Reviewed by Mark Lain
Having assembled the disparate ideas and concepts created by the various FF writers who were involved in the series by its mid-20s and drawn them together into one coherent whole, whilst adding a vast amount of lore and background info of his own invention in Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World, Marc Gascoigne was almost inevitably going to eventually unload some of his ideas onto the pages of an actual FF gamebook. What is more surprising is that his idea downloading only ever resulted in one series entry, although his later taking over as Editor for the series may have drawn his attentions elsewhere, along with his various hands in the Warlock and White Dwarf pies and his general involvement is producing Games Workshop boardgames and RPGs (the marvellous Judge Dredd Role-Playing Game was one of his major triumphs in my opinion and I spent many hours in the 80s and 90s playing this). The sheer amount of effort that Gascoigne threw at the Titan project (as well as its monster-organising predecessor Out Of The Pit) demonstrates several things: a great passion for the subject, an exceptionally fertile imagination, and a compelling and vivid writing style that really makes Titan come alive and feel every bit like a real place. And therein lies the great paradox that you will quickly experience whilst playing Battleblade Warrior – MG’s superb writing is very much in evidence as is his knowledge and creativity when it comes to lore but, at the same time, you quickly start coming to the conclusion that Gascoigne simply cannot extend his obvious other talents to designing gamebooks.
Initially, thanks to a compellingly-written and rich introductory section, you really want to play this book. YOU play the son of the now-dead King of Vymorna who has by necessity had to become a warrior along with your mother the Dowager Queen, as Vymorna is under siege from hordes of Lizard Men who are on an expansionist campaign. The real crux of the adventure presents itself when you have a hallucinatory dream where you are visited by your God (Telak) who tells you to seek out Laskar who knows the hidden location of two mystical items that can help save Vymorna from falling. Hardly the most original premise but it’s presented so well that you want to read on. What follows is you choosing two of three of your father’s items to help in your quest (all of which are genuinely useful for once) then you have to decide how to break through the siege itself: option a is to head to the water where you can steal a boat and escape down the river; option b has you sneaking out under cover of night with an escort of bodyguards who can fight off the enemy whilst you make a run for it; option c sees you suicidally charging into the fray and hacking your way out of the siege in as bravely stupid a stylie as possible. Obviously then, option a is the safest and easiest route, option b can be dangerous but it is possible to get out unscathed if you are cautious enough, and option c ranges from fairly dangerous to extremely dangerous depending on the number and strength of the foes you have to fight. So, the book begins with three very different opening situations with difficulties ranging from very easy to (potentially) very hard. This shows a good balance of challenge in the design of the opening section and affords re-playability in its non-linearity at this stage. Options b and c do usually lead to the same eventual sequence of events (riding a lizard mount to freedom whilst being pursued by angry Lizard Men, followed by exploring the plains beyond Vymorna) but it is possible to start with option b and still decide to avoid the fighting by heading for option a’s safer watery exit point. Taking the river route cuts out almost all of the plains sections and leads you directly to a jungle terrain via a dinosaur encounter and, as even the dinosaur fights (Tyrannosaur or Triceratops) are avoidable, the river route is considerably easier to negotiate than either of the head-on choices. Sneaking out at night gives you the chance to avoid combats if you decide to but you can get into a few scuffles if you want the satisfaction of taking some of the attacking baddies down as you go so the difficulty of this path is largely down to how you wish to handle it, which is a nice approach rather than the usual gamebook railroading of making you deal with whatever the book wants you to deal with whilst giving you no say in the matter in situations where logically you could probably have more control. The fighting your way out approach of option c is interestingly handled too as (logically, given that you are charging to almost certain death) the way this one pans out is entirely down to dice rolls and/or random choices. Initially you choose from a set of sections to turn to and this decides what you fight first. You then roll dice from here and are directed to sections which could be more fights or, if you get lucky, could be the way out of the battle. Some of these fights are easy (low stats) and some are very hard (double-figured stats) for opening combats and range from various Lizard Men through smaller cohorts like rats via classic fantasy siege monsters (Orcs, etc) to big dangerous stuff like dinosaurs and, if you are really unlucky, the very strong Lizard Man Champion who, whilst not necessarily requiring you to see out the fight with him, can be fought more than once and with replenished Stamina each time. So, choosing option c will almost certainly shave off some of your Stamina, could leave you very wounded, and might even kill you, but then that’s what choosing this option is going to be all about and I like the non-arbitrary element of chance that the dice rolls give meaning you might not have to deal with a catalogue of hard fights, but it is likely that you probably will. So then, if you roll-up a weak character at the beginning you can choose an easier way out of the siege and still have a chance of making good progress through the book (especially if you take the path that avoids the plains episodes). Roll-up a strong character and you can flex your sword arm a bit at the start and get the satisfaction of knowing that you killed at least some part of the onslaught before running off to pursue your quest. Having escaped the siege, you either head out onto the plains on lizard-back, or sail up the river to a small part of the plain then onto the jungle. The plains are quite long compared to the fairly brief jungle, but the plains route also takes in the jungle so you get to experience far more of the book’s content by taking a harder way out of Vymorna at the start (a reward for your risk-taking maybe?) Next comes the part where you find Laskar who tells you that you need to enter a destroyed city which is where the items you need (the Eye of Telak and the Arm of Telak) are hidden. There then follows a conventional dungeon trawl through the inner complex before you reach the climax of the piece where you discover Laskar has stitched you up and sold you out to the Lizard Men meaning you have to deal with this problem before turning to the magic paragraph 400.
The siege is oppressive fun and really does feel like a battlefield. If you take the lizard-mount riding way out, the resulting pursuit is genuinely exciting and is handled at breakneck speed with a decent amount of peril along the way. The plains route can be dangerous and there are a few elements designed to trap the unwary (especially a confusing mist), but the central focus of this part of the book is on the NPCs, Lecarte and Katya. Lecarte is there to save you from your pursuers and lead you to the nearest town, the utterly pointless Capra which covers less than a handful of sections and is of no help at all, although it does open up the next potential episode, an Orc funeral. This is one of the highlights of the book and it makes good use of Gascoigne’s lore on Orc society that he included in Titan. The funeral plays out in an interesting and in-depth manner and you even potentially have to resort to eating some Orc flesh and/or drinking some disgusting guursh (aka Orc ale) which gets you pissed to the point of feeling very unwell. An earlier choice had you deciding whether to disguise yourself as an Orc and, if you took the chance to do this, this is the gateway choice that leads to seeing out the Orc funeral. This episode is both fun and disgusting in equal measure and shows Gascoigne’s inventiveness very well. However, it ultimately serves no real purpose at all other than to exploit an idea he included in Titan and to add colour to the proceedings. As with much of this book, this section is totally avoidable, but it does lead neatly to the second NPC encounter, this time with the messenger girl Katya. You do initially get the option to kill her and, to be honest, you might as well do so, as she dies very quickly afterwards anyway when you are both pinned out in the desert by some passing Caarth that, she tells you, are well beyond their usual route availability for some reason. So, she is yet another classic pointless FF NPC that seems like they should be helpful but it very quickly becomes apparent that they are not! A very interesting moment is the possible discovery of an ancient temple devoted to a panther cult which links into later episodes. Again, this is avoidable but it does present another nice cameo to discover. Whichever route you take (plains or river), you are then dovetailed into the pre-jungle sections and meet the trader White-eye whose help you might need but, again, it is not essential. White-eye is as one-dimensional as Katya and the only one of these three NPCs who has any background characterisation is Lecarte, possibly because he is another character whose roots lie in Gascoigne’s work on Titan so the foundations were already there. The subsequent jungle is an underwhelming excuse for you to try to avoid getting into a tangle with some tree-dwelling men (and possibly lose all your equipment) which leads to you finding Laskar for the first time before descending into the depths of the dungeon that forms the final part of this book.
And here is where this book’s problems begin to really amplify themselves. Having been through several potentially interesting episodes, you are now thrown into a generic dungeon bash choosing left or right options and entering various rooms containing monsters or booty. Your real reason for being here is to find the Arm and Eye of Telak and it will not take you long to find either of them as there are multiple paths that will lead you to where they are hidden, although the Eye is the harder of the two to find as, in classic dungeon style, it is a gem and there are four different types you can find, only one of which is the correct stone (or pair of stones, in fact). If you do not manage to find the Arm, do not worry as, when you reach the end, a Lizard Man appears with it anyway so you kind of lose the euphoria of having maybe found it. There are a couple of nice moments in the dungeon (the mausoleum is particularly vivid and awe-inspiring) but it is generally just direction choosing, monster fighting, and item hunting and, like most of this book, there is not much of it overall. Then comes the big climactic showdown with the traitor which is little more than a few stat tests, a one in four jewel picking choice, and then turning to 400 without having to shed any blood or do anything remotely challenging, at which point you reach a strange win section where the Arm of Telak (a sword, incidentally) conjures up a magical army who destroy the Lizard Man forces and Vymorna is saved, leaving you feeling generally unfulfilled and a bit short-changed by it all.
The brevity of the final showdown sums up much of this book as it is all generally rather half-baked, with the exceptions of the exciting opening siege and the fun (but pointless in plot terms) Orc funeral. Two of the four NPCs do very little and do not hang around long enough to make much difference to anything, the third (Lecarte) seems to be a nice excuse for some more Gascoigne-created lore cross-pollination and he does at least free you from a seemingly hopeless situation in the lizard pursuit, whilst the fourth (Laskar) is a wholly different affair and is pivotal to the plot so at least half of these characters do add to the proceedings. However, if you do encounter all four you start to get the feeling that MG is excessively obsessed with forcing NPCs into the equation, which can begin to grate on you. The jungle is very small (as jungles go) as is the river and both just provide minor perils. Another MG obsession seems to be dinosaurs which are, like his NPCs, deployed in an uneven fashion. The jungle edge dinosaurs seem to be very out of place and I was confused by their sudden appearance and their high Skill scores – high Staminas make sense as dinosaurs are big and chunky but they surely just act on instinct to defend themselves and cannot realistically be skilful? However, the Lizard Men’s flying conveyance of choice is the Pterodactyl which makes much more sense and links into their riding lizards as cavalry mounts and does add an extra dimension of peril as you can be assailed from above too. In fact, the airborne assaults are some of my favourite parts of this book but, again, there just aren’t enough of them and the terror is not sustained (although there is an amusing part where you can try to ride a Pterodactyl yourself, with understandably disastrous results given that you have no idea what you are doing). The final dungeon section is actually rather dull and, other than the mausoleum and the disorientation that the layout can present, this is the point where I would imagine most players will be losing interest.
Another problem is that (unless you take the path that leads you almost everywhere that is reachable in one route) a playthrough of this book is surprisingly short and, unless something strong or a failed Luck/Skill roll kills you, it is very reasonable to expect victory on the first or second attempt. Yes, this book is that easy. And it shouldn’t be, all things considered. There are many strong fights but none are essential. There are umpteen Skill and Luck tests and you will definitely need good scores in these two stats but this is probably the only really challenging aspect. The book is non-linear and, other than finding the Eye, there is no true path as such, although there are safe and dangerous routes. The initial discovery that you are limited to carrying only 4 Provisions and that you can only eat when instructed may seem harsh but there are lots of chances to collect Provisions (far more than you can ever carry) and a decent number of moments where you can eat so Stamina replenishment is not difficult. Furthermore, one of the opening three items you can choose from is a Stamina restorative and visiting certain places will restore your Stamina too. Curiously, the rules do not mention not exceeding your initial Skill but this is not an issue as Skill bonuses are scant. Given the number of Luck tests you have to pass you would expect this to be a potential issue but there are several Luck bonuses (including two early ones that seem to be impossible to use) to mitigate this too. All of this combined with the fact that not finding Laskar or the Arm of Telak is impossible (there goes any sense of achievement then) and the on-a-plate ending make for an unsatisfyingly easy gamebook overall and it seems that MG was more interested in translating his Titan inventions and certain preoccupations (dinosaurs, NPCs) into episodes around which a game was designed rather than starting with the aim of making a game and building those moments into it. Yes, there is some excitement to be had, especially at the start, but the pace is later maintained through overly-short and undeveloped areas that seem rushed in a bid to get it over with. Your character too is oddly moralistic and squeamish about things that you should have no qualms over at all, such as killing Lizard Men by blowing them up, and this seems illogical. Most frustrating of all is the fact that the Lizard Man siege has no context and, especially given Gascoigne’s fondness and skill in lore building, there is no explanation of why it is happening. On a lesser level, the same could be said for why the Caarth are out of their usual trajectory but as this is a small moment it is far less obvious than the huge gaping hole in the entire plot. That said, one thing that works very well is the consistency with the premise in that Lizard Men turn up at various stages throughout the book and are still entrenched in the plot right at the end, even if the way they are finally defeated is genuinely laughable.
In actual fact, the thing that initially appealed to me most about playing this book was the Lizard Man-centric plot. Whilst it’s far from perfect, Ian Livingstone’s Island Of The Lizard King is based on a solid central foundation of the slightly unsettling and very hostile Lizard Men and another book based on these creatures was well overdue in my opinion as they are one of my favourite FF species. The added draw of Alan Langford being on internal art duty again added to my interest as he perfectly depicts the lizardine semi-prehistoric nature of the subject matter and his return aids consistency. Even the cover which hints at Lizard Men riding flying dinosaurs really caught my imagination, in spite of it being a long way from even the most middling quality pieces of fantasy art I’ve ever seen and the colour palate is a bit childish. I have heard it said that Langford’s internals look rushed (by comparison with, say, Creature Of Havoc) but I thoroughly disagree and the depth of detail in some of the images, especially those featuring Lizard Men is excellent and sits well alongside his other work for FF. It is just a shame that FF failed to ever provide a Lizard Man-themed gamebook experience to match the concept’s potential and visual appeal.
For all its flaws, Battleblade Warrior is very playable and you really do find yourself wanting to like it, but overall it is a pretty forgettable experience due both to its ease and the way much of it sells itself short through design and mechanical issues that could so easily have been avoided had MG focussed more on writing a game than writing a book. He writes very well (far better than many gamebook authors) and this book never gets boring as such, but the way it starts with a brilliantly-developed opening siege and escape, only to be followed by a series of generally empty cameos (excluding the Orc funeral and the woefully under-utilised temple) that seem to be designed thus to maintain the pace, ultimately leads to a gamebook that is too short and too easy. I doubt many players will give this a second look once they’ve finished it as even the longest route through offers little more than 90 minutes of entertainment. A missed opportunity, given the subject matter and the talent of the author, but Gascoigne really should have stuck to writing fiction and expanding the foundations of the FF universe as the excellent Titan, Out Of The Pit and Demonstealer all ably demonstrated.