THE CRIMSON TIDE
Reviewed by Mark Lain
The follow-up, as opposed to a sequel, to the archly pretentious #42 Black Vein Prophecy (they are both set in the Isles Of Dawn and this book’s plot requires you to encounter the protagonist from the earlier book but your character this time around is totally different) is structurally and stylistically unique within the FF cannon. YOU play a 13-year-old serf who is seeking vengeance on the leader of a band of marauding bandits who murdered your father and abducted your mother. The book begins with the bandits attacking your village, then YOU and some other village children set off to right the wrong. The plot motive itself may hardly sound original (there are several other revenge FFs), but the approach and execution is a million miles away from the standard “sword, armour, potion, food, mission” gamebooks.
Beginning the book as a child means you are initially very weak and your starting stats are designed to reflect this: Skill is generated with a single dice roll (ie it can only range from 1 to 6), Stamina is only 2d6 (ie 2 thru 12), but Luck is the standard 1d6+6 (ie 7 to 12). This may seem quite harsh in gaming terms, but it is very logical in real terms as a child cannot have the same physical strength or weapons abilities as a bigger and more experienced adult. There is no reason, however, why a child cannot be as naturally lucky (or unlucky) as an adult so the handling of Luck also makes perfect sense. To avoid you simply having no chance of getting anywhere due to your restricted stats, an added feature involves your Age stat. You start aged 13 and, as the book progresses you are prompted to add another year or two to your age as time is spent doing various things (working, training, being enslaved, etc.) As you get older your Skill and Stamina also increase in line with whatever you are doing – do physical work and your Stamina rises, learn combat skills and your Skill rises. Again, all very logical, with the added realistic element that, once you reach the age of 18, your current Skill and Stamina become your Initial values and you now have an adult character generated. This is the only FF gamebook ever to deal with this idea and it gives a realistic RPG feel as your character literally develops. There is another stat involved here too (Ferocity) which is your desire for revenge. As you get older, your Ferocity generally decreases as your hatred lessens. If it ever reaches zero you have achieved inner peace and can automatically avoid the aggressive responses caused by rolling under your Ferocity score when making saving throws against Ferocity. Ferocity is the only stat mechanic that does not work especially well in this book. If your primary goal is vengeance (and it is in this book) then why would your thirst for closure ever reduce? Also, as the book regularly reminds you that you are out for revenge, it seems a bit at odds with that part of the plot. That said, a major feature of this book’s design plot-wise is your gradual spiritual awakening, so in that sense it fits well, but there are not really many moments where your Ferocity is tested so overall it has little bearing on anything much. All the same, the idea itself is sound.
It does not take a genius to realise that, given the limits imposed on you by playing a child in the early stages of the book, you can find yourself starting with a super-weak Skill 1 Stamina 2 character. If you do, you have to give up immediately and start again. In fact, if you have anything lower than an opening Skill of 3 the book is impossible from the outset as you are expected to fight a Sk 12 St 6 Giant Mudworm a few sections into the book. Even if you roll double twos for its Attack Strength in every Attack Round (possible, but highly unlikely), giving it an AS of 14 (which is its minimum) you can only ever wound it with a minimum AS of 15 (ie 2 x 6 on the dice + 3 Skill) and even then you have to roll double sixes every time (again, it can happen, but it is extremely unlikely.) Much has been made of this encounter in various write-ups of this book and it is incredibly hard, but this has to be looked at rationally. Yes, the fight cannot be won unless you have a Skill higher than 3 (and even with a Skill of 6 it will not be easy) which is a fundamental flaw in design, but you only need to inflict three wounds to kill it. If you use Luck (and remember that Luck is rolled-up as per any other FF book so you have no disadvantage Luck-wise) you can potentially only need to hit it twice as it is physically quite weak. The book does mention that you are made leader of the gang of children because you had previously killed a Giant Mudworm (which you quickly realise is the standard enemy of the rice paddy worker in this area of Titan) so this combat is evidently a plot-enhancing moment and is obviously intended to be easy as you start the book with only a wooden sword as a weapon – presumably Giant Mudworms can be simply beaten to death with sticks so cannot be all that tough? But, it is unfair to criticise the book’s design for this encounter as it was never meant to be this way. PM has gone on record as blaming Marc Gascoigne for changing the creature’s Skill during the editing process so the error is just that – an error! Looking up Giant Mudworms on Titannica suggests its stats should be Sk 6 St 6 which would certainly be more sensible and make this combat fit the context far better. So, there are two choices here (excluding cheating and awarding yourself an automatic win, of course): 1) play the book as it is in its finished form which does demand a minimum starting Skill of 3 but that’s no different to the multitude of the FFs that have predestination built into your stats and cannot be finished without certain minimum attributes and just accept that this combat is ridiculously hard; 2) decide the Mudworm has a Skill of 6 and conduct the fight that way instead. By all accounts, if you want to ever get beyond the very first part of the book you need to do something otherwise you will miss a lot of decent material.
On the first few playthroughs it can seem like you spend a lot of time going around in never-ending circles making the intended route seem rather elusive and, until you find the true path the book is pretty much a loop of visiting and re-visiting the same places and scratching your head trying to fathom out what essential item or side-route you have somehow missed. It is even possible to end up being sent back to paragraph 1 (although this happens quite early on, rather than annoyingly right at the end as with BVP) to re-live everything but that is preferable to just being told you have failed. Indeed, the way failure is handled in this book is one of the best parts of it as instant deaths are very rarely used, other than in the final section where there is a generic item checklist that you have to go through and any missed ones will lead to death. Instead, TCT includes a multitude of alternate endings, all of which involve you getting a job of some sort and just settling for that instead of revenge. Some are very “zen” and follow the spiritual enlightenment themes that are central to the book (becoming a monk, etc), some are just you accepting that a career will get you through life fine (weaver, sailor, farmer, etc), and a few are pretty awful and condemn you to a life of hell (slavery, etc.) There are loads of these outcomes and, whilst they might start to grate and become repetitive after a while, they offer a good alternative to simply dying and show that a lot of thought has gone into a) the design of the book and b) the central themes and the genuine realities of accepting a good opportunity when it presents itself rather than trying to be a one-man revenge machine (especially as you are totally out of your depth here.)
The central theme of enlightenment is key to completing this book and you are required to pay quite close attention to a few important clues along the way, especially in the introduction which tells you that you need to note down codewords in the exact order that you are given them. Enlightenment in this case involves training as a monk, learning to control your rage (Ferocity) whilst growing physically more powerful (Skill, Stamina) and making some wise (enlightened) choices at major decision points and it quickly becomes apparent that killing everything in sight will get you nowhere in this book. The codewords concept is one that I generally do not like in gamebooks but it is very well deployed in TCT and serves two purposes. The first is the use of codewords as a way of controlling plot logic and flow to avoid the reset button illogically kicking-in as you return to previously visited areas and/or deal with cause-and-effect scenarios. The second is the subtlest and also most frustratingly clever part of this book in that a particular sequence of certain codewords holds the key to the only way of completing the book. This is an intriguing idea and emphasizes the importance of the true path and of mapping. There are lots of codewords that can be found, but only a few form the essential clue, others just control plot flow and some even force you down red herring routes, which makes the correct message all the tougher to find. It will take umpteen failed attempts to find an even vaguely coherent message in the codewords and the one true path is rendered incredibly tight and linear due to this. In fact, it could take many playthroughs to even work out that there is meant to be a message in the codewords, but, as I said earlier, close reading of the text will give clues about this. The statement in the intro about noting them down in order is a clue that probably grows more obvious the more times you play the book, but during the Monks’ trial section one of the Monks actually says “In everything there is a pattern and you will understand only if you observe the pattern” so he essentially tells you how to crack the book’s code. On one hand, this is one of the cleverest and most unusual secret solutions in any FF book, but, equally, it is so subtle due to its uniqueness that it can make this book seem un-finishable and I doubt many people have ever genuinely completed it, especially given that the last part of the hidden clue is the section number that you need to turn to which can only be found by solving a very hard maths puzzle that you are not directly told you have got right until you combine your miraculous realisation that it goes with the word clue with actually managing to do the maths and magically get the correct paragraph. Overall, this is an exceptionally difficult code to solve, but, as I said, the clues are there if you are persistent and are willing to go through the pain of many many unsuccessful playthroughs as you slowly piece the map together and figure out the required order of events. But, at least the “now use the secret section you have uncovered” moment is clearly signposted in the options when it comes to needing to know it, rather than you just having to guess, so it’s not all weighted against you in terms of uncovering the solution.
Indeed, there are a few other nods to make the ride a tiny bit easier for you. Combats are generally discouraged (the battle count on the true path is very low indeed) as the point is to reduce your Ferocity and achieve enlightenment (a word the book hammers into you over and over again to get the point of its importance across) and the really tough opponents do not need to be fought if you have got the point. As time passes there are ample opportunities to improve your stats, although only the true path will give you a decent enough Skill to win through. As an aside, the passing of time may seem a bit jumpy (ie you are often simply told that you spend a year doing this, that, or the other and to add +1 to your Age) but it does avoid unnecessary longeurs that will slow down the plot progression. Plus, the adventure overall is not too long so re-starting does not seem to be a chore as you don’t need to spend ages getting back to a previous fail point which makes re-play more likely without it growing depressing.
For a game with such a tight true path, you are relatively free to roam about and explore areas in any order whilst you try to map the book on repeated failed attempts. Obviously, once you find the true path there is no scope for digression but the “exploratory” possibilities of the book are fairly wide open and are all the more viable given the various non-win endings that avoid the usual “wrong way = death” FF fallback. In some ways, it’s just as much fun trying to reach all the alternate endings as it is trying to find the optimum one and the alternate endings are very easy to get to, unlike the very well hidden true ending. Granted, the true path negates the free movement possibilities but exploration and repeat play is an essential part of the process in this book so it works well in my opinion. Equally, there is a lot to see and do on all paths so it is worth just roaming around aimlessly if only to experience all that has gone into designing the Isles of Dawn. Of note is the way NPCs interact with you as everyone is out for themselves (logical given that this region is an unstable feudal land ruled by an oppressive regime) and hardly anyone (bar the Monks) shows any interest in you at all, especially the bureaucrats. Add to this the way the atmosphere is laid on thick and you really do feel like you are a little twerp on a hopeless personal crusade that you cannot realistically hope to complete... and maybe that’s why it’s so hard to beat this book. Perhaps that’s the point that PM is making, that the little man will always lose when trying to take on the big man. Thankfully though, the political side is largely presented through the feudal social structure rather than through ramblings which was one of the many things that ruined the previous Isles of Dawn book, Black Vein Prophecy. Adding to the atmosphere is the very exotic Far Eastern feel of the locations, NPC names, vocabulary, and the monsters that you can meet. The creatures in particular are highly imaginative and unique to this book (I particularly like the Cargui, which is a big silkworm thing) and are a nice antidote to the usual bog-standard fantasy fare of Orcs and the like, none of which seem to extend this far across Titan. It’s nice to see a bit of geographical exposition in FF and the “cut-off” nature of these Isles seems to be a nod to how feudal Japan used to be viewed by the West. Indeed, Hachiman (from #20 Sword Of The Samurai) gets name-checked frequently in this book (mostly with negative “baddie” connotations) which also adds to the idea of a part of Titan that has developed separately from the rest, plus this also adds to the always-welcome cross-linking between books in the series.
I opened this by describing this book as a follow-up as distinct from a sequel to Black Vein Prophecy. I say this because the links lie in the location and the final denouement only, otherwise this is a wholly different book. In BVP you were destined for greatness (you just had to realise it), in TCT you come from nothing and are probably headed for nothing which might be why you can find so many non-win endings that you are expected to just settle for. The main inter-linking between the two books happens when you come face-to-face with King Maior ie the character you play in BVP. OK, so this is a different slant on the concept and FF sequels almost always do not involve you re-playing the same character (although occasionally you really are the same person), but rarely do you literally meet yourself as is the case here! Unfortunately, whilst it works in the context of TCT’s plot, this does kind of defeat the object of BVP (although, if my advice is worth taking, I would strongly advise against bothering with the wretched BVP anyway!) especially as there is an illustration of King Maior who I can categorically say does not look like the YOU that is me (if that makes sense?) But, it is always nice to see global coherence plot and setting-wise and I think that is what is intended in this book, rather than YOU trying to un-do your role in BVP. Plus, TCT is a far superior book and avoids the lunacy, pretentiousness, and cod politicising that made BVP so unbearable.
As can be expected in a book that plays so liberally with the form and format of FF, paragraph 400 is not the ultimate ending. Instead, it is the key instant death outcome that results from failing the item check-off part of the final section where you meet the King. The fact that several sections offer a “turn to 400” next move can initially create the illusion of success (which may be intentional) can indicate that this is not where you want to be heading and that it is simply another red herring. We have discussed several aspects of this book that make it so very hard to complete (low starting stats, need for high stats generally, ridiculous Giant Mudworm fight, very tight true path, and, the most important by far, the secret message hidden in the text) and another aspect that makes this tough is the shopping list of essential items. Granted, they can be individually fairly easy to get hold of, but finding all of them in one playthrough can be a challenge and it does come as a bit of a surprise when the book suddenly demands that you produce them and the ending is very much a “Do you have x? If not, die”, “Now do you have y? If not, die” catalogue of item checks. That said, it does make it all the more satisfying when you manage to best the “combination of items needed + getting past the rather tough Monks trial by using your enlightened mind + fathoming out that damn secret message” equation and win. It also requires you to win (or at least get a long way through) to appreciate just how intricately and superbly designed this book really is.
Whilst this book is highly original in the context of the FF series, the actual plot is anything but original, given that it is basically lifted from Conan The Barbarian ie child witnesses parents’ undoing, goes through various trials to build himself up physically and spiritually, finally gets revenge as an adult. There is enough variation and interesting incident throughout the game’s plot for you to possibly not notice this, but the appearance of a human-snake end baddie is a little harder to overlook as a Conan steal. Similarly, during the all-important pivotal Monks’ Trial episode, you are required to face your personal demons and confront an image of the masked bandit leader who you are ultimately seeking revenge against. The moment where your face is behind the mask bears more than a passing resemblance to the part of The Empire Strikes Back where Luke decapitates Darth Vader only to see his own face behind the mask. All very philosophical and there is a definite correlation between Luke’s Jedi awakening and your spiritual enlightenment in this book, but it’s a bit transparent where the idea came from. Probably less obvious is the inter-textual repeat image of the bandit leader’s mask itself which is very similar-looking to the horror mask from the classic Japanese movie Onibaba.
On the subject of the internal art, there is a dark mysterious look to Terry Oakes’ work here and some of the images are quite imposing and frightening. I like the way much of the art is from a “looking upwards” perspective which does emphasize the idea of your being a child. The art is not exceptional, but it certainly works in the Far Eastern context of this book. As for Alan Craddock’s colourful and busy cover, this was what really drew me to want to play this book the first time as there’s just so much going on. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to work out exactly what it is that is going on as the Sharkmen (for one) aren’t in the book anywhere and the entire image seems to relate to a completely different book. Odd then, as a cover picture, but I like it nonetheless as there is a certain animation to it and it has effective use of dark as well as bright contrasting colours.
This is a very unique experience overall that is very satisfying to play (and beat, if you actually can do so) and offers a lot to keep you interested. The system is highly original and kudos has to go to Paul Mason for trying to do something very different with the FF format and for successfully pulling it off slickly rather than creating a botched mess in the process. There is no doubt that this book is unbelievably difficult but there is enough here to compel you to keep searching for the solution. Apparently PM set out to write the hardest FF book ever and he may just about have achieved his goal as this is certainly amongst the all-time hardest without a doubt. Opinion is very polarised in FF fandom about this book – some rate it for its originality and the thrill of the chase, others hate it for its difficulty-level and the Giant Mudworm cock-up. I’m in the former faction and would strongly recommend giving this a try. You probably won’t win, but you’ll still get a lot of enjoyment out of failing!