Product: The Ferryman Awaits
Publisher: Kansas City Systems
Compatibility: Acorn Electron
Reviewed by: Dave E
Originally published in EUG #69

One of the 'publisher genres' somewhat overlooked over the years, Kansas City's adventures are curious finds indeed. The Ferryman Awaits is one of their better-known titles, released on both the Electron and BBC, and attracting a fair amount of praise when first released. The ferryman of its title is the apographical escort into the Underworld of Hades, whom some will have us believe we should tip with two silver coins after he has ferried us across the river Styx.

The game certainly offers no end of opportunities to meet him. You start up strapped to a pentagram with a quite menacing priest offering you up as a human sacrifice. Death is in fact inevitable the very first time you play, with the word "Nimlax" resulting in your mortal coil shuffling off. Start again, and say the word yourself however and the priest will spontaneously combust. This at least allows you to jump down from the altar... into a pit where you are devoured by killer snakes!

And so it continues. Author Philip A. Gibbs plots a scintilating escape for you and, with elements of Peter Killworth-style complexity, piles puzzle upon puzzle whilst doing so. Each move brings up a narrative so dramatic that one seriously wonders how much 'Indiana Jones' he had been watching. The pace is frentic, and rather likeable, which is always a good thing. There is also a descriptive emphasis on your sometimes quite bloodthirsty actions. KILL a GUARD for example and you will be told 'You hack him to bits'. You then hang around until his body congeals into fungi, because you need the fungi to solve further problems. The adventure has a sense of humour which is quite dark and twisted.

Now, to come back to that title, when death occurs in The Ferryman Awaits, it is not necessarily The End. You wind up in The Underworld where a cursory inspection of your surroundings unearths the river and a sign reading "Please wait for ferry". Suffice to say, following its advice is ill-advised; think of it more as a sign reading "Please wait for the ferry to throw in the towel". Yet, quirky as this element of the adventure is, it is very difficult to fathom. There are no hints given as to what to actually do in the Underworld (apart from wait for the ferry!). Nor anywhere else. And this leads me nicely into the problems with this particular adventure.

As you may have realised by now, I have been able to play it right through to the end. For the first twenty minutes or so that you play, it is excellent as long as you forgive the very strange 'you-need-to-die-to-find-out-how-to-live' beginning. Alas, the pace then slows and the confusion about how to proceed descends. Basically, Gibbs seems to have written himself a startling work of fiction set somewhere where Middle Earth meets Monty Python, and put in solutions so completely obscure that only he would be able to navigate through them!! One minute you're stuffing creepy-crawlies into a skull to create a torch, another you're wearing a jerkin and dead Norwegian Blue to trade with desert pirates. And it gets ever weirder - crawling inside a giant teleporting hat, summoning Old Father Time to turn back the clock of the world and tripping out on an hallucinogenic cube...! Look, escaping from an evil priest was quite fun, but this just, well, isn't. You need to give us at least a fighting chance of success - even if Electron User did publish quite a comprehensive set of hints!

That said, the adventure is quite likeable even twenty years on from its initial release. The opening titles are suitably atmospheric and the Endgame is as adrenalin-fuelled as the beginning, complete with your hero giving a good hiding to the Big Boss who is presumably responsible for all the preceding, mind-melting madness.