Puffin Books, £2.50, ISBN 0-14-032839-4
You can’t really go wrong with dinosaurs, can you? Sir Arthur Conon Doyle’s The Lost World meets Fighting Fantasy in Peter Darvill-Evans’s Portal of Evil as strange beasts we know as dinosaurs begin emerging from the wilderness even as miners and even entire villages begin vanishing. Who else better to look into the root of the matter but you, a mercenary, eh?
This campaign takes place in Kleinkastel, a frontier town in Southern Khul that recently flourished beyond expectations when gold was discovered in the nearby Cloudhigh Mountains. However, it wasn’t long before troubles started. You, the hero, decides to answer the call for a champion from Gloten, the richest miner in Kleinkastel, to stop these strange happenings. Alas, getting to Kleinkastel is only the beginning of the challenge for you.
The big bad villain in this campaign can be quite ridiculous – a sentient evil portal that plots to conquer the world by dominating the mind of the strongest fellow that walks through it while changing the others to zombie-like Slave Warriors to serve the champion. Those who fail to be brainwashed but are strong enough to resist the portal in some way get turned into dinosaurs.
Portal of Evil offers an illusion of freedom of choice, but I have to warn you that there is only one true path to triumph. Most unfortunately for those unlucky enough to take the other wrong paths, they will only realize this very late in the story. There are many pointers here directing you to the correct path up to a certain point, but to get one vital ingredient to defeat the portal is a matter of taking the correct path by chance. You may have to play this campaign a few times to reach the end through no fault of your own. Also, the difficulty here isn’t due to opponents with high stats – more often than not, you will lose due to bad rolls of the die. The sheer number of combat encounters can be staggering to a hero with low stamina, but that’s not all: there are a number of sudden deaths late in the campaign that occur due to bad rolls of the die. Good luck making your way through the portal – you’ll need some good rolls of the die and a good amount of stamina there.
But despite the frustrating aspects of the game, I find Portal of Evil a very satisfying adventure. The setting itself – woods and rivers and other familiar terrains – may not be too interesting, but I love the coherent use of dinosaurs in this adventure. I also find many NPCs in this story that are memorable and unique. There are some good choices here that challenge the reader to think, with acts of stupidity rewarded often with appropriate punishment. This isn’t just a brainless hack-and-slash campaign – Portal of Evil has a strong story line, coherent theme, and memorable scenes all stirred well in a well-written gamebook.