Sorcery!

by Steve Jackson and inkle

Episode 1 of Steve Jackson's Sorcery!
Fantasy, RPG
2013

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Number of Reviews: 5
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Eat Sword Pray Die, January 12, 2014
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)

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.