I'm fighting my way across a fantasy continent filled with monsters and magical artifacts. So why does it feel so empty?
That's what I asked myself after a few hours playing Final Fantasy Legends, a new casual RPG with card- and dice-based gameplay.
It's based on the Fighting Fantasy books, which inspired a cult following by combining a choose-your-own-adventure format with a role-playing element. Readers were armed with a character sheet and a set of statistics generated with a dice roll. I grew up too late to read the books during their '80s heyday, but a stash of second-hand copies gave me my first real taste of interactive fantasy in a pen-and-paper world.
Fighting Fantasy Legends was created by Cheshire-based Nomad Games and published by Asmodee Digital, the company responsible for the app versions of cult board games such as Settlers of Catan, Pandemic and Ticket to Ride. So as a fan of board games and a dice-and-paper veteran, I was keen to see what the creators would do with the gamebooks I grew up with.
The game casts you as an adventuring dwarf, human or elf. And just like in the books, your weapon of choice is a fistful of dice. The open-world layout allows you to dip in and out of maps based on "The Warlock of Firetop Mountain," "Citadel of Chaos" and "City of Thieves," three separate adventures written by "Games Workshop" founders Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone.
The books are an analog predecessor to the interactive fiction genre, so perhaps it's not surprising we've seen them adapted so often in recent years. Tin Man Games and now-defunct Canadian developer Big Blue Bubble both released. These "gamebook apps" left the contents of the books more or less intact, while automating the dice-rolling and page-turning elements of the game.
Fighting Fantasy Legends positions itself on the more ambitious end of the scale. Like Inkle's Sorcery and Tin Man's, it looks and feels more like a traditional RPG. make combat more challenging while preserving the story and atmosphere of the original books they're based on.
A new take on an old story
Here's how the books work: You're on a perilous adventure to defeat a villain, usually one with a comically evil-sounding name like "Balthus Dire" or "Zanbar Bone." You stumble into a room where you discover an orc chieftain whipping his servant. Do you flee the room? Do you prepare to do dice-rolling battle with the pair of them? Or do you attack the chieftain in the hope that his servant will join you? Each option has a corresponding number. Turn to that numbered section of the book and the story continues.
You can't accuse Fighting Fantasy Legends of being unfaithful to its source material. But somewhere along the line, it loses some of the atmosphere. Descriptions of the books' events and locations are pared down, sometimes to just a sentence. The art that conjured up fantastical rooms is missing, replaced with a top-down view of the world. Instead of getting lost in the maze, you get a clear but distant view from above it.
The paths you can follow are almost exactly the same as those laid out in the books, but bits of the story seem to be missing. It's nothing big enough to disrupt the game for casual players, but enough to make the world seem a little less lively than I was expecting. After exploring Firetop Mountain for a while, I found the room where the orc chieftain and his servant should have been waiting for my intervention. But all it contained was a random fight with a giant rat. The chieftain himself made an appearance further along, barging out of a boathouse for a randomly selected battle.
The books are filled with red herrings and false choices, of course. There are only two real outcomes in the orc chieftain's room, despite the three options you're given. The servant's never going to help you, so you can either fight the pair of them or run away like a wimp. But when you're the one making the decisions, a false choice is still part of your story. It matters whether you're the kind of hero who'd try to rescue a servant from a cruel master -- even if the guy you're trying to rescue would rather go for your throat than accept your help.
Some sections of the game pull off that story element better than others. While the random encounters made parts of the game feel sparse, the "Citadel of Chaos" area was packed with characters that made it my favorite installment in the series. From grumpy doormen to mysterious tricksters determined to thwart me in my adventure, it felt like there was a lot more to interact with here. As in the book, you can choose from a set of useful spells to help you on your journey. So instead of fighting your way out of every dangerous situation you find yourself in, you can use magic to outwit your enemies or turn the laws of physics to your advantage.
Ultimately, however, this gamebook adaptation is more "game" than "book." What's left when you take away the unique atmosphere and challenges of a Fighting Fantasy story? A lot of dice-rolling, it turns out. If you were the kind of kid who skipped past the boring descriptions of monsters to slay, this game could be right up your street. I spent most of my time getting into randomly generated scraps and stumbling into tests of my skill and luck, all determined by a roll of my trusty dice.
The game embraces its tabletop mechanism, dealing out enemies and items on virtual playing cards. But just as I wished the game had placed more emphasis on its story, I wished it had gone further visually. I didn't want to hover above rooms, I wanted to be taken inside them. I wanted to be tempted by the hard-to-reach treasure chest and intrigued by the three goblets that are so vividly described in "The Citadel of Chaos." And while I don't think it's necessary to bring back the original pulp-fantasy illustrations, it would have been nice to see a little more of the world that I was exploring.
The tabletop elements aren't just for show. They make the gameplay a little more interactive and fun. In a neat twist, your dice change as your adventurer gains experience and takes punishment. An upgrade gives you a better chance of passing a dice roll, while a bash on the head gives you an injury, reducing your odds of success.
Your adventure ends here
Final Fantasy Legends is more forgiving than its source material. Some books in the series are downright sadistic, sending the reader on wild goose chases into loops that can only lead to death. And your decisions matter. Taking the wrong turn in the early stages of an adventure may not kill you, but you could miss a vital piece of information that unlocks a final puzzle.
If you make it all the way through Firetop Mountain and manage to defeat the Warlock, you'll only be able to claim his treasure and finish the game if you've found a number of keys along the way. Didn't bother looking for them? Your adventure ends in defeat: "You sit on the chest and weep as you realize that you will have to explore the mountain once more to find the keys."
Your adventure never ends in Final Fantasy Legends. I was beaten up by city guards, blasted with fire by a dragon and had the life terrified out of me by some villainous floating heads. And every time my stamina ran out, I woke up a few feet outside the city with a few wounds in need of patching up but otherwise no worse for wear.
That isn't necessarily a bad thing: It allows you to casually dip in and out of the game without having to restart an adventure from scratch. But it takes a lot of the anxiety out of your decisions. And in a universe that traditionally hangs on the reader's seemingly minor choices, taking the weight out of the player's decisions feels like a major misstep.
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