It's a dark and stormy night. Your car breaks down outside a creepy-looking mansion in the middle of nowhere. You haven't seen enough horror films to know it's a bad idea to enter...
Welcome to Steve Jackson's House of Hell, the second Fighting Fantasy Gamebook app by Tin Man Games.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a gamebook is a story where YOU play the main character. You don't read the pages in order like a regular book. Instead the book is written in the second person and presented as a series of numbered sections, typically ending with a couple of choices of what section you can go to next, which gives the reader the ability to choose their path through it (For example; If you want to go left, turn to 132. If you want to go right, turn to 43.).
The Fighting Fantasy books, showing their pencil & paper RPG heritage, allow you to generate some of your character’s attributes, usually consisting of Skill, Stamina and Luck, using a couple of 6-sided dice. The higher these attributes, the easier - in theory - it is to complete the book. It also has a simple combat system to handle encounters with various enemies on your way through.
For this review I shall look at the story/game side first and look at the app presentation afterwards.
House of Hell was originally released in paperback way back in 1984 as the 10th Fighting Fantasy gamebook. It was a bit of departure from the series as it eschewed the typical medieval Sword & Sorcery setting and instead used a horror theme set in the present day.
To emphasise the horror element, your character has a ‘maximum Fear’ attribute in addition to the ones mentioned previously. Encountering various horrifying events through the book adds points to your Fear score and if you hit the maximum, you are literally scared to death. Nasty! It’s a nice little mechanic as it makes you think, ‘do I really want to see what’s behind that door?’ as someone in your character’s shoes might well do.
All the classic horror tropes are there in spades; zombies, ghosts, a hunchback. It could be argued it's a little over the top – it’s definitely been influenced by more than one Hammer film – but it all adds to the creepiness that's only enhanced by the characterful artwork.
Successfully completing the book is difficult, and next to impossible on a first run-through. The challenge is to unravel the secrets of the house before you die of fright, or find yourself otherwise defeated – there are plenty of wrong turns to be made and none of them end particularly well for you! After a few attempts you will start to learn which routes you can take safely and which ones end in certain - and often imaginative - death. It's definitely worth sticking with as finally defeating the house feels most rewarding.
Following on from their first Fighting Fantasy app, Blood of the Zombies, Tin Man Games have once again captured the important elements of the source material and added a few nice touches to make the most of the digital platform.
After an atmospheric opening cinematic, including a Halloween theme-inspired backing soundtrack, you're confronted with an uncluttered main menu screen based on the original book cover. It's all pretty clear and intuitive to use.
When you start the book, you are presented with a choice of difficulty modes; Hardcore (play the book as it was originally intended), Medium (gives you better starting stats) and Free Read (gives you a 'back' button so you can retrace your steps and a 'Heal me' button to replenish your Stamina). I recommend starting with Free Read to get familiar with the house before trying the harder modes.
The look and feel of the app is spot on. Along with the eerie soundtrack, the page backgrounds look like they might have been lifted straight from the walls of a haunted house. Even the classic black & white illustrations from the original have been given a facelift, having been colourised. If you want to, however, you can switch it into 'Retro look' to enjoy the original line art on slightly yellowing paper-look pages. As you come across each image they get added to a separate Art Gallery page in both their original and colourised forms.
You're constantly reminded that this is, albeit digital, a gamebook. The page turns are nicely animated, and go the correct direction whether you're travelling to an earlier or later section. It also still uses the paragraph numbers from the book, despite them being essentially redundant in this format. This is welcome, particularly for a nostalgia junkie like me, as the reader still gets to follow the iconic "Turn to 400" (Most Fighting Fantasy books had 400 references and 400 was usually reserved for the successful ending. It's kind of important).
Navigation is very straightforward. At the end of each section, each available option has a button to take you to the next paragraph. Some options are only available if you've visited certain places, spoken to a specific character or retrieved a specific item beforehand so it's handy that, unlike the book, the app remembers where you've been. In Free Play mode you can enable the restricted options so you can ignore this if you want to.
As you read through the book, you'll find yourself unlocking little achievements as you go. There's a separate page on the app which lists them so you can easily see what's still eluding you. Be warned, some of these are far harder to accomplish than others!
House of Hell is a great little app. It's probably best to think of it as an enhanced eBook as you'll mainly be reading it, but it’s also thoroughly absorbing as a game. It's challenging and ultimately rewarding, and the addition of the achievements aids its replay value.
It isn't quite perfect. As far as the gamebook side goes, rolling a low Fear score in Hardcore mode can make the book near impossible to complete, and this is compounded by my biggest issue with the app, which is that the Restart Game option is hidden pretty deeply in the menus which is slightly frustrating when you find yourself heading towards the same inevitable death for the tenth time.
Fortunately these issues aren't particularly intrusive to the experience and I can only recommend it. I'm now looking forward to their next Fighting Fantasy app, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain - the Fighting Fantasy gamebook that started it all.
House of Hell gets 8/10
Fighting Fantasy: House of Hell is now available to download from the iOS App Store, Google Play, Amazon Appstore and Nook Mobile Apps. It costs $5.99/£3.99/ 5,49€
Find out more about the full range of Fighting Fantasy apps from Tinman Games at their site, read their developer blog to keep abreast of the latest updates, and read more about the Fighting Fantasy range at the official Fighting Fantasy site