REVIEW: City of Thieves

The City of Thieves may be viewed as a basic gamebook to the modern reader – somewhat thin on the sort of detailed, logical adventuring now seen as standard in most new releases featuring this type of urban setting. Author Ian Livingstone is infamous for his love of the irksome ‘treasure hunt’ formula, and here it is also combined with the ‘one true path’ mechanic, meaning that failure to successfully locate specific items will condemn you to an undesired, futile ending. However, despite these exasperating constraints, there is plenty of enjoyment to be found within Port Blacksand – commonly called the City of Thieves – as you stalk its streets, searching for items and information, and attempting to not fall victim to those who may wish to do you harm.

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Your adventure starts at the town of Silverton, where you are asked to locate the wizard Nicodemus, who lives somewhere in Port Blacksand. Only the wise and powerful wizard can offer the help needed to defeat the Night Prince, Zanbar Bone, who currently terrorises Silverton and desires the mayor’s daughter. This simple introduction sees you begin your journey to the city with some gold in your pocket and a fine broadsword in your hand – it is up to you to locate Nicodemus and discover how to stop the troublesome Zanbar Bone.

As with most of the 1980’s gamebooks written by Ian Livingstone, his style is efficiently concise and instructional, focusing mainly on the game requirements with limited details, and no broader stories, about the city that surrounds you. This brief style of writing can at times leave you asking many questions about the wonderful setting that you are journeying through, and it does regularly disappoint with a lack of desired knowledge about exactly how the city operates. The unintended result from this undersupply of information is that the reader’s imagination now becomes highly active and it’s rather easy to fill in the missing details with your own invented elements, much like players of early text-based computer games, where an active imagination was a prerequisite to expand upon the game as it was presented.

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As a positive, the City of Thieves does contain a great number of memorable and entertaining characters, and you’ll regularly find yourself involved in clever situations where things aren’t as they initially appear, and can quickly escalate with unwanted consequences. These set pieces are the main joy in the adventure, although many rely on simple luck – including fortunate dice rolls – to negotiate successfully, which is generally a shame.

Once Nicodemus is located, the focus is now on finding the specific items needed to defeat Zanbar Bone, and you’ll eventually leave the city to challenge him at his guarded tower. There’s nothing particularly strategic about this final act though, either you’re equipped to deal with him as Livingstone intends, or you’re not. Zanbar Bone is ultimately too remote and undercooked as an adversary and your concluding encounter with him is relatively straightforward, and a little shallow. He’s not really a star performer.

This is ‘classic’ Fighting Fantasy – a lone adventurer for hire, an evil to be thwarted, and numerous items or conditions to be discovered if you want to claim victory. Overall, its an old-fashioned style of gamebook enjoyment, that although imperfectly devised and written, nonetheless manages to create a vibrant, living city – a legendary location where the adventure continues long after your own mission is complete.

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STORYLINE: A standard adventuring scenario provides purpose and you’ll soon find yourself warily negotiating the dangerous streets of Port Blacksand – ‘home of every pirate, brigand, assassin, thief and evil-doer for hundreds of miles around.’ The city offers an enticing environment to explore, however, there are disappointing restrictions to the scope of your travel, and a general lack of background detail to really do the place justice and expand the brooding presence of this fabled location.

GAMEPLAY: The reliance on locating specific items may cause grief to some players, as the ongoing hunt for them becomes the dominating element for your journey. Encounters are easily resolved via the simple battle process, which keeps the flow of the story going whilst providing a short active diversion – a beneficial element of the uncomplicated Fighting Fantasy system. A few too many instances appear where bad luck is unfairly inflicted upon the player or uninformed choices are presented.

PRESENTATION: The original Fighting Fantasy series were always well presented books, featuring attractive covers (particularly before the introduction of the green zigzag device) and a neat interior design, all clearly aimed at teenage male readers. One of the early highlights for this series was illustrator Iain McCaig, who produced some of the most iconic Fighting Fantasy imagery ever seen – City of Thieves showcases his skillful concepts and excellent draughtsmanship, adding significant visual flair and interest to this fifth book. In McCaig’s hands Port Blacksand gains a portrayal faithful to the nature of the city: the decrepit, overhanging buildings; the suspicious, bizarre and unsavoury citizens; the persistent threat from the authorities; and the inherent danger of the narrow, cobbled streets.

REPLAY VALUE: It’s very unlikely that you’ll complete the adventure at your first attempt, as these early Fighting Fantasy books regularly favoured high difficulty in finding the ‘one true path’ as a technique to extend the product’s lifespan. It is therefore highly probable that you’ll undertake a few separate ventures inside the city to locate all of the necessary items and then find your way to Zanbar’s tower. There is enjoyment to be found in seeking out every area and encounter within the city on further playthroughs, but you may tire of the effort involved if the ultimate conclusion to the book has already been achieved.

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Review by Michael Reilly

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