If you’ve played adventure gamebooks before, such as the Fighting Fantasy or the Lone Wolf series, you’ve likely heard of Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!, which follows much in line with the rest of the Fighting Fantasy series but introduces novel spellcasting and prayer mechanics. Inkle Studios, the developers of 80 days [Official Site], have re-imagined the game for mobile and now computer gaming as well, and the question I asked myself prior to playing it was whether it improved upon the written version – and it turns out the answer to that question is quite a bit.
As a traveler hailing from Analand and tasked with recovering the Crown of Kings, the first two sections of this four-part series will have you traversing the Shamutanti Hills, a place of wilderness dotted with small and mostly poor villages, in order to reach Kharé, Cityport of Thieves, where I found the game’s pace to really pick up. The regions are detailed in an overworld map that resembles those seen in tabletop role-playing games, and depending on how you plan on playing you’ll visit specific regions and miss out on others.
In most aspects Sorcery! plays out as a regular gamebook-style adventure game: you guide your character through a series of meetings, events and challenges and based on your decisions a path is carved out for you in the game’s story. There are, however, two things that set it apart: the first is the possibility of casting spells, which you can find in your grimoire or discover as you play; and the second is combat. Spellcasting adds an interesting and open-ended facet to the gameplay, as I often found myself pouring through the spellbook to see if I could find alternate solutions that would either lead to a smaller stamina loss or get me a better result – with no hand-holding as to what you can do, it’s mostly up to your interpretation. What could’ve been a tragic encounter with a buzzing beehive turned into an opportunity for both food and materials, as instead of trying to fight them I charmed them into my control and sent them away while I harvested their hive; and that time when I was to stay in jail for a couple of days was easily avoided as I cast the cell’s lock open and snuck away. Pouring through the spellbook and learning what the spells I had did was one of the first and most valuable things I did, as several scenarios had me using them in unexpected ways to avert danger or progress without great hindrance.
The second feature, combat, did not fare as well. Combat is essentially a game of rock, paper, scissors: you can allocate a certain amount of points into an attack or defend yourself – if the amount of attack points you used exceed that of your foe, you deal damage to him (more if he tried to attack you as well, less if he defended); if you defend yourself, you recover a few points and take a single point of damage from your enemy. As any game of rock, paper, scissors, it quickly devolves into a clumsy dance of guesswork and luck as you try your best to mitigate the inevitable damage you will receive, with the text that describes your foes’ actions rarely clarifying what they will do. Fortunately, opportunities to recover lost stamina are plenty and I never felt as if I was being led to failure due to attrition.
A third and novel element in the game is your patron god – there are several of them, and which spirit sponsors you will depend on your actions throughout the game. As I waded through the first part by mostly avoiding danger and being cunning, sparing the wildlife and being fatal only when necessary, I saw my god shift from the Gorilla to the more cunning and devious Baboon, which better fit my guile-fueled playthrough. These gods can grant you boons if you pray to them, though you can’t tap this resource often – they will only listen to you if you call them when truly in need, and by keeping that in mind I called upon my god only twice throughout my game, when failure was certain otherwise. They ended up acting as a ‘get out of jail’ card for extreme circumstances, and the notion that I couldn’t abuse of their good-will meant I was never driven to exploit this feature (or to learn if it is, indeed, exploitable).
A second way to avert failure is an addition I personally welcomed: rather than have you discard the hours you spent on a journey when death comes, Sorcery! features a rewind button that allows you to go back on your decisions and on the overworld map to the point before you dug your own grave. Anyone familiar with gamebooks knows how death can often come in arbitrary ways – decisions you took that you couldn’t possibly be aware of their fatal nature prior to taking them – and a simple and quick way to avert them was very welcomed. I’d recommend to exercise some caution when using it, however, as a gamebook’s fun rests mostly in feeling the weight of your decisions, and backing out of everything that harms you will remove said weight – by using it only when I took a tragically fatal decision, I never felt like I was abusing the system.
As any good adventure game, Sorcery! is mostly carried by its writing and the multiple pathways you can take in your quest. With lacking combat and a very noticeable absence of a soundtrack, what sets it apart from other interactive fiction games is the open-ended nature given to it by the varied spellcasting: the nearly fifty spells, and the fact that some of them require ingredients that you may or may not have, means that rather than having only the three or four explicit solutions, you can often resolve an issue in an alternate manner up to your discovery – this increased player agency, more than the story itself, is what held my attention the most.
Sorcery! Parts 1 & 2 was played on retail code provided by the publisher.