SEAS OF BLOOD
Reviewed by Mark Lain
Number 16 in the original series is one of only two FFs where you get to play an out-and-out baddie (along with Midnight Rogue where you’re less bad and more just vaguely shady.) It is also one of only two pirate-themed FFs ever released (the other being the many-years-in-limbo Bloodbones.) Andrew Chapman was fairly prolific in the teens era of the series, giving us #12 Space Assassin, #15 The Rings Of Kether and this effort all in very short succession. The quality of his output was sadly very inconsistent, but there was a noticeable improvement from book to book: Space Assassin was terrible, The Rings Of Kether was adequate, but Seas Of Blood was actually really good. Perhaps Chapman realised this as at this point he then stopped writing FFs for good (other than a co-writing credit in the 2-player offering Clash Of The Princes.) Incidentally, to avoid any awkward silences he didn’t die suddenly, I’ve checked J
There is much to relish in your portrayal of a pirate captain who has engaged in a wager with his rival (the colourfully named Abdul The Butcher) to decide who is king of the pirates (although that does awkwardly now remind me of Aardman’s The Pirates in An Adventure with Scientists, which could reduce this book’s credibility slightly nowadays!) You both have a limited time in which to sail around the Inland Sea, plundering, murdering and robbing to gather as much gold and slaves as possible. Whoever has the most when you reach the far end is the winner. So the premise is pretty simple really, which works well and is a nice respite from the usual FF fare of either assassinating a megalomaniac who’s threatening the world or going through some hideous experience or other to acquire untold wealth and fame. To help accentuate the difference between the individual YOU and the YOU that has a big ship and a crew, two new stats (Crew Strike ie Skill and Crew Strength ie Stamina) are introduced. New stats are always a mixed-bag but, unlike some other attempts at crews (the dismal and unnecessarily long-winded effort in Starship Traveller springs to mind), this one is well-handled. There are many skirmishes with other ships and/or bunches of people and, although most of these are fairly difficult, you do get the feeling of a tough inter-crew battle which is pretty accurate as you wouldn’t expect this to be over in three dice rolls. You also can’t escape unless you win an Attack Round (again, logical, as you’d collectively need the upper hand overall, rather than it just being YOU that’s running off.) To add a sense of urgency there is a Log feature as well where you keep track of how long you have been travelling for – another logical inclusion as you are on a schedule here! If you exceed the number of days agreed with Abdul you lose regardless (more good plot logic.) Some extra rules have been added as well to deal with time being a healer and also with strengthening your depleted crew. Capturing slaves increases your Crew Strength and you personally can regain 1 point of lost Stamina per day of travelling. Again, these are further logical inclusions and are, again, welcome.
Whilst the fairly simple plot is executed effectively, there are a few issues that seem at odds with the overall well thought-out construction:
- · Primarily, if you have been plying these seas and making a nuisance of yourself in them for years how come a) you don’t seem to know what there is anywhere and b) no-one seems to know who you are (or has everyone who ever met you ended up dead)?
- · Less jarring, but also fairly evident is that there seems to be a time dilation effect depending on which direction you go in or what verb is describing your way of moving. For example, heading one way up a river takes ages, but going the other is really fast (unless of course the current is incredibly strong in one direction, maybe?) Likewise, “speeding” towards Nippur takes twice as long as just generally going there!
- · No matter which direction you go in and how many times you zigzag across the Inland Sea, you never seem to run into Abdul and his crew. What route exactly does he take then? Is he watching where YOU go and deliberately going the other way or something? Or does he just head straight for the really rich pickings and then spend a few days R&R somewhere? It would be nice to be able to do some taunting and even plunder each other along the way as that would really add some extra urgency to the game.
- · Occasionally, there are some moments that just don’t seem to make sense, in particular an assault on a monastery where you are made to change your mind about torching it with flaming arrows only for your “over-zealous” (and presumably fairly disobedient) crew to burn it down anyway destroying all its booty in the process (or is this an admonishment for attacking a monastery?....er, which a nasty pirate wouldn’t really be bothered about in moral terms) and a Roc’s nest that seems to contain the entrance to a dungeon (that has no dead clumsy baby Rocs in it that would presumably have slid into it at some point surely?)
Given the subject matter (and the fact that pirates are presumably unwelcome in most places), the difficulty level is fairly high in this book, both in the combat/encounter sense and in the unpleasant instant deaths sense (and many of them are pretty unpleasant.) There are c.40 instant death paragraphs in this book, in other words 10% of it is trying to kill you! You are especially penalised for exploring. Given that most FF players will want to take some risks and will enjoy guessing what might be good and bad situations to get in, this book is pretty harsh on bravery. Combat-wise, you will need a very high (11 or 12 preferably) Crew Strike to stand a chance in ship-to-ship combat situations which is, unusually for the harder FFs, very suitable here as fighting other pirates and trained navies is not going to be easy (most ships encountered have Crew Strike 9 or 10.) The fact that some tough combats yield hardly any booty adds to the difficulty and the fact that you need to choose wisely before engaging other ships. There is even a point where you can literally find yourself in the middle of a warzone which is very hard to escape from and, again, this really does make sense. To add to the difficulty, the true path is very tight and exploring often gets you nowhere as many diversions are exactly that – diversions that send you on a wild goose chase up a river etc and gain you nothing. As time is of the essence this could be another deliberate feature but it does kind of take away the whole idea of an adventure. The real killer comes in a triple-wammy at the end where you need to have four winds on your side, followed by a hand-to-hand fight with a Cyclops and finally the discovery that your (seemingly) huge amount of booty gets divided in half for the final count-off with Abdul himself. In one way you can feel pretty cheated by this at the end but, on the other hand, it does show you that you need to seek out the true path and gather a vast amount of gold (800+ gps to be exact.)
Initially, it appears that you have quite a variety of routes to take, which seems interesting and varied, but multiple playing will show just how linear this adventure really is and also just how much of it is pointless diversion and red herrings (rather like House Of Hell.) This means you can learn from replaying and gradually discover the optimum route so there is lots of playability on offer here. Add to that the genuine satisfaction gained from playing a baddie, some interesting side-missions, the general fun of bataar racing (Steve Jackson would approve!) and this book’s (overall) well-designed structure, and this makes for a generally really good FF.
There is one real tour-de-force sequence in this book which is not well-written but is brilliantly designed: the battle with the Cyclops. Rather than a straight FF combat, you have to choose where to strike the Cyclops over numerous blows and there is a real skill to it, rather than just slashing with your sword/rolling the dice. This sequence covers around 30 paragraphs and is reminiscent of the car chase in Chapman’s The Rings Of Kether. Chapman seems very fond of these long set-pieces and should perhaps have been a film director instead, as his ideas and execution are better than his writing abilities.
Indeed, the only real problems with this book are peripheral rather than any faults in the game itself. Chapman’s writing is typically terse and, at times, lacking in colour and detail. The atmosphere is created more from your being a pirate and the premise of the game, rather than from the text, which is fairly barren in places. Chapman’s snappy approach worked in The Rings Of Kether as it added a hard-boiled aspect, whilst his frankly dull atmosphere-less prose in FF#12 all but ruined Space Assassin. In Seas Of Blood it just about gets away with it as your attention is elsewhere. The endings are genuine let-downs and make you wonder why you bothered turning to them – whether you win or lose you only get two sentences that amount to little more than either “You lose. Ha ha” or “You win. Hurrah.” (but actually phrased worse than that!) The other big problem is Bob Harvey’s art which I really do not like. Granted it is better here than in Talisman Of Death, having a slightly sun-drenched “bright” feel to it that adds a Treasure Island-ish effect, but it is still too “Arabian Nights” in feel and does not seem to be fantasy art. If anything, Harvey’s art looks more like semi-serious history to me that detracts from the theme of this book. The cover is far better and has real menace to it, even if a) the seas of blood themselves aren’t red and b) the hydra is nowhere near that big when you meet it. Incidentally, this and Robot Commando both have the number and Fighting Fantasy lettering in black on the cover instead of the usual white – I have no idea why!
Overall I really like this book and have played it many many times without ever getting bored of it. Its strengths carry it through and do well to overcome its odd parts and bad writing/artwork. Wizard Books haven’t re-issued any of Andrew Chapman’s FFs, but this must surely be the one that most deserves a re-issue as it is genuinely good.