Sunday, 24 September 2017

The Port of Peril playthrough

(You can follow Justin McCormack on Facebook and Twitter.
Justin is the author of two bestselling novels, a collection of horror stories - "Hush!: A Horror Anthology", and the young adult coming-of-age comedy "Diary of a gay teenage zombie".
The first in his newest series of books, "Tales of Monsterotica" - a series of erotic comedies, is available now.)

2017 brought us many things. A sequel to my all-time favorite movie, Blade Runner (opinion on it is reserved). Real-life college professors living the Indiana Jones dream of punching nazis. A growing sense of unease in our international political landscape. But more than any of that, Scholastic released a reprint of classic Fighting Fantasy books. Including a brand new title, The Port of Peril. Let's get stuck right into it.

We begin the adventure as a penniless down-and-out hero, struggling to survive on the streets of the port city of Chalice. The history of the city is described in lavish and loving detail, and draws you into the setting with whole swaths of atmospheric description. Despite starting the adventure with ten provisions, you are told that you are near-starving and in desperate need of gold to buy your way in life. Thankfully, you happen across a discarded old treasure map. Handy, that.

Now armed with a treasure map that is sure to lead us to riches, we begin our journey by turning to section one of the book, wherein we find a discarded tomato sandwich which saves us from starvation, allowing us to regain one point of stamina that we couldn't have possibly lost yet because we're only on the first section of the adventure. So, uh, off to a good start? I distract myself from this editing gaff by speaking to a street-sweeper, who kindly informs me that he will sell me some honey in exchange for some old nails that I happen to have in my backpack. I'm unsure if I'll ever actually need the nails anyway (I'm not sure why I would, but you never know!) so I turn his offer down, on account that I am already so packed with provisions that I'm not sure why I need to eat discarded tomato sandwiches anyway.

I assume that the best place to go would be to leave the city and head off on the route discussed on the treasure map, so I decide to visit Armoury Lane in the hope of finding some useful items. In a store owned by a large cyclops, I have the option of buying a dagger in exchange for ten gold pieces, but as I cannot yet afford this I leave the store empty-handed. Heading to the end of the lane, I come to a timber yard, where I'm offered a job lugging lumber around for a few hours. After several hours hard toil, I ask to be paid, only for the manager to tell me that he won't pay me. I guess he's not fond of unions, either.

Naturally, a fight ensues. After an apt redistribution of wealth that would make Karl Marx happy, I leave the timber yard with a far happier coinpurse, an iron key, and only a few bruises to show for it. There's two other alleys that catch my eye, Silver Street and Beggar Alley. I head to Beggar Alley, and share some of my newfound wealth with the locals. In return, one of them tells me a nice story of a friend of his, a mad ol' bastard who took great pleasure in leaving booby-trapped chests of gold around the place. The moral of the story is not lost on me. Hoping to pry for a little more information, I ask for an opinion on the treasure map, only to be told that the map is written in ink and that the X must mark the spot. This valuable information costs me a copper piece. Glorious.

I trudge on to the far end of the alleyway, finding a small barrel nearby. Overcome with curiosity, I open the barrel, only for a pair of rats to jump out and attack me. After batting them away (they are only normal rats, not giant ones), I find that the barrel contains some rags and a dead dog. Hmm, is this book by Ian Livingstone? I decide to knock on a nearby door and ask a local exactly what is going on. "What?" screams the local, "No bloody door-to-door salesmen!" he replies before clubbing me over the head with a table leg. Yeah, this is definitely one of Ian's books.

I reach a street which consists of houses, shops, and a large walled mansion. I'm given the option to peek into the windows of the houses, which I do, only for a lady from the upper floor to throw her chamber pot at me. I'm having flashbacks to my death in Khare, Cityport of Traps. Dodging the chamberpot, I go to the shop instead and buy a set of random brass keys. The only other option left to me is to try to break into the mansion. I don't actually want to do this, but the adventure is written in such a way that my choice is either to go back to the house-peeping, the shops, or the mansion...

So with the help of two random bakers, I clamber over the wall, kill a pair of guard dogs, trudge up to the front door, ring the bell, and ask the butler if the owner of the house is interested in hiring me as a bodyguard. He's so impressed with my determination and skill that I'm hired on the spot... actually, no, I'm dragged off to a cell under the mansion to rot. Wait, under the mansion? So, the wealthy in Chalice are basically allowed to imprison people without due process? Huh, good to know. Anyway, using the iron key that the orge from the lumber yard had on him earlier, I'm able to escape the cell. Why would he have the key to the cell under the mansion? No idea, perhaps he was a former guard there.

Anyway, I steal a decorative sword from the mansion's gallery and flee the city. Finally out of Chalice, I hope to press on to the nearby Moonstone Hills. Leaving the beaten trail through the countryside and munching on a piece of corn that I've 'borrowed' from a field, I come across a ruined old farmhouse. Inside, we slay a few man-orcs and head down into the basement, which we are told reeks of death. In a flashback to Night of the Living Dead, I'm attacked by a zombie. Upon killing it, another man-orc wanders in, basically turning this section into a series of bloody gruesome combat sequences. After getting through it all, though, we are suitably rewarded with a bracelet of power, which raises my skill. And a jar of sheep's eyeballs, if I want that. Oh, what the hell, I've carried worse things in these adventures.

The next stop on our trail is a small shack with a scarecrow outside. On closer inspection, the scarecrow is actually a man who has been tied to a stake, and the inhabitants of the shack are imps. Slaying the imps, I rescue the man who rambles endlessly about blueberries until I wish I'd left him there. Thankfully I am able to claim a few jars of generic items like firewater juice as a reward for my efforts. Continuing along my trail towards the hills, we reach the point of stopping for the evening. I make camp.

The morning comes, and I decide that I've had enough faffing around and push on at full speed towards Skull Crag. I arrive there without too much difficulty, and as per the instructions on the map I climb up over the cave mouth to find a second entrance. Clambering inside, I find my way into a network of caves. Following the map's instructions, I quickly find a dead adventurer. As I'm wont to do with dead bodies, I steal everything they have - a nice set of chainmail.

The cavern opens up into a chamber full of strange creatures called Gronks, who are quite poisonous. Thankfully, scarecrow man gave me some wax which, when applied to the wounds, ensures that I don't die in great agony. Glad that I won't have my nice new set of chainmail taken from my corpse by a greedy adventurer after I die of Gronk poisoning, I head further down the tunnels until I come to another opening, this one containing a large green dude who is in the process of cooking... something... in a large cauldron. As I enter, green dude is in the process of singing a happy song about how much he loves the taste of eyeballs. Well, guess that jar of eyes wasn't useless after all. I hand them over, and he agrees to let me keep my own eyes. How kind.... Or not. Actually, he takes the jar and attacks me instead. How kind.

By this point, I'm running quite low on provisions but my stamina is fairly stable. Feeling quite confident, I push onwards through the caves. The final chamber, full of crystals, is home to a giant worm, which I kill without too much difficulty. I find the treasure chest, only to discover that it contains a small wooden box - the same kind of box that the beggar earlier described as having been made by his old friend, Mad McBoxexplodey. I pocket the box and retrace my steps back out of the cavern.

Leaving the cave, however, something interesting happens. We meet a friendly woman ninja, who kindly offers to join in our adventure. As with most Fighting Fantasy companion NPCs, I expect her to die immediately, but to my surprise she sticks around for a while, fighting some hill trolls and helping me to open McBoxexplodey's box (which, as it turns out, contained poison gas rather than explosives, but I don't feel like changing his name at this point in the adventure). We chat for a while and she tells me that she wants to help me out on this quest, mainly because she's a bit bored. Well, better than nothing!

We head out on the trail of McBoxexplodey, hoping to find the ORIGINAL treasure from the chest! We trudge around the countryside for a while until, all of a sudden, PLOT HAPPENS!!

We catch sight of a giant war-hawk, a huge bird, carrying a vast basket. In mid-flight, the bird drops the basket, which crashes to the ground along with the sound of a person's screams. We hurry to the crash site, slaying the bird, to find a fatally wounded stonemason who was riding in the basket. The man has been injured by the other item in the basket, a huge stone statue called a Keystone. The man explains that he was blackmailed into creating the Keystone by the servants of Zanbar Bone, the big bad of City of Thieves. He was on his way to place the Keystone at Yaztromo's tower, which would channel the magic of the tower into the ritual of Bone's resurrection. The stonemason explains that he will never see his wife again, who had been kidnapped by Bone's minion, but pleads with me to save the world and THE PLOT FOR THIS STORY LITERALLY FELL FROM THE SKY.

We push on towards Yaztromo's tower, burying the stonemason and... uhh, I don't know what we do about the keystone, the text wasn't too clear. We head on towards the forest, killing spore monsters and bandits, and eventually stumble by sheer luck into the home of McBoxexplodey. We wait around and eventually he returns, and in exchange for some gold agrees to tell us that he's actually really, really sorry for having killed all of the people he did with deathtrap boxes (*slap*) and offers to help. He tells me that the only person who can stop Bone is Nicodemus, the wizard of Port Blacksand. In a curious twist of fate, the treasure chest in the crystal cave initially held Nicodemus' magic ring, which is important to stopping Bone. McBox used to have it, but it was stolen by a chaos warrior in the service of the evil Lord Azzur, also of Port Blacksand. Looks like we know where we're going next! But first, we have to warn Yaztromo that the evil minions are looking to steal his tower for their nefarious purposes.

After a few uninteresting encounters, including one with our old dwarven associate Bignose from the old classic gamebook, we arrive at Yaztromo's tower. The wizard greets us, and is perplexed as to why his tower is transforming into a sinister black shade of colour. I tell him that it's due to Zanbar Bone's magical resurrection, and Yaztromo agrees to invite us in. That night, we have dinner and we get to learn a bit about Bone's backstory and history, establishing him a little bit stronger than in the City of Thieves book. This bit of backstory is actually really nice and works very well with the narrative.

The following morning, Yaztromo grants me his horse and gives me a magical buff to my combat skill, and I ride off into the distance, leaving our ninja companion behind at the tower. Our destination, Port Blacksand. We eventually arrive at a small town on the outskirts of the port, where a suspicious lady offers to 'take care' of my horse in exchange for a boat, which I could use to sneak past the guards at the gate of Blacksand. Not wanting to risk having my lovely new horse stolen, I tell her no. We then proceed to ride up to the gate of Blacksand, pay the guards their requested entrance fee, only for them to immediately drag me off the horse and throw me in prison because they're crooked evil bastards. My journey ends here.

So, uh, this was a rather nice book. It's not great, though. It has some nice moments, and the idea of the main plot appearing during the adventure rather than being outlined right at the start is okay, but the story leaves it far too late. In terms of narrative flow, that's the reveal that should be left for the end of the first act, not closing near the end of the second. In any case though, as with all of Ian's books, there's plenty of instant-death moments that make it especially brutal. The combat sequences are all fairly easy though, which does balance that out a little, but overall I think the book could have used some more testing before release.

Good points, though, is that it incorporates a lot from the classic series, which the last FF book (Blood of the Zombies) didn't. That's really nice, so people who want more of Allansia lore would enjoy that. Sadly, one of the biggest let-downs with this book was the illustrations. I know for a fact that the original internal illustrations were coloured art pieces, but the poorer mass print quality of the paper has left them as muddy and unpleasant-looking. For a book which is mass produced like this, art illustrations should either be depicted in full colour (which these aren't) or limited to pencil and ink line sketches.

And worst of all, upon finishing reading this book, I noticed that part of the gold foil on the spine had rubbed off, leaving a white smudge across the title. Come on Scholastic, doesn't this series deserve better?

And, that's it. Until such times as a new Fighting Fantasy book arrives on the shelves, The Port of Peril is our close of the franchise. When will we see another one? Who knows! But, if anyone out there is listening... Balthus Dire is quite ready for a return, don't you think?

(You can follow Justin McCormack on Facebook and Twitter.
Justin is the author of two bestselling novels, a collection of horror stories - "Hush!: A Horror Anthology", and the young adult coming-of-age comedy "Diary of a gay teenage zombie".
The first in his newest series of books, "Tales of Monsterotica" - a series of erotic comedies, is available now.)


  1. We'll get a new one next April. Charlie Higson is writing it. And hopefully more!

    1. Oh I see, the same Charlie Higson who was in Harry Enfield Show etc.

  2. Fair review. Shame your adventure was cut short but that is a realistic end given the instant deaths present! My spine's gold rubbed off too, but I was sent a replacement and intend to never open it. I enjoyed all the references to other adventures in the book.

  3. God knows, Balthus Dire is due a resurrection by now as just about every other bad guy has been brought back for another go-round.

    A new FF book, THE GATES OF DEATH is now out and I would love to hear your thoughts on it.