“Only a foolhardy adventurer would embark upon such a perilous quest without first finding out as much as possible about the mountain and its treasures.”
Thus begins the 1982 The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. by Steve Jackson (yes, that Steve Jackson) and Ian Livingstone. It was the first in a long-running series of “Fighting Fantasy” novels, where players used a rudimentary skill and dice combat system to battle their way through the pages of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style book. For someone who cut their teeth on Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, the discovery of a more in-depth version was revelatory. I recently had a chance to dust off an old copy of Firetop Mountain, grab a couple of my favorite dice, and delve into the mountain. After several hours, a run-in with a Minotaur, and a close call with a sand worm, I shut the book in frustration, my Stamina low and my character hopelessly lost in the Maze of Zagor. There’s one thing to be said about low-tech entertainment from the 80s…it didn’t have an easy mode.
That’s why I went in with a fair bit of trepidation to the lovingly rendered The Warlock of Firetop Mountain by Tin Man Games. They’ve taken the book and faithfully translated it into a 3-dimensional dungeon delve, full of monsters, wizards, dungeons, and, yes, dragons. What they’ve also done is built up a unique character system that encourages you to play multiple times, unlocking different experiences as you go.
The second you click New Game, there’s no doubt of the game’s pedigree – rather than sweeping music and fancy video intros, you are met with what looks like a page torn from an old Fighting Fantasy paperback, featuring new artwork from Firetop Mountain’s original artist, Russ Nicholson. It’s nostalgia distilled into its finest form. But instead of grabbing a couple of dice and rolling up a character, you have to choose from four starting figurines, each with very different quest objectives. Some seek glory, some seek revenge, others look for power that the mountain’s denizen’s hold. Each character has a variety of skills, some that give you passive bonuses, like being able to spot rock grubs before they leap out and take your head off, others are combat-based and will come in handy when facing off with the mountain’s creatures. Which character you choose can even effect what choices you get to make in the game. Some are headstrong and will dive into every fight, others will let their cunning guide them ever deeper into the mountain.
Whoever you choose, you’ll soon find yourself in a clearing, facing a very familiar looking mountain…
But once inside, you’ll find that things are much different than when you left them between the pages decades ago.
Much of the story is still the same. You’ll quickly encounter sleeping or drunken guards. There are still boxes of snakes to avoid. But the isometric tabletop game view sometimes provides visual clues as to what’s coming next. That passage up ahead with the spiderwebs strewn all over? Likely that Firetop Spiders are there, ready to entomb you and feed you to their young. That guard figurine in the next chamber over? That’s not for show, you’ll need to figure out if you want to sneak past him or fight.
And once you are in combat, you’ll find that things are much more in depth than rolling dice for you and the monster. Your character has powers, and so to do the creatures you’ll encounter. Some will poison you, some will trap you. All have their own patterns of movement and attack that you’ll need to learn so that you can time when to hit them. Combat is turn based, so each round you’ll decide whether to move or attack a space. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the monsters unaware and get a free hit. Attack at the same time and you’ll clash, with you and your opponent rolling dice (automatically) to see who comes out on top. The winner chips off a bit of the other’s stamina. Lose enough stamina, and the mountain will have claimed another victim.
Luckily, there are save points throughout the game, benches where you can eat provisions and regain stamina (just like in the original book). You’ll need them. Combat can be unforgiving if you don’t learn enemy patterns; but that’s not the only way to meet your end. There are hungry doors and spider broods lurking in the corners of the mountain that are waiting for you to blunder into them. If you wander blindly into such a situation, there’s no combat or dice roll, it’s simply Game Over and your only choice is to load your last save or try again with a new character.
Speaking of, since each character provides a slightly different story, it’s natural that replayability would be tied to new characters. Each time you are successful in combat, you gather souls. These, in turn, can be used to unlock new characters, each with a gorgeously rendered figurine. There are achievements to be found as well, some by making sound choices…most by making questionable ones.
The entire game is visually engaging. The style brings to mind the best tabletop miniature RPGs, like Descent, but with fully developed environments (that drop into place as you choose a path, as if the GM were revealing them, a very nice touch). Even without the pages of original text, this would be a fun game. But with the original Mountain text popping up as you make your choices, there is a level of engagement and detail that goes beyond the standard digital tabletop game.
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is a game all about choices, often irreversible ones. But if you need that old school feeling of being able to skip ahead or flip between sections to see if you’re making the right choice, there is a Free Read mode. You don’t collect souls for new characters, and the game will natter at you quite a bit before letting you choose it; but it’s a great way to recon a bit.
If you’re a fan of fantasy roleplaying, tabletop games, or choose-your-own-adventure stories, you will love The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. It’s nostalgic, but updated sufficiently so that it will appeal to those who have no background with the old Fighting Fantasy series. The puzzles and stories are engaging, the combat is fun, and you’ll find yourself playing far longer than you intended as you choose “just one more” junction to find what waits around the next turn. You can get The Warlock of Firetop Mountain on Steam for PC and Mac, with Linux and mobile platforms coming later this year.
Tin Man Games provided a copy of the digital game for this review. Opinions are my own.