Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! (iPhone Gamebook Review)

Sorcery 1Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! is an attempt by Inkle Studios to update classic RPG gamebooks to the iPhone. It’s actually a new version of an old Fighting Fantasy volume. Never having played that, I can’t comment on how much this edition changes, but it obviously does adapt quite a bit. Many choices that you have are dependent on other events, and where the book would have to say “if this has happened, you may turn to this page”, the app simply doesn’t show you the choices.

The design does a lot of things right: Your story is shown on a virtual parchment, and after you make a choice, that list of options disappears. That means that the results show up as another paragraph right after the earlier one, creating an appearance of one cohesive story rather than a scattered collection of pages. The writing from one paragraph to the next flows smoothly, with good reasons given for why you made your choice and some variations in the text based on things that happened earlier. The app seems to support many small choices that would feel awkward in book form, but are fun when you’re simply tapping buttons. (And even things like “do you take the right or left path?”, which normally annoy me in these games, are tolerable when making and undoing decisions is so easy.) After every small scene, your next choice is shown as a series of locations on a map. This gives you a visualization of your hero’s cross-country journey, and also provides an easy way for you to tap the old locations to rewind the story. Unfortunately, if you’re interested in reading your whole “story”, you can’t see the previous locations’ text again without rewinding and playing through that point. I didn’t really mind this, because while the text is well-written enough to enjoy in the moment, it wouldn’t really be worth re-reading without the fun of having choices.

The combat system is also very clever. Virtual dice are not as interesting as physical ones, so instead there is a mini-game in which you and your opponent simultaneously choose how much energy to put into each attack. The higher attack always damages the other, but if you “defend” with a very low attack value, you’ll be able to deflect much of the damage while recovering your own strength. Battle has been turned from a passive luck-based experience into one in which you make a lot of important decisions. Even if you don’t have too much information about what your opponent may do, this is still a big improvement.

Sorcery 2The app does a great job of updating an old game system that had been heavily dependent on a specific technology. I was a little more frustrated with the plot they chose, though. You play a promising young hero sent off on a mission of great import to your people, but it’s possible to play through the whole thing without getting a clear description of what that mission is or what this world is like. Yes, an opening dream sequence mentions a magical crown, but it wasn’t clear to me until halfway through my first game that that was my real goal. And even then, I had no good understanding of why it was urgent to find this item that was lost to the ages, what kind of culture my people had (aside from a few undeveloped hints), or even why I was chosen to seek the crown alone. I spent the first half of my first game feeling absolutely no connection to the events in front of me, even less than I’d expect from a physical gamebook. Though the whole thing plays through in a matter of hours, it still took me a few weeks to find the motivation to get through it.

I tried a second time, though, and that went much better. The knowledge of my first game gave the second more of a purpose, and I enjoyed seeing a lot of the different results available. Though you keep returning to the same general path, there are a lot of major branches, and also very different choices within them. This isn’t just a matter of playing through two or three times to see every result, because a lot of encounters will go differently if you found items or information from earlier in the journey. I’m sure this would feel repetitive after another couple games, but I’d probably still be making some major discoveries beyond that point.

A couple other notes: The game has a magic system with many spells, but only a few available at a given time depending on “the stars’ alignment”. Most of the spells require ingredients that you’ll only have if you made lucky discoveries earlier, and because you actually “line up” the star symbols when casting a spell, it’s not always obvious which choices you’d have anyway. In my first game, I thought this was annoying and unnecessary, especially since you are only given the chance to cast spells at specific times. But on my re-play, I found a few interesting things to do that were not immediately obvious, and I see that this system provides a lot of hidden options for people who want to search for secrets. The system of “gods” fared less well, though: As you make choices, your spirit animal changes to reflect the personality you’re displaying. Each one has a flowery, full-page description of its attributes, and this was one of the things that first drew me into the game. After all, traditional gamebooks can’t keep statistics that you are unaware of. But before long, it became obvious that the various gods all offer the same limited options. If they ever gave me new opportunities or changed the results of my actions, I didn’t notice.

The bottom line is that Sorcery! is a huge leap forward for a game system that I thought was bound to old technology. I have more mixed feelings about the story they chose, though. It eventually won me over and proved that it had more subtleties than expected from a 1980’s gamebook, but I can’t overlook the fact that it did not seem interesting for the first couple hours. Knowing what I do now, though, I can recommend it both for its design concepts and as a story worth the time to explore.

Grade: B

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