Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! – The Complete Collection Review (Xbox One) – A Real Page Turner
Inkle’s adaptation of a Choose Your Own Adventure classic Sorcery! is an excellent, ambitious RPG with a couple of caveats. The Finger Guns Review.
As a kid, I was fascinated with the idea of Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks. The concept seemed impossible: how do you play a book? I remember sitting with my cousin reading Deathtrap Dungeon, folding the corner of the last page we’d been at just in case we ended up meeting a sticky end. It’s safe to say there were many creased corners.
Fast forward about 18 years, and that fascination with CYOA titles turned into a fondness for Tabletop RPGs and the realisation that those books are essentially single-player TTRPG campaigns. Gathering a group of friends to play a game of Dungeons & Dragons can be a struggle, particularly as an adult, but the itch to play them remains.
Enter Inkle’s adaptation of Steve Jacksons Sorcery!
Originally released as four books from 1983 to 1985, Steve Jacksons Sorcery! was later adapted by Inkle for mobile devices from 2013 to 2016. This version packs them into a single package, adapts it to work with a controller and allows you to effortlessly take the same character through all four parts of this epic adventure.
Upon starting, Sorcery! takes you, The Analander, through a quick tutorial that explains each of the game’s core systems: combat, spellcasting and dialogue/decisions, demonstrating how each of these systems feeds into each other. It’s also here that you’ll hear of your call to adventure – The Crown of Kings, a powerful artefact capable of bestowing powerful magic to its wearer, has been stolen by a dangerous sorcerer, the Archmage of Mampang Fortress. It is up to you to journey through four distinct areas to reclaim it, else the continent of The Old World falls to the Archmage.
I’m Going on an Adventure!
As you navigate each of the four maps, the game will present you with a lot of choices: How you respond to a character, whether you want to interact with specific items around you, cast a spell, or whether or not you engage in some good old fashioned fighting. You’ve got to keep a stock of rations, foraging or buying them to keep your stamina meter topped up, and even find safe spots to rest every night. It’s entirely down to you how you handle these situations, and the game gave me a surprising amount of freedom. I’ll avoid spoilers, but I managed to avoid a large amount of the main quest in the second part of the game, the effects of which had ramifications for the rest of the story. I also had an optional encounter which occurred literally after leaving the starting village have some vastly unexpected payoff in the game’s final section. Sorcery! even has a mechanic that lets you go back to previous choices and do things differently, just like how I’d fold the corner of the pages of real gamebooks to fix a mistake: It’s a brilliant design choice that maintains the spirit of the original books.
Each of Sorcery’s chapters after the first introduces new mechanics to play with: the second has you exploring a city of thieves and traps, solving a 4 part puzzle in any order (it also introduces a very addictive little dice game). The third has you using the light from beacons around a vast map to reverse time and defeat the Seven Serpents that roam the land. Part four plays with a core mechanic in a way I cannot talk about without spoiling a reveal that I loved.
The replay value of this game is staggering, and it’s something I can genuinely see myself revisiting, probably more than once. It helps that the writing is wonderfully descriptive, painting a vivid picture of the events in an almost entirely text-based game. Some art is occasionally sprinkled in amongst the text, pulled straight from the original pieces featured in the books. It’s a lovely way to bring the two together and pay tribute to the work the game is adapting. There’s also a great, subtle ambience added via the sound design: a bustling city and the sounds of its crowds or the unsettling quiet of a cemetery; little details like these help bring The Old World to life.
The lands of Sorcery! are fraught with danger, and it’s almost inevitable that during the quest, the Analander will end up in a situation that they can’t talk out of, which brings me to combat. Instead of fights playing out as a series of dice rolls, you and your opponent each have a bar representing attack power. Using the left analogue stick, you drag your character towards the enemy, using more of your attack power the further you go, while not moving at all will cause you to guard. Once you decide to attack, the game compares those values, and whoever has the higher number will deal some damage to their opponent’s stamina. As you fight, the game procedurally generates text that describes the encounter, much like a dungeon master. These descriptions will give subtle context clues about how your opponent will act next. By using these, you can decide how to react next: by guarding, you can block all but a single point of damage and regain some of your spent attack power; or should you go all-in on a powerful attack and try to finish the fight quicker. It’s a simple but surprisingly engaging system; during some of the rougher battles, it gave me that same satisfaction that comes with scoring a crit against a high-level foe in D&D and having the DM describe you taking it down.
Melee combat is almost inevitable; the key word here is almost. Spellcasting is a powerful option, and it’s the one I focused on during my playthrough. At the beginning of the journey, you can choose whether or not to take the spellbook with you, but you’ll lose out on several options by leaving it behind. There are 48 spells within the book, each composed of 3 letters, each having different requirements to cast. The six most common spells are simple enough, costing three points of stamina, but the more complex and scenario-specific spells require an item to use. You can’t simply cast any spell whenever you like; instead, the option to do so will appear as a choice in most scenes, and even then, there are some limitations. When you choose to cast a spell, the game presents you with a dedicated interface: a sphere filled with letters appears, and you need to pick out each letter you need to cast a spell that’ll potentially be useful at that moment. By playing as a sorcerer, I managed to bypass a lot of dangerous scenarios, like casting a spell to command non-intelligent creatures to flee, scorching a Manticore with a fireball, weakening it before a fight later that chapter or tricking a merchant into believing the treasure I’d just produced wasn’t an illusion.
I found myself enjoying the magic system. It did a lot to make me feel like a powerful sorcerer in this world, but it’s also where I ran into my only issues with this version of Sorcery! First, while the UI is very nice to look at, it can be a little awkward to navigate. In the item menu, the submenu you’re highlighting is very subtle, making it difficult to see immediately, and the way the game moves between each submenu isn’t intuitive and instead jumps between them in a strange order. The same goes for navigating the map, as you can only cycle between areas to travel to by cycling through them, one at a time and only in one direction. Minor issues like these reminded me that the intended design was for phones and tablets with a touch screen. It’s never awful but it just could’ve used a little more work to make things more readable and easily navigated.
If those were my only complaints, I’d be easily adding this to my list of GOTY contenders. Unfortunately, two more issues plagued my playthrough. The first was a repeating bug that reoccurred more the further I played, and the second was so big that it left me incredibly conflicted about my final score. To talk about the second bug, I need to explain the first one.
The sphere of letters that appears when attempting to cast a spell would sometimes not display any of the letters. They were there, just invisible. It’d be possible to blindly select letters and cast a spell that way, but the bug would remain until I’d force quit the game from the Xbox dashboard and restart. It was never a massive issue, as the game autosaves regularly, so I’d never lose progress and be back in the game quickly. The further into Sorcery! I got, the more it would seem to happen. I didn’t keep a count, but I’d say it happened more than a dozen times, but I was enjoying the game so much that I didn’t care.
And then, the second bug happened.
Let me paint you a picture: I was in the final stretch of the game, about 11 and a half hours of playtime, and close to reaching the Archmage and claiming the Crown of Kings, saving The Old World. An event happened, which I can’t discuss without getting into endgame spoilers, and I needed to use a spell. The invisible letter bug appeared, but I managed to cast it anyway by brute-forcing it. I then force quit the game to get rid of the bug, restarted, and found myself stuck. I couldn’t act beyond navigating the item menu or flicking through the spellbook. My character couldn’t move anywhere, and the only solution, maybe less than 30 minutes from the end of the game, was to restart from the beginning. Inkle’s Sorcery! only has a single autosave slot, and there is no option to start from the beginning of the current chapter or section.
And so my journey ended there, but I genuinely contemplated starting over: that’s how much I loved my time with Sorcery! If by the time the game releases the devs over at Inkle have found a fix for it, I can wholeheartedly recommend this game to any fan of RPGs.
I’d still recommend it even if they remain, but with caution: it’s that good.
Excellent writing, an incredible number of choices with consequences that genuinely impact the whole journey, and a ton of replay value, Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! – The Complete Collection is an absolute treat of an RPG, and if you love the genre, you should play it. The only black marks on it were the menu navigation and the bugs I experienced, but they weren’t enough to make me not want to recommend it.
Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! – The Complete Collection is launching on June 23rd, 2022 for Nintendo Switch, Xbox One (review platform), and Playstation 4
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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