REVIEW: Seas of Blood

Andrew Chapman’s piratical Fighting Fantasy adventure is something a little different: a contest of ‘speed and treasure’ set within a strategic puzzle format where luck is often as important as any calculated planning. The aim of this unique challenge is to locate enough gold and slaves (which can then be sold at a slave market for more gold) within a strict time limit of fifty days so that you can claim the title ‘King of Pirates’ from your greatest rival, Abdul the Butcher.

Many routes are available for exploration as you sail the seas at the helm of the Banshee, eagerly seeking to locate the most reward as you plunder the lands of the Inland Sea and attack other vessels with your seasoned crew of desperate cut-throats. Encounters with friends, foes, creatures and monsters will test your perception and overall skills, however, this is another Fighting Fantasy gamebook where you’ll repeatedly follow what appear to be attractive options only to find that they contain little or no genuine reward. Too often you’ll simply harm your chances of success as you stray from the paths that offer the needed amount of loot within the specified time period. This is one of the book’s greatest failings as it effectively restricts gameplay to a limited amount of pathways, often making it feel as nothing more than a series of steps to uncover and negotiate, rather than an exciting, multiple-solution puzzle where exploration and instinct are rightly – and handsomely – rewarded.

Unfortunately, there’s an unwelcome over-reliance on tests against your personal luck and the strength of your crew, which often determine consequential success or failure, or deliver an instant death. Seas of Blood includes an additional battle mechanic (almost a direct copy of the standard rules for individual combat) for resolving large-scale encounters. The difficulty with these new values is that severe depletion of your CREW STRENGTH can only be fully recovered by purchasing new crew – an expensive transaction that occurs at just a few locations and unfavourably decreases your amount of plundered gold. If you receive only a small number of unlucky dice rolls in battle, fate may quickly turn against you as your crew’s strength (their functional ability) drops to a point where further timely progress now becomes extremely difficult. While it may be true that destiny can turn at any moment, particularly within interactive fiction, there’s a highly frustrating aspect to this system, along with the broader problem regarding game-ending failure being unfairly determined by one simple dice test.

Seas of Blood is almost impossible to complete at your first attempt (or second, or third…), as identifying the best opportunities to acquire the needed loot, and understanding the exact impact of travel time, will take some effort. Careful mapping and detailed note taking will helpfully aid the discovery process, allowing you to slowly build a comprehensive resource that will eventually yield a potentially successful path to your destination. However, ultimate success may still remain out of reach if those wretched dice rolls continuously scupper your hard-earned progress. Aaaargh!!

There’s certainly a lot to like about playing a gamebook as a notorious pirate captain involved in a novel, time-limited contest between ruthless, thieving characters. Chapman incorporates all of the expected tropes, adds plenty of carefree pirate behaviour and builds an appropriate sense of adventuring within his minimalist style of writing, but there’s one glaring omission that is hard to fathom due to the concept of a contest. Your despised opponent is surprisingly relegated to a mere peripheral character immediately after setting sail to begin the race. This is surely a massive oversight in regard to game structure and content, as the adventure would have benefitted greatly from interaction between yourself and your protagonist, especially if this created an opportunity to steal some of Abdul’s gold, redirect his vessel toward known peril, recruit members of his crew, or to otherwise thwart his progress by introducing time-wasting hazards. Adding just one or two occasions to undertake such disruptive tasks during your journey would have added the needed competitive aggression and tactical activity that Seas of Blood sadly lacks.

Locations and encounters within the adventure are at times quite original, regularly featuring unexpected events and conclusions, although some are deficient in desired detail and subsequently fail to offer the extent of options that would elevate them beyond their passable standard. Some of the most notable highlights include: betting games of ‘first hit wins’ Punch-out against the OGRE CHAMPION and a WILD MAN at the wharfside gambling-pits in Calah; surviving a plunge into a deep, open pit, to then relieve an abbot of his gold and his sword; battling a weird-looking AWKMUTE cleric, and if successful, then claiming its powerful ebony staff; feasting with the helpful King of the Four Winds; cleverly getting the better of two GIANTS who then bolster your crew; receiving a blessing from Sea Sprites after reclaiming a precious relic from a KRELL; heroically outrunning several hundred Shurrupak and Marad war galleys; safely negotiating the island of the Witch, where strange magic is at play; defeating the ‘keeper’ – a large Cyclops – in a climactic, extended and unarmed combat sequence to reach the summit of Nippur’s mountain, where Abdul the Butcher awaits your arrival to decide who is the best sacker of cities.

Bob Harvey’s interior illustrations unquestionably deserve a mention: the better images are technically very sound and suitably dramatic, with many excellent pirates to be found in various poses, together with a number of threatening combatants and some unusual creatures. His style is perfectly suited to this type of book, providing a high-quality visual component to written content that demands appropriate imagery to convey the essential characteristics of this piratical tale.

The many available pathways do make this a rather short gamebook – one that can be easily completed in only a few hours. Despite its flaws, and the frustrating omission of competitive contact with Abdul, Seas of Blood is a memorable adventure that demands completion from those who simply refuse to accept defeat. The opportunity to play as an infamous captain is an exciting departure from the usual hero-based storylines, however, there are no genuine moral implications arising from your nefarious actions (possibly another missed opportunity), and your various adventures are generally rather tame in comparison to the likely ‘reality’ of life as a greedy and daring pirate.

Seas of Blood is a classic trial-and-error puzzle: a challenging game that demands repeated attempts, whilst unfairly punishing players for simple, seemingly random decisions, or suddenly ending the adventure with an unlucky roll of the dice. It’s tough to love with any significant level of enthusiasm, but equally difficult to dismiss as featureless or wholly unsatisfactory as there is credible immersion and plenty of varied content to enjoy within its pages. More than worthy of a try for those favourably disposed to stepping into a pirate’s shoes, Seas of Blood is equally entertaining and exasperating – the exact combination of elements that brought so much success to the Fighting Fantasy series.

Sail the Inland Sea, plundering as only YOU can to win a wager with your greatest rival. This is far from a hero’s quest, instead offering the opportunity to play as a criminal, plundering loot from any source likely to fill your coffer with gold. You’ll travel from point-to-point, eagerly exploring the lands surrounding the sea and facing many troublesome developments on and under the water. It’s a challenge, a race, and a test of fortune – a swashbuckling adventure where only one man can claim the ultimate prize!

GAMEPLAY: Following the standard Fighting Fantasy formula, Seas of Blood includes all the hallmarks – both good and bad – of the series. Risk and reward can feel somewhat imbalanced, resulting in lost opportunities that consume valuable time with little return. A few too many choices offer no obvious logic, nor allow opportunities for assistance from knowledge gained previously – add these occasional issues to the regularly occurring instances of failure due to unfortunate dice rolls and the growing frustration can be profoundly irritating.

PRESENTATION: As per other previous books in the series, Seas of Blood is neatly presented to a suitable standard. The interior illustrations by Bob Harvey are often excellent and nicely capture the expected style of a piratical adventure, and the high quality cover image is by the legendary illustrator Rodney Matthews – the only Fighting Fantasy book that he produced artwork for.

REPLAY VALUE: You’re most likely to replay this book many times – just not by choice. There are multiple routes to take, and various ways to approach many of the encounters, so you’ll uncover alternative strategies and outcomes on every playthrough, resulting in new, unseen content. As the adventure is only of a modest length, you’ll probably be encouraged to seek out the solution to this puzzle, rather than be defeated by its sometimes brutal difficulty.

Review by Michael Reilly

5 thoughts on “REVIEW: Seas of Blood”

  1. Gaetano Abbondanza

    I have a special place in my heart for this one. Although, as you mention, there’s no point in even trying with low scores for Crew Strike or Crew Strength (in addition to standard Skill, Stamina, and Luck).

    1. If you’re not having much luck it’s very tough to complete this with low Crew Strike and Crew Strength. Your standard, individual values can be average, but not the crew’s – they need to be high. I never played this adventure as a teen when it was released, and liked it more and more as I played it thoroughly to write this review (it took quite a few attempts to win the race!). Once you really explore the structure, there’s plenty to enjoy and appreciate. I just wish that the frustration level was lower!

    2. It also has a very special place in my heart, though I have to confess I never remember winning. But, somehow amongst my friends it became a sort of competition to see who could get the most gold (though obviously we were all keeping our fingers on the previous page, as usual…). So, it was more like a competition against each other, while semi-cheating!

  2. I enjoy this book using a houserule: starting with 200 gold. This way you can wander where you want and play with low personal and crew scores.

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