At a glance...

Reviewer Platform Publisher Developer Players
Ed Moffatt PSP Laughing Jackel Laughing Jackel 1
Requirements Also on...
None. PS3 (minis)

Fighting Fantasy: Talisman of Death review

Talisman of Death is a video game adaptation of one of the books in the extensive "Fighting Fantasy" back catalog. I used to read a lot of these books during my childhood, but for those who missed the choose-your-own adventure craze (perhaps you were playing sports or something), a brief description is in order. These books presented a non-linear story, where the path would be selected at various points either by the reader picking from a set of options, or by something random like a dice roll or coin toss: "If you attack the sleeping troll, turn to page 77; if you attempt to steal its cheese without waking it, turn to page 12".

"Fighting Fantasy" was probably the best-known franchise of choose-your-own adventures, and also one of the more rule-heavy, because you actually had stats and battles and everything else, and were supposed to note down the contents of your inventory on a sheet of paper, plus sketch out a map as you went along. The PlayStation Mini that is the subject of this review (in case you thought I'd forgotten and just gone off on one about books from my childhood) is the most basic software interpretation of the choose-your-own adventure format that you could imagine. You literally have a software copy of the book, read each page, and make decisions at the bottom of the page. Surely then it can't go far wrong? Well, actually, it can - sticking with the most simplistic approach possible has led to things that were minor annoyances with the books growing into great big ogre-sized annoyances in the PS Mini version!

It's like a book you can take on the go. Wait.

It's like a book you can take on the go. Wait.

Your nameless protagonist in ToD has three stats: values are assigned to Skill, Stamina and Luck via a sort of randomised tarot-card flip. Skill affects your ability to do well in battle; Stamina reflects how long you can put up with doing badly in battle (your Hit Points basically); Luck can be used to dodge, score critical hits, or blag your way past something bad in the story. Now in something with more rules, like D&D, there's a reason for having a character who's weak at combat - you can make them good at other things, and play them differently. ToD, on the other hand, only has one play style: you must be a righteous hero who smites everything with his sword of justice. For this reason, having variable stats is ridiculous: if you have a low Skill stat, this basically means you will die in battle. There's no chance to avoid the battle by cunningly playing to your strengths, so it can only be a disadvantage to have lower stats. Furthermore, it doesn't make the game any more challenging, it just means that you have a higher chance of randomly dying and having to start again. So you get 3 randomised stats which, after you realise how the mechanics work, you just constantly re-roll until you get the highest possible Skill score, and then move on...

The game allows you to select from two types of battle mechanic. Either you acknowledge that it's all random and let it show you some animated dice tumbling onto the table, or you play an odd little tile-flipping game that apparently rewards you for being observant; apparently my eyes are broken though, as I basically found that method to also be just random. I played with dice enabled, but came to regret it, due to some very silly coding on the part of the game's developers. I shall explain; in a conflict, the combatants roll in turn, and whoever has the highest total from SKILL + DICE_ROLL wins and does damage (if it's a draw, nothing happens that round). Due to having made sure your Skill stat is good at the start of the game, and having learnt where all the items that boost it can be found (from previous playthroughs), an opponent will frequently roll such that their SKILL + DICE_ROLL is less than your base skill. At this point, you still have to watch the slow dice-roll animation to confirm that you have won. Sound like a minor annoyance? Well, after playing through the game a few times, it soon becomes intensely frustrating!

The dice rolling is rather slow

The dice rolling is rather slow

I played ToD on the PSP, which I think is the sensible choice. A bit of screen real-estate is wasted with a dodgy rendered pestle and mortar creeping into shot on the left (for no discernible reason), but you have the option to zoom in on the text, and it's easy to read in any case. It also meant I could dip in and play it on a train, whilst lying in bed, or even in the bath (yes, I actually did this, and yes I know it's a bit stupid to take your PSP in the bath; I figure if it falls in, that justifies me getting a Vita). The annoyance of watching battles that you will inevitably win play out excruciatingly slowly would be even worse if I was forced to be sitting in my lounge in front of the PS3 the whole time.

The story in ToD is OK; it's standard fantasy fare, but quite fun. Before the mechanics start to enrage you, multiple playthroughs seem appealing, trying things out to see what will change if you take a certain path. Annoyingly though, once you get everything right and just need to make one different decision near the end, the game has a habit of killing you and making you start from the beginning again.

You can't cheat in this version, unfortunately

You can't cheat in this version, unfortunately

At this point, I have a horrible, shameful confession to make... Sometimes, just sometimes, when playing Fighting Fantasy books... If I rolled badly and lost a battle... I would just pretend I'd won and move on with the story instead of diligently turning back to page 1 and re-rolling my character.
I know, I know, I'm a monster! I would also sometimes hold on to the page I was turning from, in case my decision turned out to end in death, at which point I would go back and try the other option. And that, in a nutshell, is the main problem with ToD as a PSP game; if you make a wrong decision, the game will force you to restart, with no option to save before big decisions either. If you lose a battle, you aren't allowed to pretend you won and just continue the story, you have to die. Seriously, if I know that fighting and killing a monster is the right choice to make, why would I want to have the possibility of dying so that I just have to do the same thing over and over again until random chance smiles upon me and lets me roll well enough to win?

This is almost the end of my list of gripes about ToD. It's probably good that there were so many flaws, otherwise this would have been a very brief review! We're not quite done yet, though. I didn't like the fact that the game gives you choices that would make your character a bit evil (which I can never resist!), but then immediately punishes you (often with insta-death) for selecting anything but the goody-two-shoes option. Ugh. And last but not least, the game is insanely buggy. After my first playthrough, a random save file appeared which, when loaded, had me fighting a big baddie I'd never met before, with a stupid impossibly high skill score (in the millions when usually it is less than 25), but zero stamina, meaning that I inevitably scored a hit in round one, then died, when the game re-calculated that I was dead! An hour or so later and a similar bug occurred again, with my skill and stamina numbers suddenly becoming so huge they wouldn't fit on the screen. This one I got a screenshot of, because it amused me:

I think this number may be too big...

I think this number may be too big...

In conclusion, Talisman of Death is too rigid to be fun to play. It's like a "Fighting Fantasy" book, except that it won’t let you cheat if you want to just get on with the story. The battles slow everything down to a crawl, and are very dull. Somebody really should have tested it a little better to iron out the bugs, and it should have been coded such that you can skip battles you will pretty-much-inevitably win (or at least skip out irrelevant dice-rolls).

Ratings

Overall I’d recommend that you can get the maximum possible enjoyment out of Fighting Fantasy: Talisman of Death in an hour or two, and that any playtime past that point only makes you hate it more. In fact, it’s perfectly designed to be enjoyable for about the same length of time as a long bath, but as stated before, maybe you should avoid that unless you particularly want an excuse to buy a Vita... 3/10

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