Review: Sorcery! 422 Sep 2016 1
Review: Sorcery! 4
Released 22 Sep 2016
I remember the first time I trudged my way through Lord of the Rings around the age of 12 or 13. As Frodo and company headed to the Grey Havens for Frodo’s sad farewell (spoilers!) I remember being struck by the sheer epic nature of the story I’d been reading. It was a feeling that even my sixth reading of Charlotte’s Web failed to generate. That sense of witnessing a journey where events that I’d only read about a week or so ago seemed like a lifetime. Remember how happy everyone was at Bilbo’s party? (again, spoilers!) Remember meeting Strider? (who was really Aragorn? Spoilers!) I felt like Picard with his Ressikan flute, having experienced a lifetime over a short period of time (Star Trek spoilers!). Did I mention that I was a really big nerd? (Not a spoiler)
Welcome to Sorcery! 4. While not quite as epic as Lord of the Rings, that same feeling of surfaced as I wandered around the monstrosity that is Mampang Fortress and neared the end of a journey that began nearly three-and-a-half years ago.
The first three installments of the Sorcery! series have each gotten better than the last with Part 3 being one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had on an iPad. Unfortunately, the fourth and final entry in the series is the first to not exceed its forebears. What prevents Sorcery! 4 from reaching the heights of Sorcery! 3 is the lack of surprise or innovation. The trek across the Baklands was raised to greatness via the use of time-altering puzzles that let you drift back and forth through the past. There’s nothing like that here. Instead you’re merely left with a fantastic piece of fairly straightforward interactive fiction.
Sorcery! 4 drops the Analander onto the outskirts of the dreaded Mampang Fortress, home of the Archmage who has stolen the Crown of Kings. The end of your journey seems to be near, but it isn’t. The fortress is huge and after 15-20 hours of play I still haven’t found my way to the Archmage. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ve actually encountered the Archmage a few times, but discovering how to bring him low is part of the fun (and part of the game I have yet to solve).
Mampang itself is a bustling city, complete with merchants, monasteries, and more. It feels far less sinister than it should. Yes, there are spots of brutality and darkness, but for the most part it feels like wandering around Khare back in Sorcery! 2. Even the guards which wander the city leave you well enough alone for the most part and the ones who don’t are usually easily mollified. That said, the secrets of Mampang are hard to decipher and much time will be spent trying to discover a way into the outer and then inner city and finally the tower of the Archmage.
One way that Mampang is made to feel like a bastion of darkness is the removal of save points inside the fortress. In the other Sorcery! titles, you could always retreat backwards to a decision point and pick another option. Sure, it felt like cheating, but it also prevented you from suffering a catastrophic end and having to start over from scratch. Sorcery! wasn’t meant to be a roguelike which, considering how many ways you can die simply by turning the page, is a good thing. That ends inside the Fortress. If you die here, that’s it. No rewinding back. There is a reset mechanism you’ll have to discover that drops you within the walls of the Fortress along with some penalties to your health, but that spot is always the same and it’s not going to be near where you met your untimely end. As such, you’ll be seeing the same content over and over again (unless you somehow make it through the book without dying) which makes you feel a bit like Sisyphus. Sure, the second (and third...and fourth...and fifth…) times through you know what to avoid and how to, eventually, get back to where you were, but you still have to redo everything you had once done. As much as I love this series, this repetition is getting a bit old.
On top of that, there are two districts of the Fortress that are a slog. I won’t spoil their contents, other than saying these sections feel like they were written by an 11-year-old me who had just gotten his hardbound copies of the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual and was dropping everything that sounded cool into my homebrew dungeon without considering consistency, pacing, or logic. It’s especially unfun when you’re very low on stamina or don’t have the ingredients to cast spells and simply cannot overcome some encounters and have to turn back. I’m sure that at least part of the answers I seek are within these districts, but I’m loathe to head back in to look.
I’m sounding awfully negative, aren’t I? I shouldn’t be. Despite its flaws, it’s still a tremendous piece of interactive fiction and one that I’m happy to keep playing until the Crown of Command is safely back in Analand. There are disguises to find, deities to chat with, trips back to Khare and the Shamutanti Hills, and unexpected allies to uncover.
If you’ve played through the previous installments, picking up the fourth is a no-brainer. You’ll bump into characters you’ve met along your journey and use items you nabbed way back in the Shamutanti Hills. If you’re a newbie, it’s still worth the price of admission, but I would recommend picking up the entire series and starting from scratch to get the most out of it. Otherwise, it’s a bit like reading about the Battle of the Pelennor Fields without having sat through the Council of Elrond (spoilers?).