With Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! 2 set for release in November 2013, inkle Ltd. has released a major update (version 1.3) for part 1 – The Shamutanti Hills – which we review below.
Finally, after several attempts, Steve Jackson’s beloved take on Choose Your Own Adventure books have been brought to life with a clean modern design that heightens the experience rather than merely digitizing it.
The Sorcery! books (1983-1986) were successors to the Fighting Fantasy books that Steve Jackson created with Ian Livingstone. They introduced a number of Spell points that could be used for casting, and players were encouraged to cast spells by combining three letters from memory to get their results. There was a Sorcery! Spellbook also released as an auxiliary text for reference.
My first experience with a digital adaptation of the Jackson/Livingstone books was on my 3rd generation Kindle, keyboard edition for the Fighting Fantasy books produced by WorldWeaver Ltd.. (Here’s a review at one of our affiliated sites)
It was a lot of fun to revisit the now-classic stories and simple, but effective combat mechanic that once pushed the genre forward by requiring real paper, pencil and dice. The Kindle version featured all of the original artwork in crisp black and white which was a joy to behold. Also, it was nice to have a computer process the changing stats for me. But it was still somewhat clunky.
I did appreciate the purity of it though, and secretly hoped that no one would try to instead turn it into a 3D-animated title merely based on the world – because like the movies, the written version allowed my imagination to fill in the blanks, and it supported everything that was good about interactive role-playing in its early days.
Sorcery! Part 1 – The Shamutanti Hills – What We Think:
From indie developers inkle, and built on their inklewriter technology of the same name, this digital adaptation of the Sorcery! series features delicate background audio ambiances – each tailored to the current setting, high quality music, crisp, well-laid out graphics and a colorful, unobtrusive user interface.
The company has worked directly with Mr. Jackson in bringing the game books together for a new generation and Jackson has in fact expanded the original content substantially so that now all characters can be interacted with, in addition to all other story embellishments. So in effect, this is a Steve Jackson venture, in partnership with a critically acclaimed interactive story engine developer.
The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword
The game is still predominantly text-based, using nice-looking parchment design that appends the the previous segment to a running thread of paragraphs as you make new decisions. Thus, only subtle enhancements are provided to embellish and stoke the mind’s eye as to the look and feel of the world within which you are adventuring.
For example, rather than look at the images in some someday-outdated-mocap-graphical treatment, you get:
“You lift the flap and go inside. The Mage looks up at you with haggard, sleepless eyes, and presses the book into your hands.”
An interactive map, designed by fantasy cartographer Mike Schley heightens and clarifies the geographic options (please can someone do this with Zork), used by drawing a path between your avatar and the next location you wish to engage. You can pinch to zoom in and out and pan the map as needed.
“Rewind” nodes, which are a feature of the Inkle interactive story engine, appear at key designations on the map so you can effectively undo, or redo parts of the story where you may want to explore an alternative or correct a perilous, even deadly mistake.
I (Strategically) Stab At Thee
The combat system has evolved here, though and they have done it in a very clever, deceptively minimalist fashion: Both your hero and your opponent have a power meter that can be preserved for a later killing blow, or used in moderate bursts for sustained but lesser attacks. To use it you simply drag your character a certain amount of the way across the screen towards your enemy, and this determines how much power you will use for your attack.
If you keep throwing down heavy attacks, you will use up your power and have none left for the end of the fight – be it to attack or defend yourself. To defend, you simply drag your character away from the opponent and tap the Defend tab that appears.
In Steve Jackson’s world, combat depletes Stamina, and when your Stamina is expended, you lose the ability to carry on. It can be replenished by eating or resting, but make sure you have some rations in your inventory!
There is actually some granularity to the number of attacks you can employ based on how much power you use – they range from jabs, to sideswipes, thrusts and cuts to a full on Charge! It’s elegant and refreshingly novel and perfectly suited to the context. In fact the game uses procedurally generated text to give you a customized play-by-play account of the combat.
One minor personal gripe here – after combat you have the option to Tweet the outcome. First of all, I don’t know whose Twitter following would really be interested in seeing the outcome of a battle from Sorcery! every time it happens. I mean, why would they care at all? Second, it totally breaks the suspension of disbelief and pulls me out of the world of the play; I wish it wasn’t there, but oh well. It’s innocuous enough that I can ignore it.
The Spells Excel
The spell-casting system is a worthy tribute to Mr.Jackson’s ingenuity; you see, all spells are a composite of three letters, letters derived from the names of deities (or something) so you would spell ZAP for cast lightning attacks, LAW to mind-control non-intelligent creatures, HOT for fireballs etc.
Different spells require different amounts of Stamina points and some more complex and rare spells also require that you possess a special item in order to be cast. Fortunately, you have an easily accessible, illustrated and fully annotated Spellbook to reference when needing to figure out just the right magic to deploy. There are a lot of them too – I counted over 50 variations.
With the latest update, spell casting has been further enhanced: When you are given the option to cast a spell and choose that as your course of action, an three-dimensional animated letter cloud appears from which you choose available letters. Letters appear only if they form a part of spell you can actually cast – a nice, aesthetically beguiling touch.
It’s a good thing they have enhanced the magic system this way with the new update too, because the spell-casting is what really set Sorcery! apart from the Fighting Fantasy books, and it will help subsequent chapters hold their own in the fast-growing digital interactive fiction market.
“You weave the spell. One by one, the great tumblers of the door begin to creak and groan. Then the hinges turn, with a noise like hail on a canvas roof.”
A Fully Packed Bag of Holding
The most recent update has also added the option to play as a female character, which should help make it more appealing to a broader audience and add further variety to the original stories. 1.3 also introduces a fist-fighting mode, for when weapons aren’t available, or you just want to get down to some good ole’ fisticuffs.
Another important feature of the 1.3 update is the ability to transfer your game saves quickly and easily into subsequent chapters, so your efforts will not be in vain once new horizons beckon…
The Bards Shall Sing Of It
Everything in this offering is handled with loving and thoughtful care and it brings the book to life without breaking intrinsic charm of the original books on which Mr. Jackson admits he spent an inordinate amount of time in development. This is a well-designed, conscientious effort and I recommend it highly. In fact if you own a tablet and are a fan of fantasy adventures, this is a must.
Android version coming soon.
If you are a fan of Twine or have ever wanted to craft your own choose your own adventure interactive fiction, then:
(Would love to see what Porpentine would do with this engine…)