REVIEW: Crystal of Storms by Rhianna Pratchett

When news broke that the latest installment in the legendary Fighting Fantasy series was going to be written by Rhianna Pratchett, there was quite a buzz. The prospective author was known to have a slew of writing credits including Tomb Raider, Heavenly Sword, Overlord and Mirror’s Edge, and her name alone carries the air of creative accomplishment. When the cover for Crystal of Storms was made public, however, that buzz transmuted into something more akin to a collective cry of outrage from old-school Fighting Fantasy fans. It was difficult not to be sympathetic, for the cover art was cute beyond belief, featuring some sort of doe-eyed flying cat, an anxious cloud and a distant levitating island set against a benevolent purple sky. It seemed that Scholastic was bidding a firm farewell to the time-honoured Fighting Fantasy tradition of presenting creatures that look capable of ripping off your face and replacing them with denizens that might just about (if you’re very naughty) tickle you to death. But a cover is just a cover, so let’s get into the writing itself…

In Crystal of Storms, you are a citizen of Pangaria, a levitating six-island archipelago located over the waters between Allansia and Khul and kept aloft by the mysterious powers of technomancy that is fueled by storm crystals. You are also the newest member of the Sky Watch, an organisation dedicated to maintaining law and order that you calculated would give you the best shot at adventure. Unfortunately, Pangaria is about as exciting as The Shire before Gandalf and the Black Riders showed up, and your first few weeks on the job have offered nothing more dramatic than lost pets and feuds about overgrown shrubbery. Seeing that Pangaria is largely cut off from the wider world by the perilous Ocean of Tempests (so we’re told), there’s not even much of a chance of dangerous outsiders arriving to liven things up. So, when the central island of Nimbus suddenly explodes in a wave of energy, falls from the sky and sinks into the ocean (taking most of the Sky Watch and public officials with it), it is left to YOU to figure out what’s happened and save the day. The adventure is on, after all! 

And it all starts off fairly well. Shrugging into the ‘hovers’ you are carrying (portable wings forged from ‘light as air metalwork’), you manage to fly out of the path of the plunging island where you face your first choice: you must choose your home island and to there beat a hasty retreat, before initiating your quest. It does not take long, however, to realise that even though the disaster has made Pangaria a little more interesting than usual, it is still quite a boring place. Island creatures that have been corrupted by the wave of magical energy released by the explosion don’t get much more fearsome than an angry grapevine (dubbed ‘the grapes of wrath’…), a transmuted fruit-tree with malicious intentions, a cabbage-lobbing scarecrow, and a sentient cloud than has turned to the dark side. It is not that these adversaries are necessarily easy to defeat (the STORM-KIN has skill and stamina scores of 10!), it is more that they just don’t seem very plausible, even as fantasy tropes. Dragons, golems, elementals and all the other fabulous denizens of Titan are one thing, but an OCTOMAN (a man with a mind-controlling octopus jammed on his head), a GREAT WHITE SQUARK (that’s right, a white shark/squid hybrid) and a GIANT METAL HAND are quite another. Such is one of the difficulties faced by a Fighting Fantasy gamebook set in a recently dreamed up setting which does not seem to be inspired by any real-world historical period: its creatures are far-fetched, whimsical and at times, faintly ridiculous. To be fair, there are opponents that come across more menacingly, such are the SHARK-KIN (shark-headed water men), and a wide-mawed TUNNELLER BEAST, but even these choicer monsters fail to make anything more than a fleeting impression.  

The islands of Pangaria also fail to capture any real sense of atmosphere or depth. While we learn enough about Cirrus, Altos, Cumulus, Incus and Asperitus to understand that they have distinct economies and environments, none of the islands make much of an impression, and you might find yourself struggling to recall one from another. This is not helped by the repetitive exploration required of these locations, where the NPCs you meet all seem rather alike (the goblins you encounter are especially homogenous and consistently annoying), and the items you collect are all rather uninspiring. There is even a moment where you arrive on Incus (the fishing island), and find yourself down by the docks near the surface of the sea. The only problem with this is that all the islands are meant to be levitating islands, with the fishing boats described as flying down to the ocean’s surface under the power of storm crystals in order to ply their trade. In all rights a dock shouldn’t exist on Incus (if so, does it simply float on the surface of the sea below the island, or is it attached by anchors to the sea bed?), but there you find yourself for a good part of your time on the island, with an illustration to back it up. This inexplicability and breakdown in the believability of Pangaria is the most extreme example of what afflicts much of the book, which is that the world-building leaves much to be desired. This is perhaps unsurprising when we consider the fact that the author faced the substantial task of imagining an entire archipelago of six islands from scratch, as well as inventing the technology and magic of technomancy. This leaves you wondering how much better the gamebook might have been had it been set in the lore-rich lands of Allansia or Khul, with their tried and tested bestiaries and varied locations. Perhaps one day we will find out, but for now we’re stuck with something rather half-baked.

As for the artwork, enough has already been written about the cover, but I will add that the aforementioned ‘flying cat’ is, in fact, a CANIDOR, more of a flying cloud-wrangling shepherd dog (yes, Canidors herd clouds that are farmed for their rainfall). Internally, the illustrations of Crystal of Storms are largely a continuation of the slide into disrepute that has been a hallmark of more recent paperback Fighting Fantasy books, with grey-scale washed out images, and proportions that are unrealistic and cartoonish. Out of twenty internals, there are perhaps only two that reach a decent level of sophistication and begin to evoke anything close to what one felt while playing the classic greenspines. I will say that my four-year old son loved all the illustrations in Crystal of Storms, so perhaps Scholastic is onto something in terms of appealing to a new generation of readers. This silver lining in terms of the artwork does not, however, make up for the mediocre production quality of this gamebook, or for the fact that the gold letters on the front of my copy are already wearing away. Beware those of you who might be negligent enough to leave your book lying face down on a desk…

One of the stronger aspects of Crystal of Storms is the professionalism of the writing, which is clean, crisp and to the point. There are one or two moments of especially memorable description, such as when you fly a bathysphere (an underwater craft) onto the surface of the ocean, and are tossed from side to side by the waves as the rain lashes against the metallic hull. Despite occasions such as this, be under no illusions: this gamebook has been well and truly written for younger readers. This is made obvious not so much by the simple, straightforward style of the prose (which is admirable in its way), but by a playful, comical tone that sometimes verges on silliness. You’ll encounter key items, for example, that go by the names of ‘a thingie’, ‘a dooby’ and ‘a wotsit’, the sort of language choices that very nearly had me giving up on the adventure entirely. Then there are the goblins of Pangaria: good-natured, mischievous, accident-prone little folk who bicker amongst themselves, generally get things wrong, and are likely to have you wishing for the return of the malevolent mannikins to which you may be more accustomed. 

Overall, the tone of Crystal of Storms – with its whimsical, dream-like setting and largely benevolent, fluffy characters –  is more akin to a child-friendly video game than a Fighting Fantasy gamebook capable of taking readers of all ages to the edges of their seats. During the adventure (and in spite of the fact that a flying island has crashed into the sea), you rarely feel that anything is much at stake and may find yourself turning the pages with little more than the mildest of interest. Scattered among the plain and straightforward prose are, however, instances of mild horror that are utterly discordant given the generally innocent tone of the book. Such scenes – which are more tasteless than genuinely thrilling –  are so incongruous that they made me wonder if the author or editors had simply thrown in a handful of nastiness after realising that the gamebook needed a bit a little more, well…oomph. 

Unfortunately, the gamebook mechanics of Crystal of Storms are also rather underwhelming. There is a codeword system that reflects who you’ve met and what you’ve seen, but whether you have a codeword or not fails to create a genuinely branching narrative; instead, you’ll find yourself reading very similar paragraphs regardless of whether or not you’ve written down a particular code. Not only that, but the subsequent paths tend to immediately return to the main storyline. All in all, it’s a poor attempt to disguise what is an extremely linear and simple adventure that you will almost certainly complete on your first playthrough. In terms of the combat, some of the enemies you meet have special attacks that make fights slightly more interesting, and the climactic battle is quite enjoyable, if a little strange. But it is, on the whole, very much ‘by the numbers’, and nothing to get excited about.

To its credit, the plot of Crystal of Storms shows a nice level of planning and imaginative flair, so much so that it was the desire to find out ‘whodunnit’ that compelled me to finish the book. In many ways, a story set in Pangaria would have made a decent children’s book; what we have is just not a very good gamebook. The bottom line is that writing interactive fiction is a specialised skill that demands a familiarity with the genre. It is a unique challenge that no amount of more mainstream writing accomplishments will make any easier. In the spirit of this knowledge, I am sure that I am not the only one who would like to appeal to Scholastic to think very carefully about going with yet another celebrity author for the next installment of Fighting Fantasy. They’ve tried it twice now, and it just hasn’t worked. Instead, they should stick with gamebooks written by one of the masters, call in one of the lesser known Fighting Fantasy authors of yesteryear, or reach out to one or more of the very talented independent gamebook authors who are active today. This latter category might not have the big names (as yet) that will draw huge numbers of readers upfront, but they’ll be far more likely to deliver the sort of genuine gamebook goodness that can build a slower, steadier following of both veteran and next generation fans. But in all probability, cats (or dogs) will fly before that happens…

STORYLINE: YOU are a newly appointed member of the Sky Watch with an appetite for adventure. When the levitating island of Nimbus explodes in a surge of energy and plunges into the ocean, it falls to you to find out what’s happened and save the day. The unfolding truth of those responsible for the disaster is delivered via a decent plot that involves numerous parties and quite the conspiracy.

GAMEPLAY: With its largely uninspiring settings, creatures and equipment, Crystal of Storms fails to deliver anything better than a plodding adventure that offers almost no challenge and at times feels like a chore to complete. Its codeword system generates little in the way of a genuinely branching narrative while the first half of the story is particularly formulaic and repetitive.

PRESENTATION: Other than a few illustrations that aren’t half bad, the internal artwork lacks sophistication and production quality, while the cover is excessively cute and kitschy. To its credit, the formatting and typeface of Crystal of Storms are clean and well designed.

REPLAY VALUE: This is an extremely linear and straightforward adventure that offers little in the way of replayability. Play it once and be done!

Do you feel similarly or have a different point of view? Post your comments and let’s get a discussion going!

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: Crystal of Storms by Rhianna Pratchett”

  1. I don’t get this review. This is a fairly linear children’s book written by an accomplished game writer and you lambast it for being linear, being for children and written by a celebrity. You still expect gamebooks of 80s?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top