FF50: Return to Firetop Mountain

Nicholas Campbell
Robert Clive
Shane Garvey
Per Jorner
Robert La Vallie
Laurence Sinclair


[Nicholas Campbell]

What better way to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Fighting Fantasy series in 1992, and the 50th gamebook in the series, than to go back to Firetop Mountain, the setting for the first gamebook, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and to fight Zagor once again?

Yes, Zagor is back, and this time, he's a lot tougher and meaner! Ten years ago, someone entered Firetop Mountain and slew the infamous warlock - but recently, the plants which grow on and around the mountain have been poisoned by a malign influence, and there has been talk of people being taken inside the mountain, never to be seen again. You have volunteered to enter the depths of Firetop Mountain and kill Zagor once and for all. First, though, you will need to see Yaztromo in his tower, for he should be able to give you advice on how to defeat Zagor.

If you've read The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, you may well remember the layout of the passageways in the mountain. Return to Firetop Mountain retraces the initial section in a beautifully nostalgic way. A skeleton leaning against a wall, covered in cobwebs; the three doors in the west wall, now padlocked and bolted; the wooden bench, with the message on it now mostly worn away; the iron portcullis with the dummy lever which once activated a trap; the Wererat ferryman who will take you across the river - all the memories of The Warlock of the Firetop Mountain are gloriously brought back. Once you cross the river, the layout seems to be very different indeed. One thing I certainly won't miss from the first gamebook is the Maze of Zagor; I'm sure a lot of adventurers will breathe a sigh of relief on hearing this news.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was a very simple gamebook. It took place in a standard dungeon setting, and the creatures you encountered were your average dungeon and fantasy fare, most of which had low SKILL and STAMINA scores. Although most of the monsters in this sequel aren't too challenging, you will still need an Initial SKILL of 12 to have any chance of finishing off Zagor. This time, he's got a SKILL of 11, and unlike nearly all of the other final combats you'll encounter in Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, there is no way to reduce his SKILL or STAMINA, and you can't improve your SKILL either! New monsters include the Plague Bearer (a zombie-like creature which infects you with the plague if it touches you at all) and the Chaos Beast Man (an enormous SKILL 12 beast which transforms into an even more terrifying SKILL 14 beast if you strike it - great!).

Return to Firetop Mountain has a few flaws, though. The most annoying one is a fight with a doppelganger which depends much more on chance than on skill and can go on for what may seem like an eternity. I also find it bizarre that you start the game with no Provisions, and you cannot buy any before you enter Firetop Mountain. Why would any adventurer not want to bring Provisions with them? A lack of opportunities to increase your STAMINA once you are in the mountain only emphasises this problem. In fact, if you want to stand any chance of completing this gamebook, you'd better roll maximum Initial SKILL and STAMINA scores, and have a fairly high LUCK score as well. Even then, there are two or three situations in which your ultimate success or failure is determined randomly.

Despite this, I enjoyed Return to Firetop Mountain after a few attempts. It's much better than The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, which I actually found to be slightly boring after a while. Return to Firetop Mountain is a highly challenging gamebook and is worthy of being the 50th gamebook in the Fighting Fantasy series - and the success of this gamebook meant that a few more were released. For that, I am truly thankful.

Rating: 9/10


[Robert Clive]

Ian Livingstone wrote Return to Firetop Mountain, intending to finish off the Fighting Fantasy series once and for all. He should've known better than that. If Fighting Fantasy can survive the likes of Balthus Dire, I'm sure it'll go on indefinitely.

This book is essentially an epic rerun of the original Fighting Fantasy game book, number one, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Obviously, the interior of the mountain is change almost entirely, but it's still a cracking read nonetheless.

This gamebook is a great as the original. The illustrations on the cover and inside are also first rate and really capture the imitation. Great stuff!



[Shane Garvey]

Return to Firetop Mountain, written by Ian Livingstone and published in 1992, is the sequal to the Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Although it has much in common with that book, Return to Firetop Mountain also contains a few pointed differences: some good, some bad.

The book returns us once more to the dungeons beneath Firetop Mountain where, once again, we find ourselves on a dungeon crawl. But before that, this time we have an above-ground journey to find a wizard who can help us defeat Zagor, the Warlock.

Once we have done that, we head into the dungeon. The early parts of the dungeon are easily recognizable to those who played the previous book, with many nods of acknowledgement to that work. But from there it turns into a dungeon crawl again, reminiscent of the Warlock but with different challenges and opponents.

One good point about this book is that the writing has improved and the encounters evoke a greater sense of excitement (to me, a least). The text is much more descriptive and the sections longer, two points which I applaud. The problem with this book is how difficult it seems to be.

Don’t get me wrong: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is not an easy book, but once you beat the maze and find your way to the Warlock’s treasure, if you don’t have the right keys you become determined to try again. In Return to Firetop Mountain, the difficulty is different; it is hard to even make it to the final encounter.

Let’s have a look at how I died in my attempts:

1st: Death by doppelganger.
2nd: Death by doppelganger, again.
3rd: Death by animated swords.
4th: Death by falling (from the back of a giant eagle)
5th: Death by doppelganger...
6th: Death by curse

At this stage, four out of the six attempts were ended before I even made the dungeon. The encounter with the doppelganger, which is unavoidable, is insane: an average SKILL 9 character only has a 50% chance of winning the fight. I also went through and counted the number of instant-death paragraphs in the book: 30. 1 in 7 1/2 paragraphs ends the adventure. Insane!

In the interests of the review, I decided to find the solution to the book online and play through before I lost interest in it. The final encounter is rather well written, and the face off against Zagor (SKILL 11 STAMINA 18 ) is great. Section 400 (which is almost always the ‘win’ section for Fighting Fantasy books) leaves the gate wide open for a further book (which we get in Legend of Zagor) and is a good ending to a frustrating but otherwise good book.

RATING: 7 out of 10


[Per Jorner]

Way back when there was The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, a book which is still well regarded even though on close inspection, it does come off as a bit primitive. It has lots of short padding sections, clumsy motivations for why the character must or mustn't do certain things, and annoying repetitive messages, notably about the character listening at doors and interacting with door handles.

About ten years later someone had the idea that Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, none of whom had written FF in about four years, should get together and write a fiftieth and final anniversary book revisiting Firetop Mountain. Apparently they should have had the idea a little earlier, since Jackson backed out on account of his busy schedule, and Livingstone was left to do it alone. The result is something that feels like a follow-up to Armies of Death just as much as a sequel to Warlock, even though there is a lot going on with door handles.

For instance, the plot has been updated... to become exactly that of most other Livingstone books. In Warlock, killing Zagor (who, by the way, had his name attached to him retroactively) was almost incidental; he was basically just another monster between you and the treasure. In The Trolltooth Wars he was not exactly good-natured, but reclusive rather than belligerent. Here he's actively evil and must be actively sought out. Maybe being dead did piss him off a bit.

Another deviation from the original is a segment of travelling around before entering the mountain. I feel this was not a good decision, and that it would have benefited the book to put Yaztromo in the intro, sum up the shopping bit in just one or a few sections and then dump you outside the cave entrance. One might even suspect the outdoor part was included chiefly to allow Livingstone to insert his sailing buddies once again ("Eeyun"?), this time not just as faces in a /p/h/o/t/o/g/r/a/p/h/ drawing. There's no getting around that character design isn't one of Livingstone's strengths, and I don't really care one bit about Moose, Dungheap Dan, Lorrie or Deep Sea Junior.

There is also a bit where Yaztromo tells you that because of how Zagor was resurrected, he is bound to "offer the chance of his own demise", which he does by hiding magical artefacts and instructions on how to use them throughout his stronghold. If this seems uncommonly stupid, it's not because Yaztromo has been replaced by a rambling moron (I think), but because this is actually Livingstone butting in to say, "Hello, I'm going to indulge in lazy and nonsensical dungeon design later. If things seem to make no sense whatsoever, it's because it's all DECREED BY MAGIC." And this is ruthlessly clever magic at work which would clearly not be afraid to tell Zagor to his face that hiding those objects under half a ton of rock isn't acceptable.

As an aside, I was slightly disappointed that you're not playing the adventurer who killed Zagor originally, which would have allowed for a certain dynamic between hero and villain. Arguably it might be troublesome to have the character possess knowledge and memories that the player may not, but it could also have been used for effect, and anyway not many locations are reprised from FF1.

Which brings us to the actual maze part. The references to - and text snippets from - Warlock are obviously one of the book's selling points. Yet Livingstone handles this by blocking off almost all of the original dungeon. First of all this is a bit puzzling since in Warlock there was no indication that occupation and maintenance of the tunnels depended strictly on Zagor's presence (or even that the inhabitants served him directly - he was just the local top dog, content to let the dungeon denizens serve as a manageable, self-sustaining buffer zone against the outside world). Secondly... well, what's the point of even having it _be_ Firetop Mountain if you're mostly going to fill it with new stuff? For instance, at one point before the river Livingstone has inserted a string of new rooms. I'm not opposed to the idea that the dungeon originally had areas and passages you never got to see (I mean, those Dwarfs in the maze must have come from _somewhere_ even if they claimed not to know the way out, to mention just one of several implications), but the way he squeezes in no less than six rooms in the space represented by a single featureless corridor in the original is just very awkward.

When it comes to Jackson's old turf beyond the river, Livingstone chooses not to revisit it at all, instead seemingly postulating that there had always been a whole other, independent complex to one side of the old one, similarly aligned south-to-north a little way down the river. Er... right. Maybe he didn't want to touch Jackson's area out of respect, or he just wanted to be free to make stuff up entirely, but in either case much potential for refurnishing, reinvention and nostalgia was lost. Would the Skeletons still be hard at work in the Boat House? That stairway the magical tools were working on - did they finish it, and where does it now lead? Maybe the maze had been excavated by creatures moving in after Zagor's demise to avoid repeating that impopular spot of dungeoneering? Could the card-playing Dwarfs have been used to establish a running theme of skeletal versions of Warlock critters carrying on with whatever they were doing? One thing I do know: the new areas are nowhere near inventive enough to warrant dedication of this one-of-a-kind sequel to them.

Time now to examine the Livingstone checklist:

* Items: they're here, lots of them. It's not at all impossible to find yourself in possession of some thirty-five items plus money in four different currencies. A section near the end has you "rummage hastily through your backpack" in order to find a specific item; one must picture an adventurer grabbing trinkets by the fistful and tossing them over his shoulder. I actually welcomed the absurd instruction to drop two items to make room for another as an opportunity to get rid of some junk! Several objects have numbers on them. As always, Livingstone sticks to inscribing each item with the actual number of the section you turn to when using it, instead of letting the numerals serve as modifiers; heck, even the keys in Warlock were more sophisticated.

* Trivia questions: yes, but only one arbitrary number thing, which is an improvement over Armies of Death. I don't know why he was still doing this at all, though. It was OK back in FF14 where the answer was a multiple of 100 and the question followed closely on the information. Here he's just begging the reader to cheat.

* Random life-or-death rolls: several. In one place you have at best a 67% chance of survival, at another you have an unalterable 50% chance of getting a crucial item (calling FF36 to mind). There are also a few places where you must roll against Luck or Skill to avoid certain or almost certain doom.

* Instant deaths: yes, but not at all as many (or as arbitrary) as in FF26. Death frequently follows some careless action, failed roll or lack of important item, but there are few places where it comes out of the blue.

* Opponents with high Skill and/or special abilities: actually not that many! Not unavoidable ones at any rate, although if you fail a Luck test you could find yourself fighting the equivalent of a Skill 12 enemy that does 1d6+2 points of damage with each hit, and unless you find a particular item you may come to face a Skill 12 creature with the power to increase its Skill _and_ regain all its Stamina at the drop of a hat! (Why Livingstone chose to assign four paragraphs to describe what happens if you win that one I don't really know.) If we look at the unavoidable fights, you need Skill 10 if you want more than a 50% chance of surviving a kill-or-be-killed encounter early in the book (although since there's not much randomness before this battle, I would recommend you simply assume that you always survive it). Zagor himself is actually rather balanced considering you'll probably reach him in a pretty good state. I'd advise a minimum Skill of 9 for your first few games, and a minimum of 11 once you start to run into some heavy opposition; with some luck you could even win with 10.

* Lack of Provisions and potions: yup, and this is just one more thing that makes the book feel less like a spiritual follow-up to Warlock (where stopping to eat also served the function of making the mountain seem larger). There are ways to regain stat points, though, and a find that essentially works as a potion if the circumstances are right. For once it's possible to recover from losing Skill; I played two games where I lost 3 and 2 points respectively due to cursed items, and managed to regain 2 points in both.

* Extreme linearity: check. Almost all of the book's encounters can be strung up on one single, long path. You get to choose whether to enter some room, attack some foe or open some container, but only once do you choose between whole clusters of encounters, and that one is a total no-brainer. Finding the true path is just a matter of locating and identifying the essential items.

* Boat trip and food competition: yep, more ingredients that recall FF36. I wonder where Livingstone got the idea that adventurers would make expert speed eaters, anyway.

Overall I was disappointed, in spite of modest initial expectations. As soon as I found out there was more dungeon than non-dungeon, leaving the pointless "Do you search the bushes randomly and find a key stamped with the number 218 or do you keep moving?" choices behind and coming across the old rooms from Warlock, I was pretty well-disposed towards the book for a little while. Later on, numerous instances of lazy and nonsensical and insultingly silly dungeon design got on my nerves and I instead began to see the truth of assessments such as "Livingstone on autopilot" and "your traditional Livingstone waste of time". A choice of paths where one has multiple encounters along it while the other has none - gee, I wonder which one harbours useful items. A book which seems to be completely normal up to the point where information relevant to solving the gamebook is recorded, whereupon it breaks up into one sentence per page - as if (gasp) the copyist knew those particular pages would be torn out and hidden separately in a dungeon. Laughably contrived traps placed in the most obscure and impractical spots. Because of these and many other flaws that make completion of the book into a very mechanical task, Return to Firetop Mountain cannot earn a higher grade than Armies of Death, even though I think it is on the whole a little better.

Martin McKenna's art is mostly excellent, although of course it ought to have been Russ Nicholson (who was still doing FF at the time - he did FF51, for crying out loud). I suppose one could say that with Jackson gone, Nicholson's presence still wouldn't have made a full team, but had instead mostly served as another reminder of lost potential.

The roll in 136 is completely inconsequential. The Troglodyte says no human was entering the eye-eating contest - what exactly is the Barbarian? The term "donor" feels anachronistic in relation to the harvesting of body parts, or is there a marrangha clinic where people volunteer their organs on a regular basis? A bronze item turns into silver by the time you use it; I wonder if the King of the Maths Teachers was in on that one. It doesn't matter much since that section cannot be reached anyway without cheating. 323 is the silliest paragraph ever, degrading Zagor, degrading the protagonist, degrading the reader and writer and everyone else. In 209 the pots seem to have been mixed up. 294 makes no attempt to motivate a character action based on meta-knowledge. Why doesn't the Chaos Beast Man slay you after you hand over the bribe, which would reasonably make it more powerful and you less powerful? It's not exactly a Law Beast Man, now is it? What in all that is holy is a "razor-sharp sphere"? It's not necessary to ask if the player has a throwing knife in 315, so 297 can't be reached. Before the last duel you "remove your armour" - does that mean Skill points regained with the help of such items should be deducted? When you leave the mountain, and when you return later with a posse of peasants, how do you navigate the river passage? 132 should possibly have contained a link to 375, since the latter asks if you've been there. 380 doesn't make much sense, especially if you have been forced there from 268 because of the Barbarian's condition (maybe he should arrest himself?). When fighting one particular enemy, trying to adapt your behaviour to its special ability turns out to be only to your disadvantage. You can't have a helmet in 65.

The sword situation gets a paragraph all of its own. To begin with, 225 says you can carry two swords if you already have one. If we look past the fact that you can't get to 225 if you do, why then couldn't you pick up a spare weapon just about anywhere in the adventure? (Oh, I forgot: you _can_ take the Ogre's spear, which is presumably much bulkier than a sword.) When you pick up Skullbiter's sword it doesn't say anything about your old one, so one might assume it was discarded. The Goblins in 169 should not have swords in the illustration, since you may be wondering why you couldn't take them; then again, it still leaves no explanation for why the protagonist wouldn't deem it wise to pick up one of their clubs, or one of the Death Lords' long knives.

Errata (which is Latin for "things that are not just bad or muddled but plain wrong"): 79 should point to 209, not 352. The rules should in all likelihood not say that you start with a lantern, silly as it may seem that you would set off for a place such as Firetop Mountain without one. The tooth with the heart should be numbered 315, if for no other reason because the player can technically never be sure that there isn't an unfound tooth with that number and that the heart tooth isn't just a decoy (in fact the best evidence that it _is_ the right one is the Luck bonus you get for finding it).


Rating: 4/10


[Robert La Vallie]

Return to Firetop Mountain was Worth the Wait

For those of you who have defeated Zagor the wizard in Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Ian Livingstone's and Steve Jackson's initial foray into Fighting Fantasy, you would believe that he is dead. After all, dead is dead, right? Well, guess again, true believers. Zagor is alive and kicking, although his left arm is a stump. And guess whose left arm he wants to graft to his body?

Knowing what a nasty wasty wizard Zagor is, your quest is to enter Firetop Mountain and defeat Zagor -- this time, for good. Personally, I would have loved it if you were the same adventurer as the one who bested Zagor in Warlock of Firetop Mountain, only ten years older, and with more experience. Also, it would have been excellent if Russ Nicholson, illustrator of the first novel, was the artist for Return of Firetop Mountain. But, what do you want, egg in your beer???

What makes this book so awe-inspiring is that not only has ten years passed in Fighting Fantasy land, but ten years has also passed in real time for us readers. It shows the durability of the series that, at the time, I believed would continue forever.

In addition, the references to its predecessor provide glimpses into our past. The dragon's skull, the "Rest" bench," and the padlocks on the doors are three examples that cause you to recall warlock of Firetop Mountain in a way that you never did before.

Now then, the flaws of the book: first, if you come across a dragon's tooth that has a picture of a heart inside of a flaming circle, there should be a number on this tooth. That number is #315. This will make sense to you toward the end of the book. Also, I'm not sure why you are no longer able to swim across in the river, as you were in the first novel. Lastly, as you progress through Return to Firetop Mountain, the references to "Warlock" are fewer and farther between.

But, hey, I'm being picky. If you love Ian Livingstone's style of writing (and who doesn't), this book is right up your alley. So, instead of collecting gems (in Deathtrap Dungeon), you are collecting gold teeth. And, if you are new to his style of writing, you know that if you have an opportunity to gather objects, you should do so. What I love most about his books is that they are a quick read, and once you pick them up, you won't put them down. And if that isn't the mark of a great book, I don't know what is.

Rating: 8.5/10.0


[Laurence Sinclair]

Reading this book, I couldn't help but get the feeling that it had possibly been rushed out in order to fit a schedule and be quickly published in time. Aside from the infamous mistakes, it reads like Livingstone on autopilot, a typical 'kill the evil wizard with certain artefacts and help from Yaztromo' quest.

Once more you must travel the land, by air, land and sea, but again they've all been done before. In fact, Zagor could have been substituted for any other name and the adventure wouldn't have been any different.

Towards the middle of the book, when you first enter Firetop, there are a few quiet nods to the original book, but they are few and far between and, as with the previous sequel book Trial of Champions, a good opportunity for nostalgia is wasted.

Were it not touted as the sequel to the original FF my expectation wouldn't have been so high, but in my opinion Legend of Zagor would have been better as FF50 rather than this tired re-hash of old ideas. (Plus, there's a continuity error. In The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, it's possible to disintegrate Zagor totally, so how did he have a skeleton left to have its flesh rebuilt? Answer me that!)

Rating: 6 out of 10