Steve Jackson's Sorcery!

In 1983, Steve Jackson developed a series of “adventure gamebooks” that combined the thrill and suspense of Choose Your Own Adventures with the character development and role playing mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons (albeit in a much simpler form). Continuing with the modern trend of everything old becoming new again, Sorcery! returns as an interactive experience for the iOS that offers veterans and newcomers alike to experience an adventure fraught with peril and riches.

Sorcery! The Shamutanti Hills is the first of a series of volumes in the Crown of Kings storyline. After suffering through a series of nightmares involving the eponymous Crown of Kings and a malevolent force, the hero is sent on a journey to the Shamutanti Hills in order to seek out the magical artifact. Standing between home and the Hills is the land of Analand, a vast region marked by various settlements, terrifying creatures and deadly traps. The majority of the game’s action and narrative takes place entirely within parchments of text that describes the journey and the twists and turns it takes. For every stop along the road, the player must make contextual decisions based on various hurdles, be it forks in the road or confronting bandits, that block their path.

Outside of Analand’s elements, the adventurer will be forced to fight against a small bestiary of dangerous creatures including vicious bats, shadowy assassins and ferocious beasts in a combat mechanic that is easy enough to grasp. Attacking a target is done by adjusting an Attack Power bar that determines the strength of the attack (0.0 is a defensive posture, 10.0 is an incredibly strong attack). In order to land a hit, the player’s attack strength must be higher than the enemy’s, which you won’t know until the attack is made. By following the narrative on the screen, it is easy to determine when to defend and when to strike. Additional combat skills come from the use of magic spells that allow for the creation of offensive spells (lightning bolts, fireballs and familiars) as well as those that can persuade enemies to run away or fall into a defenseless stupor. A spellbook identifies what three letters are needed to create certain types of magic and some spells require the use of a special item. Magic spells can also be used outside of combat to make certain navigational obstacles easier to overcome. Unlike most role playing games, combat in Sorcery offers no rewards in experience or gold after a fight as the adventure carries on immediately after. There are chances to earn gold and buy additional weapons, gear and rations but for the most part the game keeps you on the move.

Analand is a dangerous place and as such, death can come swiftly and easily. Unfortunately, evading death by monster or traps has been reduced to a guessing game backed by trial and error. Should the player find themselves confronted with a life or death situation, the narrative doesn’t necessarily hint as to what the right decision should be. For example, I thought that rushing forward would help me avoid a trap but instead I ended up dying from a different trap immediately after (with no indication that the second trap existed). After being killed, you can go back to your last action by tapping on the “rewind” button located on the character’s tombstone or to any previously played section by tapping an icon on the map. However, praying to your chosen spirit god will keep you safe from the consequences of a wrong decision. Praying before a battle or using it to seek guidance will open up additional conversational and combat options. Naturally, assistance from the gods is severely limited, so use it wisely.

Despite the added interactivity, Sorcery! is an antiquated experience that offers some degree of novel charm. Its true that many of the in-game decisions are somewhat obtuse and any sense of accomplishment is earned by nothing more than a blind guess. However, because there are so many opportunities to branch out into different paths and experiences, the journey to the Shamutanti Hills will be different for several playthroughs. While the game moves along at a steady pace, I found myself fumbling over an unexpected labyrinth towards the end of the adventure. Considering how straightforward the adventure had been up to this point, I felt that I didn’t have the tools to easily navigate the goblin cave and it was very easy for me to get turned around or accidentally stumble my way back to the beginning of the maze. Although I eventually made it through, only after I completed the maze did I think to check the spellbook for any useful tricks that would have made the section easier to get through.

Sorcery! The Shamutanti Hills is likely to appeal to only those who recognize Choose Your Own Adventure books as a staple of their childhood. The gameplay is not very deep nor is it a graphical tour de force with character and monster designs resembling paper cutouts and the journey marked by pinpoints atop a 2.5D rendering of Analand (that said, the assets are well crafted and pulled from the original book). It won’t take very long to get through the game but the multiple branching paths promises a fresh adventure for additional playthroughs. A wonderful novelty, Sorcery! exists to serve a niche group of users and will struggle to find a captivated mainstream audience.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.