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About the Story
An adaptation of a print-based game book originally published in 1983, updated for modern touch-screen devices. The player quests across a fantasy map, dealing with all sorts of encounters using a text-based choice system. Character stats, a turn-based combat mini-game, and a rules-bending magic system all add twists to the tale.
Nominee, Best Use of Innovation - 2013 XYZZY Awards
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Number of Reviews: 5
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My dim recollection is that The Shamutanti Hills was one of the first CYOAs I ever played, and the first game I encountered that really featured the lethal combination of heroic fantasy and dice-rolling. Around the age of eleven, I ate this stuff up. I'm pretty sure that it was Shamutanti that prompted me to lay out pages and pages of horribly-designed, painfully-derivative fantasy CYOA, all written in pencil and in a hand far too small for anyone else to ever read. It was some gateway-drug shit, let me tell ya.
While the prose is solid, as literature Sorcery! doesn't have high aspirations. It's a post-Tolkienian hero's journey, heavily shaped by the school of RPG design that's all about individual, discrete encounters. There is an overarching story, but it boils down to "retrieve the immensely powerful artefact, save the world: to do this you will need to traverse most of the map." The hero is a blank, and the moral range is the familiar RPG dichotomy of "help people, or be a heartless mercenary." But within this overworked genre, it occupies a pretty specific style, with a grimy swords-and-sorcery feel.
The art from the original book has a huge influence on this: it's from a school of 1980s British fantasy art, all hippies-gone-heavy-metal, macabre and hideous, wherein everyone looks monstrous and threatening. Given how much of the contemporary reworkings of medieval fantasy sanitise and soften the era, this is kind of refreshing: it's a world of disease, deformity and desperation, where you're much more likely to catch the plague than to own a suit of shiny plate-mail. Unlike some of Jackson's gamebooks, The Shamutanti Hills is actually not a totally hostile world - allies and neutrals are by no means uncommon, if rarely straightforward - but the art style constantly hints at something nastier and more alien. (The more recent elements of the art, while capable and well-integrated, are a good deal less flavourful.) Much of the original art is finely-detailed enough that it's not really shown to best effect on a phone-sized device.
But about that hostility level: the design of the original is very much derived from a style of tabletop RPGs in which the GM is primarily an antagonist, not a guide, play is meant to be challenging. Like many of Steve Jackson's gamebooks, it actively works to instill paranoia in the player, but sometimes punishes paranoia. Enemies can be allies in disguise, or vice versa. Cues about the better decision are not to be trusted.
The combat is a big improvement from the gamebook version, which (in my faulty memory) mostly consisted of repeatedly rolling dice until someone was dead. The new mechanic is intuitive, not trivially easy, and involves some real tactical decisions. The gloss and guesswork of the magic system is far less worthwhile. Sometimes the adaptation isn't entirely smooth - you can play a male or female character, but there are certain romance-edged scenes that were clearly written with the assumption that the protagonist is male. But in other places the additions are just right, often in ways that make play less brutal - the rewind mechanic allows you to UNDO to any point along your journey, which is super-convenient.
Overall, Sorcery! is a strong and professional-feeling adaptation, and the things that prevent me from being a wholehearted fan of it are largely to do with the goals of the source material: it's a genre that I'm kind of burnt out on, and it's modeled after a style of role-playing of which I am unfond.
The Sorcery! games are recreations of four of Steve Jackson's Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. In this first instalment of the series, the gamebook origins are still quite obvious: you journey through a rather literal 'garden of forking paths', making relatively unmotivated choices between one road and another, and dealing with the creatures and situations that you happen to come across. Continuity is provided mostly through your inventory and health. If you find a giant's tooth here, you'll be able to use it later; if you lose much health in this fight, you might not survive the next. Otherwise there is little in the way of a coherent narrative to bind all the events together.
This means that at bottom the game is a learn-from-previous-attempts exercise in optimisation. You won't be able to follow all paths; some paths are more lucrative or less dangerous than others; some paths may open new options later; and the challenge is to find a way through the game that gets you to the end with a maximum of useful items (to be used in the next part of the series).
Of course, in the original gamebooks, the challenge was less one of optimisation and more one of survival. Death could come swiftly and unexpectedly, and the non-cheating player would usually need many playthroughs to achieve victory. However, the electronic Sorcery! makes some very welcome changes to the original format. Combat is less random and the game allows you to redo fights if they went badly. If that isn't enough, there is a handy system for going back to any previous point in the game. While this makes Sorcery! much easier than the book on which it is based, this is a welcome change -- especially if you are not a kid in the 80's with limited access to games and limitless amounts of free time.
Sorcery! looks quite beautiful even on a mobile phone, even though the modern art doesn't mesh that well with the original pictures from the gamebooks. (I would have preferred to see this original 'ugly' style of fantasy, where people are likely to be dressed in rags and deformed by diseases, throughout the game.) The writing is good, though nor particularly distinctive.
Should you play Sorcery!? If you have any fondness for gamebooks, or just enjoy a nice combat-filled fantasy romp, the answer is probably affirmative. (I bought the game for 5.49 euros, and that seems okay.) But the best reason for playing Sorcery! is that it is a good introduction to Sorcery! 2, a game that is much, much better, and that I would wholeheartedly recommend.
If you've never played the FF series, and have any interest in a slightly more sophisticated CYOA type book with a fun D&D style fighting/luck mechanic, I strongly urge you find them on Amazon (I was able to find the whole series.)
The folks at inkle have done a spectacular job translating them for iOS, keeping the spirit of the original works intact while allowing you to be able to play the books w/o lugging around dice and pencils. That being said - I wasn't entirely thrilled with how much easier this version plays, being able to quickly save/restore made my playtime with this version a much quicker experience. I was also disappointed that I didn't have to memorize the spells - which I did studiously as a youngster.
That being said, from retaining the original illustrations to the fun mechanic of seeing your character move throughout the fantasy land, I believe inkle did a fantastic job.
Side note - this isn't traditional IF, it's a CYOA adventure translated to a graphical UI for iOS.
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