FF49: Siege of Sardath

Nicholas Campbell
Per Jorner
John Stock
Will Turton


[Nicholas Campbell]

The Forest of Night in north-eastern Allansia has been taken over by a dark enemy and has now become impassable. The town of Grimmund, which lies on the south-eastern edge of the forest, has been cut off from Sardath - the city which is built on stilts in the centre of Lake Sardmere. At a Council meeting in the town hall, you have been selected to venture into the Forest of Night to restore order - but your adventure will take you well beyond the forest.

Siege of Sardath is renowned for being very difficult indeed, and this reputation is justified. It's not that combats are tough - you can complete this gamebook with average Initial scores - but there are many routes you can take, and there are many red herrings as well. You think you're taking the correct route, and the book may well trick you in thinking in this way, but in fact you're not. Fortunately, the book is not frustratingly difficult in the way that most of Paul Mason's gamebooks were, although it still took me nearly 50 attempts to complete Siege of Sardath. At least you'll get your money's worth from this one.

As with many of the later gamebooks, there are a lot of numbers which are associated with items, and therefore lots of addition and subtraction to enable you to turn to references which aren't mentioned in the text. Later on, you must also watch out for particular phrases which instruct you to turn to another reference - a feature which has been borrowed from Steve Jackson's Creature of Havoc and has been used very well here.

Speaking of Creature of Havoc, once you've tried Siege of Sardath several times, comparisons with it will certainly come into your mind. Finding your way through the book is often a matter of trial and error, exhaustively trying most or all of the choices on offer. One such situation is in making a potion; there are four combinations available, but finding the correct one relies entirely on guesswork. The final confrontation with the Sorcerer who is the source of the threat hanging over the Forest of Night is interesting in that rather than attacking him, you talk to him and try to bluff him; again, say the wrong thing and you're toast, which is annoying when you're so near to success. You're also in a race against time, so you can't waste time.

But as I said earlier, Siege of Sardath is not frustratingly difficult. The setting in the Forest of Night and the Freezeblood Mountains is enjoyable, and every encounter offers something new. Meeting and conversing with the Slykk (a race of amphibian-like creatures) is interesting, as is an encounter with Thyra Migurn (a goddess who is full of hatred and torments the Dwarfs who live in the Freezeblood Mountains by creating storms). Other creatures include the Vampyric Slime Mould (which turns humans into zombies) and the Xanthic Horror (a disgusting, yellow-skinned mutant!). It's just a shame that you can't actually visit Sardath itself, and it's also a shame that there were no more gamebooks by Keith Phillips.

Rating: 8/10


[Per Jorner]

This one begins as the player, in the role of supreme ranger of Grimmund, learns that there is darkness brewing in the Forest of Night (that is, other than the forty thousand giant spiders that prevent anyone from taking three steps into the woods). The various non-rangers of Grimmund have never truly appreciated the spiders and would just as soon chalk it up to them, so off you go on your own into the forest and beyond to confront this new and unknown power of nastiness.

The rules have been tweaked to reflect the fact that you're playing an accomplished ranger. Provisions are now called Bundles of Herbs, and you have a bow with which to shoot your enemies (using a short supply of non-reusable arrows). Strangely, though, you'll still be presented with outdoorsman options with no real clue as to which is the best course of action, meaning the great ranger might not be quite so great in your first few games.

This is something that crops up in various ways throughout the book: you rarely know what's good or bad until you've tried it. This leads to a lot of trial and error, something the book's introduction advises you to eschew in favour of "good thinking" - gee, thanks, I hadn't thought to try it. For example, there's an important encounter where you may find yourself dying repeatedly, until you realize the proper solution is only found _beyond_ that point; that is, you must deliberately skip the encounter and move on to collect the proper means to deal with it, then find that you are given the option to go back and that the circumstances surrounding the bypassed encounter magically repeat themselves. Needless to say this violates the "north is onwards" or "never look back" principle, which is the tidiest answer to the question of why you can't always backtrack to an earlier location; it doesn't make sense for the character to go back and forth anyway if the only reason to do so relates to meta-knowledge.

Another trial involves a tile-puzzle which basically requires you to meticulously copy four line patterns onto pieces of paper to be shuffled around. I had to guess three times at which answer you're supposed to come up with, but then again there's no limit to the amount of page-flipping you can do to see if you're right. Further on there's a gratuitous pseudo-Escherian mini-maze whose inclusion is explained with some handwaving about architectural designs that invoke madness, alter perception, bend reality, or possibly all of the above. Well, fine, but as mazes go it's pretty disappointing. At the very end there's a "dialogue" you must navigate which I found to be little more than a stupid guessing game and which soured my opinion of the book slightly.

To reach that far, you must fulfil a ton of conditions, whether they relate to garnering the right items, talking to the right people, processing the right information, opening the right doors, picking the right fights and so on. Take a wrong turn and you'll fall down and die and lose 3 Luck points, right away or later on. If this sounds a bit like Creature of Havoc, that's about right, and in fact it wouldn't surprise me one bit if that title was Phillips' main source of inspiration. This one has an epic-like plot development and an interesting structure, it's the first non-Jackson book I've read that makes extensive use of hidden redirections and it features some creative use of numeric elements. Also, you are going to need a lot of attempts if you are to win!

Just as in CoH it's very easy to keep your Stamina high and there are so many ways of reaching a dead end that the numbers on your scoresheet don't really matter much except for having to roll against Luck or Skill in order to keep from dying. The generous death part is one aspect of FF24 that Siege of Sardath could have toned down a bit. Generally speaking, a good instant death is one that forces the player to re-evaluate one or more earlier choices or assumptions and which encourages multi-stage experimentation; if its only effect is to compel an identical game followed by choice A instead of B, then there's reason to ask why it should be a death instead of a penalty, a redirection or just missing a critical waypoint, which is just as deadly but much more subtle.

The book features some unorthodox formatting which annoyed me a bit, not least because it seems unnecessary. For instance, you may be given an option early in a paragraph, which then goes on for some time to say what happens if you don't take it. If you're in the habit of always reading the current paragraph to the end this gives your character a second sight which could be a little dizzying. There's also the Lone Wolf thing where after, say, a Luck test a lot of text is duplicated in two paragraphs that only differ slightly at the top. While all this may save a paragraph here and there, it hardly seems worth the aesthetic cost; you could just as well increase the total number of paragraphs instead without raising the page count.

Altogether I found Siege of Sardath to be a mixed bag: annoying when trying something I believed to be a sensible approach to a problem only to crash and burn as a result, dubious when told that I must whack some guy because "his scornful tone upsets your natural sense of honour and fairness", uplifting when progressing to yet another unguessed location, appetizing when running into the refreshingly non-romanticized enraged godling (pity you couldn't offer her some love potion etc.). In the end, the adventure falls a bit short of the threshold of excellence; its good sides are just about enough to balance the problems, and the final paragraph didn't exactly have me go "wow, lashings of ginger beer for everyone and the spiders too". If Keith P. Phillips is not a pseudonym and this is his first and only gamebook then it's a good effort, but there's also room for improvement. Paragraph 171 isn't even used as far as I can tell, and the drab title and near-ridiculous cover regrettably work against the book.

Rating: 6/10


[John Stock]

And now, it's time for this offering by Keith P. Phillips. It's not the best FF going, but it's okay I suppose.

The plot is fairly straightforward - the city of Sardath, in the depths of the Forest of Night, has not been heard from in weeks. SOMETHING in the forest is attacking it. Your job is to find out what and stop it if you are able.

This FF book is one tough beast. The enemies aren't particularly high powered, but some of the puzzles are SERIOUSLY nasty. Take the optical illusion maze. There is an illustration on one of the pages, but several parts are blocked off by doorways so you can't see them. Each door leads to another. This is bad.

The other nasty puzzle is the potion mixer. You have to find components with numbers on and slot them into the mixer to make another potion. Of the possible combinations, at least two are useless, one is okay, and one is absolutely fatal. That's also bad.

The book does have its good points though - the originality of some puzzles is one, as is the intricacy. Also it's well written and illustrated. Why Keith Phillips was never allowed near FF again beats me.

However, it does have some gripes. One of these being the near-impossibility of beating Le Saucriere the big cheese villain. Poor conversationalists should stay clear of this one. And the other is the unfairness of at least two parts - getting shot down over Tiranduil Kelthas, and falling down a 300ft pit after braving dangerous fungi.

So in all, a fair offering.

MY RATING - 7.75/10


[Will Turton]

This gamebook must be one of the hardest to complete after Creature of Havoc. I had to play it through quite a few times before I managed to finish it. Yet it was never tiring, as there were always different routes to follow and different areas to visit. You start off as a Town Councillor/Adventurer (Quite a good idea!) who has seen the Forest of Night turn very dark all of a sudden. No one can travel through it and there is much evil at work under it's eaves.

This adventure starts with you questioning an adventurer who has managed to force a passage through the forest, though why they'd want to reach Grimmund is anyone's guess. Interestingly, the being is actually a Black Flyer, a kind of 'modified' Dark Elf. He has killed the adventurer and stolen his identity. It is fairly easy to beat or escape from him however, if you don't, you will be carried for some distance and if you got for the full ride, you will end your adventure in the hands of the Dark Elves.

If not, the Dark Flyer is imprisoned and you set off through the Forest towards the great city of Sardath. You get to choose many different courses to take and these prove to be interesting with some good diversions, there are few linear sections in the whole book. However, not visiting a certain place or person can end all hope of you ending your mission successfully and this has to be criticised in all fairness. It may take you five or six tries (I took five) before you complete the book and you also are in a race against time for after a week, the Black Flyers are ready to seize control of the area and you are powerless to resist.

The Dwarves feature prominently in this book alongside both Wood Elves and Dark Elves and alongside the wealth of races present, they allow the book to fit in really well with the region it is set in.

You even get to visit the Castle of Corianthus the Storm Giant and wander around a fortress that is 'slightly' too large for you. My last positive comment is to commend the illustrations of Pete Knifton which are terrific.

If there were a criticism for Siege of Sardath, it would be the confusing wandering underground on upside down walkways and the like. I hated this part. Also, I was disappointed that you could not visit Sardath for apart from this book, the north-east of Allansia has been totally ignored.

Score 9/10