FF56: Knights of Doom

Nicholas Campbell
Leigh Loveday
Laurence Sinclair


[Nicholas Campbell]

After Nazek the Warlock had stolen the Black Grimoire and opened the Casket of Shadows, the Old World kingdom of Ruddlestone is once again under threat - this time from the sorcerer Belgaroth. He has returned to his fortress at Caer Skaal and resurrected his army of Chaos Knights, bringing chaos and terror with them. King Rannor, the ruler of Ruddlestone, has asked you, one of the greatest of the Knights of Telak, to journey to Caer Skaal and recruit an army to defeat Belgaroth. Can you succeed in your quest?

Well, knowing Jonathan Green, it'll be tough. There are no less than four SKILL 12 opponents which you must face if you are to be successful, although thankfully you can collect items which will reduce your opponents' Attack Strength and make combat a little bit easier. Even so, you'll need a SKILL of at least 11, and high STAMINA and LUCK scores, to make it to Belgaroth's fortress. It has been claimed that you must fail a SKILL test in order to gain the knowledge to read part of a poem which is written using runes, but in fact this isn't true; if you know what the most common letters and words in the English alphabet are, you can translate the runes without having to fail the SKILL test.

Another reason why Knights of Doom is very difficult is that there is very little room for error. There are a lot of items which you must collect, and if you miss a single one of them, Ruddlestone will be doomed. Then there are the many situations where you must Test your Luck or Skill and be successful, otherwise - you guessed it - you will fail in your quest. Most of these situations are concentrated near the end of the book, which makes failing them all the more frustrating.

However, Knights of Doom has some worthy aspects to it. The storyline is quite good, and there are a lot of other interesting locations to go to and characters to meet. For instance, there is Lord Varen of Cleeve Manor, who wants you to hunt and kill a boar which is roaming the forest nearby - but there is a twist to this tale! Then there is Torrin the Dwarf, whose home is attacked by Hellhounds which you must fend off, and the villages of Ennox and Assart, who request your help in slaying the enemies which are terrorising them. There is also the chance to fight an epic battle between your forces and Belgaroth's forces of Chaos, although it could have been improved on. The use of addition and and multiplication to prevent cheating is also something which I like.

One of the best things, though, is the use of Special Skills. Although they're not unique to Knights of Doom, they are used to very good effect. There are nine of them, and you're free to choose whatever Special Skills you like; you can complete the game with almost any combination of them - something which isn't the case with other gamebooks which use Special Skills. Actually, there is one of them which is more or less essential to possess, but Jonathan Green should be congratulated for implementing Special Skills so well.

I believe that Knights of Doom is the best of Jonathan Green's contributions to the Fighting Fantasy series, mainly because it's the least difficult of them (although don't think for a moment that this means it's an easy gamebook to complete, because it certainly isn't). However, it is rather linear, thanks to the need to collect so many items, and this makes subsequent attempts at completing the book somewhat repetitive. There is also far too much combat for my liking; no Fighting Fantasy gamebook that I know of forces you to fight with such monotonous regularity. The writing is of high quality, so it's a shame that as a gamebook, it's not a lot of fun to play.

Rating: 6/10


[Leigh Loveday]

"Break loose the Knights of Doom", trumpets the tagline on the back cover. As suggestions go, I should advise you that this one leaves something to be desired, considering the Knights of Doom (by which name they're referred to a grand total of one other time throughout the book - the rest of the time they're Chaos Knights) are the bad guys. As you might have guessed. Therefore 'breaking them loose' would be highly inadvisable and, as it happens, difficult to put into practice, as they're already loose. That's sort of the point of the book.

But anyway: it's 1994. FF is pedalling wild-eyed down the slope to its imminent demise. A couple of Returns to Firetop Mountain have spiked public interest, but not for long, and the last book to be published was Deathmoor. Say no more. Can Knights of Doom elevate the series to anywhere near its former stature?

Well, no.

First impressions: looks a bit weird, very purple, and suitably 'Doom'y. Tony Hough's Beast Man on his Chaos Steed (the Beast Man's, not Tony Hough's) may not be the best piece of artwork you've ever seen, but it does have a certain character, whereas your Martin McKennas and Les Edwardses are always polished until they shine but usually pretty generic. The limited but rich selection of colours go some way towards helping this one stand out from the crowd. However, as we've come to expect by now, the half-arsed font design doesn't exactly up the ante.

See here: http://www.advancedfightingfantasy.com/ff56.htm

In Curse of the Mummy, both his and FF's final outing, Jonathan Green at least came up with a background story that showed some ambition. Here it feels like he just couldn't be arsed. You're a good Knight, there are some straightforward evil Knights and their evil leader, and your Order comes up with some even-more-pitiful-than-usual reason to send you out alone. They can't round up the army in time, apparently - 10/10 for discipline and square-jawed determination there, then, and as it turns out you're encouraged to round up your own army of poxy villagers and mercenaries anyway as you head for the Evil Ruined Fortress of Caer Skaal. (Which, in turn, sounds like it should be situated anywhere but a country called 'Ruddlestone', but maybe that's the point.) The mercenary leader in Havalok even says it out loud: "I still don't understand why the Warriors of Telak aren't prepared themselves - but that's not my concern." Apparently it's nobody else's concern either, mate. A few other Knightly companions would have livened things up a bit on the road, or at least provided some entertaining death scenes in the opening stretch.

Eventually, of course, you can expect to come up against the arch-villain, who is - tick them off, kids - undead, a sorcerer, a warlord, evil incarnate, intent on a reign of terror, and possessed of a tiresome generic fantasy name. In fact I bet Belgaroth is forever having to write back to misguided fans saying "No, sorry, I don't know anyone called Polgara".

It's Jonathan Green, i.e. don't expect miracles. Vague attempts are made to tie the story to mythologies we might be familiar with, in the use of pseudo-Celtic names (Rhyaddan, Aelfgar, the Cailleach) or standard issue Gothic imagery (dark warriors, cursed castles and the like), but that's about as far as it goes - names and fragments of story thrown in to tug at some primal strands of cultural recognition, with little effort towards true atmosphere-building.

Progress through the story is pretty linear, jumping from one set-piece to another, which maximises playing time at the expense of replay value; the winning path takes in pretty much everything, meaning repeated attempts rapidly become tiresome retreads. Still, at least some of these interconnecting mini-adventures are worth your time. The boar hunt at Cleeve Manor is a nice diversion fairly early on in the proceedings. The Havalok 'episode' feels like a miniature City of Thieves, with its mysterious seer, comedy alchemist and gratuitous pitfight. Teaming up with Dwarf blacksmith Torrin to defend his forge from a night-long assault by Hellhounds is also pretty thrilling. And the siege of Carass would probably be epic if it wasn't so bloody nails-hard and thankless. However, the linearity - and the knowledge that each place will always have its single trademark event unfolding regardless of when you arrive - is ultimately all too efficient at leeching the dynamism from the story, leaving the bulk of it sadly feeling like some soulless old text adventure.

At least the major elements of the story are acknowledged with some consistency: the never-properly-explained corruption of the land brought about by Belgaroth's return is noted as the cause of several encounters (mainly the reanimated dead, including the Lich and mutated Necromage), and your Knight Templar status does sometimes affect other people's reactions, though not always for the better - an early encounter with an angry mob on the road springs to mind, and there seem to be a lot of people in Ruddlestone just itching for the opportunity to scream "Curse you, Templar!" for any old reason.

It may not be the boy Green's fault, but editing is also pretty sloppy. You can get into a fight with a 'Chaos Warrrior' in the town of Carass, the evil old Necromage only adds the elongated reptilian 'sssss' to his words when he remembers to, and the Hill Giant somehow manages to be both 'him' and 'it' in the same paragraph. The occasional use of misleading phrasing is easier to blame on the author: at one crucial point, the option to "defend yourself" from an incoming blow actually causes you to launch an attack of your own. Suicidally, natch.

Judging by the evidence here I'd say Tony Hough is better at colour work than line drawings. There's nothing out-and-out disastrous on display, but his slightly quirky style does sometimes end up looking more amateurish than we've come to expect from FF. The twisted Darkthorn and Thornbeast come out on top of a pretty mediocre (if detailed) bunch of pics, as his style seems to work a lot better on spiky, distended monsters than on normally-proportioned humans - the only exception to this is the portrait of Belgaroth himself, but he's all kitted out in his best Saturday night disco death armour so he barely even needs to look humanoid, let alone human.

Oh, and a special mention for the Lord of the Forest, who - presumably unintentionally - looks like he's off his face on Class A Elven skag.

I don't think there's any other FF title in which you'll find yourself dragged into combat with such regularity. Not such a bad thing in itself, you might think, especially given that you're a Knight and you pretty much exist just to flip out and kill people, just like a Ninja - but wait until you see just how anus-clenchingly unfair some of these battles can be.

Let's take the Cockatrice, who can rob you of up to 3 Skill points *per round* (or kill you outright) if the dice aren't on your side. Or the aforementioned Cailleach, a SK12 ST12 banshee who'll paralyse you if you don't make a successful Skill roll every round. Or the ridiculous on-the-road skirmish with a bunch of four Chaos Centaurs, a completely incidental battle which nonetheless puts you at a -2AS disadvantage if you don't have the Ride skill, gives them a 50% chance of hitting you for -3ST and you a 50% chance of only doing -1ST... and then there's the Iron Golem: SK10 ST16, *always* does -3ST damage compared to your -1ST, breaks your weapon if you roll a double, hurls you into a wall for more damage if it wins two Attack Rounds (and it will)... it's harder than the final battles in most other FF books, and here it's only one of a series of combats in one of the many towns you'll visit.

Worse, none of these clashes is part of the final infiltration of Caer Skaal, so you can only imagine the hilarity that awaits you there. Frankly, such continuous, frustrating struggles are a poor substitute for more imaginative encounters that require something above and beyond a few sensationally lucky dice rolls to survive.

To be fair, though, there are a handful of encounters within the book that remain in the mind. Accidentally summoning the psychotic Demonic Slayer is always good for a laugh, as is having a Lich fall from the gallows onto your head in the middle of a late-night thunderstorm. (Sounds familiar - wonder if Ruddlestone is the Titan equivalent of the Midlands?) The Assassin's Dagger that pursues you throughout the adventure is also a memorable adversary, though handled badly: during your first encounter it wakes you up by stabbing you in the side for a crippling loss of 2 Stamina points, and if you try to hide, it follows you and stabs you in the arm. What is this, the Norman Wisdom of the Astral Plane? It's the worst assassin I've ever seen. Maybe Belgaroth should have cleared five minutes in his busy schedule to give it a quick anatomy lesson before sending it out ("No, not the arm again, you cretin! How many times? The HEAD! Stab him in the bloody HEAD!").

A couple of new attributes to think about this time around: Honour and Time Elapsed, which in a technical if not exactly logical way work against each other throughout the book. You'll need to build up enough Honour to get past two critical Honour checkpoints, but the only way to earn Honour is to diverge from the main path and embark upon punishing side-quests, which of course eats up crucial time. And if you don't bother, it's a fair bet that you'll *lose* Honour (and, eventually, the game). Joy. Finding the right balance is akin to randomly deciding which doors hide essential items and which ones are just prolonged 'Your Adventure Ends Here' notices in Trial of Champions.

It's illogically used, too. Leave the woebegone villagers of Assart locked in their homes waiting for the next Zombie raid and you lose Honour points, but lead them into battle and almost certain death against the undead marauders or even the army of Belgaroth himself, and that's chivalry, apparently.

Thankfully the other Knightly elements of the story are at least given lip service. For a start, you've got a trusty steed called Firemane and you can raid the armoury at the beginning of the book for souped-up weapons (which would give you an advantage if this were any other book - why can the crossbow only ever do -2ST damage? What, even when you shoot someone in the eye with it?). Perhaps most prominently, though, you're offered a limited range of Lone Wolf-style disciplines comprising five Warrior and four Priest skills, from which you get to choose a total of four. Usual kind of stuff: Ride, Target, Tracking, Commune, Arcane Lore, blah. To the book's credit, I don't think any of them are actually crucial - a successful Skill/Luck roll tends to offer the same effect in dire circumstances.

You may also note the lack of blatantly numbered items in this book, as the codeword system is in full effect instead. It's really very clever: I for one would never have worked out that "Do you have the word 'Reggad' on your Adventure Sheet?" actually means "Are you being chased by the Assassin's Dagger?", for instance. But now I'm just being bitchy. Still, it's a hard state of mind to avoid when you're faced with Knights of Doom's sheer, bloody-minded...

Ah, yes, the difficulty. Even putting aside those seemingly endless clashes with turbo-powered opponents, Knights of Doom is not an easy book. Unfortunately, you can't even look at it as challenging in a stimulating way. It's just stupidly hard. From the outset you're presented with a range of choices as to which way you plan to go about tackling Belgaroth, but it soon becomes obvious that you need to do *all* of them if you intend to even get within 50 miles of him, let alone deliver a personalised, gift-wrapped punch in the mouth.

Take a single wrong step, miss a single clue or fail a single roll and you're punished ruthlessly. It's an exceptionally mean-spirited adventure: given the choice of rewarding you for your hard-earned success in freeing a bunch of knackered slaves from inside a siege engine at Carass, or dishing out an arbitrary Skill and Stamina loss for failing a routine roll and falling off your horse like an idiot, Mr. Green clearly has far more enthusiasm for the latter (for the record, freeing the slaves earns you absolutely nothing). While the inestimable P. Mason has been criticised for his 'piffling' -1ST penalties resulting from failed rolls, I have to say I far prefer that approach to either outright slaughter or a literally crippling loss of Skill/Stamina/both in the same situation. But perhaps that's because I'm a soft Southern nancy. I don't know. What I do know is that the basic balance of logic, instinct and luck that you expect from FF (and gamebooks in general) is all over the place in this book.

When all's said and done, the best thing that can be said about Knights of Doom is that it's marginally better than Curse of the Mummy. Despite being riddled with every last one of the same flaws, it does at least cover more varied ground and encompass a smattering of more memorable battles and characteristics. For instance, the various embellishments to the basic FF formula (particularly the LW-style extra skills), while not exactly handled with aplomb, do throw a bit of much-needed spice into the mix 56 books down the line. And the final confrontation, for all its cliches and teeth-grinding item requirements, is effective in a drawn-out, multi-stage kind of way - sufficiently so to justify the trials leading up to it, and to offer a decent amount of gratification should anyone ever manage to beat the damn thing.

Generally speaking, though, almost everything that Knights of Doom has offer has been seen before, many times, and always in a less frustrating overall package. On the other hand, we have it in Jonathan Green's own words that he considers it to be the best of his contributions to the FF legacy.

He said it, not me.


[Laurence Sinclair]

Another FF with the heading of Doom in its title, which is always, a good sign. So far then, sounds good. It's Jonathan 'Spellbreaker' Green again, only this time he forgoes the olde English atmosphere in favour of high fantasy and MacBeth tributes. An ancient sorcerer has risen from the dead, and plans to take over the world. Only you can stop him, blah blah.

You play a Templar this time, and as such can take several special skills to aid you in your quest, as well as choosing from a variety of blessed weaponry that you can take from your temple to use in battle. So, despite the insane rigidity of the path to success, you can vary your starting character slightly.

This adventure is tough. Not only do you face a plethora of ridiculously highly SKILLed foes, but you must actually fail a Skill test in order to get part of an ancient rhyme that must be deciphered for you to find the location of an artefact that...

Yes, it's another unforgiving 'I wrote this cool scene and you must see it,if you don't then you die' books. Honestly, I don't know why Mr Green didn't just turn it into a novel.

To be fair, the story is pretty good, with several cool plot twists (but a little too much stuff copied from Warhammer for my taste), and if it had been more open to personal interpretation it could have been another classic. As it is, it's probably just another of the nails that drove FF to its coffin.

Rating: 7 out of 10