A publisher, a license holder, and a developer all working together on a single video game is a fairly common, and safe, strategy for everyone involved. Usually licenses, like those of blockbuster films or best selling comics, are an already proven franchise, so in turn the subsequent licensed video game has a much greater chance of doing well for itself. At first glance it would seem as though publisher Aspyr Media and developer Big Blue Bubble are testing the formula, but with successful book franchises, starting with the immensely successful Fighting Fantasy book series. However, rather than taking the easy road, developer Big Blue Bubble has chosen the road less travelled, putting game design as their top priority with this year's Fighting Fantasy: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain for the Nintendo DS.
The Fighting Fantasy books are choose-your-own-adventure style books, where-in readers choose the course of the story frequently throughout the book by way of choices. Fighting Fantasy: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was the first book in the series, and in translating its engaging style to the Nintendo DS, developer Big Blue Bubble, wisely chose to make the game an RPG. In Western RPG style, Fighting Fantasy plays in a first-person perspective, with the 3D gameplay taking place on the DS' upper screen, and 2D menus and additional controls on the lower.
The game opens in the village of Stonebridge, a settlement near the foot of Firetop Mountain. It's far from modern day, as players arrive on a row boat after answering a series of situational questions that seemingly construct the player-character's past. Players' answers determine what class they best fit into based on the personality traits they display, however there is room for customization if players choose to do so.
Zagor, the fabled warlock of Firetop Mountain, is rumoured to have riches beyond any man's imagination, riches that players set out to claim as their own. Fighting Fantasy's story line does feature a few characters, but none are recurring staples within the story aside from Zagor, and the player-character. As much as characters and character development are traditional cornerstones to a well written story, the game almost entirely leaves both out of the picture, at least in the traditional sense.
Character development is placed in the hands of the player, and it's surprisingly effective. Whereas other Western RPGs leave players to their own devices in a massive open world - often time alienating all gamers that enjoy at least a bit of linearity - Fighting Fantasy plays to the best of both worlds. The game takes place in the sprawling innards of Firetop Mountain, and as players focus on their quest to face off with Zagor they're basically given a lot of wiggle room to toy with and make their-own, without losing interest in their overall goal. The glue between the pieces is the excellent, yet concise writing. Choices aren't blatantly good vs. evil, but a variety of more personality-based choices.A few of the classes players start out as include a Sorcerer, Warrior, and Archer. However, players aren't nailed down to a single class at any point. The classes at the beginning nearly dole out emphasis to different areas of stats, so Sorcerers will have high Intellect, while Warriors have high Stamina, and Archers have high Skill. Intellect, Stamina and Skill are the three key stats that determine how strong physical and magic attacks players are, as well as what weapons, armor, and accessories they can equip. As players defeat enemies they gain experience and level up, and with each level up they are given extra stat and ability points to improve themselves with as they choose. Abilities include different areas of magic, higher effectiveness with different weapons, and combat enhancing skills. As Abilities are given more points they improve, become more powerful, and develop.
Instead of simply being a dumbed down or simplified version of a typically complex Western RPG character growth system, it's a breath of fresh air for once. It's effective, and serves as much purpose as it needs to, without consuming a huge amount of time and trial-and-error. It's not that growth systems are inherently the boring part of Western RPGs, it's the many times they're off-putting for new players. Fighting Fantasy's system looks as though it really got some good thought put into it to cater to the expectations of the genre-hardcore, while still being an engaging part of the game for newcomers.
With all that in mind, stepping out into the world of Fighting Fantasy is a sight to behold. The game runs at an astounding 60 frames-per-second, runs in full 3D, and the attention to detail in the graphics, especially for a DS title, is quite impressive. Using the stylus to control the camera, R1 or L1 (depending on players' writing hand) to attack, and the directional buttons to move about, the whole gameplay experience can simply be described as fluid. Feel like putting it to the test by basically scribbling on the touchscreen? Go for it, Fighting Fantasy can handle whipping the camera around in a pinch, and it feels fantastic. Being mostly on the inside of a mountain one might predict sight-seeing would be fairly limited, and environments would get pretty repetitive, but again the overall attention to detail is continuous with unique environments and level design.
Players are free to run around Firetop Mountain as they please, with new areas usually being unlocked after progressing through a comfortable amount of quests to eventually gain the key to each new area. Linearity in the level design is combated by many alternate paths, and continuous discovery of new secret passages and short cuts. Even when a quest calls for back tracking and crisscrossing the map, it's not much of a pain. Toward the beginning of the game players are likely to do this, but end up being killed in the process. Firetop Mountain has quite the population and variety of deadly monsters, and as curiosity killed the cat, it kills players.
Fighting Fantasy isn't free of faults. Dying constantly simply due to curiosity gets quite annoying. Luckily this mostly occurs only at the beginning of the game, as once players get some muscle on their bones, and armor on top of that, dying mostly comes from taking on difficult challenges, and not simply curiosity. It's a fault no-less as players with short attention spans may very well quit in frustration. Sound design is also puzzling in Fighting Fantasy, over the course of the game it goes from hit-and-miss, to repetitive, to almost devoid from the entire experience. Atmospheric sounds are top notch, and add so much to the breathtaking views of inner mountain gorges and caverns. Sound effects clang and creek nicely, but many by the end of the game feel overused. Some are outright annoying too, like advancing rats at the beginning, or the groans of certain enemies when hit.
In terms of music, there pretty much isn't any. So much could have been added to the game with even a conservative amount of music in a movie-like fashion, yet music is limited to basically the beginning and ending of the game. Sound adds a lot to the experience, but with no music, it brings it down a notch. The other main fault is at times the game suffers from slow downs when there is upwards of six enemies attacking at once. Enemies are intricately designed animated 2D illustrations, and to see six of them attacking a player as they struggle to stay alive inside a massive chamber simply chokes the DS, but it's not all that surprising when this occurs considering just how much the game is trying to show on the screen.
Gameplay overall is addictive, and works great. Combat is challenging, yet as slow or fast as players want it to be. The art design and graphics are excellent, and the growth system is a relief to experience. Of the five key parts of Fighting Fantasy - Story, Gameplay, Growth System, Graphics, and Sound - it nails the first four so well, and works them together near seamlessly. It's a shame the sound design didn't get as much love, but considering the rest of the game looks to have received so much care during development, it doesn't damage the overall experience that much. Fighting Fantasy is an all-around solid game, and a title many DS games could learn from.