Note: Sorcery!: The Shamutanti Hills (Part 1) and Sorcery! 2: Kharé – The Cityport of Traps were released separately in 2013, and bundled together in 2016, and this review covers the bundle of Part 1 & 2.
Growing up, I read my fair share of choose your own adventure books, often resulting in twisted Goosebumps-esque deaths. Trying to turn back the pages and game the system for a halfway decent ending was always a blast, but the end results were frequently some variation of the grim reaper’s visit. Thus, when Sorcery! Parts 1 & 2 were gently placed in my hands, I wondered if I could recapture, or perhaps even surpass, my childhood experiences with the genre. As the series is still in progress, it remains to be seen how far developers Inkle can reinvigorate the genre.
Though I am unfamiliar with the original book series, I find this a benefit—going in without an inkling of how any twist could happen, or what the grander plot could lead to only heightened my sense of adventure. At the beginning, players can choose a male or female character before the game runs through a basic introduction of spells and the fighting system. Soon, you are off on your way to save the world, with a vague notion of finding an all-important crown that haunts your dreams.
Will you be a sword-wielding warrior, a cunning mage, or a clumsy mix? During encounters, one can sometimes cast spells at the cost of health, items, or for free, which may alleviate or completely negate fights and tense situations. Or, you can swing your sword at the nearest breathing thing and grapple with what I consider a discombobulating battle system. In fights, players can move their character from left to right across the screen, with distance indicating how hard a swing is cast. The stronger the swing, the less strength one has for the next turn. Defending recuperates strength for stronger hits, although you still take some block damage if the enemy attacks. If both parties attack, the stronger swing hits. At the end of the fight, if you decide you have lost too much health, you can choose to rewind. Supposedly, the text that appears after each clash gives a hint as to the enemy’s subsequent attack strength, but having no wits to parse such intricate meaning, I staunchly became a mage instead (ha).
Since one cannot refer to the spellbook in encounters, mages typically want to familiarize themselves with the 48 spells available, as well as acquire rare items needed for particular spells. Each spell comprises of three letters (HOT, for example) and when one decides to cast a spell, a sky full of up to four floating letters appears (somewhat randomized each time) and players select an available letter for each position in the sequence. Before completing the cast, players can look at the resultant spell and description, and adjust the chosen letters if the spell seems ineffective for the given situation. Thus, a longer play time could ensue, but not necessarily a worse-off trade for being a stab-guessing warrior. With repeat playthroughs, it’s clear that the choice of spell also affects the outcomes of applicable encounters. A handful of conflicts cannot be avoided by spells alone, though, so mages still need to keep their reading comprehension skills sharp, or use spells to lighten the battle load.
New experiences trigger when moving your character piece on the map to designated spots; sometimes there are options, and sometimes there are not. At any time, players can rewind to any previous trigger point and start over: dislike a conversation decision? Rewind. Regret going left instead of right? Rewind. Unsatisfied with gameplay time for the price you paid? Rewind — and do it all over again, like I did for Part 1.
Two things stood out in my repeated playthrough: the kid in me loved that I didn’t have to remember the page number or fingermark past pages in attempt to avoid doom; and the options branch out more than I expected. I ended up playing through Part 1 again to see what it was like to not reverse any decisions that didn’t lead to death, and also to contrast that experience with one that games the system as much as it allows to best benefit. Still, in my second playthrough, my stubbornness in sticking to a chosen path (one oft found in RPGs with branching endings) led to some hardships, though I muscled through. I settled on a somewhat haphazard style of blazing through neutral/good experiences and rewinding the worst. Until I hit Part 2, I had not fully comprehended how a fork in the road could lead to vastly different outcomes, but fret not, as Sorcery! Part 2 not only encourages rewind scumming, it actively gives players the option to do so and I took it. However, everyone gets one save: No alternate timelines are possible, so choose your final decisions wisely.
Brimming with character, the overworld map overlays carved letters on seemingly hand painted watercolor landscapes. Instead of bursts of color, muted shades permeate much of the journey, much like the pages of a book, worn and faded over time. Encounter pages scroll up the screen in patchworks sewn together, with the occasional sketch for a monster or NPC. Much of the character artwork brings to mind old European folklore — somewhat gnarly, yet enticing. Like the subdued colors, the audio mostly comprises of appropriate sound effects and no voice acting, with a song at the end of each chapter. Rather than dampen the mood, I actually enjoyed the lack of sound, and found myself delving straight into the text and imagining the things I would hear based on what I read.
Recalling my finger-marking days for books of this genre, Sorcery! has streamlined the entire experience — I’m often in the “books are better” camp, but in all honesty, choose your adventure iterations firmly belong in this format. Rather than holding and flipping pages, the game automatically files them for you to bring up at will. Yet, the player is still the master of their own destiny; one can only keep track of so many timelines and connected paths to craft their best possible way. Although I miss the experience of turning paper to my demise, the scrolling pages upon selecting a choice satisfies the craving. Additionally, I encountered no control hiccups, thus transferring the ownership of player progression smoothly.
While Part 1 mostly exists to settle the player into the world of Sorcery!, Part 2 breaks open the cookie jar and scatters crumbs all over the place. Many characters the player runs into are self-driven, with very few altruistic people who simply want to help — or, I never ran into those characters, who knows? Regardless, the plot thickens significantly, and one falls into some heavily weighted choices near the end(?) of Part 2. I had days where I played longer than expected because I just had to find out what happened next, days where I kept thinking about the choices I made and how they might have been different, and days I spent itching to continually remake my decisions. Suffice to say, I’m looking forward to finishing the series and seeing what lies in wait for the denizens. If you’ve ever spent some time traipsing through choose your adventure books and loved it, Sorcery! will not only reinvigorate that passion but also convert you to the “digital is better” camp.