REVIEW: The Port of Peril

As part of Scholastic’s relaunched Fighting Fantasy series, co-creator Ian Livingstone has written a new gamebook featuring many favourite locations and quite a few old friends and enemies appearing previously in some of the earlier adventures. The Port of Peril is a classic old-school gamebook that sees you on a journey from Chalice – a town on the north bank of Silver River – to Skull Crag in the Moonstone Hills, and then on to Darkwood Forest and the notorious Port Blacksand. Initially following a found treasure map indicating the location of a hidden iron chest, a mission of utmost urgency and importance soon replaces your simple quest for concealed riches. The second coming of Zanbar Bone threatens all of Allansia so, with the assistance of the great wizards Yaztromo and Nicodemus, YOU must defeat the Demon Prince and his advancing skeleton horde.

As with many Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, once again you play as a sword-for-hire seeking adventure and the opportunity to earn a few coins. In true Livingstone style you’ll be collecting plenty of items on your travels – so many in fact that even the strongest and most capable of adventurers would surely collapse under the exhausting weight of all the miscellaneous stuff that will find its way into your seemingly limitless backpack. A number of these items will find use or be required at a later stage of your journey, however, many are merely a diversionary form of padding and play no part in what is a rather simple and direct route to the final encounter. Instant-deaths still appear and there are a few capable opponents to overcome towards the end, but in comparison to most books in the Fighting Fantasy series this is one of the easiest adventures to navigate and successfully complete.

Unfortunately, even with the many references to events from earlier books and characters previously met, and the opportunity to revisit key locations and finally enter the legendary Black Lobster Tavern, The Port of Peril lacks genuine excitement and intrigue, never really capturing the spirit of these people and places by adding meaningful depth to their known histories and reputations, or by stimulating the reader’s imagination as desired. Even when the adventure switches from a routine treasure hunt to a quest with diabolical implications for all of Allansia should you fail, the pace of the game rightly increases but never actually elevates the situational drama with an urgency that is anything beyond a satisfactory degree. Most of the basic elements necessary for a thrilling gamebook experience do appear, but at no time does the magic actually return to deliver an experience that is anything other than ordinary.

It would be unfair to suggest that The Port of Peril is entirely without merit or containing any enjoyable highlights, as there are positives that will satisfy many Fighting Fantasy fans. Revisiting known locations and meeting characters of significance from old adventures is a noteworthy and genuinely worthwhile feature, as it generates a comfortable familiarity for players who remember their past experiences in Allansia and understand the rich history of this fantasy world. Interacting with the enigmatic wizards Yaztromo and Nicodemus does work well, building an immediate connection between yourself and these two key characters as you follow their advice and instructions to overcome Bone’s dire reappearance. Their inclusion provides justification and purpose for your journeying from one location to another, and without it the adventure would have been significantly poorer.

There’s a solid atmosphere of discovery throughout most of the storyline, you’ll cross paths with a few dangerous new opponents (human and otherwise), and although the ending isn’t particularly epic, it does contain enough spectacle to wrap up the story in a manner consistent with everything that’s come before it. Also, a female companion named Hakasan Za – a treasure hunting tracker from Zengis – joins the adventure as you are leaving Skull Crag. She is a good-natured, determined and enthusiastic partner who accompanies you through the second half of the book, providing useful knowledge and information, food, combat support and a touch of humour. She’s more than decent as an adventuring companion, and provides a healthy comradeship that then generates a sense of responsibility as your chosen route may ask you to consider her welfare when making certain decisions.

One of the greatest assets of the Fighting Fantasy series over the years was the (mostly) high quality of cover and interior illustrations – a feature that directly attracted many readers, adding a significant artistic impact unmatched by its many rivals during the boom years of the 80s. Scholastic has chosen a new visual direction for their relaunched series, aiming to excite the children of today with a style that reflects a youthful modern-day creative approach, featuring bold colours on the covers, simplified shapes, and a less realistic, more child-friendly technique that is notably different when compared to the detailed and realistic style of the original art. To say that this decision has caused some angst within the worldwide community of Fighting Fantasy fans would be a monumental understatement. The new artwork has been widely discussed, critiqued and panned by many, with most commenters lamenting the dumbing down from a beloved high standard to a cheaper, everyday style of illustration lacking the intelligence, soul and impact of days gone by.

Unfortunately, the composition and execution of the standard paperback cover and interior artwork offers none of the tangible threat, individual quirkiness, wonder or intricacy of the illustrations in the original books, with only a few pieces from the initial wave of releases able to be described as images that immediately appeal and then hold attention. Robert Ball’s covers are certainly strikingly colourful and vibrant, and in most cases quite dynamic, however, the cover of The Port of Peril would be substantially improved by greater detail and depth as it presents a direct, static pose, unlike most of the new covers. The limited release of the Special Collector’s Edition hardback, featuring cover art by the legendary Iain McCaig, highlights the differences between old and new, and adds further fuel to the firestorm surrounding the new approach.

The interior artwork by Vlado Krizan (a talented illustrator from Slovakia) is also problematic as it shows little of his impressive technique and style, with the majority of images appearing as rather basic compositions, dulled by indistinguishable values and a poor, murky reproduction (note that the images included in this review appear significantly darker when seen in the printed book). The use of a greyscale illustration technique that relies so heavily on quality printing to maintain an acceptable tonal range can only be considered as a mistake and should have been corrected before publication. Also, some of the images do not accurately match their detailed written descriptions – an annoying error rarely seen in the series previously.

The Port of Peril does feel undercooked, with a formulaic approach to its content and structure that has already been surpassed by newer gamebooks offering greater immersion and player choice. The adventure is overwhelmingly linear, with only a few extended opportunities to explore as you wish before the book forcibly pushes you back to the required path – or immediately plots an unexpected downfall and quickly ends your attempt. The care and attention, and the wildly imaginative, entertaining ideas that regularly infused Livingstone’s earlier gamebooks are missing here, and the written style targets a younger audience in such a manner that it reduces the overall quality and appeal for gamebook readers of any age.

I really wanted to be captivated by this new book, and to be charmed by its quest to stop the demoniacal Zanbar Bone, but The Port of Peril doesn’t wholeheartedly recapture the spirit of past adventures and never reaches a particularly high level of engagement. When I was under the Fighting Fantasy spell as a young teenager many years ago, I’d probably have loved it. Now, however, I can see the weaknesses within its routine journey and indifferent encounters, and can understand the opportunity missed to profoundly impress all those who eagerly flip through its pages.

STORYLINE: Your original treasure-hunting adventure is soon abandoned when Allansia is in need of a new hero to thwart the resurrection of Zanbar Bone. There’s quite a lot to see, do and collect as you travel the numerous included locations, and you’ll also gain a friendly companion about halfway through the story as you seek the necessary magical aid to stop Bone’s plan. This is all very promising for a new Fighting Fantasy gamebook, but the actual execution ultimately lacks ambition and energy, resulting in a journey that never matches the intended scope.

GAMEPLAY: It’s the classic Fighting Fantasy system once again, although there now appears to be a more youth-friendly style to the written content. At times there is an illusion of genuine choice, however, the game requires that you experience a specific set of encounters, so many of the given alternatives quickly return you to the one narrow pathway necessary for the set storyline, which is frustrating and rather disappointing. Huge amount of collectible items as per most Livingstone adventures – you’ll likely tire of adding them all to your Adventure Sheet.

PRESENTATION: Scholastic’s new visual direction will no doubt appeal to many in their targeted age range, however, it’s not at the standard seen from earlier Fighting Fantasy publishers. The print quality of the interior illustrations is very poor, and the gold spines of the first UK print run were unable to cope with general handling, resulting in the gold rubbing off which then left the book looking a little shabby. The text layout isn’t significantly different to that seen previously, with the addition of simulated page tears, splotches and other edge marks; I found these to be an unwanted inclusion due to their repeated nature and lack of variation.

REPLAY VALUE: There’s a decent amount of alternative material to discover on further attempts, however, a lot of this content is very brief and often underwhelming in nature, and it rarely delivers a substantially different experience. As there’s only one real path to follow, you’re most likely to move on to other gamebooks without the desire to immediately replay The Port of Peril.

Review by Michael Reilly

5 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Port of Peril”

  1. A great review, capturing many of the aspects of the book, series and re-launch.
    I wonder if part of Scholastic’s relaunch plan was to have an easier book as the first new title, so that younger readers new to the idea of gamebooks can win one, and thus want more. Many of the old titles are fiendishly difficult. To be able to win one would snare new readers in a subtle way, and make them want more, feeling that if they keep trying they can eventually win the others.
    Great review, thanks.

    1. That’s a really good point, David. I certainly failed badly when playing as a teen so would agree that Scholastic likely implemented a lower difficulty level to ultimately enhance the series for new readers. I’m eager to see what the new FF author, Charlie Higson, comes up with. A fresh perspective may be exactly what this relaunched series needs right now.

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