Several staffers here at Diehard GameFAN are fans of the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series. These solo tabletop gaming adventures never fail to provide many a roleplayer with warm nostalgia. Some books like The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Talisman of Death have even been made into video games. Now UK developer Inkle has adapted the Sorcery! series into video game form – specifically for iOS systems. Each of the four books is being digitized and turned into an interactive novel adventure. The first, The Samuntanti Hills has just been released and here are my ten quick thoughts on the experience.
1. The most important thing you have to realize is that this is an interactive novel/solo gaming adventure, so there is very little animation and a lot of reading. The many illustrations that appear seem ripped directly from the original books, which is a nice touch. There isn’t any real animation in the game to speak of, save for your character miniature sliding across the screen or in combat when the two characters collide, so if graphics are your big thing, then you probably won’t be too thrilled by the presentation here. If however, you’re a Fighting Fantasy or Sorcery fan, you’ll probably love the visuals.
2. The story is dynamic, but somewhat underwhelming. You are a hero of a town who has set off to retrieve the Crown of Kings, but you won’t find it no matter what in this adventure. You’ll have to wait until part four for that. Instead this adventure either ends when you die horribly or get to the gates of Khare, the main location for book two. As long as you realize that you’re not going to achieve your main goal in this release, you won’t be disappointed. If you aren’t familiar with the novels though, you may find the ending of this “book” underwhelming or unexpectedly abrupt.
3. There are many different path in which you can take to get to the eventual ending – if you live that long. Like most gamebooks, there are some guaranteed instant death choices and others where you simply die from failing combat. What’s neat is that you can “rewind” if you die or take a choice you later end up regretting. In fact, you can rewind all the way back to the very beginning. I think this is a wonderful touch and very similar to what many a kid did with the real Fighting Fantasy or Lone Wolf books.
4. On my first playthrough I did quite well. I allied with Flanker the Assassin after sparing him when he failed his attempt at killing me, I saved an Orc princess from a Manticore (crazy hard battle as it’s the last it the game) and was given the key to the gates of Khare. I collected three magical pebbles. I have a +1 broadsword, my starter sword, one ration, fourteen gold pieces and a spellbook. I know all this because the game keeps track and will port your starts over to the second book once it is released. Unfortunately my second attempt ended in my being eaten by cannibals. Whoops. There are lots of choices one can make, encountering strange allies and monsters on one route that you may never see again due to making different choices.
5. Unfortunately, the game only lets you keep one completed save which is then send to the iCloud. This means I’m stuck with my current save unless I want to play through and overwrite everything. I really wish the game allowed multiple saves as the lack of this feature really kills the replay value of the game.
6. Gameplay is rather simple. You drag your character along a map and read the story. When you have a fork in the road or a narrative choice to make, you select it and see what happens. Combat is completely changed from the books though. You and your opponent have a Strength meter. You can put as much energy into attacking as you want, but that energy will then be gone until you defend and rest. SO the key is to have either a more powerful attack than your opponent, which allows you to do more damage and not take any, or to completely defend, so that you only lose 1 Stamina Point. The battles rage until one person is out of Stamina. Hopefully it’s not you. This is a more interesting way of doing combat than rolling virtual dice and it also adds a level of strategy to the game that wasn’t in the game books.
7. You have a choice as to whether or not you can cast magic in Sorcery!. My advice is to be a straight up warrior though. I chose magic in my first playthrough and often times it’s not very helpful and the process used for casting spells in this game is truly terrible. You are shunted to a screen where you have three areas and you have to spin letters trying to make the three letter command for one of forty-eight spells. The problem is that moving one of the three sections also affects the other two so it can take forever to cast a spell. Worse, when you choose to cast a spell you are limited to the letters forced on you and you can’t take the spell back so you may go in want to cast a specific spell and find that it’s not an option. EVEN WORSE you can generate a nonsensical combination which will cause you to simply lose stamina. When you accidentally make one of these because the letters move on you while you are trying to make a real spell, that’s just frustrating and terrible. Bottom line – stay away from spellcasting as it isn’t very fun.
8. One of the more interesting things is that as you play, your guardian deity changes on you. When I started the game I had a Panther, but as I went it changed into different spirit animals like a Baboon, an Elephant and finally a Whale. Would a guy from a landlocked country even know what a Whale is? There is no change between that the creature does for you (heals you or gives you divine aid every so often), so it’s an odd little mechanic.
9. You have to manage hunger and exhaustion as you play, meaning you’ll need to eat or sleep or risk losing stamina and even dying from a lack of one or the other (or both!). I always like games with these mechanics as it helps make things feel more realistic.
10. Overall, I found Sorcery! interesting. I’m not sure how well it will do considering it’s only one-fourth a story. Meanwhile there are already several full Fighting Fantasy games out there for iOS devices, like Blood of the Zombies and House of Hell. Companies like Tin Man Games and Choice of Games have made a killing doing those and other gamebooks, all of which are longer and much cheaper than the $4.99 price tag this is saddled with. It’s all going to come down to promotion, the Steve Jackson name, nostalgia towards the Sorcery! series and how well the games get reviewed. Right now I give Sorcery! a thumb’s in the middle. I enjoyed my time with it, but the game is quite short and the lack of being able to replay without overriding your save makes it hard to recommend as Sorcery! effectively becomes a “one and done” release, especially if you are lucky/good enough to win the game on your first playthrough. Maybe they can fix this with an eventual update or if the $4.99 ends up being a “season pass” sort of thing where you get all four parts for the cost, but right now, there are cheaper and better options out there for iOS devices, including ones with the Fighting Fantasy branding.