Friday 14 March 2014

Review: Sorcery!

It's been a long wait for Sorcery! to make the transition from iOS to Android but the wait is finally over, so it's time to grab your sword and step into the Old World.

In a world where Tin Man Games are monopolising the gamebook-to-mobile conversions, and with excellent results, it's difficult for another developer to come along and throw their hat in the ring. But Inkle Studios have done just that with a new take on Steve Jackon's lo-fi magnum opus Sorcery! It's not a re-invention of the wheel, but it's damned well close.

"It's not a re-invention of the wheel, but it's damned well close"

Anyone familiar with the original Sorcery! books will know what a vast undertaking a digital conversion is going to be. For the first time we're treated to a sprawling epic gamebook that feels more epic in scope than, say, Forest of Doom or Island of the Lizard King. The books, beginning with The Shamutanti Hills, acted as an overarching story akin to the Fabled Lands books, where the same adventurer would continue their quest throughout four tomes.

The first in the series, which Sorcery! covers right now, follows the adventurer through to Khare, the infamous Cityport of Traps. The story goes that you, the brave adventurer, are searching for the legendary Crown of Kings, which takes you through the Shamutanti Hills. This is a place riddles with death, where evil creatures stalk the land and any moment could be your last. Your destination is Mampang Fortress, a citadel in High Xamen.

"Purists may be disappointed by the lack of dice in the game"

The major difference between Inkle Studios' version of a gamebook and everyone else's is their user interface. Here, you don't have pages to flip through. Instead, the game is played over a detailed map of the area, dragging your character to certain flags representing locations and events. These are often in lieu of the traditional options asking you which page you need to turn to. It almost feels like a boardgame merged with a gamebook, but it works well.

Text comes is small chunks rather than reams of writing, appearing smoothly on the screen when you select from the options you are offered. This works well for the mobile format, offering a beautiful and satisfying way to digest the story as you play. 

Purists may be disappointed by the lack of dice in the game. Instead of rolling a pair of trusty bones, Sorcery! opts for a more strategic approach, setting you against your opponent in a duel. It's a game of second-guessing your enemy, using the description of their mannerisms to predict how they are going to attack. You and your opponent each have an attack power slider, which you can increase or decrease depending on the force of your attack. If it looks like they are going in for a particularly violent attack, it would be prudent to defend and save your attack power for a more opportune moment. Defending replenishes your attack power, allowing you to push for a more devastating thrust when your opponent is looking vulnerable. Big hits mean more damage, but the game makes you think about how you will play it, making for a fun, tactical diversion. Each bout of combat throws up a nice description too, making what could have been a relatively boring fight much more visceral.

"Sound plays a key role on Sorcery!"

When you're not smacking goblins around you'll be traversing the wild land of the Old World. Sound plays a key role on Sorcery! creating an immersive atmosphere not yet explored by other digital gamebooks. You will hear crows caw and hear the sweeping waves slosh against the rocks as you journey every onward towards your destination.

Because there are no pages, there is no more using your fingers as bookmarks to turn back in case you do something you shouldn't have. Instead, the game allows you to replay from each location, meaning that death really isn't such a big deal as it was in the games. 

An aspect that Steve Jackson introduced to the Sorcery! series was the magic system, which revolved around a system of keywords that were to be memorised in order to execute them. The acronym spells are back in the digital version, but with a mini-game implemented in order to use them. At certain moments in the game you will be able to cast a spell, which involves selecting three letters from a nebulous cloud. It's a simple mechanic and one that doesn't feel particularly engaging. If they changed combat so dramatically then it would have been a better idea to have a completely different magic system involving the same amount of strategy put into fights. As it stands it seems quite throwaway.

But for an app that's going to set you back a few quid, it's nothing to sniff at. Inkle have done a fantastic job of realising the Sorcery! world through a unique lens, keeping things fast-paced and tactical rather than just a dice fest. More customisation would have been a bonus, and the magic system is far too simple, but all-in-all Sorcery! is a great realisation of a classic gamebook.


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