First published in 1983, Steve Jackson's Sorcery book series told of an epic quest across ruined kingdoms and wastelands in search of a stolen crown with mystic powers. What made them unique was that you played as the adventurer, flicking from page to page, battling monsters and casting spells.
Despite the success of the series, its setup faded as video games came into their own. But even as we get the opportunity to play out similar epic fantasies in Dragon Age, developer Inkle has ported Sorcery to digital formats, crafting a fond look back at those old choose-your-own adventure-books.
I say "ported," because ultimately Inkle has not reimagined the books, instead updating the mechanics for the computer, stripping away the page-turning clunkiness and streamlining the whole experience.
Instead of having to flip from page to page, choices in Sorcery are represented on beautifully drawn maps, evoking the feel of playing through an old fantasy novel. Rather than turning to page 326 to turn left, you move your character icon to the corresponding flag on the map, where you’re greeted by another snippet of text from the novels – and more decisions.
In other situations – say, when a giant blocks your path – you’re simply given a list of choices, with the game flowing from one choice to another, sometimes throwing up an illustration taken straight from the books. While it's a fairly basic system, it translates the core of the books well enough, without the busywork of managing resources and items. And the choices afforded during play often come back to aid you later, in a way with which many modern RPGs still struggle.
In combat and exploration, stamina serves as your primary resource. It’s a measure of health, but also energy. If it all vanishes, you die, so there’s a balance to be struck between helping everyone and keeping your head down. Thankfully, the game allows you to rewind choices in the event of your death. While on one hand that undermines the at-times brutal nature of the adventure, it also means a frayed rope or stray stone won’t cause you to lose the last of your stamina and be forced back to the beginning.
You’ll most often lose stamina through battle, and while there is tension in facing down a manticore with only a handful of hitpoints left, combat is still the game’s weakest aspect. Facing off against an enemy, you choose the strength of your blows. If you hit harder than your opponent, they take damage, but your next attack loses some of its power. Alternatively, you can block, taking minimum damage from an attack and allowing you to hit harder in the next round. Unfortunately, the combat system is undermined by its own simplicity, meaning swordfights often boil down to simply hammering at an opponent until they fall over.
Much more interesting is the game’s sorcery system, which can act as a way to get around potentially tedious combat. In many situations, spell-casting options are available. Cleverly, the game has you select from strings of three letter words, each with their own effect. “HOW” for instance, will give you information on finding a way forward, while “ZAP” sends out a bolt of electricity. But spells also cost stamina, so again you'll have to balance exploration against resources. It’s an interesting balance to strike, given how much the game encourages you to turn over every rock and look inside every cave.
As you set off on your quest, first through the wastelands of Shamutanti Hills, then the walled city of Khare, the world feels interesting and alive. There’s a sense, as you move past ruined giant villages, or help an insect man with his farm, that you’re merely a small part of much larger goings-on. It always feels as if there are things of equal importance taking place simultaneously – though sometimes that can make you feel like you're missing out. As the sheer breadth of the world became apparent, I found myself carefully considering my choices.
In its current state, the game's PC version only spans the first two books, and as I completed the second, I found myself wondering how my decisions would impact the third. But the branching choices offer a great deal of replayability while waiting for the next chapter to land.
Many of Sorcery's strengths owe to the writing of the original series, now over three decades old. But in its adaptation, Inkle has taken that writing and wrapped it in gameplay, which while not ground-breaking, enhances the feel of the original books immensely and brings Sorcery soundly into the 21st century.