Climbing the Mound of Dead Adventurers to the Summit of Firetop Mountain

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How sweet the noble calling of adventure must be for any place to be turned into such a veritable death-trap as Firetop Mountain. Far be it from the Warlock of the peak to notice the lemmings his mazes and minions attract, for he rarely gets the chance to meet them. As it was in the book, so it is in the game, and ever onward do the adventurous dead struggle as one mind until one of their number breaks through.

Wait, we’re making it sound like it’s a bad thing to clamber over the warm, discarded corpses of mindless puppets. It’s not. Well, not always. In any case, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain has been converted to digital media for a while now, so it’s about time we took a look to tell you what’s what.

Unfortunately, the very first thing that strikes you upon launching the game (a process which can be temperamental in itself, requiring a toggle to the desktop and back to get the screen to show anything) is the unresponsive control system. Firetop Mountain has very much the look and feel of a game designed for tablets and mobile devices This would be fine if its PC variant had been adapted from that interface, but it has not. The cursor moves at a sluggish crawl across the screen, giving every interaction a sense of delay or lag. The buttons can take a few attempts to hit and dice rolls in particular can be difficult to get started. (This may only happen at high graphics settings, even on suitable computers).

You’d think that the orcs would replace their guard with someone less sleepy given the number of adventurers who slip past.
You’d think that the orcs would replace their guard with someone less sleepy given the number of adventurers who slip past.

In any case, once you’ve managed to hit the ‘New Game’ button and been given a brief introduction by Keeper of Souls Ophelia, you’re presented with the character select screen. Here you can choose from a number of figurines, arranged in a handful of groups. The first group has all figurines unlocked and ready to play, but subsequent figurines are greyed out and must be unlocked by spending souls, which are accumulated when killing enemies in the mountain. One final group is available as a DLC, granted free — if somewhat delayed — to Kickstarter backers.

There are three modes you can play in, which roughly equate to three difficulty levels. Free play is easy, but not accessible via the usual menus. It lets you skip any fight and worry less about the choices you make, but does not (understandably) reward any souls. The normal mode is what could be considered default, with a running story and normal level of difficulty. The Gauntlet, which is the hardest mode, increases the difficulty of all combat and removes the majority of text for a faster dungeon-crawl experience, rewarding more souls to boot.

It should be noted that character selection is more than just a cosmetic choice, with each possessing unique attacks and different stats, as well as their own backstory and personal quest. This quest forms the first part of your foray into the mountain, and you arrive with your personal objective in the forefront of your mind.

Elves have delicate stomachs. Nifty combat abilities aside, it might be wise to avoid the smell of orcish cooking.
Elves have delicate stomachs. Nifty combat abilities aside, it might be wise to avoid the smell of orcish cooking.

As you travel through the mountain, its tunnels and rooms fall into place around you from above, revealing the path forward. Upon that path, you’ll stop at intersections and places of note to be given your next choice. To fight, to flee, to ask questions or confuse some hapless skeletons — the choice is yours. Some choices will leave you with lower stamina (health), though, so choose wisely. You may regain some of that stamina and save your accumulated souls at resting points scattered around the map; provisions will restore the same amount of health, but your initial supplies are limited.

One of the problems associated with Fighting Fantasy digitisations and remakes is an over-reliance on randomness. While it is true that combat in the original gamebooks rested solely on throws of the dice, some argued that a more skill-based, less frustrating system would be better utilised in a videogame environment. Firetop Mountain has delivered exceptionally well here, with a turn-based combat system which still has chance at its core, but grants victory to strategic thinking. It’s easier, but in a way that makes you work for it.

To give a short overview, your figurine spawns in an area-specific tiled map. You always move first, which is nice. Each turn, you and the enemies (you share turns) can either move one space (not diagonally) or make an attack. Depending on your size, moving can shove enemies or see you shoved out of the way. Each character has different attacks, dealing different amounts and types of damage to different areas of the map. It’s simple and concise, and works well within the Fighting Fantasy wrapper. The only real issue is that, although enemies are meant to indicate their next action by movement or direction, the directional indication does not appear to be consistent throughout the game. Some face the way they move, others always face toward you, but move to the side.

You came to this mountain looking for melange, right? Wait, wrong book.
You came to this mountain looking for melange, right? Wait, wrong book.

In the course of your travels you can acquire several items, some of which are more useful than others. As with the books, the idea is that you can work out where to go — and what items to use — from your repeated deaths. Death is a lesser concern here, as resting spots serve as checkpoints you can go back to thrice before having to restart completely. It’s a good tack to take compared to other games where you restart every time, or have access to fewer ‘bookmarks’. It takes a while to reload after you die, though, and — at the moment — it’s advisable not to double or re-click the resurrection option, as doing so will consume two resurrection stones rather than one.

Aside from stamina, your stats are skill and luck. The former controls who wins clashes, where you and an enemy attack each other on the same turn, while both skill and luck are used for rolls outside combat, which can still lead to your untimely death.

You may want to resurrect when that happens, but an additional point to take into consideration is how far you have travelled since the last checkpoint. You lose every soul you’ve collected since, so with every death you’ll have to weigh how much you want to unlock the next adventurer against how much you want to carry on. It’s a good mechanic, and the process of unlocking characters isn’t too great a grind.

The simple fact that characters have their own initial quests makes Firetop Mountain at once more replayable than many other adaptations. The story changes and, whilst it will repeat and you won’t always pay attention to it, it remains a fun experience. There are very few instances that end in permadeath, and perhaps the only locations that do so are quest locations for specific characters. The only issues with the story are the occasional spelling or grammar error and the somewhat infrequent tendency for some longer pieces of text to be cut off mid-sentence.

If nothing else, Firetop Mountain delivers a range of humourous actions and related achievements.
If nothing else, Firetop Mountain delivers a range of humourous actions and related achievements.

Firetop Mountain follows a tabletop-inspired design, with scenic set pieces giving way to gridded combat areas, both of which are populated by the virtual miniatures of your character and the NPCs. It features an odd style: low-poly artwork that gives the impression it’s trying to be something more. The end result is textures that seem just a little bit blurry, enough that you want to squint to check, but can’t quite tell. The painted models can seem to lack detail, despite being scanned from physical miniatures and fine when zoomed in. It’s possible that this is down to some atmospheric effect when they’re in play, but that’s not clear. If it is, though, it may be the same effect that kills the framerate at the highest graphics settings.

Graphical grumbling aside (at least it was bound to beat its ZX Spectrum predecessor), Firetop Mountain is a great adaptation of the gamebook, achieving the perfect balance between original mechanics and more replayable, less frustrating, more skill-based alternatives. With each character having their own quest, there’s a good amount of content to dig into for the price.

Interested in Fighting Fantasy games? Take a look at our Fighting Fantasy Legends review.

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