Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! Review (Switch eShop)

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Way back in the day, long before video games were any good, the cool new narrative mechanic was Choose Your Own Adventure books. Wildly popular back in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, the CYOA genre died off sharpish with the invention of point-and-click games, text adventures, and video games with vast, sprawling branching stories, which allowed players to have all the fun of meaningful choices without all the tedium of having to turn to page 32 only to find out that you’ve died, again. Well, you still died a lot. But the computer did the page-turning bit for you, at least.

The CYOA genre came back around full circle in 2013, with Inkle’s fearless adaptation of the Sorcery! books by the founder of Games Workshop and Lionhead Studios, Steve Jackson. Inkle is a studio known for its mastery of word-wrangling; the very thought of attempting to map out the intricacies of the stories the team writes is enough to send just about any writer screaming for the sweet release of death. It was Sorcery! that catapulted Inkle into the spotlight — and now, with its four-part series ported to the Nintendo Switch, hopefully more people can see why.

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Sorcery! begins in the Shamutanti Hills, in a small town called Analand, where your protagonist begins their quest. The first part of this epic tale unfolds like a normal choose-your-own-adventure: It’s a brief romp through a bog-standard fantasy setting. In fact, it’s this first part that is easily the most forgettable of the series, so even though we’ve played through this game at least four times… we can’t exactly remember much about it, either. And that’s okay — Part One of Sorcery! is basically the bit where you dip your toe into the bath to see if it’s the right temperature.

Part Two, on the other hand — set in the chaotic, confusing labyrinth of Kharé, The Cityport of Traps — is the bit where you drop a bath bomb into the water, and everything turns sparkly and colourful. This chapter, populated by weirdos, beggars, thieves, and ghosts, is utterly brilliant, if a little repetitive.

It is within this city, a city that is trying to either trip you up or outright kill you, that you will learn the ropes of Sorcery! quite quickly, or die trying. Inkle has employed a clever trick in their video game adaptation of Jackson’s work, by replicating the page-flippery of a CYOA book with the ability to rewind and replay a section of the game at just about any point. You will use it, and you should use it, a lot.

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If you get in a tussle with a goblin and lose half your health, no problem — try again, and do better. If you see a burned-down house, and you explore inside only to find a flesh-hungry soot demon, then rewind and make sure to skip the house. This isn’t about getting it right the first time, or even about living with your failures. This is a game about exploring down every single alleyway and finding which one nets you the most gold and information. It can be tedious, and it’s in Part Two that the tedium is most pronounced, but knowing the story and the setting inside-out is your reward — and there sure is a lot of information. So much so, in fact, that we would bet that no two players have had the same experience through the game.

In Part Three, you’ll see why information is such an important currency, as the saga comes to a glorious head. There are seven snakes you need to kill on your way to Mampang, the city inside which the Archmage has barricaded himself in preparation for your arrival, as the heralded ruination of his evil plans. The snakes are his messengers and spies — but they cannot be killed by mortal means. Instead, you will have to scour the countryside, using whatever you’ve managed to gather in your bag of tricks to find clues as to the serpents’ weaknesses, as well as the power of time itself, a recurring theme in the game, and the intriguing magic system that relies on memorising three-letter spells, and whipping them out in the correct scenarios.

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Part Three is followed quickly by Part Four, the culmination of everything you have learned and gathered in the preceding parts — from how much money you’ve managed to gather, to the god you’ve chosen to accompany you, to whether or not you spared an unimportant character back in Part One. Every single variable that you have come across up until this point may save you in a sticky situation, or lead to your downfall. Imagine a giant map of tangled dependencies, branches, saved information, clues, and logs of all your individual choices, and you’ll be some of the way to picturing what this game looks like in the back end. It’s truly a marvel to witness, and not just for narrative design nerds.

Unfortunately, the downside to the complicated network of strings and wires holding the game together is that sometimes, bits of it fall off — that is to say, it’s rather glitchy. We didn’t have too many game-breaking bugs, and even the ones we did have were solved by quitting the game and restarting (which isn’t too much trouble, as the auto-save will take you back to the last decision you made), but occasionally we found ourselves nervously praying that the entire game wouldn’t just spontaneously decide to delete our save.

But while it is irritating and a little nerve-wracking to have to deal with bugs and glitches, it still feels like a miracle that this game works, works (mostly) well, and works well on the Switch to boot.

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Sorcery! is truly an insanely masterful narrative oeuvre, because it toys with convention and genre in ways that are surprising, delightful, and tricksy all at once, and although we say this as total fans of Inkle’s work in general (so your mileage may vary, especially if you didn’t enjoy Heaven’s Vault or 80 Days), it’s such a perfect game to have on the Switch. It can be played in short chunks, or long, note-taking sessions; whether you devour it in bed or take your time on the TV, it’s just as beautiful — although the text is, perhaps, better suited to handheld, and you get the bonus of being able to use the touchscreen for fiddlier bits.

We’d like to believe this game is exciting and weird and interesting enough to recommend it to anyone — but realistically, it’s a game for those who love stories, consequences, and reading The Cave of Time with a flashlight under the bedcovers.

Conclusion

A masterful, intricate work of fantasy which weaves together themes of history, magic, power, and corruption over a four-part story, Sorcery! is a pitch-perfect adaptation of the choose-your-own-adventure books from the ’80s, and one of the best narrative games on Switch. A few bugs and issues here and there dent the experience, but it’s hard to mind too much when the rest is just so good.

 

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