While The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is a seminal classic of the genre, it is undoubtedly a flawed one. The Citadel of Chaos, written by Steve Jackson and illustrated by Russ Nicholson, takes everything that worked about its predecessor and fixes most of those flaws. The result is one of my all-time favourite gamebooks.
The basic plot is the same as in Warlock:
you have to invade a wizard's stronghold and kill him. But where the
first book's adventurer had no reason to do so beyond greed, the hero of
The Citadel of Chaos is trying to save his homeland from invasion. It's a cliched set-up, but it's also a stronger one.
Mountain often felt like a series of disjointed rooms and monsters,
none of which seemed to interact with each other. The setting of the
Black Tower is a much better design than Firetop Mountain. While it
shares the same structure of discrete encounters that bear little
connection, everything in the citadel feels like part of a whole. The
castle setting feels much more alive, and decidedly weird. Many of the denizens go unexplained, and the mystery of them only heightens the tension of the book. I don't think I've ever been more afraid of a gamebook enemy than I was of the Ganjees, because I had no real idea of what they were, what they were capable of or how they could be defeated. The Citadel of Chaos lives up to its name.
The final battle with Balthus Dire is better than that with the Warlock, and the latter confrontation was by no
means done poorly. The duel with Dire, however, is masterful, with many paths to victory or defeat. It may be my favourite gamebook
battle of all time. Dire has personality, and he's challenging without
being impossible. There are so many fun ways to try and end his life
(and a lot of fun ways he can end yours).
If the book has one
flaw it's that it can feel a little short. It has the same number of
entries as Warlock, and is similarly terse in writing style, but there
are fewer encounters overall because of the increased flexibility
offered by the spell system. The book feels shorter because every
encounter has options galore, and I find this much preferable to the
books where you are faced with unavoidable fight after unavoidable
fight. It's also been criticised for being too easy, but I don't think that's true. Yes, once you've discovered the correct path, you can win even with a character that has minimum stats. I consider that a strength, and a mark of great gamebook design. Finding the correct path isn't exactly trivial, either.
Russ Nicholson once again turns in some stellar work.
He's freed here from the limits of vanilla D&D-style fantasy, and
gets to inject a healthy dose of off-beat weirdness. The Wheelies are probably the pinnacle of this, one of the greatest and most nonsensical fantasy monsters ever.
I really do love this book. Steve Jackson delivered a stone-cold classic on his first solo outing.
ADDENDUM - S.T.A.M.I.N.A. RATING
I'm slowly going through my old posts and adding a rating system. For further explanation of how the system works, check my final post on Island of the Lizard King.
Story & Setting: Like Warlock of Firetop Mountain, this book has a simple kill-the-evil-wizard plot, but it has a deeper backstory. It's full of details that flesh out the Black Tower and Balthus Dire's family. Speaking of the Black Tower, it can be very nonsensical, but there is a certain logic to its layout, and it feels much more like a place that exists outside the confines of the adventure. I probably rated Warlock a little high here, but I'm not going to go back and change it. Citadel gets the same rating, even though it's technically stronger in all respects. Rating: 5 out of 7.
Toughness: The balance of this book is almost perfect. You can run through it with a character who has minimum stats, but it's still a challenge for a character who is maxed out. The real difficulty lies not in combat and dice rolls, but in finding the narrow path to victory. I'm tempted to give this one a perfect score, but I can't quite bring myself to do it. The correct path is perhaps a little too narrow and frustrating for its own good. Rating: 6 out of 7.
Aesthetics: Steve Jackson provides the weird, almost surreal atmosphere, while Russ Nicholson delivers an iconic series of illustrations. It's difficult for me to describe what it is I love about this phase of Nicholson's work, but it's like everything in the world is ornate yet frayed by use. And the guy does horror so well; the Ganjees still give me the willies. Rating: 7 out of 7.
Mechanics: This book takes the already functional Fighting Fantasy system, and adds to it with a magic system that has rarely been bettered in the series. (Sorcery! is the only other contender here.) Not only is the magic system well-designed, but it's the core of everything in the book. Every encounter can be influenced by it, and it grants a range of options that most gamebooks can't. And then there's the sublime final battle with Balthus Dire. I keep talking myself into giving this book top marks. Rating: 7 out of 7.
Innovation & Influence: Again, this will score high, because the magic system is so well done. It's the book's major innovation, but it's a great one. Rating: 6 out of 7.
NPCs & Monsters: The standard array of stock fantasy monsters is present here, but Jackson has filled the book with a lot of his own creations as well. Calacorms, Wheelies and Ganjees are as iconic to FF as Orcs and Dragons. The thing that makes it truly great, though, is that every monster is a character in its own right. There are very few monsters here that exist solely to fight the hero. Top of the list, of course, is Balthus Dire. He's not deep; who is in gamebooks? But he's well-realised, and benefits from the best end-of-book boss battle that I can think of. Rating: 6 out of 7.
Amusement: This book is always fun. There are so many options per encounter that I always feel like it has something new to offer, and it never feels like a chore to begin again. Rating: 7 out of 7.
This book gets the bonus point, because of course it does. I love it without reservation. The scores above add up to a total of 45, which doubled gives a STAMINA Rating of 90.
Final Rating: 90 out of 100.
Next: The Forest of Doom!