From our perspective today, it is truly baffling how unplanned this whole Fighting Fantasy phenomenon went. Today, we see billion dollar franchises all planned out for years to come according to a huge master schedule. In 1980s Britain, Ian Livingstone drew inspiration for names and settings for his books on his family vacation. And desperately looking for other company employees to produce more, more, more books quickly, he didn't mind Jamie Thomson and Mark Smith simply relying on what they had already thought up for their after-hours D&D campaign. Not that their world Orb was all that different from Livingstone's own glimpses of Allansia. Though both would become more fleshed out in subsequent years. Thomson and Smith receiving the opportunity for a test run of what turned into their own line of gamebooks (Way of the Tiger).
Thematically,is highly derivative. The player is the only semi-voluntary carrier of a cursed artifact which in the wrong hands would spell the end of the world. Hunted by disembodied, cloaked figures, the task is to take it out of this world's existence so that it can never be misused again. This takes us on a wild ride through a sprawling wilderness full of weird creatures and even with whole armies clashing, into a city ruled by a (not so nice) matriarchy and finally into a merciless desert, still with a specific enemy hot on our trail.
It all feels a little bit like the authors jumped on what they thought could be their only chance to ever have one of their adventures published commercially. They cram so much into this book, unbelievable!
The beginning is a little bumpy in several respects. Apparently not trusting the introductory text alone to communicate setting, task etc. sufficiently, there is a string of de facto linear, non-interactive sections which finally reveal everything necessary. The dungeon escape described for sure is quite action packed, high on adrenaline, at least.
The wilderness which follows takes some steam out of everything. Encounters are very generic, recalling The Forest of Doom. The relative high point of this chapter, the battle between orcs and dark elves, can even be missed completely. It is all just a matter of how quickly one runs across the amazon patrol to finally get to the city.
That city definitely struck a chord with me. Traversing the dark and dirty alleyways, the ring wraiths always on your trail and popping up in the least appropriate moments. Even special combat rules applying to them. Here, the book also shifts its focus from the usual swordfighting fare towards something else.
Having temporarily lost the talisman and the sword, the challenge lies in making judgments about whom to trust. On forging alliances of similar interests. Knowing that they will definitely not last beyond their specific mutual usefulness. Which is where many of the book's more colourful character pop up. Some of which would be carried over to later publications.
This very intense part of the book unfortunately lasts not nearly long enough. Instead, after a climactic and much too hard battle, the book refuses to simply end. Like in Caverns of the Snow Witch, what follows feels like a big grind. Repeated encounters with the boss character already defeated at the end of the city episode follow. Some on different planes of existence. A few other moments are not without charm. But it all paled in comparison to what had been and even more so in comparison with what could have been before. If those sections had been used to flesh out the city episode instead.
It is the catch of such episodic books. The strongest one may stick to one's mind on the long run. Though replaying, there is this “oh, yes, I forgot about that” when actually going through those other sections. The later Rebel Planet fell in the same general structure, to very much the same effect.is an attempt to offer an adventure of epic proportions. Personally, I would have preferred a tight, tense and focused little tale as the authors proved to be fully capable of. It is not the full book, but it is there. And wishing for something to last longer, there to be more of this, is a sure sign of quality, isn't it?