 7.9/10