Thursday, June 6, 2013


Sorcery! is a 1983 Fighting Fantasy spinoff, recently re-released as an iOS app by inkle. inkle has done something here that takes courage - instead of porting over the Fighting Fantasy system, as with Tin Man Games' House of Hell port, they risk the slings and arrows of nostalgic fans by changing the rules. I never played the original, so I don't know how much it's been changed, but the gamble has paid off. I would, in fact, go so far as to say that Sorcery! is a new quality benchmark for app gamebooks.

The plot is nothing special; to save the realm from an evil wizard, you must go on a long journey to find a MacGuffin called the Crown of Kings. Sorcery! was originally a four-book series, so you don't find the crown in this first volume - instead, you spend the book traversing the Shamutanti Hills en route to the city of Khare. What you encounter - and how you deal with those encounters - depends on which of the many paths you take to Khare.

Sorcery! was originally aimed at an older audience than its parent series, and so set out to tell a more significant tale with deeper mechanics. On the first count, it seemingly failed; it serves up a bog-standard "long journey to find MacGuffin and defeat evil wizard" affair, although hints of a deeper backstory are scattered through the book. The main selling point in the plot, though, is that it spreads out through four books, with the player being able to import his character to the next upon successful completion. Unless I miss my guess, Sorcery! was the first book to actually do this, but many of the best-remembered books of the golden age; Way of the Tiger, Lone Wolf, Fabled Lands, etc., were built on the same conceit. But Sorcery! did it first, so chalk up one point for that.

The mechanical innovations are more significant. An innovative spell system and options for stealth and guile provide multiple solutions to problems, rather then just hacking your way through everything. If battle is too much randomness for you, you can always just take a different path. There are several routes through the Shamutanti Hills, and many allow you to rely on wits or magic instead of swordplay. It's even possible to get through the entire book without once entering combat (excepting a tutorial fight at the beginning) through use of the right paths, spells, and choices. Alternatively, you could risk danger for loot or other advantages. There's enough replay value here that you can keep coming back. Just yesterday I thought I was done, but then read a post on inkle's blog which mentioned things I hadn't even heard of, and now I want to replay again to find the jewelled collar.

When you do have to (or wish to) fight, you'll find that inkle has overhauled the combat system. In place of dice-rolling, you have blind bids in a manner similar to Queen's Blade, although much simpler. Each turn both you and your opponent bid a certain number of Action Points. Whoever puts in more wins the round and inflicts damage proportional to the loser's bid (so bigger attacks leave you exposed). Alternatively, you can bid 0 AP to defend, doing no damage but ensuring your opponent won't do more than one damage either. AP regenerates, but slowly, so a big attack also means you can't bring as much force to bear next turn.

It's fairly brilliant. It solves the age-old problem of making a fight challenging within the limited mechanical confines of a gamebook. There are tradeoffs to consider, but not so many that it becomes a chore to make decisions. A bigger bonus is that each round of combat is described in fair detail, and these descriptions  contain hints to the opponent's next action. Now this is a great idea. No longer are we just stopping the story to roll some dice before proceeding. Instead, we're actively participating in a fight and being rewarded for paying attention.

The biggest success in this book, however, is the writing. Yes, the plot is cliche, developing somewhat but  never rising above the standard 80's fantasy fare. But the characters shine. Jann, the helpful but annoying pixie, is the biggest standout, but nearly every character has personality and life, even the nameless townspeople whom you get some information from and then walk away from. The main character has personality too, or at least develops some in response to your choices.

There are some flaws worthy of mention - aside from the plot, the big one is that looking up spells in the middle of the action is a chore. It was apparently much worse in the original, where you couldn't consult the spellbook at all once the action started, but even this less retarded version is annoying. There's no search function or index, instead you have to page through the spells one by one until you find the one you're curious about. The overworld map, though a nice touch, is tough to move around on, with a larger than necessary player character making the screen cramped, and controls are finicky. And the app itself is a serious battery guzzler, at least it is on my iPod Touch. But none of this seriously impedes the enjoyment. Sorcery! is the best app gamebook in the genre's short history, and a definite must-play.

1 comment:

  1. Hmm, not convinced this is one for me. A great review though, very honest, thanks for sharing your thoughts.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.