iOS Universal, PC/Mac •
Being a socially awkward 12 year-old in 1983 meant that I spent an inordinate amount of time by myself at the local mall, most of it at Aladdin’s Castle spending paper route earnings one quarter at a time. When the quarters dried up only a few other stores could garner enough excitement to get a visit before biking home. There was Hobby Horse, where I could peruse Dungeon & Dragons modules and Ral Partha metal figures. There was Spencer Gifts, whose poster section offered the alluring chance to spy sideboob before being asked to leave the store. And then there was Waldenbooks, one of the early Amazon casualties, which offered up more books than I could imagine and was far closer to home than any public library. It was here that I purchased my first Fighting Fantasy book, Warlock of Firetop Mountain.
The back cover text promised something I’d been wishing for since 3rd grade, a way to play D&D by myself. The book would run the adventure and, unlike the inferior Choose Your Own Adventure series, Warlock offered up hit points, a character sheet, and the need to grab a couple d6’s. I spent too many days with my nose pressed in its pages, and it opened the doors to other books in the Fighting Fantasy series including the unparalleled Sorcery! series. That series has already made its way to digital in a way that eclipses the original gamebooks. It only makes sense that the book that launched the genre should get its own over-the-top edition on our tablets, and Tin Man Games has brought it to life. And, yes, it’s over-the-top, but I mean that in the best possible way.
Warlock of Firetop Mountain is a reimagining of the original book, but hews close enough to be recognizable to anyone who has previously wandered the Warlock’s halls. You’ll spy illustrations that will instantly be recognizable even if you haven’t cracked the original in thirty years. You’ll remember certain encounters–their general outline if not the details–and wonder if your luck skill is high enough, just like in the old days. What will shake you from a sense of déjà vu is everything else.
There is still text to read, but the dungeon is displayed in 3D, falling from the heavens as more and more of the mountain is explored. Doors creak open, and the rooms behind fall into place revealing new locations, decorations, and creatures. The game feels alive as your detailed miniature hops along each stony corridor.
There’s combat as well, but not the simple d6 rolling type found in the original gamebook. Instead, here combat is turn-based on a square grid with each combatant selecting their action and then having them all fire simultaneously, Frozen Synapse style. Combat is quite simple compared to other turn-based fighting games–don’t go into it expecting XCOM–but the simplicity works, as I’d rather be exploring and unearthing new areas than spending all my time swinging a sword.
Besides the 3D dungeon, the big selling point are the multiple characters with which you can challenge the mountain. Each character has different motivations, combat abilities, and special abilities to play around with and you might find that encounters don’t play out quite the same from character to character. With the dungeon remaining static each time you don your pauldrons and breastplate, the only hope for replayability stems from each character’s differences. Surprisingly, it works. Sure, you might know where certain enemies or boons are hidden, and you might know what lies down the path to the left or right, but you’re never quite sure if it will play out the same. Also, you won’t be able to access certain parts of the mountain with each character, so there’s always the urge to explore pulling at your tunic. It’s almost as if all your characters’ experience points are being earned by you, the player, allowing you to know more and get a little farther each time you start a new delve.
And you’ll start quite a few. The game can be difficult, be it bad rolls in combat or gamebook-style encounters that will send your character to the grave simply for making the wrong choice. You have 3 respawns with each character but, when they’re gone, it’s lights out and back to square one.
There are four characters available for no extra cost with 11 new characters awaiting only your credit card to enter the fray. You can buy new characters in groups and, unlike the PC/Mac version which allows you to unlock new characters via in-game currency, buying characters with cash appears to be the only way to unlock them in the iPad version. There are also promises of more heroes and quests to come in the future.
Other differences in the iPad version from its PC/Mac cousin include slightly diminished graphics (dynamic shadows appear to be too difficult for iPads to handle), and the touchscreen interface. The touchscreen interface works great, with no issues getting my little figures to do what I want. The lack of shadows does make the PC/Mac version look more realistic and grim, but it’s a small price to pay so I can play on the couch. Warlock does require some horsepower, however, and will not play on anything older than an iPad Air or iPhone 5S.
Warlock of Firetop Mountain feels like a gamebook, but it’s the coolest gamebook you can play. Instead of expanding the scope to completely break from the source material, they embraced the gamebook feel and expanded it with beautiful graphics and combat that doesn’t get in the way. As fun as it is to explore the massive lair of Zagor, the titular Warlock, what’s even more exciting is on the splash screen when the app begins. The app uses something called the Gamebook Adventure Engine, which makes me think it could be repurposed for other Fighting Fantasy remakes in the future. I, for one, welcome our new gamebook overlords with open arms.