Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone’s The Warlock of Firetop Mountain from Tin Man Games
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone was the very first Choose Your Own Adventure-style book with added die-roll combat and character stats under the Fighting Fantasy line, which went on to spawn dozens of titles over a quarter century.
If I could have told the 12-year-old version of me – who rode the subway carrying a paperback, a pair of six-sided dice and a pencil with a good eraser – that one day I could play an isometric, animated, auto-calculated version of this now-classic RPG adventure from one of the true storytelling masters of the genre, I would have eaten my own school uniform tie and called it a day.
I ascend through the miniature diorama as though through a childhood fever dream – my Lego castle come to life. The sounds are rich, ominous and rife with composed music from a medieval dimension just off-axis with our own. Short bursts of floral text offer me pathways forward. I must ensure that I do not overestimate my prowess at every turn, as a simple click of the mouse – a roll of the digital dice – could spell certain doom.
One For The Books, From The Book
Unlike the more literal iOS versions of the Fighting Fantasy or Sorcery! games by Inkle and even Australian developers Tin Man Games who are the devs on this title – which are excellent, by the way – this project features full-color animated sets and avatars that emulate what a paper and dice and tabletop miniatures version might look like. All the locations are lifted directly out of the original illustrations from the book and extrapolated as 3D models. As you enter new areas, the set pieces drop down around you like in SuperGiant Games‘ Bastion. The creators were clearly very meticulous in their faithfulness to the original art style.
Combat is a sort of roshambo – which Tin Man calls the GridBluff system; you choose your next move on a small grid, and so does the AI. Your move or attack is locked in, and then all players move at once. Two enemies may even knock into each other if they chose the same target box to move to. The game refers to this as a “shove.”
Though at first I found the combat to be getting in the way of my enjoyment of the writing, I actually warmed to it over time, as it added a level of unpredictability to the outcome and yes, some sense of strategy and careful observation actually made a difference, since there is little else you can do, once engaged in combat, to change your stats or gear. I must say I sort of relish these tight constraints – it forced me to focus in closer.
I tried to fight a bunch of nasty slime worms at one pass and they did me in. I had already used up my two rez stones, and the game was over. That’s it? I had come all this way, only to fall at the hands of a pithy mob of creeping mozzies? The fact is, yes, I was another naive adventurer who fell to the mysterious powers within Firetop Mountain. I couldn’t believe there was no take-backs – no way to resume my progress. So Roguelike!
Defeating enemies earns you Souls that can eventually be redeemed toward unlocking new characters, of which there are many. Before unlocked they appear as stock, unpainted figurines, but once unlocked their respective stats and colorful sheen is revealed. I will say, that going back into the mountain with every character can feel quite redundant, as you will follow the same map and encounter the same bad guys.
This is mitigated though, by unique backstories and motivations in the text for each new character that you play. I would love to have seen some procedurally generated levels to truly make the most of the many characters your can deploy on this treacherous mission, but given that this is following the original authors’ structure, I don’t think it would have made sense here.
Bard Rock Cafe
I haven’t yet touched on the element of sound in this game, which is absolutely superb. Far beyond a traditional Orchestral MIDI score, there appears to be a complete Orcish language that has been crafted and then vocally performed Lord of the Rings style. Chains rattle, stalactites drip, figurines tap, strings swell – all very evocative and working in beautiful counterpoint to the otherwise diminutive graphical approach.
I asked Tin Man for the audio design and score credits and they replied “Sound was done by a range of people. The main pieces were done by Battlebards composers (special deal just for us), Audioblocks and a freelance composer named Wylie Burge.” Now that makes sense. By the way, fellow Game Masters, if you aren’t yet savvy – Battlebards – is an awesome set of services and tools if you want a soundboard for your tabletop meetups. (Not a paid statement).
A Tin Man With Heart
Everything about this port feels good and it is an immersive joy to play, all told. I highly recommend it for fans of the IP or the genre.
Watch the official trailer for The Warlock of Firetop Mountain below: