I just said in my last preview that “they don’t make ’em like they used to” is basically nonsense in the world of video games. Seriously, “old school” may as well just be “school” these days. We’re so far through the looking glass of throwbacks that now old game books are being made into iOS games.
Pull up a chair — a real chair, not a virtual one, you whippersnappers — and hear a tale of a bygone age when people purchased things called “books” that were made of “paper” and worked without a battery of any kind. Some of these books worked as games in and of themselves. The most well-known of these were “Choose Your Own Adventure” books where the reader had agency in how the story unfolded by means of being presented choices of which page to turn to next at critical points in the tale. For example, “To head into the mountains, turn to page 54. To walk near the river, turn to page 87.” Some of these choices even lead to the protagonist (namely you, the reader) getting killed.
A more complex variation on Choose Your Own Adventure books came in the form of books like the Lone Wolf and the Fighting Fantasy series. Now not only did you make choices for the protagonist, but you also had statistics that influenced various outcomes. Things like “Endurance” or “Stamina” points (they’re all hit points dagnabbit), sections of the books where combat occured, special abilities that could be invoked — all of these things were tracked on a separate piece of paper alongside the book, allowing a kind of “solitaire” Dungeons and Dragons before vidja games came along and made it so easy for you kids today and you don’t even know how easy you have it and somebody get me my prune juice.
There ended up being quite a few Fighting Fantasy books when all was said and done (Wikipedia suggests there were over 60) before electronic doodads came along and killed them for what I assumed would be forever. The Sorcery! series of Fighting Fantasy books was unique because it took place outside of the formal chronology of the Fighting Fantasy universe over the course of four books. The first of these was and is The Shamutanti Hills, which was originally published all the way back in 1983. And now, 20 years later, it represents the return of Fighting Fantasy.
Aside from the “Choose Your Own Adventure” plot branching, the Sorcery! series introduced a spellcasting system where you had access to 48 spells, but like a real wizard that had to walk uphill both ways to wizard school in his day, you had to memorize them. Each spell consisted of a 3 letter combination: “ZAP” is the most easily cited and easy to remember example, as it cast a lightning bolt. When presented with the opportunity to cast a spell in the books, a series of 3 letter combinations would be presented, many of them false spell words that would lead to no spell being cast. Obviously one could cheat by consulting the spell list (personally, I never stored the spells on my TI-85 graphing calculator), but that actually killed some of the fun of trying desperately to remember a spell you knew would be perfect for the situation you were in. There was also a simple combat system for when you needed to go toe to toe with a hostile creature that involved either rolling dice or flicking through the book itself randomly as each page had images of dice on the bottom for a physical dice-free equivalent.
The presentation of the iOS remake of Sorcery! captures all of this pitch perfectly. It starts with the beautiful, lush spellbook, containing many of the original illustrations but with color and life popping off the screen. You’ll want to spend plenty of time here not just admiring the look of it but familiarizing yourself with the actual spells, because trust me, you’ll need them. The map has an astonishing 3D effect like something out of the maps in the Lord of the Rings films. You can scroll around on it, and it feels very much alive and real. There is a theme song of sorts for the opening and ending screens, but mostly what you get is tone-specific and appropriate noise like the sounds of nature or dripping water in a cave. During combat, you hear the awesome pounding of drums, the fierceness of which depends on what is actually happening as the battle progresses. Your character exists on the screen as a replica of a painted miniature one might find at a gaming table. To transition between what used to be “page to page,” you drag him around to points on the map, giving you a real feel for your journey through the Shamutanti Hills.
Without question, the presentation is this game’s strongest aspect. The text is presented on something like parchment on the screen, and as this is an adaptation of the book, you’ll be doing a lot of reading. When you make choices, it is as if the resulting text is sewn onto the bottom of the previous piece of parchment, creating a longer scroll you can return to and review as you progress through an area. This is particularly impressive in combat, with exciting and visceral text being added to describe the result of each combat round.
Aside from moving your miniature from one decision point to another, you’ll be interacting with the game via the combat system and by casting spells at key moments. The spell system is handled in a very clever fashion — as I mentioned above, memorization of the 3 letter combinations to your spells is necessary. If you choose to cast a spell, you’ll immediately lose access to the spell book until you have chosen the letters. The game helps you out a bit highlighting letters that actually match up with the letter or letters you have chosen so far, but you’ll be basically lost if you didn’t do your homework in advance.
The combat system is another story. Gone is the dice rolling. In its place is a risk/reward type system, where you have an energy bar that you can spend by risking some amount of energy for a stronger attack vs. the monster, who will also risk some amount of energy. Whoever risked more energy wins and does damage to the other guy, with bonus damage being done if you beat them by a marginal amount. Some amount of energy gets replenished every round as well. The problem is that there was no point at which I ever felt like I really understood the strategy in play. For example, you can’t ever tell for sure how much energy the monster has. The descriptions in the text that appears between each round provide clues but I still felt like I was essentially guessing (and dying) a lot in combat.
Fortunately, death doesn’t have too many real penalties. Battles can be played over and over again until you win, and you can always rewind to a previous decision point if you don’t like how things are going. This is very in keeping with the spirit of the books, which by their very nature encouraged experimentation and didn’t stop you if you wanted to be a cheating cheater that cheated their way through the thing (cheater).
The narrative of the game itself follows a lot of your standard fantasy tropes: you are chosen for some reason to retrieve an artifact that has fallen into the wrong hands, but nobody actually thinks you’ve got much of a chance, which makes you wonder why you were chosen in the first place. The first book in this series, while fun, was probably the least interesting from a narrative standpoint, so I expect things to get better as they go. The game, of course, saves the choices that matter so they can be carried over into the next book whenever it becomes available.
I really enjoyed Sorcery!. The “adventure book” genre, much like the point and click adventure, has seen something of a renaissance on iOS. I would certainly not object if more of these games (Lone Wolf in particular) were resurrected with as much care and panache as Sorcery!. I’m not convinced the new combat system is actually an improvement, and not everything is perfect, but the overwhelming attention to detail when it comes to the presentation of this thing absolutely justifies the purchase price and it certainly sets a new high water mark for this niche genre on the platform. I recommend it for folks who actually like to read the dialogue in their games and advise others to stay far away.
The worst thing you can say about Sorcery! is that this first book feels short. But when you are enjoying a thing, that often tends to be the case. The best thing is that if it stays true to the books, it is only going to get better.