PHANTOMS OF FEAR
Reviewed by Mark Lain
Number 28 in the original series has to be one of the most ambitious FFs ever in terms of structure and construction, and it must have been a major undertaking to keep track of the reality-dream cross-overs when writing it which are key to the book’s narrative. You play a wood elf shaman (one of the rare FFs where you are a non-human character) and you even have a name, which is very unusual for FF as you are normally, well, you! The plot revolves around your beloved Affen Forest being under threat from the pestilence caused by the appearance of the Demon Ishtra who is, unsurprisingly for FF, the latest candidate to destroy all of Titan and you have to save the world (nothing new there then.) What is very different about this FF is that you can switch (at will in the second part of the book) between the real world and your shamanic dream world where, in the first half, you can have visions of the future and/or of important bits of information that can help in your quest, and in the second half you can actually move freely through a dreamworld version of the playing environment.
The actual plot itself is split into two distinct parts as noted above. The first half is an info/equipment gathering roam through the still healthy part of Affen Forest. The second half is a trawl through an underworld dungeon as you make your way through Ishtra’s demonic domain under the diseased and unpleasant part of the forest and eventually track him down in his lair. Part one is fairly generic forest-set FF fare with relatively few perils along the way. You must regularly eat (which is realistic) otherwise you lose Stamina in your exhaustion and you can choose to sleep along the way and dream to gain information from your visions. As you progress, the forest becomes an increasingly less green and pleasant place and the creatures become more agitated, aggressive and/or warped as you approach the entrance to Ishtra’s domain. This is all very logical and flows nicely. Part two is where the real cleverness and ambition of Waterfield’s book becomes apparent. Once you enter Ishtra’s domain you have the option to be in either the real world or your own dreamworld and you can even switch between the two as you wish. This is both a blessing and a curse as the dreamworld part is very hard to map due its often abstract dreamlike nature and lack of continuity (as you’d expect in a dream, so kudos to RW for that.) The real world version is basically a large maze and if you map this then play through the dreamworld version you can begin to get an idea of how it links together. Trying to map the dreamworld alone would be practically impossible without a template to follow and the plot can become very confused if you decide to switch between both worlds randomly - you will soon have no idea where you are and can end up repeatedly visiting the same area over and over if you are not careful. But it also makes things more interesting and disturbing if you do opt to keep switching (plus sometimes you have to to avoid dying.) This means there is much scope for re-playability as you discover how the real world and dreamworld versions link together and it really does feel like a bizarre nightmare which is one of this book’s real plus-points. Additionally, depending on whether you finally decide to face Ishtra in the dreamworld or the real world, there are two possible versions of the final showdown with two different outcomes which adds even more replay possibilities. There is also a nice continuity feature where a group of dark elves that you despatch in part one get mentioned in part two as they haven’t come back from a food raiding mission so you will do as an alternative meal.
To emphasize the dream/reality element, this book introduces a new attribute and new attributes are always a mixed bag. Your Power score is your ability to cope in the dreamworld and to deal with the intensity of your visions. The higher the power, the more screwed-up are the visions you can cope with, along with having the mental fortitude to deal with the final battle with Ishtra. The more helpful dreams you have, the higher your Power becomes (there is no upper Initial limit to your Power), and defeating enemies in dreamworld combats also adds to your Power. Conversely, losing dreamworld battles will decrease your Power. With the exception of the final dream-reality mish-mash battles it is not possible to die if you lose a dreamworld combat, so this is realistic as well as you can snap out of a dream when it becomes particularly nasty for you by simply waking up. The dreamworld combat system itself is a problem as it is always weighted in favour of your foe – if you throw 2-7 on 2 die your opponent wins the round, but you must throw 8-12 for you to win a round. Thus the tougher opponents are practically impossible to defeat in dream combat unless you are incredibly lucky or have loaded dice! A higher Power score can also make you very lucky in certain situations (indeed the Luck attribute itself is relatively underused in this book, which is unusual) and you can make progress through the dreamworld far simpler and faster, helping you to avoid some of the more ramblingly bizarre parts of Ishtra’s dream dungeon. Indeed if you choose to fight Ishtra in the dreamworld there is very little need to really explore much (assuming you have a high enough Power score to actually do this) as items are not needed. Fighting Ishtra in the real world requires a lot of magical items with numbers on them, some of which are very hard to find – this could be deliberate to emphasise that this book is meant to be won in your dreams as you are, after all, a visionary shaman, so this could be another good bit of game design and does allow for variety rather than the usual FF trick of forcing you down one particular linear route.
... And that’s another neat feature of this adventure. Granted there is some linearity, but overall this book does allow for a lot of exploration, particularly in the second part. The first part does let you roam about in the forest to an extent, but persistently going in the wrong direction results in being turned around and pointed in the right direction which does remedy the problem of potentially aimless wandering around the forest looking at trees, getting hungry, and dreaming about impending doom, which would become dull after a while and slow the plot down. Part two of the book gives you, for the most part, almost total freedom to explore the underground maze. A few key stages will force you to take a certain path (as the other one “looks dangerous”, apparently) but this works in the same way as in part one and allows you to discover previously unknown parts of the dungeon rather than boring you with repetition (and the dreaded FF reset button, of course.)
There is a schizophrenic nature to how difficulty is handled in this book, but this could actually be intentional to emphasise the difference between the nice foresty part and the demonic underworld. Plus you would expect the book to grow more difficult as you near your goal – I hate FFs that kill you on the third turn of a page and this certainly does not happen in POF. The first part of the book is fairly easy with very few chances to die. The encounters in the forest are very logical and appropriate forest-dwelling creatures of various sizes from an angry mob of nut-protecting squirrels through to various boars, bears, etc. Enemy stats are very well thought-out with most creatures having low Skills (as most of them defend on instinct and have no fighting abilities as such other than thrashing about with claws or tusks, etc) and fairly high Staminas (as they are mostly pretty big and strong.) There is one fairly tough puzzle to contend with in the fairy glade at the end of section one but you don’t feel very clever once you’ve solved it even though it has probably taken you ages to do so. If you can’t solve it, you’re trapped forever so you have to get it right unless you cheat, but the answer is a low number and it won’t take you long to find the correct paragraph! Part two is far tougher with many instant deaths, a few based on failed Luck tests, but most relying on arbitrary dice throws. Whilst this does give the feeling of a lethal demonic underworld it is also pretty unfair and is akin to the more unreasonably hard FFs (Chasms Of Malice takes the failed arbitrary dice roll = death dichotomy to ridiculous extremes.) But at least it acts as a counter-balance to the fairly easy forest part of the book and avoids accusations of this FF being too easy, which it most certainly is not. The second to last showdown (with Ishtra’s side-kick Morpheus) starts hard as you have to face three increasingly stronger dream foes, but the actual dream showdowns with Morpheus and Ishtra are fairly easy by comparison with other dream combats in this book. However, the challenge at this last stage is to actually have accrued a high enough Power score to even be able to face fighting them full stop, plus surviving the many encounters with Ishtra’s Orc workforce and his various sneaky traps is not easy so you will have done well to get to the end. You have to employ common sense and/or ingenuity to survive some encounters, particularly the dining hall, so this is welcome in my opinion. The biggest criticism to level against the difficulty is an area of six doors where you have to roll dice to determine which door to open – one leads to instant death, another holds a potentially important item (if you’re planning on taking Ishtra on in the real world or have no choice due to a low Power score.) You are allowed to keep going until you’ve visited all five of the non-death rooms but this can take a while as you have to throw a double of a given number to be able to enter a given room. Yes, this removes linearity, but it also becomes tedious and you will probably give up after a few rooms due to the amount of dice rolling you have to do (if you’re still alive, of course.) To parallel the fairy glade in part one, there is an incredibly difficult area of the dreamworld where you are forced to undertake the Trial Of Ghosts. Whilst this is not impossible (contrary to what many reviewers have said), it is certainly incredibly difficult and will most likely result in your death. Again, you are at the mercy of a dice roll which makes this even harder/more unfair. I have never actually ended up having to play the Trial Of Ghosts so it is clearly avoidable, but I have looked at its entry (paragraph 309) and the solution is pretty mind-boggling. The creature encounters (mostly Orc and Lizard Man guards) in the second part are tougher in terms of Skill than part one, but not generally as physically strong which adds another welcome element of logic.
A sign of a good FF is originality and/or location-suitability of the monsters you encounter. POF handles this aspect very well. The forest is largely full of forest animals of various sizes (mostly stupid and instinctively defensive), with a few humanoid encounters thrown in, but not so many as to make it seem like Affen Forest is a major thoroughfare of some kind. You can meet a nutcase (who is actually a retired adventurer who gave up after getting stuck in the Maze Of Zagor) and make him be your companion (who, as this is FF, dies shortly afterwards, of course, but in the process takes some of the battle attention off you in a particularly gruelling combat with six dark elves), (unsurprisingly) six dark elves who you don’t like because you’re a nice wholesome wood elf, a lost and terrified travelling family cowering under their caravan, and a unique creature called a Weevilman which is a sort of social outcast human-beetle cross-breed that was apparently hounded from the towns and took refuge in the forest (this is a good feature as well as rarely do you get an actual contextual description of a creature in a FF.) In the underworld dungeon there are several creatures that are unique including a Drake (a dreamworld dragon basically), some Prowlers (mutant abominations created by Ishtra), and an Angaroc (a dreamworld-dwelling hairy lizard-spider thing with some very tough special skills.) Just like Zagor in The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, Ishtra employs a lot of Orcs to guard him, and there’s even an unhinged Chaotic Orc to contend with.
The inclusion of the ex-adventurer is a neat feature that links this book to the overall body of FF works nicely and there are other links too: the fairies who challenge you in their glade work for The Riddling Reaver, and one of your dreams features the ever-present wizard Yaztromo (although you don’t know who he is or what Allansia is.) I always like to see FFs cross-linked as it creates a feeling of continuity and coherence across the series.
The Yaztromo dream is not the only connection with Y’s first ever FF appearance in The Forest Of Doom. There is another subtler relationship with FOD, that being the totally unsuccessful incorporation of magic into POF. In FOD, Yaztromo sells you a selection of utterly useless magical objects at the start of the adventure. In POF, you are allowed to use a few basic spells. However, use of spells reduces your all-important Power score and you cannot use any magic in the second part of the book as you are told that Ishtra’s underworld is protected by an anti-magic barrier of some sort. Plus, you cannot use magic in dreams, which kind of takes away most of the point of it even being in this adventure. It would have been easier just not to bother making us think there was magic use in this FF, but that might have detracted from the idea of your being an elf, so the jury’s out on this: personally I don’t think it was worth including magic to then take it away from you half-way through and render it largely unusable even in the first part.
The dream sequences themselves are worthy of mention. Robin Waterfield’s writing in general is often more thorough and fleshed-out than you would normally find in a non-Ian Livingstone FF (paragraph 1 alone is almost four pages long!) and that allows for a very vivid and immersive Affen Forest, followed by a truly foreboding and claustrophobic underworld. RW’s descriptions of the dreams are particularly outstanding and really set this book apart as a unique experience. The dreams are confusing, eerie, and as intangible and vaguely symbolic as actual dreams. As you read them you almost see them in a murky mental fog which really does give a feel that you are dreaming. There is a particularly clever vision of a future where humans are riding around (trapped) in metal beasts (cars) which really is very neat and is perfectly suited to the overall environmentally-conscious wood elf theme of the book where your character is at one with the forest where he lives and wants to rid it of the foul pestilence that is threatening it. Indeed, the words “pestilence” and “corruption” are used a lot to describe the parts of the forest near to the entrance to Ishtra’s lair and RW is definitely making an ecological point in this FF. Rarely does a FF have a message, but there is a very clear one here which makes this book rise above sheer escapism and entertainment.
The art in this book is a perfect complement to the nightmarish themes and dreamscape environments. The art is chaotic, abstract, sometimes hideous, but is always suited to how you are visualising the descriptions. Ian Miller is to be congratulated for his interior artwork, but sadly his cover art is without doubt the worst FF cover of all time. It’s not even the stuff of nightmares, it’s just rubbish – the best description would be a lot of snot with some demons sticking out of it: appalling, and sadly very likely to put off a potential reader who would be missing a treat by not playing this book.
One small point of note is the naming of the demon Ishtra. It could be a coincidence, but this is an anagram (and not a very clever one!) of “Ishtar” (starring Warren Beatty) which is generally regarded as one of the worst films ever made...
Overall then, this is a very good FF that has a really different feel about it. It’s not too hard, but it’s far from simple, the art and prose work really well together, there is lots of atmosphere, and there is much all-important re-playability and freedom to roam. RW is to be congratulated for how well he has handled the extremely complex structure of the second part (particularly where you deduct 20 from a paragraph to switch to dreams or add 50 to it to switch to reality) and uses the inconsistency between dreams and reality to create a really convincing result. Yes, the second part can get very confusing and you can end up going around in circles but that’s part of the effect and I personally like it for this. There are definitely some flaws, but this one is well-worth taking the time to explore and it's a pity it hasn't been re-issued by Wizard Books, especially as they can't possibly do their usual trick of making the cover any worse as it can't be worse than it already is!