Review: Caverns of the Snow Witch

By Sean Clancy 20 Nov 2014 0
You're as cold as ice, willing to sacrifice... full stop. You're as cold as ice, willing to sacrifice... full stop.

Many gamebooks and interactive fictions encourage guesswork. In the best of the former, that guesswork feels more like sleuthing, with the narrative jumping in like a good improv partner to back up whatever arbitrary choices you make—a shrug and a click on your part might become “you recall that bane of ivy-wort has restorative properties, you clever so-and-so.” In the best of the latter a guess—even a wrong guess—has rewards outside the dubious pleasures of winning the fiction, especially if the story's been designed to weather mistakes on the player's part and has “game over” scenes written with the same care as the rest of the work.

Caverns of the Snow Witch is tricky, then. This latest digital adaptation from Tin Man Games is a game of chance primarily, like most of the Fighting Fantasy line, and yet it's also a story of chance, one where coincidence and the time-tested tactic of “grab everything that's not nailed down” take center stage.

Maybe that's not an entirely fair criticism to levy against a gamebook from 1984, especially one with a cheese-factor (and I love cheese) that Pee-Wee Herman would roll his eyes at. In this tale you'll quickly go from guarding a trader's caravan to hunting a rampaging yeti to plundering the titular Snow Witch's icy fortress, with only a few peeps of internal monologue to suggest your avatar is conflicted about their course. You could imagine a gamebook that gives you a choice about the fortress raid just for flavor, with the narrative correcting to push you towards the Snow Witch regardless. That said, there is an old-timey adventure serial charm to this hyperactive hero that unthinkingly jumps headfirst into whatever quest they can find, even if it means abandoning the quest they're on.

But, I thought there was a virtue in always being cool. But, I thought there was a virtue in always being cool.

As far as Tin Man's app is concerned, the presentation is tops. In addition to the standard difficulty, Caverns has both a hardcore more (where a core stat calculation is tweaked, weakening your character) and a free-read mode where all links are available and you can heal to full stamina whenever you please. The app makes it clear what options are and aren't available at any given time, and neatly tucks away things like your character sheet and the bookmarks tab (saved pages you can mark and jump back to if you get hung up—you'll need them) in the margins of the screen. And, naturally, there's a dice-roll animation with the sexy, chunky clunk sounds all worthy dice-roll animations have.

The one misstep is the new art, which—while passable—doesn't compare to the black-and-white original illustrations with their faux-woodcut style. Thankfully, that original art can be toggled on (from the start, and not as some silly unlockable after beating the game) in the options.

If you've not played one of these Fighting Fantasy joints before, here's how it looks in motion. First, roll for your stats: stamina/health, skill, and luck. Then, read along until a fork in the narrative comes up (usually as an actual fork in some path you're traveling), or until you're forced to fight (which is often). Next step is more rolling, either for combat, where you're adding your roll to your skill to best an opponent's roll added to their skill, or for the odd stat checks Caverns throws your way: roll under or above this number or that stat, pray the frost giant doesn't wind up and ping you in the noggin with a chest full of plunder.

This Bumble has seen better days, Cornelius. This Bumble has seen better days, Cornelius.

Luck is unique in that you spend a point of it whenever you're forced to rely exclusively on good fortune. A slippery ice bridge or an encroaching avalanche will have you rolling two die; roll equal to or under your current luck and you're golden, roll over and you're liable to lose stamina or skill as the hazard hits you square in the jaw. Additionally, luck can be spent in combat following the same roll-under scheme, either to nullify a point of damage you've absorbed or to increase the lethality of a blow you've landed. Fail the luck check in a scrum, though, and you'll take even more damage, or see your previously dead-on blow become a glancing one.

So that's quite a bit of rolling dice. Maybe I'm a few years too late on this criticism, but as someone new to the Fighting Fantasy scheme it seems like skill is far and away the most important stat, one that sees you either cruising through most straight-up fights or getting crushed in them. A bad skill roll will cut most on-the-level runs short, quick. Then again, even in default mode Caverns of the Snow Witch never asks for on-the-level play, with bookmarks meant as an easily deployed cheat.

No Whammy no Whammy no Whammy... No Whammy no Whammy no Whammy...

As a narrative, Caverns has some soft failures (though many don't have the clever foreshadowing that preface truly memorable "oops" moments in interactive fiction), scenes where you've clearly screwed up, but only enough to lose a few points off a stat. "Oh, the Object of Objectness was cursed, turns out," or "maybe hitting everything with my sword isn't the best stratagem." Just as numerous are the hard failures, where simply turning down the wrong corridor or failing to pick up a certain item several pages back brings the story to an anti-climactic end. In these latter situations I wondered why Caverns couldn't have some middle ground between its minor and major fail states; maybe instead of losing instantly when locked in certain rooms, you could escape through a crawl space at the risk of dropping an item.

It seems like these insta-fails were meant to increase the longevity of, say, an actual, physical gamebook (say, maybe even one sold in 1984!), a design choice which doesn't translate well to 2014. It's not even accurate to call Caverns of the Snow Witch "tough"--it's more... "resistant." And yet, for all the quibbles I have about the "game" part of this gamebook, when Caverns works, it works exactly as one would expect (especially if you've rolled high for stats). Heroic battles in the snow... some light survival moments where you're struggling against the elements... fights with magical, otherworldly opponents where you need to apply knowledge and reasoning as well as your sword--it's pulpy fun. Playing Caverns of the Snow Witch feels, for the most part, like stumbling around half-blind in a blizzard. But it's one hell of a blizzard.

Caverns of the Snow Witch was played on a 3rd-gen iPad for this review.

Review: Caverns of the Snow Witch

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