Nomad Games and Tin Man Games are a tale of two companies, and since I don’t have all that much to say about Fighting Fantasy Legends (you’ll see why soon enough), I may as well weave that tale instead.
Tin Man Games started out, many years, ago, producing digital gamebooks. At the start, they were focused largely on tablet and phone devices, and the team’s gamebooks were faithful efforts to recreate the experience of playing a gamebook. There was a certain audience for that kind of experience (I still have them all on an old iPad model), but they were primitive in so many ways, constrained as they were by budgets and the niche appeal of the format.
But Tin Man Games built. And built. And built. The team started innovating, in turning gamebooks into miniatures board games and then breaking free of the gamebook structure by taking their miniatures board game and turning it into this most wonderful VR experience (now available in non-VR form, and still highly playable). The moral to the story here is Tin Man Games went from modest ambitions to carving out a respectable niche and producing some top-quality creative works that kept building on the experience and expertise that they carefully cultivated over more than a decade.
Now let’s talk about Nomad Games. Nomad Games has been sitting on the Fighting Fantasy gamebook license itself for at least five years, and in that time it has done very little with it. It created a simple visual representation for the gamebooks, applied it to two separate “trilogy” releases, and then left it at that. There has been no attempt to grow and develop, no effort to take the experience and try to build on it. It’s all a wasted opportunity, because there is something in there that could have been turned into something. This “latest” release on Nintendo Switch comes across as a bit of an insult, as it’s actually a five-year-old game on PC, and hasn’t been updated in any meaningful way. The visual design is still dreadfully basic, the little qualities like the dice are far behind the beautiful renders we’ve seen of dice in other digital board games on Switch, and the overall experience is just mundane.
The Fighting Fantasy Legends “collection” is almost exactly the same as the Deathtrap Dungeon “effort” released two years ago on Switch, and so I’ll take a leaf from the developer’s book and copy across some of my comments, because they really say all that I have to say about this project: You’re presented with a top-down view of the world, and your character will auto-move through it based on your decisions. They’ll turn left if you select that option, or approach the creepy-looking statue if you want to test your luck. There are plenty of traps and obstacles along the way, and most of those are resolved with a simple roll of the dice. You might need to fight a monster, for example, and you’ll roll a number of dice equal to your combat skill, with each “fist” die face that shows up doing one damage to the enemy. At other times you’ll need to test your luck, at which point you’ll roll a different set of dice, and either get a minimum number of four-leafed clover faces or face some horrible consequence.
That’s it. That’s the extent of the gameplay. You’ll do this over and over and over again, and the only real variations between characters are the dice they get to play with, their health, and a couple of secondary abilities. After you kill enough monsters or avoid enough traps, your character will “level up” with means you get to improve the odds that one of your dice will show a fist or clover face on a roll. It’s hardly engaging character building, however appropriate it is for the kind of gameplay that gamebooks offered.
I loved gamebooks as a kid, but the reason they faded from prominence is no secret – video games got to the point where they simply did more. Gamebooks, laboured with the inability to do much more than give players dice to roll, just weren’t able to adapt, and it wasn’t like there was literature behind the gameplay. Fighting Fantasy – the series that Fighting Fantasy Legends belongs to – was written better than most thanks to the authors behind the series, but it’s still incredibly pulpy stuff, and the inherent limitations of the gamebook format mean that the ability to write characters, settings, or broad narrative arcs was always limited. There’s a reason that most gamebooks took place within the narrow confines of dungeons or other linear spaces.
Ultimately, to quote myself, “it’s hard not to expect more from adaptations now. Unfortunately, the minimum effort that went into Deathtrap Dungeon (and now Fighting Fantasy Legends) is still disappointing. I’m not sure what possessed the team to dust off a five-year-old release for Switch when, as far as I can tell, no one was really asking for it. I guess there might be some marginal value there for a tiny few people, but I really do mean tiny few. Especially with Tin Man Games’s take on Firetop Mountain also on Switch.
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