A time long ago, when video games had to be painstakingly loaded from a cassette tape, it was the ‘Choose your own Adventure’ book that was geekdom’s King. These interactive stories allowed readers to embark on a fantastic quest and decide the fate of their dungeon crawling hero. Multiple responses to any dangerous situation were available and it was up to the reader/player to decide upon which course of action to take and then flip to the corresponding page. Steve Jackson, one of the greats of this genre, has now seen his work translated to video game form in Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!
Though there were many pretenders to their thrones, it was the interactive books by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston that truly caught the imagination of teens across the country. Heck, I was one of them, devouring the Fighting Fantasy series, which integrated dice-based role playing into the tales. I missed out on Steve Jackson’s ‘Sorcery!’ series, though, which was aimed at older readers and must have simply passed me by. This new video game adaptation gave me the chance to set that right.
Released over four separate chapters on mobile phones and Steam from 2013 to 2016, Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! has finally made it to console in this complete special edition, and boy-oh-boy is it amazing.
First off, if you don’t like reading then you won’t like Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! This really is a modern continuation of the original books and is a text-based adventure. As such, there is a lot of lovely reading to be done. Thankfully, the writing here is top-notch; the clear and proficient prose ensures that the player understands at all times where they are and what is going on. Even better, the game refuses to over-elaborate with too much detail. This ensures the narrative is pacey and also that there are plenty of opportunities for the player to use their own imagination to interpret the world and the character’s that they meet.
The set-up is simple: your character must go on a quest to retrieve the Crown of Kings from the villainous Archmage. Whilst it sounds straightforward, the actual quest is anything but. The player – The Analander – must traverse the dangers of the Shamutanti Hills, overcome treachery in the trap-infested city of Kharé, cross the desolate Baklands and finally penetrate the home of the Archmage – Mampang Fortress. As you may have gathered, there’s a lot of sub-Tolkien nonsense fantasy naming going on here. Indeed, the nonsensical names for lands, cities, and creatures are undoubtedly the weakest part of the experience and feel as if they were simply the first word that popped into the writer’s head. As such get ready to be thoroughly confused by trying to remember the difference between Cantopanni, Meddiki, Kristatanti, and Dhumpus.
Fortunately, the actual adventure on offer here is mind-blowingly awesome. Your hero marches across some gorgeous 3D maps in a turn-based-like system and, upon reaching various waypoints, uncover more of the text. There are a phenomenal number of choices and responses available to the player, with even the most banal seeming of interactions offering a boggling amount of variations. Despite the multitude of options, the game never breaks, effortlessly tracking the ramifications of your actions across its impressive run time. Items will be gathered, creatures befriended and enemies made, with the true delight of seeing how these decisions affect your adventure, for good and ill, coming hours later.
As you play through the chapters of the game, you can see first-hand how developer Inkle has developed their craft. The first chapter, The Shamutanti Hills, is an almost straight retelling of the book and a fairly simple tale. However, upon reaching the city of Kharé, Inkle really hit their stride, offering the player a labyrinthine plot to uncover. There are also some very cool experiments with the text-based format, offering players all the elements of an RPG they would expect – from dice-based mini-games to levelling up – but all within the structure of a written narrative adventure.
Combat is perfunctory, but gets the job done. Accompanied by lovely animated artwork that looks like the Fighting Fantasy books brought to life, players must choose how much of their limited stamina to expend in an attack. As such, you’ll read the accompanying text, attempt to predict your opponent’s actions, and either defend or attack in response. It’s simple stuff and can grow rather repetitive over the game’s run time, though thankfully almost every combat encounter can be avoided thanks to the use of magic or your wits.
Magic is available to the player at any time spells can be cast for a cost of stamina. Each incantation is based on the combining of three letters that must be retrieved from a constellation of stars. Part of the fun is in seeing how the 38 different spells can alter the situation that you find yourself in. From fantasy standards like launching fireballs to the more creative fare of mind-controlling characters or turning yourself into a giant; the effects that result from each spell are a delight to behold.
Combat can also be avoided by simply wielding your wits. Your chosen responses can be used to trick enemies, distract foes and pretty much lie, cheat and steal your way out of any situation. Messing around and playing with the game is highly recommended and is actively encouraged by the the rewind option. Just like keeping your finger between the pages of a choose-your-own adventure book – you know, just in case your decision leads to instant death – Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! can be rewound at any time. This provides you with the opportunity to experiment with possible outcomes to your heart’s content. Well, up until the final chapter that is… but to say any more would ruin the surprise!