I absolutely adore gamebooks. Gamebooks like the Choose Your Own Adventure series were a staple of my childhood. My friends and I devoured those books and spent our school bus rides talking about the choices we made and what endings we got. One fine day, while out with my parents in the mall, I discovered a Fighting Fantasy gamebook called Demons of the Deep at a book shop. I was drawn in by the monstrous cover art and what seemed like a more advanced and interactive gameplay system that added resource management, hit points, dice rolls, and RPG stats to the classic Choose Your Own Adventure format. My parents were more than happy to buy me the book, since books are less expensive than toys, and they always encouraged my love of reading no matter what. So thanks, Mom and Dad! Demons of the Deep challenged me because it had a more mature narrative than I was used to reading and complicated gameplay that my kid-brain had difficulty comprehending. However, I never gave up, I learned how to read/play the book, and that planted the single-player RPG loving seed into my soul. I bought several Fighting Fantasy books over the years, my personal favorite still being Rebel Planet. For fun, I’ve gone back and reread some of my old Fighting Fantasy gamebooks as an adult, and though they’re not high literature by any stretch, they’re still loads of fun.
Okay, so enough of this nostalgia trip. I could geek out about gamebooks all day, but this is a review of Fighting Fantasy Legends, a video game that cobbles together three of the book series’ classic titles into one grand adventure. Those titles are City of Thieves, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and The Citadel of Chaos. Fighting Fantasy Legends begins with you, the player, selecting one of three avatars: barbarian (human), dwarf, or elf. I chose the elf, as it was the most appealing, though I don’t think avatar choice makes a huge difference beyond aesthetics. I could not type in my own name for the elf, so I had to pick from a list of names, eventually settling on Dasyra. After setting her initial stats and choosing one of several special skills (I chose immunity to curses), Dasyra was then dropped into the middle of a journey, seeking a meal and a room in the town of Silverton. Dasyra learns that Silverton is under the vengeful curse of the demonic Zanbar Bone and that the only person who knows how to stop him is the reclusive wizard Nicodemus. Nicodemus has holed himself up in the foulest part of the crime-ridden Port Blacksand, the eponymous city of thieves, where no one dares to tread. Finding Nicodemus only lands Dasyra out of the frying pan and into the fire that is the scavenger hunt comprising the original City of Thieves book. Dasyra must slither through Port Blacksand, using every ounce of her guile to gather a suite of specific items and utilize them in a particular way to take down Zanbar Bone.
Dasyra soon learns, however, that Zanbar Bone is not the only “big bad” out there. Two other nefarious necromancers, the malevolent Zagor from The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and the power-hungry Balthus Dire from The Citadel of Chaos, need to be deposed as well. Each of these missions presents its own set of dangers, since they’re more akin to dungeon trawls than scavenger hunts. These missions can be tackled in any order, lending the game a slightly non-linear bent. I ended up taking out Zagor before stomping Zanbar Bone and overthrowing Balthus Dire.
Sadly, the descriptive narrative text from the books is absent in the game, rendering me rather uninvested in the whole experience. Instead of feeling like I was in the thick of adventure, I felt like I was a distant outsider looking in due to terse text and choppy progression that often shoved me from one point to the next like I was on an assembly line. I yearned for the lushly described dread of traipsing around decrepit locales that creeped me out to the point of wanting to shut my book and never look at it again. I missed viscerally reacting to the novel’s descriptions of the foul-smelling sliminess of the curmudgeonly Nicodemus’s hovel by the brackish water. All I got in this game was a few laconic words with the wizard in a place that was no more than a mere space on a game board. Nicodemus had personality in the book, yet in the game he’s less interesting than the Monopoly thimble. Zagor, Zanbar Bone, and Balthus Dire are iconic series villains who should send chills down your spine, but without the descriptive text and striking illustrations from the books, they feel toothless.
Those arresting black-and-white pictures throughout each title are why the Fighting Fantasy books are still embedded in my consciousness. These books showcase the work of many killer artists, so not seeing those original illustrations in Fighting Fantasy Legends was an enormous letdown. The nondescript top-down visuals seen during play look little better than a digitized version of a Milton Bradley board game like Fireball Island. I understand that Port Blacksand, Zanbar Bone’s lair, Zagor’s labyrinth, and Balthus Dire’s stronghold are dreary and foreboding places, but dour does not have to be lifeless. The game also features color illustrations of adversaries during battles, but those look like generic, washed-out fantasy art. I pined for Iain McCraig’s amazing illustrations of nightmarish creatures and evocative locales that just leaped off the pages of City of Thieves. The presentation in inkle’s Sorcery! video games is what I wanted in Fighting Fantasy Legends, because Sorcery! utilized John Blanche’s illustrations and Steve Jackson’s narrative from the books to wonderful effect, truly bringing those books to life in a way my inner child appreciated.
Speaking of board games, that is precisely what Fighting Fantasy Legends feels like. You move spaces, stop, and then roll a set of green Luck Dice or red Skill Dice, depending on the event that happens. Skill-based tasks like battles require the successful rolling of Skill Dice whereas luck-based tasks, like outfoxing traps, require successful rolls of Luck Dice. A neat play mechanic is that after gaining EXP through winning battles and successfully completing tasks, you can level up your dice. When the game starts, your dice each have 5 blank sides and 1 “hit” side, so leveling up your dice adds another hit to a die, decreasing your chances of rolling blanks. On the other hand, losing all your Stamina (HP) adds an Injury symbol to a die and rolling that during battle gives you a hefty penalty. There is also a perma-death handicap option for those who want to go it hardcore.
The game has a Normal-Hard-Extreme tier difficulty selection, but the latter two difficulty levels are not available from the get-go. For what it’s worth, Normal is no walk in the park. Like in the original books, this game has its share of difficult encounters, boss gauntlets, and cheap deaths. And like many board games, success sometimes feels more hinged on lucky rolls than strategic play. It was not uncommon for me to have all my ducks in a row only to have the computer get more favorably lucky rolls than I did. In addition, your Stamina (HP) rarely increases beyond its initial value, so a lucky roll from an enemy, even a weak one, can easily take a good chunk out of you. There are ways to heal, but they come at a sometimes hefty cost.
Resource management is also a crucial gameplay component. Gold is difficult to obtain and hang onto, especially in Port Blacksand, so it is important to allocate funds for key items, restorative items, etc. In addition, specific items are needed to get past certain obstacles that mildly resemble graphic adventure style puzzles. There aren’t always in-game hints to find or utilize those items, so it’s important to repeatedly scour every nook and cranny.
Outside of the game, you, the player, will need to manage some resources of your own. Sometimes information is provided but not recorded in the playlog, making it important to keep a pen and paper handy to jot things down, lest you be going around in circles. An example of this is finding one of the ingredients Nicodemus asks you to obtain. I was told by washerwomen in Port Blacksand to check the sewer for it, so I took repeated trips into the city sewer and found nothing. However, an important NPC (who does not even have a sprite or portrait) mentioned an alternative location (nowhere near Port Blacksand) to find it early on, but did so in an offhanded “oh, by the way” manner that I completely forgot about; I could not initiate that conversation again. I was pulling out my hair until I broke down and used an Internet resource for help. I loathe using Internet FAQs out of principle, and digital mediums are meant to be paperless, so not having such pertinent information from conversations added to the in-game quest log is poor design. Automaps for the main exploratory locations would have been fantastic as well to track where you’ve been and what you’ve done.
Like some board games, you can only progress forward in Fighting Fantasy Legends. When I was in Port Blacksand, there was no way for me to backtrack and explore the paths I didn’t take. I had to do whatever loop I was on, escape the city, go back in, and do the whole sequence again from scratch, only zigging instead of zagging at particular junctures. This made progression painfully repetitive, grindy, and a total chore. In the time I spent doing one or two tasks in this game, I could have read/played several of my old gamebooks to completion and enjoyed more immersive adventuring. It took every ounce of my willpower over the course of two weekends to trudge my way through this mire of boredom. My happiest moment with Fighting Fantasy Legends was finally being able to shelve it for good after defeating the three nefarious nasties, because even after doing so I got nothing even resembling a proper video game ending.
It can be argued that the original books only progress in a forward direction as well, but that restriction doesn’t work well in a seemingly exploratory RPG-style video game such as this. But then again, when it comes to gamebooks, I’m not above bookmarking or dog-earing pages so I can revisit junctures and see what would happen if I made the other choice. To me, the bookmarks and dog-ears are the equivalent of Save Points in a video game RPG. Instead of save points, Fighting Fantasy Legends periodically autosaves into one single slot. I would have liked multiple save slots and manual saving along with the autosaves. Call me old fashioned, but I don’t feel comfortable being unable to save where and when I choose to. It’s like with those cars that parallel park themselves. I’d rather parallel park a car myself since I do it more quickly, smoothly, and accurately than a vehicle’s computer ever could, and I don’t want to be at the mercy of a machine.
To offset all the griping I’ve done about Fighting Fantasy Legends, I must give it credit for including a menu option to increase font size. My biggest complaint in modern gaming is small fonts with no way to change them, so seeing Fighting Fantasy Legends address that is lovely. More games need to allow players to manipulate font sizes, so seeing that in Fighting Fantasy Legends evoked a hearty, “thank you!” from me.
My immediate thought after playing Fighting Fantasy Legends is that I’d rather reread/replay my old, if dusty, Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. The books had haunting text and astonishing artwork that were captured beautifully in inkle’s Sorcery! video games, but were sorely lacking in Fighting Fantasy Legends. This is largely because Fighting Fantasy Legends’ repetitive and luck-dependent board game format made me feel completely disconnected from the adventure and did not engross me the way that Sorcery!’s “visual novel with RPG elements” format did. Fighting Fantasy Legends’ menu option to increase font sizes pleased me and leveling up my dice was nifty, but I still found the game a disappointing waste of my time.