Fighting Fantasy: Talisman of Death Review—Talisman of Fun
Fighting Fantasy: Talisman of Death is Laughing Jackal’s attempt to bring an ’80s fad into modern day. Fighting Fantasy wasn’t really just one ’80s pastime; it combined two in one, taking tabletop fantasy role-playing (popularized by Dungeons & Dragons) and combining it with a “Choose Your Own Adventure“-style book. Sort of like the Chipwich of gaming.
Rather than completely reinvent the gameplay, Talisman of Death sticks true to its source, literally the book itself. Most of the gameplay takes place in a virtual book that fills up the right half of the screen. You are presented with text, describing what is happening, and you are generally given a choice of options that you select with the D-pad.
These options determine basically everything in the game, where you go, who you talk to (and how you talk to them), solving puzzles, and so on. For instance, near the start, you are given a choice to walk through a forest or through the open plains. Each way has its own perils and problems you must bypass. You run into monsters and people. Do you fight? Talk? It’s all up to you, but in most cases there is a best course.
Occasionally you have to fight, and here comes a difference from the source material. In the original Fighting Fantasy books, you rolled dice as in most pen & paper RPGs. Here you have the option to use simulated dice, but there is also a more video game-ish method. Slightly, anyway. The game lays out a number of hexagonal tiles. They can be either for you or your enemy. You then pick one, and if it’s yours, you do damage to what you are fighting, while if it’s the enemy’s, you take damage. I want to say it’s somewhat like 3-Card Monte, in that if you follow the flipping carefully, you can pick correctly. But I’m not sure of it.
Either method relies on your character’s stats. It’s very simple as far as RPGs go, because you have only a few characteristics: Skill, which is how good you are with a sword; Stamina, which is basically like hit points; and Luck, which can be used to help in combat but also is used for generating random results in some encounters. For instance, if you want to sneak past something, you would make a Luck roll. You can also pick up or lose items along the way that help, like weapons and armor.
Many of the early Fighting Fantasy games were little more than dungeon crawls; that is, basically you explored a maze full of monsters, traps, and treasure. While that can be fun in a longer campaign where you see your character progress in power and loot, in one-shot adventures like these books, it can be a bit lacking. But, this is where Talisman of Death shines, as it’s not simply a dungeon crawl, but a fairly complex adventure requiring you to save the world.
There is some exploration, but it’s mostly the investigation of a city. There are quite a number of NPCs to interact with. These seem a bit cliched (especially some of their names), but bear in mind they weren’t when they were written, almost 30 years ago. All in all, though, it’s an extremely enjoyable story, and several times I was really geeking out (that’s a good thing).
The only real downside is that there are a few parts where you almost arbitrarily die, or have almost no margin for error (in particular, instances of combat where you have to defeat a monster in only 5 rounds—you can only miss once or twice). You have to start all over from scratch in most of these cases, including re-rolling your character.
Graphics and sound aren’t really relevant here, since it’s an almost literal adaptation of a book. The art is from the book, and I think part of the reason they were so popular was the top notch drawings. Still, there is actually some background music, which is nice and unobtrusive, and a few sound effects for combat.
Laughing Jackal’s adaption is solid, but not perfect. The interface can be somewhat clunky at times. You also miss out on much of the artwork from the original book. You can see it, but you have to look it up in the logbook. Part of this is just due to the nature of the PSP—its horizontal screen is basically the opposite of the original books.
Still, I think they should have simply made it so that the left side of the screen showed the art, with the text on the right half. The left-hand side is instead always used for the character sheet, which simply isn’t needed all that often. At least giving you the option to change between your character sheet and the logbook artwork for that page would have been great.
It’s also lacking a save feature. It saves your progress, sure, but deletes your character if you die. As mentioned, some of the deaths can be very cheap or frustrating, and at least in the latter, it’s very tempting to throw the PSP against a wall when you die by the narrowest of margins. That never really happened when you played the game originally as a book, because you always had the freedom to cheat a little. I might also add, the recent Amazon Kindle Fighting Fantasy adaptations by World Weaver do allow you to set waypoints you can go back to. So, I don’t think it’s too unreasonable to expect this feature.
But on the other hand, I really enjoyed the logbook feature they added, that presents information on all the NPCs and creatures you’ve met in the game, even when you’ve had to start over. It helps you remember who is what. It also doesn’t display some info, like their attitude toward you, until you actually discover it in-game. It’s also nice how it keeps track of the percentage of the entries you’ve read, and it really extends the life of the game through the objective of trying to fill it to 100%.
For people like me who grew up playing the Fighting Fantasy books, this is obviously a must-buy. If you simply enjoy fantasy role-playing games, it’s also well worth a look. If you don’t like reading, or are easily frustrated, this probably just isn’t for you.