Fighting Fantasy: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain
Platform: Nintendo DS
Publisher: Aspyr
Developer: Big Blue Bubble
Genre: Action RPG
Format: Cartridge
Released: US 11/25/09

Graphics: 65%
Sound: 40%
Gameplay: 75%
Control: 50%
Story: 80%
Overall: 60%
Reviews Grading Scale
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Should the undead dwarves really be bleeding red?
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Ditto for golems.
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Zagor. I don't like him.
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Please give me a simple fetch quest, sir dwarf!
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Patrick Gann
Fighting Fantasy: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain
Patrick Gann

Ever read a "Choose Your Own Adventure" novel? I remember in 5th grade when my teacher told me that stories were written in first person, third person omniscient, or third person limited. I said "some books are written entirely in second person!" When she didn't believe me, I took her to the school library and pulled out a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. She said, "That doesn't count." Why wouldn't it count? Those books were awesome!

In the early 1980s, Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson started a franchise that blended some very simple aspects from pen-and-paper RPGs (namely, dice-rolling) and put it into the "Choose Your Own Adventure" format. The result was the Fighting Fantasy series, a collection of gamebooks that took the fantasy geek world by storm for over a decade. Fighting Fantasy as a brand still has some clout in the industry, but their time in the spotlight ended in the '90s.

The natural resurgence of all things nostalgic has led to a first-person action-RPG for the DS based on the franchise. Specifically, the very first book in the Fighting Fantasy series, "The Warlock of Firetop Mountain," has been made into a game that plays like any old first-person dungeon crawler from the early PC games (think DreamForge's Ravenloft games or early Elder Scrolls titles). The game takes plenty of liberties over the 400-instance gamebook, though players can easily compare the difference between the DS game and the gamebook, as the gamebook itself was packaged with all retail copies of the game.

Unfortunately, while the game is surely a treat for life-long FF fans (that's Fighting Fantasy, not Final Fantasy) if only because it brings back memories of "the good old days," newcomers will likely be turned off by the game's clunky controls, bland and often lacking aesthetics (compared to its rivals), and unbalanced gameplay.

The Warlock and the Mountain

The game's intro plays out rather simply. A word-for-word replication of the book's prologue is produced on-screen alongside images of some locales you, the player, will soon experience. Before this, of course, you had to go through a character creation process that involves answering hypothetical questions to determine your place on the warrior/rogue/mage spectrum. However, it seems the character's combat style only has bearing on the base stats and not the plot.

You start at a port town near a mountain. After talking to a few dwarves and men, you learn of what awaits you. There's a terrible and ruthless Warlock who took Firetop Mountain from the once-peaceful dwarves using an army of orcs, golems, and the undead. Now the dwarves are angry, mistrustful, and confined to certain corners of the underground passages within the mountain while the Warlock, Zagor, plumbs the depths of the mountain for more and more treasure.

From here, much of what's in the book is chopped into bite-sized pieces and given to you, in new forms and sequences, throughout the game. You'll meet friendly and hostile variants of humans, orcs, dwarves, and even the undead. Though you'll have a lot of choices throughout the game, they don't have the real consequences that the gamebook gives. You won't reach game overs or dead ends just from dialogue trees (that's handled by unbalanced gameplay). Instead, all of your choices tend to be illusory: you'll end up at the same destinations, doing the same events, no matter what. Three plays through the game's short (5-10 hour) campaign confirms this. While I enjoyed the dialogue I read the first time around, there wasn't nearly enough new or original in subsequent playthroughs to enjoy it. And the justification for allowing multiple playthroughs is inane. "Oh, he didn't really die!" Come on. How do I take him out for good? You mean I can't?! This is stupid.

The Warlock himself, Zagor, is an enigma during the first few hours. Everyone has a different description of what he looks like, what his personality is like, the way he's handled his reign of Firetop Mountain, etc. I was hoping that my decisions throughout the early parts of the game would help morph his appearance, dialogue, or perhaps his stats in battle. Unfortunately, none of that happened. He's just a powerful warlock with some facial hair. And he takes forever to defeat.

It Don't Add Up

On a pure, base numerical level, something is off about this game. Is it challenging? Yes. But only in the cheap sense of "stuff kills you in two hits, you kill stuff in fifty hits" kind of way. Wanna know how to win in this game? Specialize in ranged attacks (either archery or magic) and take advantage of the AI's absolutely terrible pathfinding. Get 'em stuck on the corner of a box, or a pillar, and attack from a distance a few dozen times.

Why are head-to-head encounters bad? Well, the controls in the game necessitate more time than is given in the real-time action of the game to make any decisions (more on controls later). But the other issue is that the stats balance is way off. I specialized in defense (stamina, high-level armor, etc) and I was still being taken down in just a few hits from most enemies. Level-grinding was largely a waste of time, as it took forever to gain experience. This problem is exacerbated in a "new game plus," where you'd expect things to be easier. They actually give exponentially more base HP to all the enemies, so they take forever to kill and level-grinding is even more of a futile effort in subsequent playthroughs.

Every level up allows you to add one point to an attribute (Stamina, Skill, Intuition, Luck) and to a skill (one of eight maximum that you pick over time, including magic spells, weapon proficiency, and activated skills such as "Berserk" or "Add Curse"). It's important to get this part right to match your style of play. And, again, ranged attacks are the key to victory in this game. Head-on fights require that you just run toward and away from enemies over and over, and if you fight an enemy with ranged capabilities, heaven help you.

Choose Your Own UI: All Paths Lead To A Bad Ending

There are three pre-set control schemes for this game (and no customization beyond that). One uses the D-pad for movement, the four face buttons for camera direction, L and R for attacking. The second control scheme switches the D-pad and the four face buttons (presumably to accommodate left-handed users since so much of the control is handled on the touch screen). I'm left-handed, and I'll tell you now that this doesn't help matters much at all. The third control scheme switched up some more of the buttons, but the primary problem remains. "What problem is that?" you ask? I'll tell you: the game requires you to touch the bottom screen, real-time, while trying to move and change camera at the same time for combat. This works fine for a 3D first-person game on the PC with keyboard, or keyboard+mouse, settings. On the DS? It's an awful, awful idea. I hope no one ever tries it again.

In this sense, I don't necessarily blame the developers. They did the best with the tools they were given. But it's not good enough. Making a game like this with full control of camera and motion, and then requiring you to select items and spells as "hotkey" assignments with the touch screen, is not cool. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that you can also control camera by moving the stylus around on the bottom screen. So, let's say you want to open a door, or drink a potion. If you don't make an *exact* touch, and instead have some level of motion, you'll just move the camera instead of performing the selected action. It's a matter of life or death in a game where two hits can kill, and I can't open a freaking door? Again, NOT COOL.

What could have been done to avoid these problems? Build a simpler game, like Orcs & Elves, that doesn't give you full camera control and limits your movements to grids. Would that make it a worse game? Perhaps, but it would also make it a playable game on the DS. Compare this to, say, Metroid Prime: Hunters, but imagine that in Hunters you were expected to restore health and remove status effects via selecting items and using them on the bottom screen. Let's say your ability to turn into the morph ball required you press a button on the bottom screen. It just wouldn't work. Not that I enjoyed Hunters much anyway, but that's neither here nor there. It was a more functional game than this was.

The Best 3D Graphics Yet?

I've heard a lot of people talk about how smooth and wonderful the 3D graphics are for this game. That's the PR tagline for the game: that, for the DS, it's impressive 3D graphics. Well frankly I don't care. Yes, it's a step up from other 3D-based DS games. But 3D real-time engines on the DS are not impressive. I'm not excited about it. 3D is done to enhance realism, right? So that means you need a lot of processing power and storage. The DS has neither of those things. If you're going to make a 3D game on the DS, it's expected to look "okay" at best. And that's exactly how this game looks. It looks okay. The enemies do not have smooth animation whatsoever, and if you get close enough to a wall decoration, it looks just as ugly as you might expect it to.

The Worst Sound Yet?

They actually listed a music composer for this game. I didn't catch his name in the credits. Normally I'm big on game music, but not here. Why? Most of the game was silent on the musical front, and what little music existed failed to impress me. I would've preferred pure silence honestly.

There's no voice acting, but there are plenty of sound effects. And they're annoying. I guess I shouldn't say "plenty" when the same sound effect is used when a spell is first cast and when it hits an object. Shouldn't those be two different noises? That would be helpful. And the grunts your character makes whenever he gets hit? Atrocious. Keep this game muted when playing.

The Best Thing About This Game Is...

So if you bought this game retail, you get an updated version of the gamebook that started this whole thing. And I'll tell you, I had more fun reading that book and rolling dice than I did playing this DS game. I explored every nook and cranny of the game, expecting enhanced decision-making over the book. Instead, I got a dumbing down. That is so weak. Seeing this fantasy world come to life might be a thrill for longtime fans of the Fighting Fantasy books. For everyone else, it's a subpar action-RPG with a lot of problems to boot.


© 2009 Aspyr, Big Blue Bubble. All rights reserved.

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