Do you remember Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy Books? If you are looking at this website, there is a good chance that you have a combination of interest and age that suggests you do. Originally written in 1983 Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! was an ambitious evolution of the Fighting Fantasy formula. These books took place over a four book series, and together constituted an epic quest across a blighted land to recover the Crown of Kings, to unite the peoples of the land and eradicate and ancient pest. Now the series has been brought to iOS by Inkle Studios, and the first installment The Shamutanti Hills, is a solid and effective update of the format.
Upon starting the game, you find yourself looking at an interactive map, a board game style figurine stood ready to move across a hand drawn map. During this tutorial section, you are introduced to the way you move across the world map, dragging your character’s route to destinations represented by blue flags stuck into the scene. You are also eased into the use of item and resource management, which is, like the navigation across the world, kept very simple.
The game quickly gives you the opportunity to test out the battle system with a trainer. You engage in battles by sliding your character across the screen, setting up the power and intensity of your desired action, from defend to charge and varying degrees in between. The more aggressive you are, the more energy you use up, and this energy can only be recharged by taking up a defensive position. Each time a move is made, the text gives a rundown of your own and your enemy’s moves, and you can gauge an opponent’s position using the descriptions of these strikes to time the power of your moves. For example, a slight stumble might be a good time to strike with aggression. It is eventually a simple system that is initially a little confusing to fathom, taking a few attempts to truly figure out.
Another primarily baffling but eventually straightforward system relates to one of the most innovate parts of the books – the spell system. This is slightly different from the written version, as each spell is made up of a three letter code that thematically matches with the spell cast; for example, the code to shoot a bolt of lightning from your fingertips is ZAP; to create an invisible barrier is WAL. In the books, the spells were all listed at the back in an appendix, and it was very easy to cheat. In this iOS version, when you choose to cast a spell, you are presented with an overlay consisting of three windows, and must rotate and touch three letters to match, without access to your spell book. It actually encourages you to take time, outside of combat and relevant situations, to look at your spells and memorize them, giving the feeling of being a real scholar and wizard.
Despite the combat and spell systems being initially confusing, the rest of the game is uncomplicated and elegant throughout. Everything is given a hand drawn, hand crafted, book and board game feel, attempting to make you feel as much a possible that you are holding the book in your hand and it succeeds admirably. Text is presented on scraps of paper, and illustrations come straight for the original source material by John Blanche – seeing some of these images gave a real warm, nostalgic tingle of recognition.
The sound too is understated and effective. Fires crackles and birds twee; villagers babble and monsters roar. On the whole, music is used sparingly and effectively. Additionally, the menu is well laid out and simple to use. Something new I don’t remember from the original books is the additional ability to pray to a god each day, which might replenish your stamina or get you out of a tricky situation. Please feel free to correct me on my hazy memory on this particular feature!
Speaking of tricky situations, despite the game overall being very easy to get through, there were a couple of instances where I met my end. For those familiar with the Fighting Fantasy books, you may recall sneakily turning back a few a pages and ret-conning your progress. If so, you will also be relieved that the game does this for you, giving you the choice to return to the last option that took you down a fatal path. I hastily and gratefully accepted the offer each time, trying to swipe off the nagging doubts chatting away at my ear.
It doesn’t take very long to get to the end, and upon doing so, you are given a code that saves your progress, including your inventory, gold and stamina, your rations and any equipment you picked up. This will be carried over to each episode, and will also take into account any decisions made and special items found. For instance I came across a key to a door that provides an alternative entrance to the city that forms the bulk of the setting of the next episode. I also decided to save a village of plague victims after finding a source of a cure, which may lead to an alternative path in future episodes.
Even though a single play through is short, there is plenty of scope to attempt another, to see alternative paths and make different decisions. You can access multiple codes for multiple outcomes, so don’t feel restricted to a single journey. However, I personally felt no real compulsion to try an alternative expedition, and instead found myself more interested in taking this quest forward. This may be a case of personal choice – whether or not you want to attempt a replay now or wait until all the episodes are out (the next installment is teased tentatively as ‘Summer 2013’) will be up to individual taste. On reflection, the score given below is really only an indication of the game’s relative brevity, but Inkle Studios really have created a nostalgic way to spend an afternoon, recommended especially if you have fond memories of the original books.
MLG Rating: 7/10 Platform: iOS Release Date: 10/05/2013
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a digital copy of Steve Jacksons Sorcery for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of 1 week on an iPhone. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.