If you were the type of kid who wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons in the eighties, but didn’t have enough like-minded individuals to do so, then your options for Fantasy adventures were slim. Complex, large video games were still a nascent concept, with most experiences relegated to alien defence missions. To fill that void, odds are you picked up a dog-eared copy of a choose-your-own adventure book – probably from the Fighting Fantasy series.
One of the more memorable titles from this series was the Warlock of Firetop Mountain – a particularly pulpy tale, featuring orcs, wizards, and dragons. Every item accrued and page turned had a cascading effect, which mostly culminated in your grizzly demise. As RPGs made their way from the tabletop to the TV-set, the popularity in these books waned, until they were all but forgotten.
Fast-forward to 2016, and developer Tin Man Games thought they’d have a crack at realising the classic tale for modern devices. While they mostly succeed at recreating the adventure with lovingly-rendered environments, simple systems that rely more on exploiting AI than making meaningful choices deflate the experience.
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain shares a lot of its DNA with its storybook counterpart. This is mostly accomplished through its skeuomorphic design. Choices that you make are presented as written text on aged paper, while the dungeons you explore pop into place like Dwarven Forge terrain game tiles. Accompanying that are hero and monster models, all realised as figurines on small bases. It’s all very cute, and leans into the series’ history more than a simply digitally realised choose-your-own adventure game ever could.
At the start of the game you’ll be able to choose from a pool of characters. Each one has their own backstory, and reason for journeying into the mountain. While the broad strokes of the adventure remain the same, a character’s personal quest will often dictate the path you’ll take through the dungeon. It actually adds a nice level of replay value, as you’ll see different environments and meet new enemies a little more organically.
Every character also has three stats: skill, stamina, and luck. Performing tasks in the game – like jumping over a crumbling bridge, testing your resolve against spooky ghosts, or sneaking past sleeping dogs – require dice checks. Roll two dice, and if you’re under a pre-determined target number you’ll succeed. Roll over, and you’ll take damage to your stamina. On rare occasions, you’ll also take damage to your stats, making subsequent checks harder. It isn’t very complex, but on some runs I felt more like my success hinged on bad luck than meaningful choice.
A new addition to the game is combat. When battles occur, you’ll be placed on a small grid alongside your foes. From there, you can spend your turn moving or attacking – with everyone’s turns occurring simultaneously. At first it can be hard to determine how AI will react in a given situation, but you soon learn to read visual cues that help you know when and where to strike. If two monsters strike each other, then a Clash is initiated, which requires both parties to roll dice and compare results. If you roll higher, you win and do damage to your foe.
The combat isn’t challenging, nor is it engaging. Most encounters are the same despite the foe you’re facing, with the best tactic being to sequester yourself to an edge or corner of the battle grid. From there enemies settle into predicable patterns that you can exploit. Even if you have to initiate Clashes to proceed this way, you’re more likely than not to succeed, thanks to the generous ability to flick your dice before they stop moving, changing the final outcome.
The game is at its worst when you’re forced into combat. One particular part of the game features a randomly generated labyrinth, with keys scattered throughout it. Populating the space between those rooms are encounters that can’t be side-stepped. On lucky playthroughs, you may only have to fight a couple of foes, but other times it could be upwards of four of them back-to-back. It’s unnecessary, and feels like padding.
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain leans into it storybook roots through clever skeuomorphic asset design, and charming 3D character and monster creations. While statistical skill checks dictate most of your progress, the game relies too much on boring combat encounters to punctuate the experience.