Well, Twilight’s finally behind me, and even though I’ve made no mystery about my disinterest in vampires in general, I should probably do something to cleanse my palette, and maybe do something to kinda sorta acknowledge Halloween around here. Maybe with a vampire who has numerical proof of his badassery.
In many respects, Vault of the Vampire’s a storm of cliches. You’re a brave adventurer on a quest up to the remote, forbidding castle of the local tyrannical overlord, Reiner Heydrich. Who happens to be one of that most powerful example of the undead, and who for all the tiny development he gets might as well be Dracula. And you’d better be quick about it, before he decides to snack on the latest nubile example of the female species he’s hauled up there. It doesn’t really help that it was written by Keith Martin, who had a few interesting ideas but was never any great shakes as an author of interactive fiction.
That aside, it’s a surprisingly effective little adventure. It’d be suicide to just go waltzing into Reiner’s crypt without first loading yourself to the gills with all the magic weapons and clues you can find. Obviously. Because here’s a vampire who actually will squish your head with ease if you show up insufficiently prepared.
For one thing, it introduces a good psychological element to the search for the best weapons. That being a Faith score, which is a measure of your faith in your cause that allows you to resist fear, mind control, and in some cases even make the forces of evil think twice about starting a fight with you. It’s nice that sometimes you need fo find out if it’s something your character can stand up to, instead of just deciding that you can. Granted none of the tests are against thing as senses-shattering as you’d see in, say, the aptly-named Beneath Nightmare Castle, but it’s kind of interesting to see even somebody daring enough to face a vampire in his lair face something that can strike fear in them.
For that matter, the denizens of the castle are a pretty memorable bunch for these kinds of books, and I don’t just mean the ones who try to kill you on sight. Not that Reiner’s house doesn’t have some interesting defenders, the Thassalosses and living tigerskin rug in particular, but there are friends to be found there. Not everybody who can help you is necessarily motivated out of the goodness of their hearts, though, and with some of them you definitely have to ask yourself if what you’re hoping to get out of it is worth what they might ask. Like say Reiner’s obviously evil but upwardly mobile sister, and his hardworking but underappreciated in-house scholar.
And while I was hardly ever impressed by Keith Martin’s abilities as a writer, the interior illustrations were done by Martin McKenna, easily one of the finest artists ever to put ink to paper in the name of Fighting Fantasy. His atmospheric artwork does a lot to elevate this book, or really any book his work shows up in.
Without contributing factors like these, Vault of the Vampire could’ve easily become just another semi-mindless dungeon crawl with a simplistic goal. However, its relative simplicity is also one of the book’s strengths in light of some of the other books in the series. That is, ones with interesting settings but tons of little secrets that must be discovered. Failing to do so resulting in the player plodding along for a while, thinking they’re making progress, only to encounter an unavoidable death somewhere down the line. See, for example, Creature of Havoc, or to a lesser extent Martin’s own Night Dragon, which is far more scavenger hunt-y than this book. That simple lack of complexity can be a nice break knowing it exists elsewhere in the same series. Here your objectives are pretty clear (get all of Siegfried’s magic weapons, use them to save the girl), as opposed to your average book in the series from Games Workshop!Steve Jackson (here’s your goal. If you don’t find the one, completely arbitrary true path to victory, you’re dead. Have fun!).
Just so nobody gets the wrong idea, Steve wrote some of the best books to carry the Fighting Fantasy label.
But…let nobody dispute they had lots of unforgiving trial-and-error gameplay.
Unfortunately, also let no one dispute that the second outing with the major characters from Vault of the Vampire was not nearly as successful.
Which is a shame, because the author was obviously trying to be a lot more epic this time around. You see, Reiner wasn’t really dead. Even in the sense that he was a vampire. Apparently anticipating that some brave hero might stake him, he had his vital essences preserved so he could be brought back to life should the need arise. You’re tasked with bopping around the countryside, trying to find the secrets that enabled his resurrection, and the means to get around them and kill him again. And not waste too much time doing it.
Yeah. Apparently inspired by his own Night Dragon (where the longer you take to assemble all the magic weapons, the stronger your already pants-darkeningly powerful final enemy becomes), you have a stat called Blood. Whenever you find anything useful in re-killing the vampire, it goes up. Any time you spend any amount of time not turning up results, you lose them. The number affects how strong Reiner is during your final battle.
Certainly the author tries to be scarier this time around, and McKenna was back providing the illustrations again. The monsters are more ghoulish than before, the atmosphere’s a little more oppressive, and the author tries to evoke a little nostalgia for the previous book, like when you see a tigerskin rug and he makes a point that it doesn’t come to life and attack you.
But it’s just not that good, and seeing the same characters in the exact same contexts in a different, larger-scale setting doesn’t work. Because despite being larger and more complicated, the familiar characters had been scaled back. Siegfried is only a ghost who shows up to tell you where to get the best weapon, Katarina jumps out and attacks you after your fight with Reiner because…that’s what she did in the first book. Even though there's been nary a mention of her in this book until after you've beaten Reiner and she springs out for a sudden last battle. And that’s not even addressing the poor design, with several choices leading to the wrong paragraph, and a particularly glaring oversight where you need gold to lodge at an inn where you can find some very important items, but the only way you’d get there is by losing all your gold.
Still more coherent than the plot to Twilight…