At least we got one -OTY out by now!
Note: Sorcery! is two parts of a four part series and as of this writing only the first two parts are available. Each part can be played by itself, and each can import characters from previous games. Since I haven’t finished the entire series yet I choose to make this an editorial rather than a traditional review.
I grew up in the 90s, when the death of “traditional” gaming had begun and the common age of interactive and digital entertainment had begun. Nearly three decades later the tangible and tactile experiences I used to have as a kid, now almost all exist primarily on a computer. One experience still set firmly in the 80s and 90s were choose your own adventure and role playing books. Steve Jackson’s Sorcery was a four part book series, called “adventure gamebooks”, that were role playing adventures that have now been upgraded for the age we live in.These four books were turned into a four part game and now thrive as mobile and PC games. Nothing can replace the feeling of keeping your fingers between musty, yellowed, pages while scrawling changes to your HP on a notepad, but the game’s developer Inkle has given Sorcery a modern upgrade.
Choose-your-own-adventure RPG novels weren’t for everyone, and neither is Sorcery. The source’s original form shines through, despite the 21st century treatment. You’re a strong warrior, the last hope of a king whose powerful crown is off in a dangerous and dark land. It’s up to you to choose your own path, fight in battles, and survive the uncertain path before you to reclaim it. Before you make any decision, the game displays story text and lets you decide what to do next. Will you be rude and demanding, maybe intimidating your way through sketchy towns? Or will you be honest and nice, finding the few kind-hearted citizens who remain? Each decision and path you take will warp the story that happens around you. The way you play may have similarities with my story but rarely will our experiences match up exactly.
The story does show its age, and depending on your nostalgia that may be a good thing. The Tolkien-esque world is filled with fantasy tropes that you’ll instantly recognize and can soak yourself in. It won’t work for everyone but for me, along with the old school illustrations that occasionally accompany the text, it brings me back to times where I’d flips through my brother’s fantasy novels and marvel at the strange stories that were within those pages.
The action might bore you if you’re used to more modern RPG iterations. You drag your character from map-point to map-point similar to playing on a Dungeons and Dragons map. Sometimes you’re given a choice between a few paths, and sometimes you can only move forward. Will you go across the bridge or down through the canyon? Sometimes you can chicken out halfway through, reversing your direction, or make it across safely by pushing ahead. Or maybe you missed a new character or a new piece of information and want to double back to get it? Perhaps you stumbled upon a massive battle you weren’t prepared and need to avoid. I didn’t second guess my choices very often because they lead to survival. Should I have stuck around that small village for more information? Eh, who cares, I’m alive and still moving, so I count myself lucky.
The battles are pretty simple but well put together. Magic is occasionally an option, and brings up a swirl of letters to let you spell out your spell. ZAP is an electric spell used instead of combat to deal with possible threats, for example. You learn the magic in an early tutorial and are never required to learn anything beyond simple spells, but the game often lets you discover spells through trial-and-error. When attacked by a large troll, and under the assumption the creature would easily kill me, I chose magic and spelled WAL. I had never learned the spell in-game, but it worked, and an invisible wall protected me, giving me the chance to run away.
The combat system is pretty simple, but can get difficult when you let your guard down. You and your opponent face one another and you drag your character towards your opponent. The farther you drag the higher a meter rises on the screen, signifying attack power. If your wagered power is higher than your opponent’s, you deal damage, if theirs is higher than yours, you take damage. But you can also choose not to attack and simply defend. This reduces the damage you take to one and lets your opponent expend their meter, giving you both the chance to recharge and the advantage. It’s a simple form of combat and different opponents attack and defend differently, so choose wisely!
The game also looks great. The game board your character travels along has contours and depth, which reminds me of old 80s board games. The hills and mountains rise above you as you walk through a valley and bridges aren’t printed on the rivers but seemingly hang high above them. The text choices are tied together with twine, as if your decisions are literally bringing the story together.
Sorcery isn’t stuck in the 80s. When you die (no if, when) you’ll get a chance to rewind and try the recent encounter over again. It makes a sudden trap or grotesque monster fight far less frustrating and more accessible. It updates its look and feel for modern devices and tastes. The map feels fleshed out, making your choices literally stitches your own story together, and the combat may be streamlined but it doesn’t make it any less strategic.
Only part one and two of Sorcery are available on Steam right now, and I’m still taking my time trudging through part one. I’m really enjoying my time and suddenly want to dive through cardboard boxes looking for my brother’s old Lone Wolf role-playing books. There’s still something to a pen and pad approach to those old school RPGs. The feeling of being alone in a world different from your own isn’t easily replicated, adventuring in a special place you’re sure only you know about. There isn’t a community or a forum, there’s just your very own adventure through these worlds. It’s isolating, lonely, difficult, and rewarding. Sorcery revives that old school approach with modern convenience and style, and I look forward to diving deeper into it.