FF53: Spellbreaker

Nicholas Campbell
Per Jorner
Robert La Vallie
Ldxar1 (spoiler - win conditions)
Laurence Sinclair


[Nicholas Campbell]

The Black Grimoire is a book which is full of black magic, as its name suggests. For a long time, it has been kept at the holy site of Rassin Abbey - but now it has been stolen, after you unwittingly invited a thief into the abbey, where both of you sought shelter from a stormy night. The book contains a very powerful spell which will allow the Casket of Shadows to be unlocked, unleashing the Kurakil - the Infernal Beast - which has been imprisoned in the casket for centuries. However, the spell can only be used on the night of Shekka's Moon, which occurs only once every 37 years - and the next occurrence takes place in just four days' time! You'd better hurry up and find that book, then.

Well, the background to Spellbreaker is quite enthralling, but unfortunately it turns out to be extremely frustrating to play. There are several situations throughout the book in which you must roll a die and rely entirely on chance (and by that, I don't mean your LUCK score); if you don't roll the right numbers (e.g. 1-2 or 1-3), you fail in your quest, regardless of what your Initial scores are. This gamebook has three of them, and if you combine them, your chances of completing the book are slightly greater than 8% - and remember, that's before you've rolled your Initial scores. It's really nice to know that before you begin, isn't it?

But wait, there's more! You actually have to 'lose' a certain combat in order to obtain an item which is essential to your success later on. I don't want to be specific, but let's say that if you have a SKILL of more than 10, managing to lose this combat will be quite tricky - so now that means that your chances of success are even slimmer. Yet you will need an Initial SKILL of more than 10, and a high Initial STAMINA, to have any chance of defeating the Kurakil and completing the book. This is not the way to write a gamebook at all! In fact, this is one of the few gamebooks in which your chances of success are so small that it's necessary to cheat. Certainly, that's how I felt after my 25th attempt, and I strongly suggest that you do so.

It's a real shame, because Spellbreaker is otherwise a reasonably good gamebook, with a lot of interesting encounters; Cynric the Mad Beggar had me laughing out loud! The setting feels very English (although the book is based in the Old World country of Ruddlestone), with lots of little villages to visit, and their tales of plague, witchcraft and robbery. The use of an INFECTION score to represent how badly you're affected by plague is good, and although there's a FAITH score, it's not implemented well, and it contributes to the problems I mentioned earlier regarding dice rolls. There is also a mathematical puzzle to be solved, but it's implemented in such a way that there are several answers which appear to be correct - and of course, if you fail, you are killed instantly.

In summary, Spellbreaker had the potential to be a good book, thanks to its intriguing and original background. Instead, it's an extremely irritating gamebook which has clearly not been playtested properly. Of Jonathan Green's three Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, I reckon this is the worst one.

Rating: 4/10


[Per Jorner]

Raisin Abbey has had its grapes soured by some mould or other, and what with the wine festival coming up... oh, _Rassin_ Abbey? In that case the plot probably revolves about some warlock who steals an important book with little difficulty and proceeds to do nasty stuff with it. Good thing there's a hardy adventurer with a sword.

If I ever need anyone to guard an Artefact of Ultimate Bad, remind me not to call Jonathan Green's monks. Let's see, there are four days to go to the Rare Astronomical Event of Incorrigible Evil at which time the forces of darkness would make horrible use of the book. What do you do - stuff it in a chest with three locks and little poisoned darts? Wall it up? Surround it with spike traps? Make a thorough background check on any visitors? These guys do neither, but they feel pretty safe anyway, since the really bad guys can't enter the abbey uninvited. Too bad anyone can invite them... and if that hadn't worked, I suppose they could just have sent any old mercenary who wasn't such a meanie as to need an invitation. Afterwards the monks express their amazement ("Of course we've always known that anyone could waltz in and take the Book of Utter Doom from the kitchen cupboard, we just didn't think anyone _would_") and in a very humble and monk-like way blame the player character. For the sake of getting along and some kind of plot involvement, you take on the mission of getting the book back.

It seems likely that Jon Green had read and liked the Stephen Hand books, at least Dead of Night. This adventure is set in the Old World. You get a map progression which is mostly defined by stops in various villages, each of which has a demonic or witchic infestation to be dealt with. As you stop off to do good deeds you accumulate Faith points which, to no one's great surprise, will come in handy. (No, it's not possible to simply speed along and overtake the book thief before he can get on with the bad ritual. Anyone who entertained such wild fancies should be truly ashamed of themselves right now.)

Let's get the good things over with first. The general theme of the book actually works very well, the landscape being peppered with relics, curses, herblore, disease, witchcraft, undead, folklore and what have you. A possible objection is that this ties in very closely with the metaphysical nature of the world, and it could be argued that Titan simply isn't about this kind of religious as opposed to mythological fantasy. In any case this shouldn't be much of an issue while you're playing. The writing is actually pretty good and brings the book's motifs to life. In spite of all the detours, there's a strong sense of continuity lacking in many other books. Moments I particularly liked were rafting across Miremere, the "hurricane" and the Dance of Death (Danse Macabre by Saint-Saƫns is one of my favourite classical pieces). Though not common enough to be bothersome, a few weird statements have slipped past the editors, such as "For each Zombie you have to fight, add 2 to your Infection, regardless of the outcome", or how about this classy declaration: "The darkening sky tells you that night is coming on." Gasp! Can it be a CLUE?

I've had mixed feelings about Alan Langford's work before; although he's clearly competent, a little too often his pieces seem to lack a certain finish. In Spellbreaker it almost seems as if he's risen a level as an illustrator, or at least tried out some new techniques. He varies the thickness of his strokes and uses his customary line-shading with discrimination, and the result feels considerably richer. Check out the Barrow Guard's helmet for a nice effect. But I'm not sure Titan Dwarves should have enormous pointed ears; in fact, I'm pretty sure they don't.

Sounds pretty good so far, doesn't it? Yeah, and Spellbreaker is a pretty crappy book all the same. The secret is contrived and unfair design, lots of it, not all of which can be blamed on inexperience. Jonathan Green seems to have been guided by a vision of players stuck with his precious book for hours and endless hours, starting over and over again without being able to win and shouting "Curse you, Templar!" at regular intervals. The book's difficulty is ramped up by classic design twists such as:

* Death by cash management. Near the start of the adventure you visit a town where stuff is for sale, some of which you absolutely need, some of which will be a lot of help, and some of which does nothing much. I won't say exactly how much money you need, but you _will_ have to trust in luck to acquire enough to procure the critical items. Miss one of them and it's bye-bye later on. As a side note, there are places where you're told to deduct Gold Pieces even though you may not have that much. At another time, being forced into a certain choice by an empty wallet can have the ludicrous consequence of invoking a Beggar's Curse (and I'm not kidding about the capitals); you'd think one beggar would take pity on another.

* Death by undead puzzle solving. Imagine an adventurer walking along a road. Suddenly faced by a huge Troll, he charges into battle only to be cut down from behind. In a parallel universe, the adventurer, upon seeing the Troll, decides to ignore it completely in favour of extracting a bowling ball from his backpack and hurling it into the bushes at random, hitting a camouflaged Orc the adventurer did not know was there. The adventurer then goes on to fight the Troll and carry on with his mission. Spellbreaker requires you to fling more than one bowling ball. In fact, you must at one point throw the bowling ball at yourself. Doesn't sound very bright when you put it like that, does it.

* Death by aimless mathematical exercise. There are two numeric "puzzles" which do not pose an actual question but instead toss forward a few numerical components and expect you to derive an "answer" therefrom. This is simply stupid and should have been shot down by the editors. Failing the guessing-game in 124 leaves you with a chance at survival even if you get it wrong (although one of the answers you may opt for leads, perhaps by coincidence, to a death paragraph for the same encounter), but the one in 111 kills you off right away, and I may add that getting there in the first place is all but easy. The latter case also seems designed so as to draw the reader's attention to an incorrect interpretation of the problem; surely that is not the point of including mathematical puzzles to begin with?

* Death by dumb luck. In the perhaps most conspicuous case you roll a die to see if you can hold your breath long enough: on the result of 1-3, you die. Great fun. This also happens to take place just before a non-arbitrary trial whose outcome actually hints at the true path, information you obviously cannot act on until you have passed the first trial. But there is more, much more that is not apparent from the beginning (and may leave you desperately thinking you've missed something). Early in the game you must first manage a 50% roll and then a 33% roll if you want to win, although you don't die right away if you fail them. Those three rolls alone cut down your chance of success to about 8%. Add several more rolls and tests along the optimal path (including the purely luck-based Eclipse game, if you bother to actually play it more than once) and we're competing with Crypt of the Sorcerer here. That's good. No, wait, that's bad.

* Death by conflicting victory conditions. Due to the number of battles with Skill 10-12 opponents, you need a starting Skill of 12 to stand a good chance of victory. But that's almost guaranteed to lead to failure for other reasons, which in effect means that only Skill 11 characters can win this book (but probably won't). You will raise your initial Skill during the adventure, but the big bad boss is still Skill 12, Stamina 18 with a 33% chance every Attack Round of doing 2 extra damage, so...

* Death by ambiguity. In one place your character is told something which doesn't completely make sense at the time. If you later make the most direct interpretation of it, you die; only if you take the other option do you learn what was really meant. No doubt the writer regarded this as a "trap", but at that stage it's just annoying. In another place your character learns a certain secret; only thing is, the text says merely that you learn _of_ the secret, not what it is, meaning this knowledge can never be used without "cheating" since one must assume that the secret itself is found elsewhere in the book. Paragraph 136 is a good example of withholding information that would have been known to the character, and only revealing it after the player suffers the consequences of an uninformed decision.

* Death by scavenger hunting. I almost forgot to mention this, because it's such a staple of FF in general, and some of it is covered by the shopping thing. It's only to be expected that the reason you must visit some locations is to pick up some incidental item that turns out to be indispensable further on (pity the adventuring fools that simply track down their foes and engage them). The "if you have item X, you die" gambit is used, but in a way that makes sense. There are also "use item X to get item Y to get item Z" sequences to obscure the solution, as well as a non-linear maze where you must stumble into the right rooms - get where you are going too quickly and you're toast.

Amusingly, the FF writing that Spellbreaker ultimately reminds me of the most is Nathan Page's amateur adventures. Consider the need to gather enough money to buy several items, having to choose from the crucial and the worthless with no way to initially distinguish between the two. Consider the way your character must frequently deviate from the supposed task at hand in ways that to him or her must seem only pointless and suicidal. Consider that you must have your character perform senseless and illogical acts only because you, the player, know from previous games that they are critical. Consider the number of high-Skill opponents that also come with gruesome special abilities. Consider the numerous unavoidable occasions on which a simple roll of the die will kill you or remove all chance of success. Consider the way the writer loses track of his own design and asks if you want to use items you cannot have or combine items from mutually exclusive paths. Consider how the reader must contrive to achieve a "failure" early on to avoid a seemingly unrelated death much later. Consider that the path to victory is found only after wide-eyed exploration has given way to tedious repetition - or rather blatant cheating. Certainly more than a few gamebooks exhibit some of these traits, but what can you say about one that has them all?

Bugs: Paragraph 83 should lead to 300 instead of 132, which is especially bad since if you go on to read 132 this will spoil a puzzle relating to paragraph 83; in practice, though, you will probably visit 132 long before you get to 83. Paragraph 275 could just as well lead to 187 instead of 157 since the latter will immediately redirect you there anyway. If you decide to go after the Mask you strangely don't get to search the outlaws for much needed food. In Hallow's Well you can go back and forth between the Brass Farthing and the well, potentially gaining infinite money and healing (be sure to toss the beggar a coin each time for infinite Faith instead of infinite curses). To avoid this bug exploitation the words "if you haven't already" should be inferred in 131 and 313.

In summation, Spellbreaker contains lots of atmospheric writing, shifting backdrops and savoury encounters, laid low by some of the crappiest gamebook design I've seen. Still, when all is said and done, I'm not sure it can be said that Jonathan Green didn't deserve his FF debut with this one, taking into account some of the unplayable, broken garbage that graced the series at the worst of times.

Rating: 4/10


[Robert La Vallie]

Spellbreaker Is a Non-stop Fun Fest

Here is an interesting premise. You must retrieve an object in which you inadvertantly helped a villain to steal. You see, the Black Grimoire is a book that, as long as it is kept safe within Rassin Abbey, will prevent Evil from entering Ruddlestone. And, the only way an evil person can steal this book is if he is invited into Rassin Abbey by a good-natured soul. So, YOU, a good-natured soul accidentally invite your evil nemesis into Rassin Abbey. Now, your job is to fix your screw-up. You only have four days to do so. Along your way, you need to acquire potions and artefacts. So, even if you acquire the necessary items to defeat Evil, can you do it in time?

From the premise, I loved Spellbreaker. I started this book on Saturday morning, at 6 AM, and could not put it down. Three hours later, I had completed this adventure. Spellbreaker has everything you could want in a Fighting Fantasy adventure. You have the Livingstonic task of acquiring certain elements. You have the number puzzles and letter codes (A=1, B=2, etc.). You have the magical items, which enhance your skill and initial skill. You have a cournucopia of successful Fighting Fantasy characteristics.

See and find at all costs.

Rating: 10/10




As with all Fighting Fantasies, this is a third-person multi-route adventure gamebook in which the reader takes on the role of a fantasy hero and has to solve puzzles, battle monsters and map routes to finish the book. The almost Buffy-esque storyline involves an evil wizard stealing a demonic book from a monastery in order to raise a powerful demon. The atmosphere is gothic, almost theological, with witches real and accused, hallowed places, saints and martyrs, pilgrims and monks, and some real aspects of medieval life, from bandits to plagues.

Among the later Fighting Fantasy adventures, this book stands out as containing some definite original ideas - the strong use of herblore adds a new twist to the item-gathering aspect of the story. It is genuinely multi-pathed, although there is only one "good" path through and the "wrong" paths soon end in disaster. The broad range of items one needs to acquire to complete it successfully makes for re-readability.

This is also, however, its drawback - the book requires far too much for successful completion. You'll need real-life as well as in-game luck (including surviving a 1 in 2 chance of sudden death), sky-high stats and a seemingly impossible Faith score to complete it. And the need for some of the items only becomes apparent too late, making it frustratingly easy to fall just because you didn't realise you'd need an antipoison, a raven and so on, until it's far too late. A clearer idea of what is needed from the start, would have tipped the adventure from frustrating to enjoyably challenging.


[Laurence Sinclair]

This book takes place in the Old World, and is very much a tale of Good versus Evil. Set against a backdrop of secret Demon worship and witch covens, you must track down a warlock who has stolen an ancient grimoire from an abbey before he can release the Unspeakable Beast from Hell.

The tale is rife with paranoia, as witch-hunts and inquistorial purges abound in the troubled land you travel through. Plagues have broken out, and ancient monsters been disturbed, as you work your way through a very 'English' countryside. The story is well told, and the atmosphere nice and spooky and dark, but the adventure relies too much on luck. Not just on testing your LUCK characteristic, either - one time, you have a fifty fifty chance of being killed, very near the end, which seems to have been thrown in just to add some longevity, but merely adds frustration when you fail and must start again.

A good story, let down by an overuse of game mechanics and several too powerful opponents, not to mention a cheap rip off of Doctor Doom that spoils the build up and ruins an otherwise perfectly mysterious world.

Rating: 6 out of 10