The Boss Baby is a piece of shit.
The old world has long since died away. Long gone are the volumes of yellowed books containing immersive worlds of fantasy. Most modern role-play has been firmly delegated to video games and a few choice novels, but none of it really seems to capture those glory days. In the 70s and 80s, there were few places to go to escape into worlds of swords and sorcery. If you were lucky, you had a Dungeons and Dragons group, but if you were a lonely nerd, you had “choose your own adventure” books. Lone Wolf, Freeway Warrior, and Sorcery!, were no ordinary books; they gave the reader agency in their own story, and a few really interesting ones came with their own their own character sheets. Your adventure became real, escaping your imagination and leaking out into the real world just a little bit.
Starting this year, developer Inkle has been converting Sorcery! into a strange combination of video game and role-playing book. Each part tells the tale of your character attempting to cross cursed and treacherous realms to retrieve a crown. This crown can, hopefully, defeat an evil sorcerer who has cursed this world, and return prosperity and peace again. You move a figure around the map, just as you would in a board game, and you might encounter such classical fantasy situations like sewers filled with goblins, the ghost of a sorcerer who will talk with you as you travel, or giant insects you can control and ride with magic. The key word is “might.” Your travel requires choices, such as which parts of the map you’ll explore, whether you’ll befriend or attack suspicious characters, or choosing to yell out at strange noises or staying well hidden just in case. Sometimes standing up to fearsome monsters can lead to a grievous fight, or maybe even a new friend.
Not every one of the four parts is just a matter of survival and making it to the other side of the map. In the second part, for example, is set in the city of Khent, whose gates seal the citizens inside a society supporting a handful of wealthy citizens while the rest starve. You arrive at the city just as the lower classes are getting sick of their rich rulers, and are preparing for a coup. That coup turns out to be a drunken dwarf and me failing and, through inaction, accidentally allowing a Goblin king to take over instead. My final moments of Part 2 were watching the city burn as Goblins stormed every house and home. I was given ample chance to return through the city, and rewind time to search for specific items that could save the city from a goblin-ridden fate, but I chose to press on. The next two parts also have their own unique set of separate side quests that add hours of gameplay and deepen the world and story you’re adventuring through. Some of those side quests were tedious, while others felt necessary for the story’s sake. Each fight and destination along your journey will coincide with another piece of text that tells your tale. In battles, this text can reveal the viciousness of your foe and hint at their next attack. Along the road to retrieve the crown the text will tease you with potential life-saving springs or trick you into approaching a witch’s hut. The story is written well, like any good fantasy novel, and adds flavor to the the world.
As I mentioned earlier, no choice is permanent, or at least not right away. If you take a wrong turn, or fumble your way through a conversation, there is a rewind button. Much like leaving your finger as a temporary bookmark, you can rush back to your last spot to ensure you didn’t leave out an alternative while fighting a massive monster, or miss some secret exit. I could see this being an easy button for some who are fraught with indecision, but the rewind is very strict. If you’re stuck in a battle with a giant rock serpent, you may very well have to figure out a simpler path to victory rather than walking around the fight entirely. That strictness can also backfire. In one instance during Part 3, I was trapped in a loop of falling from a tower and dying. Rewinding only tossed me back into the air to die again and reloading the game did the same thing. After minutes of fiddling with praying for health, and trying to land at the right time, I eventually got fed up and restarted the chapter over again. I remembered my choices and was only a third of the way through that chapter, but it took the momentum right out of my story.
The fighting in Sorcery seems simple, but has some strategy to it. You, and everything you fight, will have stamina. Yours will go up and down through your choices in-game and sometimes can be healed by sleeping, eating, or random luck from eating wild mushrooms or moss. That stamina is vital in battle. You drag your character to the right, and the further you drag, the stronger your attack. If your attack is higher than your opponents, you do damage to them. If not, you take damage. The bigger the difference, or the better your sword, the more damage the attack can do. However, each attack drains your meter, giving you a lower potential attack and leaving you more vulnerable. You can defend, which recharges some of your meter, and any attack you take while defending will only slice off one stamina. It’s an elegant system that provides some depth while remaining a smaller system in a much larger RPG.
Sorcery also features an array of incredibly useful spells, some of which you’ll begin the game with and others you’ll learn along the way. The stronger or more interesting spells sometimes require items that you may never see or acquire, but they all will get you out of unforeseen problems and accomplish tasks in weird ways.. To use a spell you simply type out whichever one you want. The game does restrict your spells depending on the situation, serving up an alphabet soup of choices. For most battles, “ZAP,” a lighting bolt, or “HOT,” a fireball, are usually available. For strange noises off in the distance, “SUS” will notify you of danger and “HOW” will tell you the way to safety. Initially I only used magic as a crutch in battle, but after some experimentation and over-reliance in my second playthrough of Part 1, I realized just how useful the spells could be. Sometimes simply showing you know how to summon a fireball can be enough to turn foe into a friend.
It’s hard for me to not gloss over the negatives of Sorcery and commend it for how unique it looks and feels. It’s hard to not marvel at the maps, which have jutting hand-drawn mountains and deep valleys, or to feel the music course through my head as I begin my adventure. Sorcery isn’t for everyone, it hearkens back to an old-school style of RPGs and wears its difficulty as a badge of honor. You enjoy those fleeting moments when your health is full, and scurry quickly to a back alley for sleep when you’re weak, tired, hungry, and broke. Most pure role-playing games struggle for immersion, but Sorcery does it with ease. Everyone may not enjoy the old ways, but if you do, this is for you.