Publisher Aspyr and developer Big Blue Bubble recently got together for a Nintendo DS game based off of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone's popular book series, Fighting Fantasy. These books from the 80s blended classic D&D style universes with the creative possibilities of being able to choose multiple story paths (not unlike the Choose Your Own Adventure books). I haven't read any of these books but I've been impressed with this video game adaptation. So is Fighting Fantasy: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain worth your attention? That largely depends on if you like (western) RPGs, but if so, don't miss out on this one.
The game begins by asking you several questions to help develop your initial character stats. I thought this was a cool way of getting a player started, rather than facing them with a variety of sliders and some arbitrary amount of points to spend on various traits like stamina, strength, and intelligence. After character creation, your player arrives at a dock near Firetop Mountain. You'll encounter several NPCs to chat with in this small village. One of your first quests has you going through some basic combat training, after which you'll head into a dungeon to seek out a dwarf who can further help you along in your quest to find Zagor, the legendary warlock atop Firetop Mountain.
Why even pursue Zagor in the first place? Anyone that has ever sought Zagor has never returned, so it's certainly not a quest for the weak. The motivation is wealth, with the amount of gold and treasure that await he who defeats Zagor being something of legend in itself. It's a tough road, one that I have yet to complete. This isn't a particularly long game judging by the completion percentage on my save game and from what I have read online, but it's certainly a tough and engaging one.
Getting more general now about Fighting Fantasy, it's played entirely from a first person perspective. Using a first person view makes the game readily accessible and it allows Big Blue Bubble to show off their nicely rendered and detailed game world. On the other hand, combined with the controls, I think it makes the combat a lot tougher.
Controls and Combat
The control scheme has the attack buttons set as L and R, movement with the d-pad, and the face buttons acting as camera control. Players can also use the stylus to adjust the camera or for tapping icons that players can map to inventory items and actions. I'm not sure how I would have made the control scheme better, but it in the heat of battle it really gets in the way. In other words, until you're in combat, the control scheme works well, but once you encounter two or more enemies (which is the norm), the controls break down. It only takes a few hits (or even less depending on the enemy) to kill you, so any delays created by fumbling with the controls are immediately noticed. Two ideas that would have really helped this would be target lock on and the ability to automatically use health and mana items as needed. Had a target lock mechanic been included, I would have been able to hit enemies at range much more effectively. By range, I literally mean the other side of a small room. Since you normally encounter multiple enemies at once -- most of which also use range attacks on you -- missing a range attack of your own is a big deal. It's also pretty easy to miss a range attack because you might be trying to shoot and strafe out of the way of an oncoming attack.
Say you miss your attack, or connect, but still take damage from another enemy. Well, you may need to tap a health icon in the lower portion of the screen while still trying to avoid other attacks, because it takes so few to kill you. Okay, I can deal with that, but another problem is that most health items only recover a tiny amount of health, so you have to purchase and use multiple items just to heal up the amount you lost from one standard attack.
It's that kind of very typical combat scenario there that is my biggest issue with the game, and one of the few issues for that matter. For the first two or three hours, you really don't notice this, but, get a few quests behind you and the struggle really begins. Tougher enemies appear, with more per room, and you'll encounter respawns when you revisit rooms, too. I feel out-manned and underpowered constantly in this game, which wouldn't be a real issue if this difficulty were just executed differently. As I said with my Demon's Souls review, I don't mind difficult games, so long as the design and execution of that difficulty is done well.
There are some design elements in Fighting Fantasy that make the experience more tolerable, not easier. These include auto saves that take place as you enter each room, with load times that are as snappy. You're also allowed one save slot to use whenever you find a save orb. That's certainly nice, but in my experience if you're struggling with a room, you're really struggling -- not just barely dying, but dying quickly and convincingly if you get my meaning. So normally after loading up a game, I would find my way back to the nearest merchant and spend some of that gold I've plundered or trade in some junk I've found to get more health and mana items. With plenty of inventory slots from the get-go and the ability to stack up to 9 of an item per slot, you're not likely to run out of inventory room during your quest.
Other Gameplay Elements
Merchants are handy and offer goods at reasonable prices. You can't utilize a lot of the cool weapons and armor they have until you upgrade your character stats though, something you do by completing quests and defeating enemies. Quests are given by NPCs and are clearly laid out, which is great. With a nice map and a basic journal to keep track of progress, most of the time I knew where I was going and what I was doing, even with multiple quests open at the same time. Not all quests are as cool as others, and some seem downright arbitrary (kill four red orcs, for example).
You can view your character stats, equipped items, and your XP in the lower screen at any time. When you've leveled up, you'll know it, and players are given a good amount of control over how they want to spend their upgrade points. Points are spent on several primary traits for their character like strength and stamina, as well as other other abilities. I've spent a lot of points on Perception, which helps me locate hidden loot. Overall, Fighting Fantasy doesn't have a very involved or deep upgrade system, but it's engaging and you'll think twice before spending your points.
Players acquire items through merchants, slain enemies, and by finding stashed loot. Some loot is stored in chests that are in plain site, although you cannot interact with every chest or box. Many that you do are locked, which takes you to a cool lock picking mini-game should you choose to pick it. You can get an idea of the difficulty of the lockpick mini-game before you commit to try it. Locking picking involves moving a ball with the stylus from the left side of the screen to the right. The trick is that you cannot touch any part of the lock mechanism, which is displayed on the top screen. Additionally, you must also maneuver the ball into tight spaces to compress springs, and you must also avoid a rotating gear -- all of this against a ticking timer. Failure results in some health loss while success yields some goodies like gold or inventory items. I thought Big Blue Bubble did a great job in designing a very accessible, quick, and addictive mini-game that really fits the idea of lockpicking.
In a nutshell, that's what you're in for with Fighting Fantasy. Plenty of exploration, questing, leveling up, and lots of tough combat. All the while, I think you'll appreciate the environment that Big Blue Bubble has created here. The 3D world looks cool and they put a lot of time into it. Less impressive are animations of the enemies which often look like 2D sprites. The way they saunter around isn't compelling, but it doesn't bother me that much. That said, some music would have been nice -- the game is entirely silent except for ambiance and effects. I wouldn't like a constant soundtrack either though, but just something in between -- where short tracks played every so often or at certain key events -- would have done a lot for the presentation. As for the effects, they're okay, although I've long since gotten tired of the loud cries of pain from my own character.
Overall, this is a cool game that is made considerably tough by some unfortunate design decisions. Still, it offers plenty of reason to keep playing. You can't do much better for a good old western RPG on the DS than Fighting Fantasy.