In an era when video games such as The Elder Scrolls seemed as mythical as their subject matter, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone's series of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks took geek culture by storm. Promising worlds filled with high fantasy, the novels delivered stories in which you played the hero, with your moment-to-moment decisions having an impact on the plot.
Of course, it all sounds rather archaic now, but back in the 80's these books were huge. So it's odd to see one of the series' more popular novels, Talisman Of Death, revived by the indie studio Laughing Jackal for PlayStation Network. But even though the title antithesises everything we traditionally enjoy about video games, we couldn't help but get caught up in the fiction.
Being a digital conversion of a novel, Fighting Fantasy: Talisman Of Death stays true to its source material. You'll spend the majority of your time reading the fiction and making choices. The game's presentation is slick and minimalistic, with a large novel in the centre of the screen occupying the fiction on the right-hand page, and your inventory on the left.
The decisions you make impact everything. It's impressive how seemingly minor choices can completely alter the plot, and it certainly encourages replay value. While the storyline always begins in the same way — with you being thrust into an alternative dimension — it really does open out fairly promptly. In our first attempt we found ourselves being pursued by a group of vicious orcs, while in another we were kidnapped and transported to a populated city.
Along the way you'll encounter enemies that need to be beaten in order to allow you to progress. Laughing Jackal's fashioned a more modern video game mechanic for these battles, though the traditional dice-roll system is also available for purists. Either way battles are straight-forward affairs, requiring keen attention (and a bit of luck) to proceed. The modern system introduces a screen of hexagonal tiles. Each of these tiles represent yourself, your enemy or a miss. You'll need to select a blue tile (representative of yourself) in order to land a hit on the enemy. You can gamble with luck in order to double up the damage, but your chances of success depend on your character's statistics.
One of the best things about Talisman Of Death on Minis is how well Laughing Jackal keeps track of all the data in the background. If you were playing the original paper-based version, you would need to be constantly keeping note of various statistics, items and more. Here the game does everything for you, leaving you to concentrate on the fiction rather than the numbers. We're sure purists would argue that managing the figures is part of the game's appeal, but in a modern context it seems crazy. Getting the game to keep tabs on your inventory and health is a far superior solution as far as we're concerned.
Unfortunately the game does have some interface issues. While you can handily zoom in on the text with the R button, we found that the game would always default to the bottom when we turned the page in this view — meaning we got a glimpse at our next set of decisions before we'd even read the fiction building up to them. The game also really lacks a map. We daresay players of the original novel spent time drawing out maps as they progressed, but hey, the whole purpose of this digital re-release is to automate various aspects of the experience.
Thankfully the game does include a logbook which keeps track of everything else in the novel. From your items, to the characters you've encountered, and even the pages you've unlocked, you can build up the entire fiction through Talisman Of Death's logbook.
Despite it being a classic, the fiction itself isn't flawless either. Sometimes you'll just die in Talisman Of Death, without the option of fighting or bargaining for your safety. With the novel you could simply flick back a few pages and choose a different option, but that's impossible in Laughing Jackal's video game interpretation. While this decision feels true to the way the book was intended — your story has a definitive start and end point — restarting the novel over and over can feel a bit tedious, even if its genuinely interesting observing the plot's various branching paths.
The presentation is slick and straight-forward. While you'll miss out on much of the artwork from the original novel, the introduction of appropriate audio is pivotal in Talisman Of Death. We spent much of our time with the game in bed wearing headphones, and were blown away by the audio. Not only does it appear to change on the fly depending on each page's particular content, but it is also subtly mixed, making appropriate use of stereo to blend in and out of the backdrop without being too distracting from the contents of the novel itself. Some additional sound effects could have really enhanced the atmosphere, such as the inclusion of trotting horses when appropriate, or the gaggle of distant orcs.
Ultimately, Talisman Of Death's biggest obstacle is the niche its trying to carve. While we enjoyed playing the game exponentially more than we'd expected, it's hard to understand who would purchase a game like this. While the game appears to target hardcore Fighting Fantasy fans, that audience is also the most likely to take an elitist stance and consider the various automated elements of the game contradictory to the series. And as a text adventure, its hard to imagine many PlayStation owners rushing to PlayStation Store even though Laughing Jackal's genuinely done a great job making the experience feel streamlined and modern.
As such, it's just kind of there. Many Fighting Fantasy fans will probably appreciate the alternative presentation of the experience here, but otherwise it's a tough-sell. And that's a shame because we enjoyed Fighting Fantasy: Talisman Of Death more than we expected. Regular readers will know that we intensely dislike high-fantasy fiction — to the point where Skyrim barely even registers as a blip on our list of most anticipated games — and yet we got completely caught up in Talisman Of Death, playing through it several times over.
Mild presentation issues aside, Laughing Jackal deserves credit for converting a novel nearly 30-years old into something relevant, and more importantly, playable on a PlayStation system in 2011. It's next challenge is finding the audience that wants to purchase it.