Do you remember the original gamebook version of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain? If so, prepare to feel old – it was released in 1982. For the rest of you, it was a ‘choose your own adventure’ fantasy book that involved dice-rolling, writing down stats and reading different pages depending on your choices. And yes, it was as nerdy as it sounds! It was hugely successful though, spawning over 50 sequels in the Fighting Fantasy series as well as various tabletop and videogame adaptions. This latest version stays very faithful to the source material, while attempting to add a shiny new interface.
Part of this new interface is the introduction of a graphical interpretation of the caves and dungeons that make up the interior of Firetop Mountain. While the isometric visuals do look very nice, don’t get too excited. Aside from the graphical flourishes that see your surroundings constructed around as you progress (very reminiscent of Bastion), everything else is static. Your character, fixed to a circular base, hops around in a comical fashion as your make your decisions. Even in combat there are no animations beyond figures sliding around or flashing red when taking damage. Of course, being a Fighting Fantasy title most of your focus is on the text that describes your surroundings, with the actual graphics taking a backseat.
Similarly the soundtrack is fairly low-key. However the theme music does a good enough job accompanying the fantasy adventures, and I’m actually glad there’s no voiceovers to accompany the on-screen text. If you’re like me you’ll find yourself reading through the text quickly and eagerly clicking through to the next event, particularly on subsequent playthroughs, so a voiceover would just slow you down.
But enough about how it looks and sounds – the key question to be answered is how well The Warlock of Firetop Mountain emulates its gamebook ancestor. And the answer is, pretty damn well. After selecting your adventurer (all with their own reasons for entering the mountain) you embark on your adventure. Progress is fairly scripted as you make are limited to making choices on which corridors or room to explore, and occasionally what choices to make. You’ll encounter traps, orcs and other monsters as you ascend the mountain and seek a confrontation with Zagor, the titular warlock. It’s a fairly simple experience, however there’s an enjoyable charm to it and it’s easy to get engrossed. Plus with a typical playthrough lasting between one and two hours you won’t get bored.
One memorable experience of playing the gamebooks was the temptation to ‘cheat’ and backtrack to a previous page if you felt you made the wrong decision, or were unlucky in battle. While you can’t turn back pages, you are equipped with three resurrection stones which allow you to restart from the last checkpoint if you meet an untimely end (or simply wish to go back and make a different decision). Annoyingly though, the checkpoints which are overly prevalent towards the start of the game (when you don’t really need them) seem to become exceedingly rare towards the end. Seeing as reaching a checkpoint is also a chance to restore some health this is doubly frustrating.
Another unwelcome feature that’s unfortunately made the transition from page to screen is the reliance on chance. Every so often you’ll have to endure a dice roll against your ‘skill’ or ‘luck’ attributes. Not only does this feel overly random, but you actually get double-penalised if you fail the dice roll as the attribute also decreases! You do occasionally get the chance to increase your attributes, but in another odd design decision you can’t go above your starting stats. Seeing as how the enemies you face become ever more challenging as you progress this comes across as overly harsh. Another issue that irked me was the lack of places to spend gold – there seems to only be one opportunity each game to actually spend your hard-gotten gains. This is further compounded by the fact you continue to earn gold even after this point!
Happily, the combat system is a big improvement on that found in the gamebooks. Battles are turn-based with actions playing out simultaneously. This brings an element of bluffing as you decide whether to move, attack where an enemy is standing or attack where you think they’ll move to. However as you continue to play you’ll learn that many enemies have certain attack patterns that you can exploit, while others give away their upcoming moves by shaking or facing a certain direction. It does make winning battles feel genuinely satisfying, expect when getting swarmed with enemies to the extent you feel you can’t help but take damage each turn. This isn’t helped by how small the battle grids are. After repeated battles I also found myself yearning for extra options, such as a stationary ‘block’ action or the ability to use items during combat.
There is a significant challenge in conquering The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, most likely requiring several attempts. Even after you’ve succeeded there are several incentives to keep on playing to thoroughly explore the branching pathways (you can’t backtrack while playing which is annoying, but it does extend the games lifespan). On top of that there are several different adventurers to play with – four intitially with more unlocked after repeated playthroughs. Each of them have their own individual sub-quests to aim for, and to be fair the main quest can also differ slightly too. I was more dissapoint
Despite all this the repetition does start to kick in after a few run-throughs, especially towards the start of the adventure. While this may be seen as inevitable, I feel the developers could have done more to mix up the text descriptions on different playthroughs, even if the changes were just superficial. Seeing as how developer Tin Man Games funded The Warlock of Firetop Mountain through Kickstarter, and actually made four times their goal, I was hoping they could have done more in this area.
All in all though, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain delivers a short-lived but solid burst of enjoyment. It’s an intriguing mix of RPG and visual novel, although the appeal may well depend on whether you’re old enough to enjoy the nostalgia factor of the the original books. Otherwise the limited gameplay may put off gamers used to a more interactive experience.
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