The rise of handheld gaming is erroneously attributed by many to Nintendo’s Game Boy. Released in 1989 to a rapturous audience the Game Boy defied industry expectations and changed forever the way young people travel long distance. However, the Game Boy was not the first handheld gaming phenomenon that took kids away from the arcades and their TVs – that accolade belongs firmly to the Choose Your Own Adventure style of gamebooks. Of these, the Fighting Fantasy series stood out in terms of quality and consistency and everyone that was anyone had a cool collection of at least twenty-five of them. Well, the cooler kids did at least…
With this grand heritage in mind, along with the fact that the Fighting Fantasy series is held in high nostalgic regard by the now core market who played them as kids, it is a surprise that it took someone this long to try to move the brand onto a core gaming platform. Even though the series creators have gone on to dominate the gaming world (Steve Jackson at Lionhead Studios and Ian Livingstone at Eidos) the porting task has instead fallen to Laughing Jackal. Faced with respecting the demands of ardent fans, introducing new gamers to the IP and distributing on a machine that isn’t the best regarded of e-readers Laughing Jackal certainly didn’t pick up a simple project.
Coming in at number eleven in the original Fighting Fantasy series, Talisman of Death initially seems like a strange choice to enter the PSN market with. The first book in the series not written by one of the Steve Jacksons or Ian Livingstone it still holds a high pedigree, with its authors Jamie Thomson and Mark Smith going on to create the popular ‘Way of the Tiger’ series of books. Due to one unique feature however it is a perfect introduction to the world of Fighting Fantasy – it is the only book in the entire series that utilises a checkpoint system, with many deaths actually sending you back to one of two predetermined points rather than obliterating your character entirely. This forgiving introduction mitigates somewhat the pain that the random instant-death choices inflict on unsuspecting readers allowing those new to this world time to bed in.
That is not to say that the book is any less forgiving than you may remember. Brutally hard at times, death is only a page turn away in many cases. Jumping out at you from nowhere, you can be slaughtered by hordes of guards, stabbed in the back or simply call out the wrong name. The gamebook expects you to fail multiple times before you even make it half way through the story and the beauty of this port is that it makes it painless and even fun to do so. Instead of going back to your tattered inventory page and sighing as you rub out all of the shinies you no longer own the incidentals are now taken care of for you. You are simply asked to start again, and this time not to make the wrong choice.
The presentation of the text is nothing less than superb. Working with the PSP’s strong points Laughing Jackal have created a colour palette that is extremely easy on the eye allowing you to read the text within the book for hours without any eye-strain. For those who need a little extra boost to their eyesight there is also built in zoom functionality within which the text remains crisp and clear. Instead of being a Battle for Atluma style disaster the text within Talisman of Death is exactly as perfect as it needs to be, facilitating the adventure rather than boring into your eyes like a 3DS.
Being an exact copy of the book in terms of the text itself, the port should very much satisfy the traditionalists amongst us. However Laughing Jackal have taken the opportunity to add small pieces of complimentary functionality that enhance the now electronic play experience. While the dice rolls are still available for those who demand the fickle attention of Lady Luck those who wish to engage in small tests of skill can now do so. Combat is performed on a shifting grid of icons which flip over after a short amount of time. If your character has the upper hand in terms of skill then there are more icons on the grid that will damage your opponent, while if your enemy has more skill than you there are more icons that can damage you. This allows you to become excited about the main battles within the gamebook, giving you a real chance of victory with the slimmest odds. Testing your luck is moved away from the dice roll to a mini-game where you have to stop a rolling pebble on the correct rune; it’s all very simple, but once again it fits seamlessly with the game and acts to enhance the reader’s experience by tacitly accepting that the medium of consumption has changed.
There are few foibles with the game; as always, the inventory is hardly used and it is therefore disappointing to have it take up half of your screen all the time with the original artwork relegated to a logbook. Page turning to the left carries the same animation as turning to the right and there are a couple of minor bugs that we believe that Laughing Jackal are working on. It is more interesting to consider where Laughing Jackal can go with the franchise – after the success of the checkpoint system in this electronic form it is hard to picture anyone other than the existing fanbase wanting to play through the majority of the book only to die at the very end.
High expectations surrounded the launch of Talisman of Death and Laughing Jackal haven’t disappointed. The gamebook not only ticks the right nostalgic buttons for those of us who were around the first time they came out but still proves an entertaining play experience for those new to the genre. For the first time in years I’ve been forced to go through the game without the time honoured use of the thumb and forefinger technique and this focuses your attention on the text, allowing you to become familiar enough with it to find that ‘one true path’ so often discussed in the introductory ramble to these books. When you reach that stage and you can move through the book lightning fast with an epic hero of a character you won’t hear any kind of ding, but you can rest assured that you have just clocked up an achievement significant within the overall history of gaming.