Review: Sorcery!

By Dave Neumann 10 May 2013 0
Fun Fact: They originally wanted to call it "Sorcery?", but the Exclamation Lobby vetoed it. Fun Fact: They originally wanted to call it "Sorcery?", but the Exclamation Lobby vetoed it.

If you would have told the 14-year-old me that in about 30 years I’d be able to play those gamebooks I was always messing with, but on an electronic device that fit in my pocket, I would have probably asked you what the hell you were doing in my bedroom. Then I’d probably laugh at the crazy man in front of me and say something stupid like, “Sure you can. And I suppose you can play Talisman electronically, too.” And then you’d laugh and laugh and I’d laugh and laugh and somehow it would end up with me cooking you breakfast.

Or something. I haven’t thought, or written extensively, about the subject at all. Honestly.

Turns out, however, that you’d be right. Those beloved Sorcery! gamebooks of my youth are being converted to digital versions with the first volume, The Shamutanti Hills being released last week.

We’ve seen other gamebooks -- like the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks -- on iOS before and not without success. Some of them are quite fun and they all stay true to the source material's mechanics, acting more like gussied up Kindle books than video games. With Sorcery!, however, this standard template has been thrown out the window. Inkle Studios took a chance and turned Sorcery! into something that resembles a game much more than it resembles a book.

So, would my 14-year-old self be happy with the results? Mostly, yes.

The first thing you’ll notice about the app is the glorious map on which you’ll track your hero’s progress toward Kharé, Cityport of Traps, which is the endpoint of this leg of the adventure. Instead of the usual gamebook entries (“Turn to paragraph 104 to go left”) here you drag your figure to the location you want to go and then watch him slide his way to the destination. The difference in immersion between this method and flipping digital pages creates a true sense of exploration and advancement that you don’t get from regular gamebooks. Usually in those the directions seem arbitrary, and the orientation of your current quest location in relation to others is really impossible to follow. Here, you can see the entire countryside laid before you, plan and see your options. Did I mention the map is glorious? It is rendered in a pseudo-3D fashion that I can’t really describe…you need to see it in motion to fully appreciate it.

The other major change from its Fighting Fantasy ancestors is the combat system. Combat in the gamebooks was a relatively simple affair. Roll dice and add your strength. Compare to your enemy, and repeat until one of you was a bloody puddle. Instead of dice, the Sorcery! app has you choosing an attack strength by sliding your character forward toward your enemy. The farther forward you slide the more power you attack with. Sounds easy, but if your opponent defends (doesn’t move forward at all) you’ll do minimal damage, and have spent much of your energy for later turns. The trick is to anticipate what your opponent will do -- this will conserve your energy while still doing the most damage possible. Combats are visually pleasing, with you and your enemy shown as paper cut-outs, with your figure changing his stance depending on how far forward your character slides. The effects of each attack round are told in well-written and engaging text, which keeps combat interesting and fairly exciting. This is quite the achievement, as combat in most gamebooks can easily become a repetitive and tedious affair.

'Tis but a scratch! 'Tis but a scratch!

The issue with combat is its opaque nature. It turns into a guessing game of how far forward to slide, with no real indication of what a good guess would be. Unique though it may be, this combat engine can seem just as random as rolling dice, except with dice you come to expect the randomness. This implementation gives you a sense of control that doesn’t exist. It's still interesting, especially when you have few hit points and a bad choice can mean life or death.

Compared to the repetitive combat, the magic system is wonderful. Your character carries a spellbook filled with cantrips, each denoted by a 3-letter word. You can examine your spellbook at any time, until you’re asked if you want to cast a spell. At this point, you need to have memorized an appropriate spell because your spellbook is off-limits. Casting a spell brings up an interesting interface consisting of three floating groups of letters from which you can choose the word corresponding to a spell in the book. The app assists a little by highlighting letters that cast actual spells but from an effect standpoint, you stand alone. Pick incorrectly, and it could be disastrous. This memorization aspect of spellcasting really makes magic seem, well…magical. Hell, even playing a D&D wizard doesn’t feel this real. Here you literally act like a Vancian wizard and need to memorize your spells before leaving town. I can see some people being turned off by the memorization aspect, however. Luckily, for them, the magic is completely optional. You can play through as a warrior, never casting a spell, and still succeed at your quest.

So, all in all, it sounds like a wonderfully immersive adventure up to this point. Why do I only “mostly” love it?

Firstly, there seem to be quite a few bugs in the game. At one early point in the game, you are allowed to buy stuff in a village and, apparently they take credit because when I left I had a couple items and -6 gold in my inventory. In another case I was battling a creature, but I started the battle with only 2 hit points. I couldn’t beat the creature, but the game kept only offering me the option to try again. Which led to me dying again, and again, and again. I seemed to be stuck in a loop, and the game didn’t really seem to know what to do with me.

Another issue is that every option you take puts a marker on the map which lets you rewind to that decision. But even the choices you don’t make end up with markers on them. So, if you make a choice you don’t like, you can just tap the other decision’s marker and choose that one. Part of the fun of gamebooks is the rogue-like sense that you’re one paragraph away from dying, and having to start all over again. This sabotages the game's tension and severely limits replayability. In fact, it removes replayability. There is no going back and seeing what will happen the next time through, you ARE going to make it to the end of the book successfully. There is no reason to go back and replay the game once you finish, because all your options are there and laid out for you on the map.

-6 gold, eh? No worries, I hear the Cantopani Mall takes plastic. -6 gold, eh? No worries, I hear the Cantopani Mall takes plastic.

To be fair, this app is based off of the shortest and simplest book of the series. When I would play through the gamebooks, I would always try to race through the Shamutanti Hills as quickly as I could so that I could get to the jewel that was Kharé, Cityport of Traps, so maybe the replayability issues are being overstated here. You can remove all the markers by resetting the app, but I'm not sure that the options you don't choose should be available to you on the same playthrough.

Overall, I cannot complain too much about the first (of hopefully all four) entry into the Sorcery! series. It sets the standard for all future gamebooks on digital devices, and I probably wouldn't consider playing another one in the pseudo-real-book style we've had before Sorcery! came along. It's that cool. Replayability and length of play will, hopefully, not be such a big issue once the other apps in the series are released, but as a stand alone app, it does become an issue.

I want more, and I want it now. I think that's a better indication of how much I enjoyed the app than any numerical grade I can give the game, so take the following with a grain of salt.

Review: Sorcery!

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