Review: Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! Part 1

themap

Sorcery! is a single-player, four-part adventure gamebook series written by Steve Jackson and illustrated by John Blanche. The series was originally published from 1983-5 by Penguin Books and was republished by Wizard books in 2002. The books are part of the Fighting Fantasy series, which are also by Steve Jackson along with Ian Livingstone. Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! for iOS was developed by Inkle and Steve Jackson and features original illustrations by John Blanche, new character art by Eddie Sharam (DC Comics), an interactive map by Mike Schley (Wizards of the Coast), and music by David Wise (Donkey Kong Country). It covers the first book in the series, The Shamutanti Hills. Check out the official trailer:

I played Sorcery! on my iPad.

Plot

prologue

“The story is set on the fictional Fighting Fantasy world of Titan, on the continent known as The Old World. A powerful artifact known as the Crown of Kings, which bestows magical powers of leadership upon its owner, has been stolen from the land of Analand by the cruel Archmage of Mampang Fortress. With the Crown, the Archmage will be able to gain leadership of the lawless and brutal region of Kakhabad and begin an invasion of surrounding kingdoms. The player takes on the role of the lone hero, referred to only as the Analander, who has been dispatched to retrieve the Crown, thereby averting the invasion and saving Analand from terrible disgrace.” (source)

So, basically, your standard RPG plot: lone hero goes off into the wilderness to prove himself, bring honor to his country, and save the world. However, this story was originally conceived in the 80s, when D&D tropes were young, so I’ll give it a pass for being the same basic plotline we’ve seen before…why mess with a good thing? I like saving the world. However, I didn’t find myself very attached to the plot – you are not given any real personal motivation beyond saving the world (I feel like a lot of the best RPGs have a personal aspect to them, like revenge). Sometimes the story throws way too many names/places at you at once, which can be confusing, especially considering that the game is not D&D-based (which most gamers have a least a little familiarity with). Your hero is non-customizable, and the only attribute he has is how much stamina (health) he has. He doesn’t even get a name (and is never referred to as the Analander, at least in the path I took). All that being said, the writing is excellent once you get over the hurdle of names and places – which, let’s face it, is a hurdle in pretty much any high fantasy setting.

Graphics and Sound

3Dterrain

Sorcery! is absolutely stunning. You move around a gorgeous map with 3D scenery, and your character also stands out – he looks like a board game piece or miniature. I found myself spending quite a bit of time just looking at the map. The amount of polish put into how the game looks is apparent – I didn’t come across any graphical glitches, it ran extremely smoothly. I also never experienced a crash. There are so many little details that added to my enjoyment, like how the map looked after my entire journey (you could see the path I took) to how the text of the game was stitched together on parchment paper as it progressed. Everything looks lovingly hand-drawn, except for the inventory, which is photo-realistic. Sometimes, as the story progresses, black-and-white drawings from the original gamebook are presented to you, which are extremely beautiful and detailed (well, as beautiful as an attacking monster can be).

items

Have you ever seen a more beautiful inventory?!

I wish there was more music, but the music that is there is excellent – I noticed a lot of strings, which I love. I wonder if there would be more music depending on your path. Most of the sound in the game comes from ambient noise, such as a rushing waterfall, chirping birds, murmuring townsfolk, or buzzing bees, and it all works excellently to draw you into the world. There are no voices in the game, which makes sense with the sheer amount of text present.

Gameplay

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Actual gameplay is sparse, with the bulk of this app being in what you are reading. Some people might look on this as a negative, but I think that using the app as a vehicle to tell an interactive story is a fantastic idea, one that I hope becomes more prevalent. Sorceryreminded me very strongly of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books – the writing is all in the second-person, and pretty much all of gameplay outside of combat is conducted through “this or that” choices. These are done both through dialogue and by choosing which path to take on the map (complete with tracing your path!). If you decide you made the wrong choice, you can rewind the section you just played – or go back to any other point of decision-making, even all the way back to the beginning. This means that the game doesn’t need to have a save system. You have to eat every day, but if you end up with no rations due to, say, a broken bridge (I’m not bitter or anything), you end up inching by…you just have to be more careful when fighting.

Combat is done through a combination of text and deciding whether to defend or attack (and how strongly to attack). The system is deceptively simple, and it has more nuance than I thought it did initially. If you pay attention to the text during the fight, you will fare a lot better. You’ll be able to figure out when an enemy is going to attack or defend, something that is crucial to your success in battle. I played my character as a flat-out warrior, because my choices meant I always seemed to be drained of stamina and I didn’t want to worry about running out (spells costs stamina). It also seemed a little complicated, because there is no single list of spells – you have to flip through the whole spellbook to find the one you’re looking for, or do it the old-fashioned way and write it down. All spells consist of three letters, which you select by looking up into space through your torn map, like so:

spellcasting

Spellcasting interface.

You may have noticed in some of the screenshots that there is a flag at the top left with an animal. This is your animal spirit whom you can pray to for help during your journey. They will heal you, but you have to wait a while to call on their help again. In the original gamebook, everyone prayed to the goddess Libra; now, the spirit you pray to changes based on your actions and choices. I ended up being a baboon, but it changed many times over the course of the adventure.

All of this is made possible largely by the Inklewriter system that Inkle has come up with. Inklewriter allows you to create branching stories, and it’s free – you can write your own by following that link. Stories can be shared with friends, used in gaming, and converted to a Kindle eBook for only $10.

Final Verdict

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I was initially very torn about this game. On the one hand, it is absolutely gorgeous and a joy to experience. On the other, it only gives you two hours or less of initial gameplay, which then ends with a message to watch for chapter two. However, the visuals and the sheer amount of effort put into the app impressed me. You can also get tons of replayability by either starting a new game or rewinding certain choices you made over the course of one game. If you’re not looking to explore but simply get to the end of the story, you’ll only get about two hours of gameplay – but I think a lot of the value of Sorcery! will come from replaying, exploring different paths, and simply enjoying the writing. I am hoping that future chapters will be even longer. Additionally, $20 is much cheaper than buying all of the gamebooks (especially considering that they are out of print), so if you look at it that way, it’s an excellent value, especially for the interactivity. A note from Inkle’s blog – this reminds me of the lists in Sierra game hint books of things you might have missed the first time!

“If you’re looking for a bit more challenge, here’s a carrot – the current best number of Gold Pieces to finish with that we’ve heard of is 54. Can you do better? Also, have you managed to complete the game without fighting the Manticore at all? Have you saved the Plague Village? Have you found the jewel-studded collar, or the Borrinskin boots? Have you made it through the Black Lotus? And have you heard of Vik?”

If you’re looking for an interactive story that will utterly absorb you for a couple of hours, Sorcery! has got you covered.

Score: A-

You can get Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! for iOS in the app store for $4.99. It’s available for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad and requires iOS 5.0 or later. This app is optimized for the iPhone 5. Check out Inkle’s official site, like them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter.

[Disclaimer: A review code was provided for me to review this game.]

If you played Sorcery!, check out the ending of my first playthrough below – it’s a miracle I survived, honestly. On my next playthrough, I’m going to be smarter! Hopefully.

sorceryending

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6 thoughts on “Review: Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! Part 1

  1. Pingback: Review: Sorcery! Parts 1 and 2 (PC Version) | Nerdy But Flirty

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  5. Wow, thank you for this review! (Actually thank you for your Part II review, which I saw in my feed this morning, and which brought me to this Part I review.)

    I hadn’t heard about SJ’s Sorcery App, but I’ve played a fair amount of Steve Jackson games (going way back, before GURPS) and I know I’ll be grabbing this one.

    Thanks again for the information, and GREAT review.

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