Ian is sitting alone in a cramped cupboard of an office at Puffin HQ. Instead of his usual typewriter he looks at the green writing on a black background of the primitive computer machine. The blinking light of the cursor is mocking him.
Ian (Speaking to himself purely so this plot device actually works) "The problem is I can not think of anything else to write. I mean how much novel ideas can someone come up with?!"
He sighs and rubs his hands on his temples.
Ian "Its just the demand for more books, its insane. But how is everyone beating them so fast?"
Realisation dawns on Ian.
Ian "The little bastards, I bet they are cheating. And it won't be a reroll here or there in combat or for a failed luck test. Why they are probably even giving themselves stats of 12/24/12 before they even start!"
Ian is now getting visibly furious.
Ian "In fact I bet they keep their grubby little fingers in the pages as bookmarks in case they make a choice they do not like!"
He know picks up the chair and throws it against the wall as it shatters into multiple pieces. A terrified looking young intern opens the door and peers in.
Intern "Is everything all right sir?"
Ian "Not a Sir yet, but one day! Yes everything is fine, everything is perfect. I am going to write a book that is so hard that it is impossible to finish! Impossible! That way they will all be stuck on it and I will not have to keep churning out these books! MWHAHAHAHA!"
The intern backs away slowly and shuts the door.
So its still early 1987 when Crypt of the Sorcerer came out and it is back to Ian Livingston whose once epic output of Fighting Fantasy has slowed a little bit as we have had four books since his last outing with Trial of Champions. I did get this one from our local library when I was a kid so I have played it before but all I remember from that was that I failed a lot and couldn't even cheat my way through it. Since then I have read a lot about this book as it is notorious for its difficulty level. I think there is something like a 2% chance of getting to the final boss and even then the chances of beating him are more remote. A lot of hate for this book so I will go in accepting I am going to die and try and focus on other things like the story to try and get some enjoyment from it. Although just imagine if I actually did beat it....I doubt anyone would believe me haha.
Ah the first positive. I love this cover. Its so iconic. Razaak himself looks super creepy with what looks like a malformed head. His magical red light playing around his hand hints to his powers.
And the dark evil red of the cover is the perfect choice of colour. And of course screaming skulls and heads flying about out of the crypt behind him.
When I think Fighting Fantasy some covers I think of are synonymous with the series. For me this is very much one of them.
The Wizard reprint got an updated cover. Even though its quality is overall better its not quite as good for me. Razaak looks more like a an undead necromancer (which he may be). Much more grotesque for sure and pretty cool but looks less like a sorcerer for me.
The evil shades of red are here but the stripe of blue sky is odd.
Also when I look at it closely it looks like a poor old distressed ugly person running away and trying to swat all the bothersome flies that are clearly chasing them. Its hard to have good personal hygiene when you are part corpse.
We are hanging out at the pleasant town of Chalice. It is a safe haven for merchants to rest on their way from Silverton. Normally a great place to be but today as I look out from my room in the Lion Inn I see a problem. For three weeks the sky has been dark and menacing. Worse, there is talk of plague spreading from the East.
Things take a turn when an Elf comes into town. He was minding his own business flying on his eagle over the Moonstone Hills when he saw a fissure. Lots of putrid black vapor was pouring out and the trees in the area were all dead. Circling for a closer look a withered hand appeared in the gap and shot an energy bolt which killed the eagle. The elf had to walk all the way to Chalice to tell us the story.
Now at this point I would have asked how bloody big was this withered hand that you saw it from flying overhead on the Eagle from inside a big crevice? I suspected the Elf's story but I guess they have really keen eyesight.
Luckily I am tight with our old friend, the wizard Yaztromo. I ride off to his tower and apparently trample all over his herb garden. He is as cranky as ever but when he sees the grave look on my face he invites me in to tell him the Elf's tale.
Yaz is not happy with the story, muttering away at those fools. He explains that one hundred years ago Razaak was apprenticed to a lawful wizard but like Anikan Skywalker he was tempted to the dark side. After forty years of solitude he graduated as a full blown Necromancer (ah so he was a necromancer). It was then he announced to all the lords of the lands that they had to acknowledge him as their ruler.
|Yes my tribal chief!|
Slight problem with that though, nobody had any idea who Razaak was so they all ignored him. Razaak spat the dummy at this and unleashed plagues and pestilences across their lands until they accepted him as their ruler.
Many heroes tried to slay Razaak but they rolled terrible stats and all failed. That was until a person named Kull was randomly sailing his boat across a mist covered lake and saw a skeletal hand holding a sword from the lake. He grabbed it and discovered he had a blade that could cut through anything. But there is a twist, it was Razaaks own sword. You see in order to become a necromancer (as well as live in a cave for forty years) he had to destroy all his weapons. Unfortunately for him his sword was indestructible so he threw it into a lake. A disgruntled skeleton had other ideas and held it up above the lake water, apparently for ages, just waiting for someone to come along and take it.
Kull found Razaak and slew him the sword but their was an unfortunate side effect for poor Kull, all his flesh fell off. Now as a skeleton himself he fled to the lake on the Moonstone Hills where he enjoys sailing his raft.
Razaak's remains were sealed by a lawful wizard who decreed they needed to be sealed for 110 years or Razaak would come back and kill everyone with an undead army. Yaz concludes that grave robbers must have found the tomb and not knowing what they were doing, unsealed it. The fools!
He turns to me and says I assume you will be volunteering my services to save the day. Of course I do. Yaz says first I have to get the sword and bring it back to him so he can make sure I get to keep my flesh. He also mentions the need for magic amulets and talismans to protect myself. Queue up an item hunt. But he does mention that he is going to get some backup which could be interesting.
Rest up tonight, I head out in the morning.
This is as bog standard as it gets with only skill, stamina and luck. However we also get told you have no provisions. And I seem to be missing an equipment list, no sword, backpack or anything. I hope it explains why in the first paragraph.
Skill - 11
Stamina - 19
Luck - 9
Normally I would be delighted with a skill 11 but I already know I am dead with these stats. Lets see how long we can keep it going for though!
Yaztromo wakes me up before dawn from a nightmare of undead attacking me. Twenty minutes later I am outside and ready to ride. He gives me a healing potion that has enough for five tots (whatever a tot is) and each tot restores four points of stamina. Ah so these are the substitute for provisions. It makes more sense for a magic potion to heal wounds rather than eating lots of food. By nightfall I am at the foot of the hills the Silver River flows out of on the Windward plain. Oh that reminds me there is a colour map -
|You are here.|
The night passes without incident and after a good breakfast I can decide whether to wade the river and go east into the hills or follow the river north into the hills. Well we are looking for a lake right so it makes sense that the river will lead us there?
We meet the Harpoon Flies who can shoot there noses as weapons. Apparently they take a week to grow back. The poison paralyses the victim and allows the females to lay their eggs in the victims so the maggots have plenty to eat. Well that's horrifying what skill are they? Oh wait I have to roll to see how many needles hit me! I do not even get to fight!
|There be Orcs in these hills!|
|Its an Ambush!|
|Wait what is this, Goblin riding horses? Outrageous!|
|And get immediately attacked by Peter Griffin.|
This will be much more of a test as its Skill 10. Stamina is also 10 so I have to hit it 5 times. We trade blows but I get the better of him with 13 stamina left. It tries to fly away but plummets to its death. I do not see the Barbarian rider get up so I think its prudent to investigate lest she sneaks up behind me. She is very much dead and I can take her sword if I need for 2 skill points if I do not have one. I assume if I had lost my sword I would be down 2 skill points (and would never have beaten the Griffin). Do you want to take her shield. Yes I do.
|Ah Kull, looking good mate!|
|I really should just leave you.|
|You had me at roast duck.|
He introduces himself as Symm, a tracker. He is quite confident and says there is nothing he can't shoot or track. We talk and he asks what I am doing. Well Symm I just picked up a sword from a boating skeleton to go and kill a sorcerer who may or may not be causing some black clouds to ruin the weather. Symm decides to join me in my quest and I immediately start to have Mungo flashbacks.
|Either Yas is in trouble or I have just walked in on something. Hope he has a safe word.|
|An upgrade on your balloon!|
|Just minding his own business collecting bones.|
And here is the quizmaster himself, Ungoth -
|The Noel Edmonds of Allansia.|
My word he has a lot of questions. Hope you have been paying attention, like when Borri was rambling on about the cost of a hammer in Port Blacksand. What is the current troll record for eating hobbit ears? What number do the Zombies get tattooed and how old was Razaaks old man when he died? I get the first question as it relates to your cover story of buying weapons at Port Blacksand for Razaak, but the rest? How are your regular evil guys meant to know the troll record? What happens if you get it wrong by 1 as you only have last years information? Dead thats what. Does not make any sense. But thats ok as if you get past that you have to use the combination of the door to the crypt which is much more obviously marked on a moss covered stone hundreds of miles away, yeah that makes much more sense......
John Sibbick debuts as the illustrator, although he did do the Masks of Mayhem cover which I thought was a bit rubbish. Now I do not know if its because the art in the last entry, Beneath Nightmare Castle, was so bad, but I am loving the art here. In fact its some of the best I have seen in the series since Deathtrap Dungeon. It really is excellent and what I imagine when I think Fighting Fantasy.
From my playthrough my meeting with Kull and Symm are my favourites. The Demon Spawn is also excellent, as are a lot of the creature depictions that are in the menagerie section. And Razaak himself is top notch. Love it!
|Domestic trouble in the Demon household as Mr Demon has finally had enough of Mrs Demons nagging and has stormed out as she pleads with him not to leave.|
|Ah yes Yaz, of course its you inside the crypt lair. Not an illusion at all!|
|Love this one as it gives a proper feel of being up in the balloon.|
|But this is my number 1! The best depiction of Skeletons that you will see anywhere. Well at least anywhere in Fighting Fantasy in the first 26 books.|
|The Clay Golem looks terrible and it does not even have a picture frame and zero background. Its so jarring that I thought it had been done by another illustrator.|
Big Bad -
|Dont let him touch you with his strong hand.|
If anyone got the scary movie reference please award yourself a point. As a big bad he is right up there with one of the best. I mean the entire of Allansia is at stake here. Razzak likes to think big! He gets a good bit of backstory depicting his growth in power but we never find out why he went to the dark side other than a lust for power. What I do love is that he has already been defeated before and his resurrection has played out the way it has. But best of all is you feel his presence throughout your journey. From having to get his sword from Kull reminding you of his past to all his current machinations such as kidnapping Yaztromo. It does not feel like he is just waiting in his crypt for you to turn up.
You know considering how many books have come before we are still seeing some new creatures. To be honest this one has a mix of fantasy staples like Orcs, Trolls, Centaurs, Dwarfs etc but supplemented with ones with twists such as Ice Ghosts, various demons and of course the Gargantis. I think Ian does a really good job here with a nice variety and I feel like I am in a living, breathing fantasy world.
|Dorogar are half trolls, half orc which we have seen before. Maybe some lonely nights in the mines...|
|The Gargantis is a great monster, and you need his horn to kill Razaak. He is a beast at Skill 12 as he should be. But there is a non combat option to beat him, even if it its very, very convoluted and unlikely.|
|I really like the Ice Ghosts, but they are a non combat option, just avoid being touched by them.|
|At the other end of the heat spectrum you have the Lava Demons.|
|I should explain that this Orc is jumping out of a tree. Always good to see some classic monsters though. Does not have to be new and unique every time.|
|The Rad Hulks protect a treasure chest with a vital shield. Everything is vital in this book.|
|This Rad Hulk had a great run as WWF Champion in the 80s.|
|Got Wood? This guy has it in abundance!|
Entertaining Deaths -
Harpoon flies paralysing you and laying their eggs on you. It will be several days before you die a revolting death.
Running away from a Rad Hulk, it throws a boulder and knocks you out and then snaps your neck.
Falling off your horse after a Chameleonite ambush, you bang your head and are bound and robbed and left for vultures, Allansia is doomed.
Getting your sword stuck in a clay golem, he throttles you.
Being eaten by a giant pitcher plant, it dissolves you slowly in its digestive juices.
Having a sleep next to some boulders, its a boulder beast and it roles over and crushes you.
Trying to land a hot air balloon in a forest and falling out.
Being pulled out of a balloon by a hobgoblin.
A red dragon destroying your balloon (balloon riding in Allansia is very dangerous).
Pouring some water on sludge, a chemical reaction poisons you.
Putting on a death mask of Agran, it forces you to sacrifice yourself, you turn to dust after stabbing yourself with Razaaks sword.
The Gargantis uses a mental attack and you and your friends fight. You kill both of them before jumping into the pit and being easily eaten.
Trying to sneak up on the Gargantis by lowering yourself on a rope into its pit from above. It just walks up and eats you.
Accidently being transported to the plane of evil, by walking down a non descript tunnel.
Honestly I think the best death was the one I ended up having with Borri going loopy after eating the mad mad berries. But since I already came across that one I will go for -
After going through all that and by some miracle beating Razaak, checking your stamina and finding its less than 6 and being too tired to escape the collapsing crypt.
Pete's Corner -
How come I can put on a giants copper ring? Am I also a giant?
Final Thoughts -
Well that was certainly something. As I was playing through I could not understand the hate for this books difficulty as I found it all pretty standard and the fighting easy enough. But after I mapped it and looking at how extremely narrow the correct path is, wow.
But as usual lets start with the positives, and there are plenty. The story is excellent. Ian gets the background section spot on yet again. Just enough fluff and I enjoyed the back story of Razaak being defeated previously and the fate of Kull. But the story keeps going throughout the book. The quest to retrieve the sword and the start is the more traditional Fighting Fantasy, but after that meeting fleshed out companions in Symm and Borri, the hot air balloon ride, saving Yaztromo from being sacrificed. It feels like an overarching story and is almost like a movie.
This comes at a cost though. In order to tell the story like this it is a very linear adventure. The variety of choices is an illusion. Which of these 3 locations do you want to go to next? Well 2 will lead to death very quickly. It is an interesting change but for a gamebook you need a variety of choice. In fact the true path requires so, so many items to pick up and information to find that there is no room for error. Now I was happy with that in Deathtrap Dungeon as it fit the theme of the book. Here though I feel it is a bit ridiculous. I would have had multiple paths featuring different items that changes the way the final battle could go.
I understand though to do that you would have to sacrifice story and maybe lose the companions, both of whom are a great addition so it is a very difficult balancing act.
Other positives are Razaak himself, what a great villain. At least in storyline terms. His menace pervades the book at all times. And the last hero that killed him became a skeleton doomed to sail the lake holding Razaaks sword! He looks suitably evil and deformed but once you have defected all his magic attacks with all your cacophony of random items he should not be a close combat ninja! I am all for a special ability with his wonky hand but not a game breaker as this fight is.
I can not praise the artwork enough in this book. As I said in that section it is some of the best I have seen in a while. It really adds to the encounters and John Sibbick should be applauded. I really hope he has done more in the series. Those graveyard skeletons and Razaak himself are top tier.
So great story, great art, good companions, must be great yes? Nope. Lets talk about the elephant in the room. The difficulty. This book is impossible. Even with the maximum statistics you are very early at the mercy of a random dice roll. Little did I know those Harpoon Flies can kill you. I do not agree with a game based on stats that you have to roll a random dice that can lead to instant death. It is unavoidable as well, you must go this way. The shopping list is quite something as well. I will try and recap here but I might miss something. All these are a must (if you want to avoid a fight with the Gargantis) -
Crystal of Sanity - of course its in a hidden barrel owned by a recently dead miner.
Chameleonite Blood - Which comes with another random dice roll that can lead to a -2 skill penalty.
Skull Ring - Which involves you being a dick and killing the bonekeeper which is very out of character, so much so that the book hits you with -3 luck! This makes no sense.
Examine the random rock to get the door code. This really makes no sense.
Part of a Silver Rod from a Wood Demons mulch.
Scroll to tell you where the Gargantis lives (not necessary as you could get a lucky guess).
The Defender Shield form the dead body of a women on a Griffin who randomly attacks you.
Gold ring with a large jewel. Found randomly by opening a rusty box and taking a doll out, activating the clay golem and then beating him. Why is it in such a random place?
Razaaks Sword. Obviously.
Globe that makes you immune to fire. In the Giants cave so you have to kill him and again he has a random dice roll (no skill test) that can kill you outright.
A faded parchment.
Tamals age from the gravestone.
Second part of a Silver Rod found in the empty grave of an attacking skeleton. It combines to give you the rod of paralysis.
Bronze Key from some Dorogar in the mines.
The number tattooed on the Zombie miners.
Roll a die again, 1-5 lose 1 skill point from an Iron Eater (unavoidable).
Find the trolls book and take note of the hobbit ear eating record.
Find out the price of a hammer in Port Blacksand.
Get your faded parchment translated by an old man.
A zombies identity tag.
But DO NOT pick up a demon talisman on your way or that kills you late on.
And this is all before you get to a skill 12, stamina 20 final fight where if he wins two combats in a row you are instantly dead. I am sorry but this book is broken. So many penalties and chances of instant death by a mere dice roll. The rest of the enemies are ok, you probably wont die in combat as they are all reasonable. There are a lot of false trails which kill you. And I can even get over the tight path and shopping list if you had lots of playthroughs. But dying through no fault of your own off a random dice roll is poor and you will not beat Razaak when you get to him.
This is disappointing not just from the author but especially from the editors who should have picked this up. Unless they did it on purpose. And maybe they did to prove a point. But the biggest shame is that this would have been such a great book if it had been balanced correctly and maybe had a few less necessary items. I was really enjoying it in my playthrough after all.
Ian Livingston here has written a great book, but a terrible gamebook.
Score - 5 out of 10.