[Herr M.] If you were to judge a book strictly by its name, today’s title sets the bar quite high:frankly sounds rather cool. It promises whimsical magic, rolls of the tongue and hints at even greater things to come. So, the question we are going to ask today is: Does the content match its wrapping?
[Mr Creosote] Really? The name seems somewhat generic to me. Even its predecessor had a bit more character. Never mind, let us dive right into the prologue: The sinister Balthus Dire (nomen est omen) is threatening the helpless, honest people of a nearby village. So, this time you are going to be a really ‘good’ guy.
[Herr M.] A classic conflict between order and chaos is just waiting to happen. The fate of whole nations, which naturally adhere to only one of the alignments, is going to be decided by individual characters. In this corner of the ring: Said master magician. And in the other corner: The Player, taking on the role of an apprentice wizards, who has been learning from the whitest grand magus of course.
[Mr Creosote] The roles show clearer cuts between black and white, good and evil, than in the predecessor. On the other hand it is mage vs. mage, that is opponents with similar skills and backgrounds.
[Herr M.] Similar backgrounds for sure, but the skills made me wonder, how a simple apprentice should be able to stand a chance against the leader of a whole army of monsters? While it provides a adventurous mood, it seems a tad bit unrealistic at the same time.
[Mr Creosote] Well yes, but is not this setup used in almost any role playing game (at least on computers)? Even the avatar from Ultima starts off as a weakling each time and the city elders of Waterdeep hire four no-names with bad equipment for reasons unknown. A possible explanation might be that the villagers could not afford a better mercenary in this one.
[Herr M.] This is a very popular subject of the genre of course, but the direct rivalry makes the discrepancies in power level even more glaring. Although, as said before, it also makes things more interesting too.
[Mr Creosote] It is not just about genetics, but also knowing how to make use of your talents.
[Herr M.] Certainly, and the Citadel gives you quite a lot of opportunities to prove this right, because you are about to set foot on enemy territory in order to find a way to the top of the black tower. At first glance there does not seem to be that much of a difference to The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, except for your ‘nobler’ motivation.
[Mr Creosote] The game world seems a lot smaller. You start right at the door to the outer castle walls and as soon as you walked through the main court you are in the tower already. That is not really epic.
[Herr M.] Come to think of it, there is not only a lack of epicness, but one of logic too: That is the fortress of a magician that is going to enslave whole kingdoms? The security measures are a bit of a joke, are not they? But yet again you should not spend to much thought on it, because as weak as the background story might be, the encounters and therefore the actual plot has become a whole lot better this time.
[Mr Creosote] As far as the citadel’s inhabitants are concerned, things actually got a lot more creative than in Firetop Mountain. It is bustling with a wild bunch of creatures coming from different kinds of myths or fascinating unique ideas – and they do not necessarily react in a hostile fashion each time or always remain loyal to their landlord.
[Herr M.] Thus there are a lot less creatures which are obviously just guarding something, and the rest of them are not only prisoners but also somewhat unusual fellows. Your options to interact with them became a lot more complex too. Instead of simple fight or flight, you can almost always choose to initiate dialogue or cast some of the new spells.
[Mr Creosote] Interestingly you always have the possibility to bluff your way past simple guards. And there are hints of logic about the whereabouts: At first you meet other guests, then servants with different kinds of duties, followed by the villain ’s family (including children!). What I liked most though were the rather quirky characters. The wheelies belong to my all time favourites from the series! There is also something to be said about that shrunk spiderman, which you can carry along and release in some odd situations. And do not forget about the Ganjees… mysterious!
[Herr M.] Some of my favourites are the guards standing right at the entrance (nice opening!), the leprechaun and his tricks, because they show a lot of self-irony, and the two headed lizard, which is refreshingly stupid. With that kind of variety everybody will certainly find something to his taste. Something I found rather remarkable about said kids was, that you can run them through with your sword without much further ado. An act found extremely rarely in this kind of game.
[Mr Creosote] The description of the latter is written really well though. The absurdity of the whole scene is described in due shortness and conveyed with well-placed distance. Anyway: With all its variety the book offers the author’s writings a lot of room to run freely. It changes between ironic or even silly scenes and rather tense ones, different moods flow into each other – this is quite a challenging task, but it works out rather well in my opinion. A big improvement over the very generic predecessor with its rather random passages.
[Herr M.] Overall it reads a bit like a black comedy with horror intermezzos, which flow quite nicely into each other. There is one thing that I find kind of annoying though: The obvious trap encounters in the vein of insurmountable obstacle, beyond/under which you can see a treasure chest, or chose one of three potions. Those get old really, really fast.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, and I could have lived without that Hydra at the end. Overall it is a pity that the finale is a totally linear succession of rooms filled with unavoidable solo encounters. Seems a bit like they ran out of ideas on how to include them otherwise.
[Herr M.] That linearity is especially glaring since everything coming before it is freely accessible, which means that each run through of the dungeon plays out differently than the ones before. That is until you reach the final checkpoints, which test whether you chose the ‘right’ path, and take up quite some space this time. There are no less than three things or pieces of information you have to have gathered.
[Mr Creosote] Yet two of them are explicitly optional, while the last one is checked in a way that prevents cheating: There is a three-digit number that opens the combination lock, and you are ordered to turn to the corresponding paragraph. As a child this one was my downfall, because I could not stop myself from visiting the casino.
[Herr M.] It is a real pity: On the optimal path you miss many of the most interesting scenes, or rather you have to avoid them, otherwise you stand (almost) no chance in the end. On top of that the best path is rather short too, is not it?
[Mr Creosote] Yes indeed! You are allowed to do some sidetracking tough, and at least it does not hurt that much (if you are not killed in one of the fights).
You cannot move freely in all directions anymore, not even within particular paragraphs. But to be honest I do not miss this at all, because the paths you are offered instead are a lot more logical and turning around would not make much sense anyway.
[Herr M.] Yes, the crossing with three or four ways leading to wherever are thankfully gone. There are several instances where you get a couple of choices on where to move on, but there are always hints as to where you are going to end up and their descriptions are nicely detailed.
[Mr Creosote] So: you get a nicely described game world, which comes alive by its colourful inhabitants. That is the way I like it!
[Mr Creosote] How to you feel about expanding the rules by introducing a magic system?
[Herr M.] As interesting as this update might be in theory, I find it rather boring from a mechanical standpoint. The new spells are basically just the same as the items, which you stumble upon anyway, with the slight differences being that you can ‘take’ several instances of them with you and that you have to pick some of them at the beginning of the game.
[Mr Creosote] That is true. The extra ability for magic, which you have to roll like your skill score, is actually nothing else than the size of your spell ‘inventory’. The strength of your spells is not considered at all. They either help you in a certain situation or they do not. Or you just picked the wrong spells at character creation, while randomly choosing your arsenal.
[Herr M.] And the randomness soon gives way to disillusionment, as soon as you start to realise that some of the spells are vital, while others are very rarely used to great effect. It is also kind of annoying to stumble into instant deaths, after casting the wrong spell or running out of the necessary ones.
[Mr Creosote] Naturally this is a common problem of role playing games: You have to make important decisions, while lacking the knowledge to base them on. Whether it is buying an item from a merchant, or which skill to learn or which spell to pick. You cannot tell what kind of situation you will end up in.
But I think the spell casting mechanism is rather weak too. That is, strictly speaking there even is not one. Occasionally the one or the other spell shows up as an explicit choice. So it is predetermined what you are allowed to do after all. Well, it might have been difficult to implement them in another way.
[Herr M.] Some gamebooks handled this better, e.g. the four-volume Sorcery! series, in which the player has to memorise spells in form of abbreviations.
Yet as boring as the system used here might be, the idea behind it is still great and the feeling is actually quite different to digging up some item from your backpack.
[Mr Creosote] Interesting, it seems like the system used in Sorcery! was (partially) applied to the computer version of the Citadel. Well, you have to to admit though: Like many other things found in the first book, this one seems to be some proof of concept, a prototype that still has some rough edges. But I think in the final battle it works rather well, it really feels a lot like an encounter between two mages.
[Herr M.] Facing this sinister caster is quite a thrilling experience. It takes quite a long time to find your way to this scene, and the buildup is well-made. Anyway, you have to remain calm and choose your spells wisely… too bad that there is only one way to resolve this situation, which does not end in a direct fight.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, the solution, that does not end in a fight, is a bit of a letdown. Neither before nor afterwards is there any explanation as to why this particular action suddenly brings down such a powerful enemy. Nevertheless: The boss fight is a fitting climax, offers several ways to win, but also several ways to lose. It is also interesting to note, that it breaks with the stereotypical old mage with robes and big bushy beard. In a film version only Yul Brynner in his prime could have been cast as Balthus Dire!
[Herr M.] You can really buy this whole leader of armies stuff this time! And yes, it shows yet again, how much the author likes to break with the old and trusted creatures, as cliched as some of the other things might still be, and how much the book profits from this.
[Mr Creosote] And that is why the book is such a big step forward to me. Firetop Mountain laid down the foundations for sure, and it earns respect for doing so. But the Citadel finally brings everything in line. It makes good use of known elements and throws in more than enough new ideas, which lead to several surprises… This easily helps getting over the fact that the magic system is not such a big hit.
[Herr M.] You have to give the book credit for not only trying to avoid its predecessor's mistakes (which it almost always pulls off), but also dares to start some new experiments (which on the other hand are hit and miss). There are a couple of steps back in some respects (like its shortness or the very hypocritical framing story), but overall there are some definitive improvements..
[Mr Creosote] This is also one of the very rare books which can be realistically finished with a minimum character!
[Herr M.] So this time the common claim of the right path being the one with a minimum risk is true for once. Which means you do not need that much luck while rolling the dice. You can rely on your own cunning instead, so the search for the right path gets a whole lot more interesting. Thus there are no throwaway characters too and no run-through is wasted, plus, as said above, each one plays very differently.
[Mr Creosote] It still allows you to to bash your way through (almost) the whole citadel as a dumb fighting machine. That is if you should want to. This gives you a far greater feeling of freedom than the neverending left-right-up-down.
[Herr M.] If the ending could have lived up to the rest, and if there maybe would have been more than one, the book could have been an absolute classic. Nevertheless it is highly recommendable to all the friends of proper dungeon crawling.
[Mr Creosote] My nostalgia ranks it amongst the absolute classics.
[Herr M.] Certainly an important factor too! Yet in my case those memories of the good old days works to the contrary: To me this one will always be that book, that made me cheat after lots of struggling, in order to finally reach the boss. Although I do have some fond memories of the mentioned casino too.
[Mr Creosote] I, on the other hand, made an official complaint, because my usual method of reading the book backwards (in search for 'turn to 400', then search for 'go to this and that number' etc.) did not work – a nice experience.
[Herr M.] Official as in publisher?
[Mr Creosote] Sure thing!
[Herr M.] Did they ever reply?
[Herr M.] Yes, they actually did! It was an affirmation, that there is a solution, but without unravelling the mystery. The fact alone that there was an answer, was a great experience.
[Herr M.] I dare say so! It is good to know, that it was important enough to them. In comparison my method of stubbornly reading each and every paragraph was rather ineffective as well as unfulfilling.
[Mr Creosote] Pure adrenalin to a enthusiastic child. So: Each subjective thumb up from me, and I think there are still more than enough objective things that speak for the book.