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Wot I Think: Steve Jackson's Sorcery! (Parts 1 and 2)

A real page-turner

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Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! [official site] has been showing the mobile world what modern gamebooks can be since 2013, and now they’re following 80 Days onto the PC. The first two chapters come as a bundle, with two more on the way. If you’ve played them on iOS, they’re exactly the same games, only you can finally click on things instead of using your filthy sausage-fingers. If not, here’s Wot I Think.

I confess, I never played Sorcery! back in the day. A lot of other gamebooks. Lone Wolf, sure. Choose Your Own Adventure. Knightmare. Pretty much whatever my local library had, occasionally without even cheating. Sorcery! slipped past me, yet somehow I don’t think I need to worry about saying that Inkle’s take on it is everything that fans could want, unless they want ice-cream while they play. Ice-cream is not provided.

The central story is pretty simple. You’re a hero on a quest for the Crown of Kings, stolen from the land of Analand by the Archmage of Mampang Fortress who wants to conquer the land of Kakhabad and do all sorts of other evil things to fantasy places whose names were invented by randomly hitting keyboard buttons. Like most gamebooks, it’s a journey at heart, represented here by a map that slowly unfolds as you travel to reveal new stories, new characters and new opportunities, with your basic goal being to a) survive and b) gather equipment, allies, magic and more that will help later on in the quest. You can start any chapter with a pre-made character, but the intended route is to start from the beginning and take one character through the whole thing, accumulating damage and decisions and managing food and money.

This is not a nice world. This is not a friendly world. This is an 80s gamebook world down to the core, and it’s lost none of its teeth over the last couple of decades.

Though it has evolved a very time-handy rewind mechanic.

I’m glad that the first two chapters are bundled, because while the first, The Shamutanti Hills, is a respectable game in its own right, it’s only after that, in Khare, the Cityport of Traps and the hunt for the Seven Serpents, that you really get to see Inkle embrace the possibilities of Sorcery! instead of just the text. I’m certainly not saying it’s a bad game, it’s an excellent conversion. Even so, the text, the characters, the encounters and the general style of it wear their source material’s age like the yellowing of old paper. It’s very old fashioned adventuring, especially going back to it after the later games and 80 Days. There’s lots of Stuff, sure. Not much of it is particularly memorable.

Again though, I’m mostly talking in comparison to what follows. Next to most of the classic gamebooks on Steam, it’s already top-tier, and does a lot to modernise the experience. The interface, the map, the orchestral music, the aforementioned time-rewinding all help hugely, as does it simply keeping track of inventory, clues and so on in a more modern fashion, and bolting on its own bits where necessary, like the gambling game Swindlestones (Liar’s Dice, basically) and combat system. I’m not a big fan of the latter, but it works to make the battles part turn-based strategy and part puzzle, especially with the option to rig things with spells or sabotage.

Essentially, you face off against whatever monster thought it was a good idea to get in your face, with a stack of energy points to spend. The goal is to use intuition (though ultimately guesswork and repeatedly doing the same battle is closer to how you’ll succeed) to figure out when to go with a quick jab versus a heavy slash versus a block, and get out of things without losing any more Stamina points than you have to. They can be difficult to get back, especially when you’re stumbling around starving to death and unable to even buy food. On the plus side – time rewinding! Did I mention that?

The basic interface has a pleasant tactility to it, with you drawing your hero back and forth to set their strength in combat, and dragging them around the map from place to place. As with 80 Days though, I wouldn’t have minded seeing a bit of an update for the PC version. It’s clean, but it’s often very clumsy, with things like the inventory split into multiple screens and a spellcasting system that’s irked me for three games now.

Spells in Sorcery are limited by three things – the game giving you the option you cast them in the first place, though it’s pretty good about doing that; the current stars in the sky, from which you create the letters that form them; and having specific reagants to cast the more useful ones. “DUM” for instance will make an enemy uncoordinated, while “DOP” will open doors not sealed by magic. If the stars are with you, and you have the spare Stamina, you can cast them at will. To cast ROK though, turning an enemy into stone, you need some Stone Dust, while the invisibility spell “YAZ” can only hide you (from intelligent creatures) if you’ve found a pearl ring somewhere on your travels. As with the inventory though, casting a spell involves a bit too much bopping between screens – first to the starfield screen to see what letters are available, then back to the map to click out of the current storylet, then into the Spellbook to look up what you can do, then back to the heavens screen to input it…

Gah! (Which somehow is not the spell for ’cause minor but irksome annoyance’.) Why can’t there be one-click access to the spellbook on the casting screen? It’s not like there isn’t much call to use them. There’s a reason the game’s called Sorcery!

Those are however the only real issues with an otherwise fine and very attractive UI, wrapped around an undeniably traditional but well written and designed game. Each part’s map is a sprawling mass of possibilities, encouraging you to explore but balancing your ability to with your rations and health. You can always rewind after a wild-goose chase, but then you won’t necessarily know if that unprofitable assistance you gave the peasant on the road will somehow come back in your favour later on, or if the time spent gathering the fancy sword far from the beaten track will turn out to be a booby-trap with a very long-fuse. The Shamutanti Hills offer a dense world of possibilities and surprises, some good, some bad, but all spread casually before you to savour or ignore or approach or run away from encounters however you like. And all without having to stick a finger in any pages, as the King sternly told Sir Spicious.

The big goal of Part 1 is to get to the city of Khare, though any sane player character would follow the river for literally any other way across. Khare marks the point of the game where Inkle stops simply remaking Sorcery! (more or less – even the first part has more than its book ever offered) and begins making it their own in terms of fiction and encounters and ambitious new game mechanics to layer on. Like-

No. To go into too many details would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that Khare is the city where naughty adventurers go when they die – a truly foul place full of thieves, trolls (of the non-fantasy variety), deathtraps and so many gotchas that the sign outside the should be “Welcome to Khare – Go Fuck Yourself”. I’m not entirely sure it isn’t. Simply approaching is enough to have the guards toss you in jail, and that’s more of a welcome than you get in most of the rest of it. Ask a villager to show you the sights for instance and you’re likely to end up being unceremoniously dumped into the sewers. Spot that trap coming? The same person will demonstrate a monster designed to attack thieves who go for its treasure by pressing one of the gold pieces it protects into your hand and running off with the rest while it tries to murder you into paste.

Depending on your choices, Khare may not survive the adventure.

I’ve never been as pleased to imagine a city burning.

As I said though, it’s not as harsh as it might sound, given that you have full time-rewind capabilities. They’re a bit of a design crutch at times, in that while you could complete something like, say, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time purely with skill, there’s usually no way to see the traps coming or evade them. Once you’ve gotten past that though, and firmly into the habit of trusting nobody, Khare presents a much more interesting environment to explore – a dense, interconnected maze of scum that you’re meant to run through a couple of times before finishing business and moving on.

Heck, even at that point it’s often fun to do the blatantly stupid thing or ignore advice, secure in the knowledge that with a couple of clicks it never happened. Think hunting for deaths in old Sierra On-Line adventure games. Failure is often more entertaining than success, especially if you distance yourself enough from your character to enjoy the slapstick factor instead of feeling personally hard done-by all the time.

Playing properly, there’s also a definite feeling of advancing from complete rube to flint-eyed adventurer that has nothing to do with raw items and stats, and a mechanical element I won’t go into that justifies being able to take a run through previous encounters with fairly earned knowledge instead of the magic time-rewinder. Mix in a lot of routes and ways around, up to and including storming right through the place and forcing your way out early, and you’ve got a really tight, clever adventure that heavily rewards replay value. Especially knowing that Part 3 is even better, with its open world. That’s a great reason to go back at least once more to be as ready as you can be for fighting the Seven Serpents, and beyond them, looting the Crown of Kings.

Sorcery! pulls off that most impressive trick, working as both a nostalgia trip and a modern series. It takes a while for it to come into its own, admittedly, and the old-fashioned focus on text won’t necessarily appeal to everyone. Illiterates and fools, for instance. To sink into its world though is to quickly get lost in its invisible pathways of tricks and traps and hidden secrets, the adventure evolving along with both your increasing power and Inkle’s mastery of the gamebook format. Neither part takes long to complete, if completion is all you care about, but that first playthrough will barely scratch the surface of what their maps offer – never mind show you all the best stuff.

Part 3 certainly doesn’t let the side down over on iOS, and it’s hard to imagine that Part 4 will when it comes along. Much like 80 Days, Sorcery stands as a great example of what text can do, the more fun bits of gamebooks between the bullshit bits, and an excellent classic adventure that soon becomes a fascinating modern RPG in its own right. No dice, scribbled margin notes, or agonising little paper-cuts required.

Sorcery! Parts 1 and 2 are out now for Windows and MacOSX from Steam.

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Richard Cobbett

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