Puffin Books, £3.99, ISBN 1-84046-552-2
The author Steve Jackson is not the same Steve Jackson that co-created the Fighting Fantasy series, by the way. These guys just share the same name.
Scorpion Swamp is somewhat interesting for a gamebook in the series at the time of its publication because this one offers three plots from which you can pick one when you play. This offers some replay value, although once you’ve a map of Scorpion Swamp all figured out, the replay value is decreased significantly. This one is a straightforward dungeon crawl adventure, however, so be prepared to pick paths randomly and coming across the same passage again and again.
Basically, you’re a hero armed with a sword, a shield, and a backpack. You are down to your last gold so it’s time to whack some monsters for dough. Therefore, with only a magic ring that helps you detect evil as well as instinctively know where north is as your beginning Special Item, you are now ready to trek into the supposedly unmappable Scorpion Swamp. But which employer would you choose? Selator, the good wizard, wants you to locate a rare berry in the swamp for him. Poomchukker, the neutral merchant, wants you to travel through Scorpion Swamp and find a way through it to the neighboring village of Willowbend. The evil wizard Grimslade (with a name like that, you know he is evil) wants you to bring him as many amulets as possible belonging to a bunch of powerful beings who have recently moved in to Scorpion Swamp and announced themselves the Masters of that place. Yes, you can serve evil folks here, how nice.
You basically have to venture into the swamp, do what you have to, and slay everything that stands in your way. Note that you then have to find your way back out, which means the best way to play this gamebook is to make a map so that you can backtrack easily when you have to. Still, the maze-crawling is not too tough – I actually managed to complete the trip in my first visit without much difficulty. The monsters aren’t too hard either, with only one toughest villain that can kill you without a warning if you are stupid enough to let your guard down around him. The rest are standard combat fodder.
For a dungeon crawl, this one isn’t as boring as I initially feared. The ability to use spells is a cute touch that elevates the tedium of die-rolling. I also am pleased with the fact that the ecology of the game is sound. The monsters or villains don’t show up in the middle of nowhere without context – they are instead well-integrated into the ecosystem of the Scorpion Swamp that they seem like natural threats of the land. The passages are adequate, although a little more description will be nice. The presence of the Masters and Mistresses (my favorite is the Master of Frogs, so cute) is a nice touch as they add a touch of color to the adventures. I wonder what the Master of Gardens actually do, though. Who on earth builds a garden in Scorpion Swamp? What a weirdo.
For an early Fighting Fantasy gamebook, this one is surprisingly mature and readable compared to the many crappy ones that plague this series in its infancy. But this one is in no way comparable to the more sophisticated later gamebooks in the series that boast better world building and gamebook mechanisms. “Adequate” is the best way to describe Scorpion Swamp.