Review: Sorcery! 323 Apr 2015 0
It’s been nearly 18 months since we last traveled with the sorcerer from Analand on their quest for the stolen Crown of Kings. Back then, inkle Studios seemed to be content simply creating incredible digital gamebooks. Since then, however, they released 80 Days and what we would consider a “gamebook” became something entirely different. Gone were the linear paths, the feeling that you’re locked into a story that has a definite beginning, middle, and end. Instead, here was interactive fiction that opened up an entire world and asked you where you wanted to go.
Sorcery 3 is like that.
In fact, Sorcery 3 takes everything we thought we knew about gamebooks—including the original text that it's based on—and turns it on its head. It’s a staggering work of interactive fiction and, combined with the original Sorcery! and Sorcery! 2, becomes an epic tale unlike anything I’ve ever played.
Sorcery 3 begins right where the second chapter ends, with you outside the North Gate of Kharé. If you’ve played the previous chapters, you’ll immediately recognize the game. Back is the same, groovy 3D map. Back is your avatar, looking like the familiar board game piece you've come to know and love. Back is the familiar dotted line tracing your route across the map. At this point, it feels like an old, comfortable slipper. Early on in your journey, you learn about the seven deadly serpents who are hunting you down on their way to tell the Archmage of your quest to retrieve the Crown of Kings. Allowing any of the serpents to survive and spill the beans will make your chances in Sorcery! 4 that much harder. The game could have gone on like this for a couple hours and I would have been absolutely fine with that, but about 20 minutes into your journey, everything changes.
These changes come in the form of lighthouse-like towers that dot the landscape. Where these beacons' gaze falls, the wastelands are transformed to a time nearly 1000 years earlier, before the Baklands were cursed and turned into the inhospitable hellhole that they currently are. So, while your journey begins in a lifeless desert, by using the beacons you will visit ghosts from ages past, bustling cities that only minutes before were lifeless ruins, and marshes and rivers that only seconds ago were arid steppes and fissures. While a wonderful tool for the narrative, the way this is graphically depicted in-game is fantastic. You can rotate the beam of light around the map and, under its gaze, buildings that were shown as ruins before spring from the ground, forests disappear into swamps, and barren desert turns into rich farmland. It's a really cool effect that makes you want to explore everything both in the current time as well as in days past.
The beacons also offer a means of transportation, as you can teleport between beacons as you find them. This you will be doing quite a bit, as you’ll need to alter the beam of light on towers to help you solve puzzles and uncover the location and weakness for each of the seven serpents.
This means that, unlike the previous Sorcery games, you’re not locked into a linear path. You need to travel over the entire map to find each serpent’s weakness, and then uncover its location, preferably in that order. You’ll stumble across terrain that is impossible to cross, only to have to backtrack to use a beacon to alter the land back to a friendlier age when means of crossing were available. All this backtracking gives Sorcery 3 a depth and playtime that dwarfs its predecessors. I finished the first two chapters, combined, in less time than it took me to track down all seven serpents in this new episode.
Much like 80 Days, Sorcery 3 keeps track of how long your journey lasts. By the time I had killed my last serpent, 24 days had passed which was, apparently, too long. I was told that even though I had slain all the serpents, the Archmage had gotten wind of my journey. I will be trying again. Much like 80 Days, the replayability here is fantastic, simply trying to beat your best time through the Baklands.
The combat in the game is unchanged from the previous titles which is the game’s only real downside. I’ve said it about the previous Sorcery! titles as well (and I know everyone disagrees with me), but I do not like the combat system in these games. While I’ve been told that there are cues in the text indicating how creatures will react, I find the text during combat nebulous at best and downright misleading at worst. It’s not a major deal, because no matter how badly you fare in combat you can always replay the combat knowing a little better what to expect and what cues to look for, but that means many combats I replayed two, three, or more times simply to avoid the game telling me how shameful my combat was. Yes, that hurts. It reached a point where I dreaded combat encounters and would select choices to avoid combat as much as possible. Before you start writing your comments, telling me that I just don't get it, let me stop you. I fully agree. I just do not "get" the combat in the Sorcery! games. It's a testament to the writing, storytelling, and everything else within the game that I don't care. I'd rather spend my time exploring this world and solving its puzzles than guessing at numbers.
If this is your first foray in the Sorcery! world, you can create a new character and start fresh at the beginning of the Seven Serpents, but where Sorcery! 3 shines is after playing through both parts one and two with the same character and then importing them into this chapter with an inventory and history intact. There is a truly epic feeling as you use a cap that you found back in the Shamutanti Hills to cast a spell, or run into a character from Khare out in the wilderness. There is a sense of time and accomplishment that just doesn’t happen that often in video games.
Whether you’re continuing your quest or starting a new one, Sorcery! 3 is unlike anything you’ve ever played. Its mix of puzzle-solving, combat, and choose-your-own-adventure stylings have created a unique form of entertainment that I cannot wait to get back into. Once again, inkle Studios has bested themselves in creating the gold standard for interactive fiction, and causing us all to start wondering when the next chapter will arrive.
Sorcery! 3 was played on an iPad Air.