REVIEW: Assassins of Allansia

It is not often that a Fighting Fantasy gamebook combines the promise of being both the sequel to a recent addition to the series and the prequel to a classic and much loved adventure, but Assassins of Allansia does exactly that. With its familiarly crisp, clean and evocative style bridging the gap between Port of Peril and Deathtrap Dungeon, the book also acts as the stage for the appearance of THREE major characters from Fighting Fantasy lore, and takes you from a perilous island of death to Port Blacksand and the city of Kaad, then across the River Kok to the decorated and celebratory streets of the exotic city of Fang, where you will come face to face with one of Allansia’s foremost human villains.

You start out as a hard-up adventurer who enters into a deadly if amicable wager with the ill-fated captain Samuel Crow. Your task: survive a month on the ill-reputed Snake Island, a place that is not only said to be full of creatures such as DECAYERS, WORM DOGS and FLESH-HEADS, but carries the reputation of being utterly deadly to all who set foot on it. Undeterred, you set out to beat the odds, eager to claim the princely winnings of 20 gold pieces.

Yet you soon discover that this is far too miserly a sum for which to gamble your life once you learn that assassins are after you, lots of them, driven by the promise of not 20, but 1000 pieces of gold! Worse still, the man funding the bounty is none other than the tyrant ruler of Port Blacksand, Lord Azzur himself, who wants vengeance for your killing of his master, Zanbar Bone. Though this is not perhaps the reaction you were hoping for in ridding the world of the evil Night Prince, the arrival of trained killers turns out to be something of a blessing in disguise, for you are forced to abandon Snake Island, a hellhole (with nice beaches) that is infested with the likes of FIRE DRAGONS and the Triffid-trumping BLOODWORT plant, a species of flora that seeks to ram its proboscis down your throat and suck you dry! It’s a scintillating start to an adventure that satisfies your cravings for a Bear Grylls-type tropical survival excursion before you are forced back to the more familiar Allansian mainland to defy your fate.

Once back on the high seas, your options become rather limited. First of all, you are not given the option of sneaking into Blacksand to beseech the aid of the wizard Nicodemus, even though (after the outstanding finale of Port of Peril), he seriously owes you a favour or two. Instead, you are thrown into a deadly game of cat and mouse against both professional assassins and any ne’er-do-wells who fancy their chances against you, for your face has been plastered on wanted posters all over Port Blacksand and Kaad. And there is no shortage of takers. As one burly rogue puts it ‘a bounty of 1000 gold pieces is enough to turn anybody in Port Blacksand into an assassin!’ – or as an old pickpocket shouts, you’ve effectively become ‘a 1000 gold pieces on legs!’

This sets the stage for some riotous scenes that see you fleeing locations such as the legendary Black Lobster tavern, or taking flight through the streets of Blacksand with a motley assortment of peg-legged pirates and ragged reprobates after you and eager for an easy score. As you are forced to contend with mobs of peasants, zealous town guards, or sneaky assassins, you cannot help but admire the Livingstone gift for bringing tawdry medieval settings to life, where citizens are as likely to hire you as a rat-catcher or rip you off for a worthless map, as turn you in for a reward.

But the people of Allansia are not all greedy sellouts. There are those who, united in their loathing of Lord Azzur and his unscrupulous killers, are willing to offer you sympathy and support, if only you play your cards right. Such ambiguity in the allegiance of some of those you meet adds an interesting dimension to the game, as you are forced to decide who to trust. Counter-intuitively (at least for me), it sometimes paid to admit to being the face on the wanted poster. At other times, you have every right to be suspicious of friendly overtures!

Such judgment calls play their part in making Assassins of Allansia a moderately challenging adventure that you are unlikely to complete at the first attempt. This is not because any of the assassins are particularly difficult to defeat (most have modest skill and stamina attributes, and wield special attacks that can be negated by items you can find along the way), but because there is one true path through the book that requires you to be bold and fearless. Only then will you have the opportunity to confront the assassins, turn the tables, and beat them at their own game.

Assassins of Allansia encourages you to be a hero with a brain, as each assassin has their own method of murder which you will have to overcome. This may entail forestalling ambushes and relying on your fighting skills to slay your foes in open combat, acquiring specific artefacts that empower you to survive poisoned or psychic attack, or seeing through clever disguises in order to gain the initiative. The abundance of fine equipment and enchanted items up for grabs ensures that even players with the weakest starting scores can meet these challenges in order to have a sporting chance of beating their assailants. Deep exploration of atmospheric settings is crucial, and victory depends on curiosity, tenacity, and patient trial and error – features that I have always enjoyed in Ian Livingstone’s adventures.

Assassins of Allansia is full of memorable moments: from fending off despicable monsters on Snake Island, evading pirates and a gigantic KRAKEN, negotiating with a pair of unhinged and revoltingly unhygienic dwarven brothers, to being rescued from the axe of the hulking assassin URZLE IRONFACE by none other than THROM THE BARBARIAN himself. The appearances of some beloved old-school characters are among the greatest highlights of the book. Are you ready to meet BARON SUKUMVIT once more and stand firm under the stare of Lord Azzur? Are you prepared to enrol once more in the TRIAL OF CHAMPIONS? It’s heady stuff, the delight of long-time Fighting Fantasy fans; nostalgic, momentous and hallowed.

In this adventure you may come across a little golden warp ring. While it allows you to move backwards in time by a single minute, you may just find that Assassins of Allansia takes you back a little further, to recapture some of the feeling of 1984 when you had first opened the pages of Deathtrap DungeonAssassins of Allansia is a well written and atmospheric addition to Ian Livingstone’s long list of excellent adventure gamebooks, that takes readers on a satisfying journey across space and time. Trust no one, and may your stamina never fail!

STORYLINE: YOU are a down on your luck adventurer whose fortunes plunge even further south when you learn that Lord Azzur has placed a huge price on your head. Can you defeat all of the Scorpion Guild of Assassins sent on this mission, and square things with the tyrant ruler of Port Blacksand? You’ll need all your combat skills and wits to survive!

GAMEPLAY: An abundance of malevolent creatures and deadly assassins is nicely balanced with an assortment of characters willing to lend you a hand. Plenty of top-notch kit is available to boost the attributes of weaker adventurers, and there are many opportunities to outwit the opposition. Overall, a fun and rewarding challenge.

PRESENTATION: In the paperback version read for this review, Robert Ball’s cover is vivid and striking in blue and gold, and his internal art is a step up from other offerings I have seen in Scholastic’s range of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Sadly, the greyscale, washed out tone of the internal illustrations continues to disappoint.

REPLAY VALUE: As you are unlikely to find the one true path through this adventure on your first attempt, Assassins of Allansia offers substantial replay value. Even if you ace it on the first try, you will want to explore the story’s alternative paths to fully enjoy this atmospheric and evocative installment in the series.

Review by KJ Shadmand

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: Assassins of Allansia”

  1. Thanks for your feedback, Rich. Reviewing is naturally quite subjective, and it’s rare to find consensus. I’d be interested to hear what you found humdrum about AOA, though!

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