Friday, 7 July 2017

You Just Can't Get the Psychopaths These Days

Ghost Road, the fourth and final of Ian Livingstone's Adventures of Goldhawk, is the only book in the series I didn't buy online. I have already explained how I got the first couple of books in the series, and how unimpressed I was by the first one. However, I have not previously mentioned that I disliked it enough to write a negative review for an online gamebook group (which was subsequently modified and archived here). My review prompted some discussion, in the course of which someone pointed out that the last book in the series was by far the best. Thus, when I came across a cheap copy of Ghost Road in an Oxfam bookshop while visiting relatives in Swindon, I decided to give it a chance, and bought it.

I think I bought something else - not a gamebook - at the same time, and that got my attention afterwards, so I didn't get around to playing Ghost Road until I'd failed at the three preceding adventures during my playthrough of all Fighting Fantasy and spin-offs at a long-dead forum. It ended a losing streak that was about to hit double figures, and between the good mood engendered by my victory and the loss of my write-up when the forum hosting it went to section 404, I can't say off hand whether or not I agree that the book is significantly better than its predecessors. Not as harsh, obviously, but difficulty is only one element of a gamebook. In any case, this is a fresh opportunity to find out if I actually like the book at all.

If, on my previous adventure, I'd chosen the Tombstone Bell rather than the Flashbang Powder, and had survived the assorted perils that come after the Swamp Zombie encounter that did for me, following the successful conclusion of my quest I would have received a Crystal Ball and been told that I could find my destiny by breaking it. Following a night's rest, I decide that it's time, and drop the Crystal Ball on the floor. The gas contained within it takes on the form of an old man's face and, speaking in atrocious verse even by this series' standards, tells me that to avert disaster I must go to the Tower of Ghosts and prevent Princess Jet from marrying Darkmoon.

I take this information to Marris, who explains that Princess Jet is a demi-ghost who can only take on human form at the full moon, and speculates that Darkmoon must have met her in Ghost World after I turned him into a ghost. Excuse me, mister court wizard, but I did not turn Darkmoon into a ghost. I turned him into a mouse, and he then became a ghost because Ian Livingstone thinks children don't have the critical faculties to notice when a plot development makes zero sense. Feel free to blame me for not killing him when I had the opportunity (despite having had no qualms about taking the life of the Dark Knight earlier), but don't go accusing me of things I didn't do. Or I might find myself unexpectedly busy the next time you need someone to risk his life to save your neck.

Anyway, the full moon is imminent, so I need to find a way of eliminating the 'far worse even then Darkmoon' Princess before she can get married and... Well, given the mouse/ghost nonsense, who knows what non-sequiturial transmogrification might result from Jet's becoming a bride?

Marris says he'll take me to the start of the Ghost Road, which leads via the Rainbow Bridge to the Tower of Ghosts, and advises me to use a Trapping Mirror against the Princess. He doesn't give me such a Mirror, though, or even suggest how I might get hold of one, but i suppose I should be grateful that I've been briefed on what I need rather than having to rely on some random burst of inspiration.

We travel to the start of the road by Giant Eagle, accompanied by Orlando the Tin Pig and Edge the talking sword. They bicker along the way, and even the book starts making false assertions about me, making out that I enjoy their tedious shenanigans. We land on a grassy plain, and Marris indicates a strip of grass that's a little lighter than the surrounding vegetation. He warns me to return by dawn if I don't want to become a ghost myself, and sets off back to Karazan Castle.

As I step onto the discoloured grass, ethereal voices call my name and the sky turns red. It's almost atmospheric. After a few paces, the grass withers, revealing a cobbled road. A masked figure in a black cloak advances along it towards us and demands to know my identity and business. The book gives me the option of answering truthfully (except for the bit where I give the name of the comatose Prince I've been impersonating all series) or making up a name and claiming to be a wedding guest. I say that I'm the King of Karazan, and an enemy of the Princess, and the cloaked figure assumes that I'm joking, and am actually a bad lot by the name of Tinto.

The masked entity mistakes Edge for the legendary Sword of Serpents (and my sword has the sense to keep from complaining about the misidentification) and asks me to hand the weapon over. Thinking about Edge's interminable squabbling with Orlando, I'm tempted to do as requested, but can only choose between attacking the figure or claiming that I must keep the sword with me as it's a wedding present. Getting into a fight here, while not game-endingly bad, is not a good idea, so I say the sword is a gift for the nearly-weds. The being in the cloak expresses disappointment that I didn't bring him a present, too, and asks to see my invitation. I say that I've lost it, and he offers to sell me a replacement for half my gold. Yes, even supernatural villains' nuptials can attract scalpers. I hand over the money rather than risk a more physical form of scalping, and continue on my way.

A side turning catches my attention, and I head down it to a forest clearing. A grotesque man in black rags sits on a branch, surrounded by crows, and asks why I'm here. I observe that the vines hanging from the trees seem partly material and partly spectral, and grab a couple. This displeases the man, and his crows attack me, pecking away a point of Skill before I'm able to flee back to the main Ghost Road.

Ghostly voices threaten me with unpleasant fates as I continue along my way. At a crossroads we encounter a Gnome on a rock. He looks west, and smashing sounds are audible from the north. For no good reason I tell the Gnome that I'm going to the wedding, and he says nothing but somehow indicates that I should say more. As honesty worked well during my first encounter, I clarify that I intend to be the 'just cause or impediment', and the Gnome practically high-fives me. He explains that he's here to guide everyone who'll be fleeing the arrival of the Tower, and tells me a rhyme he was taught by local inventor Professor Graymane. It's prophetic in nature, and implies that I'll be able to find the Mirror I seek to the south of Misery. The Gnome also mentions counting the bite-marks on an Ogre's bone from the Ghoulfields, and suggests that the cause of the noises to the north may be a malfunctioning invention of the Professor's.

West is probably the way to the Tower, then, but resolving the situation in the north is the sort of tangential mission that could turn up something essential, so I make the detour. The path leads into another forested area, and I see that some of the trees have been uprooted. My companions get annoying again, and I press on until I get to the remains of a hut, erratically patrolled by the out-of-control mechanical humanoid that has wrought the damage.

As the Brass Man lurches towards me, I catch sight of what could be a control box set into its chest, and risk getting close enough to try and operate the levers. A Skill roll is required to find the off-switch, but the damage I took from the crows isn't quite enough to have reduced my mechanical aptitude to an unhelpful level. I deactivate the rampaging automaton, and extract the control box on the off-chance that it will be compatible with any other mechanical threats that might come my way.
Searching the wreckage of the hut, I find some money and a flask of Ghoulbane. Orlando makes a vaguely amusing faux pas regarding the relative edibility of humans and Tin Pigs, and we return to the crossroads and head west.

Before long we encounter several caravans of travellers heading our way. Russ Nicholson still hasn't got the memo about Karazan having no horses, as such creatures are depicted pulling the caravans. Even if one were to speculate that these people might have been drawn into this realm from another world, there's still the problem that Orlando's questions about the travellers don't include anything about the unknown (to him) beasts that draw the caravans and (knowing his timorous nature) how likely it is that they might feed on tin.

Bizarre aspects of this encounter:
  1. The book asks if I have blue ears.
  2. Mild sexual tension. Which is only odd because of the context. To my recollection, there's not been a hint of that in any preceding Fighting Fantasy adventure, and now here it is in one of the books specifically targeted at younger readers.
Regrettably stereotypical aspects of this encounter:
  1. The travellers try to sell me stuff. Not lucky heather or clothespegs, at least, but still...
Before moving along, I buy some clothes and a statue of a Night Elf. If I didn't have those vines, I might have gone for a Ghost Rope instead of the statue.

Further to the west, the road passes an odd-looking house surrounded by a wall. The gates are guarded by a Pixie who's playing with a clockwork soldier. He states that the house belongs to Professor Graymane, mentions that the Professor constructed the Ghost Tower's clockwork statues, and implies an interest in turning Orlando into scrap metal for the Professor to use. When I ask if the Professor is at home, the Pixie tells us to go away, so I decide to see if he's susceptible to bribery. He is, and will accept either 3 Gold Pieces or a bag of clothes. Now I remember that on my previous playthrough of this book I noted that I'd have been better off not buying the clothes, as they cost more than 3 Gold, but where was that memory when I was thinking 'I'm pretty sure there's an encounter where those clothes come in handy'?

I hand over the clothes, and the Pixie lets us in. The front door leads straight into a laboratory, in which the Professor is tinkering with another toy soldier. He's not happy at being interrupted, but when I express an interest in the work he did at the Ghost Tower, the focus of his annoyance changes, as Darkmoon never paid him for it. I mention that I'm planning to upset Darkmoon by thwarting his wedding plans, and the Professor starts talking about wanting money again. I distract him with the control box from the Brass Man, and in return for it he gives me a brass watch that slows down time, a bottle of Memory Juice, and a hint that name-dropping him should enable me to get a lift from one of his other inventions further down the road. He also tells me a little about the Trapping Mirror, explaining that Darkmoon had it buried in the Ghoulfields because he couldn't destroy it.

Leaving him to his work, I return to the road, and we head west again. It starts getting dark, and several metal pigs on wheels trundle our way, prompting another tedious spat between my companions. I tell the Roadhogs (sigh!) that the Professor sent me, and they carry us along the road at great speed. A ghost in a shroud attempts to intercept us, but we're moving too quickly for her.

At last we are dropped off on the outskirts of a village. A sign indicates that the place is called Misery, with a population of 32, all of whom are dead and far from pleased about it. The resident ghosts are all victims of Darkmoon, but they're too busy bewailing their lot to assist me in opposing him. Still, the bone mentioned by the Gnome is not hard to find. 

Somehow, paying attention to the bone allows me to discover that the wall at the end of a nearby alley is an illusion. I walk through it, finding myself on a road paved with tombstones. A pack of Ghouls approaches, and I throw the Ghoulbane in their faces. It weakens them, but some still attack. I manage to drive them off with Edge, but without the Skill bonus I got for having used the Ghoulbane, I'd now be on the menu.

The Ghouls were guarding a tomb. Looking inside, I find that either the Professor was misinformed or Darkmoon's idea of 'buried' is 'in plain sight on top of a stone coffin'. Regardless, I grab the Mirror and rush back to the Ghost Road.

The night is wearing on, the Tower must have appeared by now, and we're still not there. A flock of Vampire Bats swoops to the attack and, not possessing a Bat Lantern (I guess we missed an encounter with Commissioner Gordon), I must either attack or flee. This is the sort of situation where fighting is unlikely to help, so I run for it.

As I dash away, I notice another side-trail. Now, the text has only recently reminded me that time is running out, so when a diversion like this shows up, what do you think I should do? If you answered 'ignore the distraction and stay on the Ghost Road' (or words to that effect), you fail Basic Livingstone. I don't want to think about what the resits entail.

The side path leads to an encounter with notorious thief Razorhead, a club-wielding thug who can move at incredible speed because of the aerodynamic properties of his Mohican haircut. With the watch the Professor gave me I am able to match Razorhead's speed, and then the book makes me attempt to bribe him with the statue I bought from the travellers. This item terrifies him so much that he gives me all his money and departs. On the Ghost Road, everything is fine.

At last I sight the Tower. Assorted supernatural entities are still heading into it, suggesting that the ceremony has yet to commence. Orlando suggests we try and get a lift on the wagon which is coming up the road behind us, laden with gifts, some of them the sort of disgusting delicacy that would amuse the book's target audience. Judging by the mention of a headless horseman driving the wagon, even Ian Livingstone has forgotten about the 'no horses' thing by now.

As the wagon overtakes us, I leap onto the back of it and hang on. I then try to grab one of the wedding presents, but fail the Skill roll required, and lose my grip. We'll have to complete the journey on foot.

The Rainbow Bridge is guarded by a Ghost Giant who wears magical armour and wields a scythe. I don't like the idea of fighting him, so I seek an alternate approach, and the only thing that will work is to use a Ghost Vine. That immobilises the Giant, but I'm not able to retrieve the Vine. Good thing I got two of them, because I know I'll need one for the endgame.

Inside the Tower, I see a gathering of the undead and the monstrous, enjoying a banquet of repulsive dishes. A rat-faced usher, flanked by a pair of heavily armoured skeletons, asks to see my invitation. I hand it over, and rat-face asks for my gift. Regrettably, only one item will satisfy him, and that's the one I failed to grab while hanging on to the wagon. As I don't have it, he sets the skeletons on me, and this is one fight I have no chance of winning.

This is pretty much the only book in the series in which there's more than one viable route to success, so replaying it (a long way down the line) is not as unappealing a prospect as, for example, retracing my footsteps through The Demon Spider. Nevertheless, I'm not exactly enthusiastic about it.

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