Fantastic Fighting

Fighting Fantasy is the best-known franchise in the history of gamebooks, but its transition to interactive e-books has been poor. However Tin Man Games, purveyor of the fine Gamebook Adventures series, have now acquired the license. Their first offering in the series is an adaption of the latest Fighting Fantasy book, Blood of the Zombies, written by series co-founder Ian Livingstone.

Mechanically the app is a mixture of the two series, but it feels and plays more like a traditional Fighting Fantasy adventure. You read paragraphs of text and are then, usually, presented with a choice of options in order to progress further. Often you’ll run into groups of the titular zombies which you must fight. Since they’re slow, feeble creatures, you just roll a number of dice depending on your weapon, kill that many, and each surviving undead reduces your stamina score. There is a choice of three difficulties, with the first two giving different amounts of starting stamina and the third adding the option to cheat, flipping back and forth through the book at will. All three allow an unlimited number of “bookmarks”, points to which you can return if you die.

And die you will — frequently, and gruesomely. It is a horror story, after all. But the sheer number of ways in which you can meet a sticky end is extraordinary, and as a bonus to app readers the author actually added a morgue’s worth of death paragraphs that aren’t in the book. Most frequently you’ll die during combat, which are pleasingly fast-paced using a streamlined version of the usual Fighting Fantasy mechanics, although the simple rules are tweaked to good effect during several special encounters in the book. But you can also die by picking the wrong option, or by not having picked up the right equipment. It’s a brutal, zombie-filled world.

The secret to winning is to learn the game before making a proper run on the toughest setting. The castle setting is complex and detailed enough to be mapped and explored on repeat plays. The best way to do this is to use the easiest mode which lets you treat the app like a real book, ignoring rules and restrictions as you see fit. In that sense it really feels like an e-version of a traditional gamebook, an effect bolstered by the inclusion of a classic mode which turns all the colour and much of the multimedia off.

It’s a nice inclusion for nostalgia, but I can’t see it getting much use because the app takes all the limited opportunities that a relatively static book allows to deliver a richer experience. The title page is animated, and the book is filled with excellent full-colour artwork. There’s a creepy soundtrack that swells seamlessly to a dramatic dirge during combat, in which you’ll be treated to a unique sound effect for each of the many weapons you can find.

Fighting Fantasy: Blood of the ZombiesFighting Fantasy: Blood of the Zombies

It also reminds you that this is, at heart, a book. And as a book, the quality of the writing is paramount to your enjoyment. You’d expect an experienced author like Ian Livingstone to deliver, and he doesn’t disappoint. It’s no literary masterwork, of course, but it’s filled with highly atmospheric, rich pulp writing of the highest quality. Not a single punch is pulled in its depictions of horror, and it ticks all the boxes of the pacey adventure plot you’re expecting, all without ever quite veering toward parody. There are also some delightful nods to Fighting Fantasy history and mainstays of geek culture if you can find and spot them!

Further encouragement toward thorough exploration is offered by Tin Man’s usual diverse collection of achievements, including a gallery of art to check out. There’s an additional treat in this one: collecting all the pieces of a torn canvas will unlock an alternative cover. One of the biggest problems with gamebooks is a lack of replay value, and lots of enticing achievements really helps to remedy that issue. Blood of the Zombies throws down an extra challenge in that it has multiple endings, and it’s very hard to get the best one without cheating. The great writing also helps, but I can’t quite shake the sense that there should be a little more play time in this for the price.

Previous apps from Tin Man have always been smooth and highly usable, and this is no exception. In the past I’ve found their game system a little clunky, and the limited bookmark system they usually employ a slightly fake way of adding difficulty. But Blood of the Zombies changes all that; its speedy combat and inbuilt adversity make it a great candidate for the app treatment. A skilled app designer and an experienced author have collaborated and managed the rare feat of creating something greater than the sum of their individual talents.