Monday, 4 April 2016

Fighting Fantasy: The Citadel of Chaos - review (not yet Android)

Fighting Fantasy: The Citadel of Chaos - review (not yet Android)

It seems the further we go into the future the more the past strikes me as an interesting place to be. I don’t know why but it seems many people feel the same way. With the rush for “the classics” such as Metal Slug to be released on mobile and Atari recently releasing their vaults online, gamers yearn more and more for a cultural wormhole travelling us backwards in time someway, somewhere, a Quantum Leap to those sweet ol’ time where things were much simpler. But of course they weren’t were they? 

Setting up a game of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons today or even conceiving how that crazy man down the street had the patience to set up a Spectrum seem, well, crazy. I think what keeps dragging us backwards into the history of gaming, short of a cultural regression or a longing for the comfort of a bosom, is simply that games were far more challenging back then. There's that old Robert Heinlein phrase that values are created through suffering. On that note, I decided to track down a few adventure gamebooks of yesteryear and was pleased to discover Tinman games had already been in the habit of adapting many of my favourite torture devices for Android. Hurrah! 

Today, I'm going to look at a game Tinman have yet to adapt, The Citadel of Chaos, which desperately needs a release. Join me as I head back to '83, or at least a bookshelf, to review the original in all its despised front cover glory.


 What the hell is that thing? 
Well, it resembles a cross between a Leopard and a bear. 
A Bearpard! 
No.

This game is the very definition of the phrase "Never judge a book by its cover." The creature in the foreground (isn't even in the game) resembles a prop from some 1950's Sci Fi movie, various shapes in the background march two by two from a tower and, well, that orange has the feel of absolute abandonment as if the colourist simply gave up. What a mess and, yet, I love this cover. It captures the pulp style of many 70s horror novels, such as Chamber of Horrors, where garish colours and dramatic close-ups took a similar approach. Nostalgia or madness? Perhaps a bit of both.

The first in the Fighting Fantasy series to be exclusively written by Steve Jackson (who eventually would go on to co-develop Lionhead studios), Citadel was one of the first gamebooks that had a system for utilising spellcraft. Players could select from a myriad of spells including E.S.P., Creature Copy, Fools’ Gold and Illusion. It was also the first of the series that could be described as extremely challenging. Where Firetop Mountain was a battle game relying on dice rolls and skill (minus that extremely cruel maze part), surviving the citadel relied on accurately navigating its chambers, with the right equipment whilst making confident judgements on each creature you encountered therein. 
  
Cover aside, the story was the real draw. The Citadel of Chaos places you in the role of a trainee wizard apprentice tasked with the mission of assassinating the war monger and demi sorcerer Balthus Dire. To this end you break into his citadel and must navigate your way through its inhabitants before eventually reaching his black tower and executing him; thereby preventing a war against your homeland.
  
The creatures within the citadel are also very colourful, a collection of sadists, psychopaths and savages. Many of them are selected from mythology while others still more interesting were designed by the author himself such as the Wheelies, Gaks and the dreaded Ganjees. knowing their niches and weaknesses are of crucial importance as wrong moves will invariably lead to a nasty end.

Bastards
  
The book will punish you for forgetting your spell rules or failing to plan ahead. An example might be using magic, it backfiring and, naturally, resulting in your immediate death. On a replay run, it took half a dozen attempts to finish the book and crafting a map of the entire citadel was almost fundamentally necessary in order to reach a successful ending. The war theme also lent the story a sense of tense urgency lacking in the first book. Here there were real consequences of your failure which contributed to the overall replay value even with the challenges presented.

The challenge of this book is what makes it enduring. I remember lending a friend Talisman of Death over a decade ago and being given it back completed the next day with his look of marginal disappointment. Simplicity is death to the adventure gamebooks endurance. The Citadel of Chaos builds upon the weak areas of the first book (such as the combat rounds) and avoids complex puzzle traps that later books would fall into. Instead, the main challenge comes in the form of accurate judgment of your possessions, knowledge and spells to defeat many of the toughest encounters and quickly get through to the Sorcerer’s tower for the penultimate battle. 

This is truly a good, fun challange for those who enjoy RPGs and fantasy literature. Being vivid in both its characters and perils, it badly deserves an Android release. Here's hoping Tinman will one day give it that push. Until then, dust off that weird cover and have another shot at that black tower, you owe it to yourself.

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