Scholastic, £6.99, ISBN 978-1-407186-30-6
The Gates of Death is a new gamebook in the most recent Fighting Fantasy reissue by Scholastic, and the good news is that it is a campaign by Charlie Higson. That means it is not another random hoarder’s wet dream by Ian Livingstone, but rather, something that has some interesting concepts and ideas.
The setup has all kinds of plot holes, but hey, that’s part and parcel of a Fighting Fantasy entry, right? The good ones have solid concepts and gameplay to make up for the plot, and this one has some good concepts. Basically, you are one of the junior acolytes in a healer order called the Guardians of the Crucible, which is headquartered in the isolated, mist-shrouded Crucible Isles. One day, your order is visited by “a desperate messenger from Allansia”, who reports that a deadly plague has been unleashed. This plague is turning people into murderous demons, and if you’re thinking Resident Evil, yes, the illustrations of the transformed demons look quite similar to the mutated things in that franchise.
The good news is that the Guardians have the cure. I’m not sure how they know they have the cure when they don’t even know the cause of the plague but hey, magic. The bad news is that the cure is distilled from a very rare plant, and the Guardians only have a small amount of the cure as a result. So, what needs to be done here is to send a small band of the Guardians with 66 vials of the cure, called the smoke-oil, to the Temple of Throff in the Invisible City (which, of course, is a huge and often literal pain in the ass to reach because, hey, plot), so that the High Priestess there can use her magic to replicate the snake-oil in large amounts enough to cure every sick person in Allansia.
Seriously, don’t think too hard about the set-up: it’s just an excuse to send you off to do and kill things.
At any rate, things don’t go as planned – soon everyone is dead except you and Brother Tobyn, as your ship goes under and you are both later rescued by a fishing boat. When the campaign opens, you are deposited on Port Blacksand and are left to fend for yourselves. Or rather, yourself, as Brother Tobyn predictably gets himself killed shortly after. Can you, an acolyte with no weapons and nothing else but ten gold pieces, pull off the quest alone?
The idea of a healer or cleric sort having to pull off his or her own survival adventure in the wilds is certainly an intriguing one, and the setting as well as the nature of the campaign here are widely reminiscent of the better past gamebooks in this series. There are vividly set-up moments, some interesting dilemmas to perplex you, and a narrative style that is very solid and even evocative at times.
The most interesting concept here is how your character needs to find weapons along the way to survive a combat encounter; sometimes the campaign will force you to avoid the encounter if you are weaponless, and then you will be missing out on loot that would have made your life so much easier. There are several weapons that can be found along the way, with the best ones conferring some generous bonuses that can inflict up to double the usual 2 Stamina Point loss per hit as well as giving Attack Strength bonuses at the same time.
The execution is quite bad, however. The campaign is actually very linear, and any choice you have to make is mostly just a small detour for a few passages before you are forced to return to the main narrative arc. Worse, it doesn’t seem like The Gates of Death is tested properly – often the campaign assumes that you made a certain choice when you have made another. For example, early on you are set upon by a transformed demon, and there are several options available to you. The most logical one is perhaps to use a smoke-oil and turn the poor fellow back to normal. But a few passages later, you may find yourself reading about how the transformed demon is somehow back and is killing everyone. Let’s just say that you will end up being distracted by “What a minute? Didn’t I turn that fellow back to normal just two passages back?” sentiments to fully immerse yourself in the campaign. Another example is how you have a few choices available to reach Salamonis, but when you get there, the campaign assumes that you have been given a lift by an NPC all the way there when you may have, say, ridden a horse there instead. Really, it’s very unlikely that this campaign has been tested properly, because far too often it assumes that you have made a certain choice and forces the narrative to fit that choice, leaving everyone who has taken other choices to scratch their heads and wonder whether they have accidentally turned to the wrong passage.
Also, the campaign’s choices can be severely lopsided – taking one option over another, which you often have to do by picking one randomly, can leave you at a severe disadvantage. Let’s go back to you being in Port Blacksand. You need to travel to Salamonis. There are two main options. One option leaves you with only one smoke-oil vial, but it also gives you one of the most powerful weapons in the campaign, while the others leave you weaponless but loaded with a handful of potentially useful magical potions. Sounds like a fair trade, right? One lets you kill things with ease but leaves your options severely limited, while the other may give you more options but leave you at a disadvantage when it comes to combat. Well, not quite, as if you pick (or more accurately, stumble upon) the latter route, you can easily pick up another overpowered weapon shortly after without much difficulty, therefore making this route the one to go. Nowhere in the campaign will give you any clue that this is the correct route, and your character needs to be on the gullible side to go this route in the first place.
Hence, The Gates of Death has some solid storytelling flavor to it, making it a major reprieve from yet another Ian Livingstone borefest, but yikes, its fundamental design flaws make it an experience that will make your grit your teeth in exasperation more than anything else.