Video Game Review: Fighting Fantasy Gamebook: House of Hell
Game: Fighting Fantasy: House of Hell
Devloper: Tin Man Games
System: iOS (Reviewed), Android, Nook
Images via Tin Man Games.
In my review of the previous Fighting Fantasy gamebook, Blood of the Zombies, I suggested that it was “defiantly old-school” in its approach. House of Hell is much the same, yet differs in one crucial way – it’s not simply trying to be old-school, it actually is the old school. Originally released in 1984 and written by Steve Jackson, House of Hell was the 10th Fighting Fantasy book and one of the few in the series that I never played.
The book’s original cover, by Ian Miller, didn’t just scare me; it also disturbed me. I simply couldn’t have the book near me for any length of time. Rather than being simply creepy or scary, there’s a disturbing malevolence at work in much of Miller’s art – the sense that the landscapes he draws are just as much of a threat as any of the characters. Trees have claws that reach out hungrily and sport eyes that bulge out from faces that look more human than any of the people he creates. It’s no wonder that Games Workshop used his work heavily to illustrate the various forms of Chaos in their early days. Strangely, I’ve since grown to appreciate and enjoy Miller’s artwork. One of my goals in life is to own a copy of The City, his graphic novel collaboration with James Herbert.
But, enough history, let’s focus on the here-and-now. The game opens just after you’ve crashed your car on a deserted road on a storm-tossed night. The darkness and heavy rain make it impossible to see anything but the faint lights of a house in the distance. You make your way towards it, desperate for help. You won’t get it. Instead you find yourself trapped – exploring the depths of the house in a desperate attempt to escape. The only way to do so is to find and defeat the shadowy Master of the house.
The basic mechanics of the gamebook are unchanged from previous entries in the series. You swipe and tap at the screen to make decisions, choose options, and move forward through the story. You also tap to roll dice to resolve the various dangers you encounter, of which there are many. Combat is resolved by means of opposed D6 rolls added to your Skill level. Damage removes Stamina points, which are rarely replenished. Lose them all and you die.
There are several modes in which to play the game; Hardcore, Medium and Free Read. Hardcore mode is the game played as it was meant to be played. Your Stamina, Skill, Fear, and Luck values are all lower than in the other modes, although you are allowed unlimited bookmarks. If you ever played a Fighting Fantasy book as a child, you’ll remember the standard way of cheating was to keep a finger or fingers in the pages, just in case something went wrong. A bookmark in the game functions the same way, allowing you to skip back should you change your mind, or restart from your most recent bookmark should the worst happen. Medium Mode is a little easier, granting you higher Stamina, Skill, Fear, and Luck while keeping unlimited bookmarks. Free Read mode is certainly the easiest way to play the game, but I’m not sure it’s the most fun. It uses the same stat levels as Hardcore mode, but gives you some extra tools to help you survive: a Back Button, so you can return to the previous section; a Free Choice button, which unlocks any choices you have to make, regardless of you having the correct equipment or information and also allows you to pass any Luck tests; and a Heal Me Button, with which you can top up your Stamina. Free Choice mode does not, however, remove the Fear system, so even using it, you can still die with frightening (ha!) ease.
Blood of the Zombies was quite combat-heavy, and as you progressed through the story, it seemed like you were entering combat on almost every other page. House of Hell forgoes that style of play, and moves along at a much more steady pace. It mimics the pace of classic horror movies by slowly ramping-up the tension, increasing the scare value of the encounters, and building to a climax. The first few combats you stumble across are with identifiably human opponents. They might be crazy and out for blood, but they’re not supernatural. As you explore deeper into the house, you’ll find your opponents becoming more and more unearthly and the encounters more fearsome. House of Hell reflects your character’s increasing level of fear by by assigning you Fear Points when you encounter something unnerving. It may be something as simple (relatively) as a poltergeist throwing furniture around, or discovering a ghoul in the kitchen larder, or even uncovering the terrifying secret of the master of the house. You roll up your maximum level of Fear Points at the start of the game, and as soon as you reach that level, you die. Immediately.
Which brings us neatly onto our next point: the difficulty. Although it starts off relatively easily, House of Hell will kill you instantly at multiple points in your journey. Unless you cheat and use the Free Read mode, you’ll struggle to make it to the end without multiple attempts to find a safe route. You’re more likely to die of fright than by combat, and playing it safe is the way to go. If you ever screamed at the characters in a horror movie for making stupid decisions, this is your chance to make the smart choice. Get too inquisitive and you’ll be lucky to only walk away with a loss of Stamina and a few extra Fear Points. Occasionally, you’ll have the option to “Test your luck” and try to avoid or improve a dangerous situation. You do so by rolling against your aforementioned Luck value. Roll under your current Luck Points total and you succeed, but you lose a point with every test.
As difficult as the book is, none of it feels out of place. The few instant deaths you’ll stumble across arise through your own decisions, usually stupid ones. You’ll see the logic behind your brutal, painful deaths, and while you may let out a sigh, it will be through annoyance, not frustration. Then you’ll restart and do it all over again.
Returning to the game is made more appealing by the inclusion, once again, of Achievements. These are awarded for reaching various milestones such as gaining set levels of Fear points, completing the game, or uncovering secrets – some of them will have you playing through again and again to uncover. You can also tweet your progress as you play; certain locations and situations allow you to send a tweet directly from the game, either to show off how well you’re doing, or share just how badly your progress is going. While this does extend the game’s lift, you won’t find infinite replayability, and once you have all the achievements, there’s little reason to come back to the book other than a trip down memory lane.
It should be obvious by now that I enjoyed House of Hell. Given my history with the book, I feel confident in saying that it’s not due to misplaced nostalgia. I’m genuinely struggling to come up with any real faults outside of the handful of grammar and spelling mistakes I found, and most of those have been patched already. One thing I would have liked to see would be an actual free reading mode for the game, where you could flip through the sections of the game as if it were a print book in your hands. Granted, it could easily spoil the story, but I could see it working as an unlockable reward.
A risk with a game like House of Hell, which is made up almost entirely of text, is that the writing itself is simply bad or is just passable enough that it’s fine on the first few playthroughs, but becomes irritating over time. Fortunately, that’s not the case here. The writing is tight and concise. It does a remarkably good job of describing the scenes around you, and can be wonderfully chilling and spooky when it needs to be. Overall, it’s refreshingly accessible, considering it was written nearly 30 years ago.
Ultimately, it’s probably no surprise that I have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending that you buy House of Hell. For the price you’ll be paying, there is a lot of game to be had here. Given its availability on iOS, Android, and Nook, you really have no reason for not being able to play it, either. Out of the two gamebooks I’ve played, this is definitely my favourite. House of Hell will keep you playing for quite some time; in part due to its (at times) brutal difficulty, and in part due to the excellent standard of writing. Like any good book or game, you may know where things will end up, but reading about it and getting there are still fun, even after you know the story inside and out.
A copy of this game was provided to Giant Fire Breathing Robot for review purposes.