Video Game Review: Fighting Fantasy: Blood of the Zombies Gamebook
Game: Fighting Fantasy: Blood of the Zombies
Devloper: Tin Man Games
System: iOS (Reviewed), Android
All images via Tin Man Games.
My friend once told me the story of how he taught one of his sons to ride a bike without training wheels. In short, he took his son up to the top of a hill, put him on his bike (training wheels removed) and shoved him down the hill. When I asked him what he’d have done had his son fallen, he just shrugged and said, “He’s young, he’d probably have bounced.” Blood of the Zombies treats you in much the same way, only it couldn’t care less if you bounce. The second you start out, it will actively try to defeat you. Death lurks on almost every page of the book, and you’ll find yourself on a constant knife edge, balancing the need to explore in the hope of finding supplies with the risk of stumbling onto a zombie hidden away somewhere.
Blood of the Zombies is the latest Fighting Fantasy gamebook released for iOS and Android phones and tablets. Co-written by Fighting Fantasy co-creator Ian Livingstone, and also available as a paperback, the book is defiantly old-school in its approach.
Unfortunately, those of you not of a certain age may be wondering just what a Fighting Fantasy gamebook is. Created by industry legends Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson (the duo also created Games Workshop) and originally released in the 1980s, the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were a “choose your own adventure” series. Each book was standalone, with its own plot, although many shared similar mechanics. You started at page 1, but instead of proceeding chronologically through the book, each page ended with a choice for you to make, with each one sending you to a different page. For example, upon reaching the end of a corridor at the end of page 1, taking a left turn might tell you to go to page 78, while a right turn might tell you to go to page 19. Each of those pages might have further decisions, leading to increasingly separate paths through the story. Each book provided multiple paths to take, characters to encounter and enemies to fight, leading to built-in replayability.
Like most Fighting Fantasy games, the plot of Blood of the Zombies doesn’t stand up to close inspection. You’re thrust into the role of lone hero within the space of a couple of pages: a kidnapped tourist intended as the next addition to the evil Gingrich Yurr’s zombie army. There’s no real reason behind anything, you’re just the right person in the wrong place. Let’s be honest though, you don’t pick up a Fighting Fantasy book for the plot.
The game appears to be set in the present-day, not that you’ll see any of it, as your adventure is limited to your escape from the fictional Goraya Castle and your quest to kill all of the zombies therein. Even the few NPCs you may or may not encounter are essentially set dressing, there to push you onwards and disappear until the appropriate dramatic moment for them to reappear. You won’t pick up a trusty sidekick for the occasional moments of witty banter. You’re on your own.
The combat mechanics in Blood of the Zombie have been simplified from the original Fighting Fantasy books, something that’s proven to be a wee bit controversial amongst die-hard fans. Personally, I’m in favor of the change, as it keeps things simple and fluid. The game uses D6′s, either singly or in multiples, to resolve combat and other challenges. Your character has one stat – Stamina – which you roll up at the start of the book, modified depending on which difficulty you choose (more on that later). Combat is turn-based, with damage calculated by the roll of one or two D6 plus or minus a modifier, determined by your weapon
You’re almost always going to be outnumbered; attacked by groups of zombies, the occasional rat swarm or pack of rabid dogs. Each enemy has one stamina point, so the number you roll is the number you kill. Any remaining enemies deal damage to you, generally at one point of Stamina per enemy; assuming you survive, combat continues thusly. Once your Stamina hits 0, you’re dead. It’s that simple.
It’s also brutal. On my first playthrough, I died after 5 pages. Blood of the Zombies does not mess about. While “brutal” is the best adjective I can come up with to describe it, it also feels frequently unfair, especially later on. Get to the end of the book, and you’ll probably face three waves of 20-odd zombies each time. If you’ve only got 2 or 3 Stamina left, you’re not going to make it. Tough. Start over and play smarter. It feels unfair, but really it just suffers from the same problem you’ll find in any dice-based game: luck. You only need a handful of bad rolls to spell disaster.
It can be annoying when you get quite far on, only to die suddenly, but that’s the nature of Fighting Fantasy books. They don’t promise an easy ride or a wild adventure that never really puts you in any danger. This isn’t the spinning teacups ride from your summer holidays, this is the rickety roller coaster that looks like it’s held together with prayers and duct tape, one that could fly apart any moment and leave you impaled on a rusty pipe. This isn’t modern survival horror where there’s always a way out, a medkit round the corner or ammo on the next body. It won’t coddle you, hold your hand or make you feel safe. It will throw you headlong into the grinning jaws of Death and leave you to your own devices.
Fortunately, there are some concessions made for those of us who are not blessed with an excess of luck. A trick learned early by any teenager who played a Fighting Fantasy book was to keep your finger at the page you just left, that way you could always flick back if the new page didn’t work out well for you. Developers Tin Man Games have included the ability to set “bookmarks” anywhere in the text. You can switch back to any previous bookmark, and restart the game at any of those points if you close it down and come back later.
Should you choose to be a big brave girl or boy, you can play in Hardcore mode, which lowers your starting Stamina, but also limits the amount of bookmarks you can place, forcing you to choose wisely. If, like me, you prefer to actually finish your games instead of simply being brutalized again and again, you can play in Free Read mode, which lets you return to the previous page without the hassle of using a bookmark. It also allows you to cheat your way past any puzzles you encounter, and adds in the option to heal yourself at any time. This last one seems odd to me; simply making you invulnerable would make more sense, as you’ll find yourself just healing up after every fight anyway. It’s hardly game-breaking, but it’s annoying having to do it constantly.
I don’t really have any serious complaints or problems with the game, just a few niggles. Playing it on the iPad, some of the icons for moving forward and backwards through the story are a little small and, especially in the tutorial stage, could do with being pointed out earlier on or made to stand out a bit more. The music, while spooky and appropriate, is too short and repetitive. It loops round on itself annoyingly quickly; I turned it off very early on and I suspect you’ll do the same.
The game itself looks beautiful. The artwork is crisp, clear, and has an unmistakably professional look to it. You can toggle the look of the game from modern to classic, the latter changing the art to black and white and removing a lot of the detailing on the pages, which makes it look aged and bloodstained. I actually preferred the latter, as the art looked sharper in black and white, but your mileage may vary. You can also change font types and size to suit your own tastes; I’d recommend something a little gothic, just to fit the mood.
The one thing missing from the game is an explanation of why Gingrich Yurr looks terrifyingly like pro-rock legend Rick Wakeman.
Go buy this game. It’s an almost perfect addition to the Fighting Fantasy series, and I can’t wait to see more like it. It’s brutal, unforgiving, and almost certainly more difficult than most games you’ve played lately. You need this game in your life. You can buy Blood of the Zombies now via the iTunes App Store or the Google Play Store.
A copy of this game was provided to Giant Fire Breathing Robot for review purposes.
Follow Craig’s intermittent tweets @d20shapedheart