Wednesday, November 5, 2014
If there is one word that I would use to describe The Forest of Doom, it might very well be "comforting". That's probably not what Ian Livingstone had in mind when he wrote the thing, but there's just something about this book that puts me at ease. Perhaps it's the rules; I do love a Fighting Fantasy gamebook that just goes with the basics. It could be the multiple chances to succeed that it gives the reader; this book stands alone in that it allows you to go back to the start if you fail to find Gillibran's hammer. It could even be the difficulty level, which is pitched in such a way that any character with any stats could complete it. Most probably, it's a combination of all of the above.
This is Ian Livingstone's first solo effort as a gamebook writer, and it shows. I hate to say it, but he's just not the designer that his partner Steve Jackson is, and whereas Jackson's initial outing provided a classic in The Citadel of Chaos, Livingstone's first gamebook is merely decent.
The setting is novel, at least in theory. This is the first time that a Fighting Fantasy has ventured out of doors, but in practice what that amounts to is a dungeon with lots of trees and grass instead of tunnels. It's probably more pleasant than Firetop Mountain, but it's not as intriguing. That said, the forest setting does make more sense. The Forest of Doom suffers from the same problem as Warlock of Firetop Mountain did: very few of the encounters are connected, and the whole journey through the forest feels like a string of wandering monsters. In a forest, though, it's a bit more plausible that you'd encounter a wide variety of nasties.
The encounters in the forest are quite good, though. Yes, there are the obligatory Livingstone moments of "a monster jumps out, now fight it!" but there are enough genuinely interesting scenarios to make up for it. The fire demon and his mushroom garden, the gremlins and their strange obsession with clay hands; both are examples of Livingstone at his best.
I also want to praise Livingstone here for keeping his bloodthirstiness in check. Anyone who has played his later books can attest to the fact that he's a sadistic bugger who delights in crafting frustratingly impossible gamebooks, but this is a younger, kinder, gentler Ian. None of the fights are too difficult. You can take any number of different paths to victory. You only need a couple of items to succeed. As I've already mentioned, you can even loop back to the start if you don't find the hammer. Yes, it creates continuity problems when you encounter the same monsters again, but at least the thought was there. It's nice sometimes, after a long hard day of Crypt of the Sorcerer, to come back to this book and remember the times when Ian Livingstone was a very nice man.
Malcolm Barter, on the other hand, I don't have such warm feelings towards. Some of his illustrations are genuinely great - I love the Fire Demon, for instance - but there are a few that weird me out. There are a lot of shirtless men in this book, and they all have the same odd, lumpy quality to their musculature. His werewolf has a too-human look, and I've always been uncomfortable with that Catwoman illustration.
Still, for all that I've disparaged it, I really love The Forest of Doom. A lot of that is nostalgia; it is the first gamebook I ever legitimately finished, after all. But more than that, it's a solid gamebook with just about the right difficulty level, a good variety of encounters, and no complications. It's just a simple, straightforward adventure that's fun to play through despite its flaws, and I wish the series had more of those.
Addendum - S.T.A.M.I.N.A. Rating
Story & Setting: Darkwood Forest is iconic in Fighting Fantasy lore, but it never quite feels like the dark, deadly place that the book initially describes. It has a lot of fun encounters, but few of them feel connected. As for the story, it's oddly low-key: the Hammer of Gillibran is important to the dwarves, but the hero doesn't have a lot of stake in it. At least it's not another evil wizard, I suppose. Rating: 4 out of 7.
Toughness: This book is pitched at just about the right difficulty level. You don't need high stats to finish it, and the ability to loop back to the start means that you won't be doomed by choosing the wrong path at an intersection. Rating: 5 out of 7.
Aesthetics: The writing is evocative enough, even though Darkwood Forest isn't as fearsome as the introduction leads you to believe. Malcolm Barter's art is strange, and his characters have an oddly lumpy quality to their musculature that grosses me out. I have to bump it back up for that Iain McCaig cover though. Rating: 4 out of 7.
Mechanics: This is as basic as it gets for FF, and that's fine by me. There's nothing new or clever going on here, but the fundamentals of the system are done really well. Rating: 4 out of 7.
Innovation & Influence: As far as innovation goes, the only things that Forest of Doom provides over The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is the wilderness setting and the ability to loop back to the beginning. It's also the start of a story branch that runs through (at least) books 9, 14 and 26. Does it count if Livingstone influences himself? Rating: 4 out of 7.
NPCs & Monsters: The monsters here are mostly D&D staples, and most of the NPCs are fairly unmemorable. Yaztromo is a big one though, and even though he's your fairly stereotypical crotchety wizard he does stand out. Rating: 4 out of 7.
Amusement: It could be the nostalgia talking, but I do enjoy this book quite a bit. Not having to worry about finding the critical path makes it a pleasant, relaxing read, but that also means that it doesn't scratch the itch if I'm looking for a challenge. Rating: 4 out of 7.
I'm going to give Forest of Doom the bonus point, just because I love it so. The above totals add up to 30, which doubled gives a S.T.A.M.I.N.A. Rating of 60. It's in the enjoyable but unremarkable range.