8 Overall Score

Fantastic high fantasy world and innovative narrative and gameplay techniques

Short game makes the value proposition a bit weak, not winning over any new fans of the genre

Written by on May 6, 2013 in [, , , ]

As I mentioned when I first saw it, Steve Jackson’s Sorcery is a weird animal. It’s unrelated to the maker of Munchkin or the Sony Move property (and instead tied to a set of 1980ish “choose your own adventure” books), and I’m not entirely sure I should call this a review, as at times Sorcery barely feels like a game. It is, however, a new and pretty sweet iOS app that provides an experience somewhere between text adventure, gamebook, and tabletop game. While I could spend a lot of time talking about what Sorcery is not, it is remarkably successful at scratching that tabletop RPG itch, and that seems to be the element of importance here.

Just seeing this map makes me reach for my dice bag.

Sorcery starts with a fairly generic high fantasy story. Your kingdom is in trouble, your character is a great hero, and you must go on a lengthy quest to find a magical gadget before war destroys everyone. I can’t get much more specific than that, though, because the story also reacts to what you give it. Want to be evil? Start acting like a jerk. Enjoy being Mr. Goody Two Shoes? Refuse rewards and help the weak. Sorcery’s unique twist is in its adaptability; most story beats will remain the same (or similar), but the tone of the story will change fairly dramatically based on your actions. This is reliant on the game’s adaptive text, which manages to feel natural despite its modular nature. It’s a real testament to the writers.

These reactive story beats play out in a series of location-based dialogue boxes. The core of Sorcery is moving your hero (in the form of a D&Dish miniature on a map) around the world and reacting to events that happen. These reactions take the form of dialogue choices, spells, or combat sequences and all play out against hand-drawn backdrops as well as against characters that look like they came from a Monster Manual. In a good way. The character designs and random artwork in the D&D books were always the best part of the texts, and Sorcery’s take on creature design hits most of the same notes.

Probably the most significant departure Sorcery makes from a gamebook or tabletop game is the lack of dice in resolving combats. Instead you wind up playing a high-low game of commitment to attacks against opponents, which requires reading of tells to gauge how hard or light to attack. Harder attacks always win and do damage, so it comes down to trying to just beat the opponent’s swing to not overuse a limited supply of attack power. It’s a neat system that gets around the occasionally punitive nature of a dice roller, and it adds just enough to Sorcery to make the combat interesting on multiple plays.

The real drawback for all of this interactivity is the same as most reactive pieces, such as the free and incredibly short Stanley Parable. You’re going to finish Sorcery in about two hours, and while the game does conclude, several sequels are promised. That all four of these will be necessary to finish the story this first part touches on will probably irk some. It also makes Sorcery’s price tag, already high for an iOS product, a bit tough to work with. Make no mistake, the content’s worth the cost of entry, but at two or three bucks this becomes a no brainer.

Yes, that’s a ratbear. What?

Negatives aside, Sorcery’s core strength is the presentation. It carries a huge amount of that late 80s/early 90s vibe that fantasy was dug into. Elves are lithe, quick, and somewhat insane. Old crones threaten terrible curses and offer boons for solving riddles. Hunchbacks guard magical bridges. Monsters that are two normal animals put together abound. For those of you into this style of fantasy, the game has a world you’ll love poking around in, and while the game’s story is short, there are enough iterations and pieces of minutiae to make it worth looking into more than once.

As a child who idolized the D&D 3rd edition hardbacks and my watercolor illustrated copy of The Hobbit, Sorcery feels like a steal at $5. I’d have dropped that much on an art book alone. For someone looking for a deep RPG on the iPad, however, this isn’t going to meet the urge. While text is reactive and changing based on your character’s actions, locations do not, and once you’ve learned Sorcery’s pitfalls they tend to run the same way each time. Sorcery’s beautiful, smart, and ideal for the D&D nerd in all of us, but people without that attachment aren’t going to be sold on the game.


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Author: Zach Snell View all posts by
Hi there. If you're reading this you've probably read some material of mine. If you want more go here and read my stories about a guy who punches wizards.

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