Over a year has passed since I last traveled with the sorcerer from Analand on their quest for the stolen Crown of Kings. Back then, inkle Studios seemed to be content simply creating incredible digital gamebooks. Since then, however, they released 80 Days and what I would consider a “gamebook” evolved into a completely different beast. Gone were the linear paths, the sensation that you’re cinched into a story that has an explicit beginning, middle, and end. Instead, here was interactive fiction that opened up an entire world and asked you where you wanted to go. That’s Sorcery! 3 for you!
Truth be told, Sorcery! 3 takes everything I assumed about gamebooks (including the original text that it’s based on) and turns it on its head. It’s a mind-blowing piece of interactive fiction and, combined with the imaginative Sorcery! and Sorcery! 2, becomes an epic tale unlike anything I’ve ever played.
Sorcery! 3 begins right where the second chapter ends, with you outside the North Gate of Kharé. If you’ve played the previous chapters, you’ll immediately find yourself in familiar territory. Back is the same, groovy 3D map. Back is your avatar, looking like the mundane board game piece you’ve come to know and love. Back is the customary dotted line tracing your route across the map. At this point, it feels like an old, comfortable slipper.
At the incumbent stage in your journey, you learn about the seven deadly serpents who are hunting you down on their way to tell the Archmage of your quest to retrieve the Crown of Kings. Allowing any of the serpents to survive and spill the beans will make your chances in Sorcery! 4 that much harder. The game could have gone on like this til kingdom come and I would have been absolutely satisfied with that, but about 20 minutes into your perilous journey, everything changes.
These modifications come in the form of lighthouse- like structures that litter the landscape. Where these beacons’ gaze falls, the wastelands are sent back to a time nearly 1000 years earlier, before the Baklands were cursed and turned into the harsh hellhole that they currently are. So, while your journey begins in a lifeless desert, by utilising the beacons you will visit spirits from ages past, transforming dilapidated ruins to bustling cities and wetlands that only moments ago were arid steppes and fissures.
It’s a delightful instrument for the narrative, the way this is graphically depicted in-game is phenomenal. You can rotate the beam of light and adjust its trajectory and scope around the map. It’s a really cool effect that makes you want to explore everything both in the current time as well as in days past.
The beacons also offer a means of transportation, as you can teleport between beacons as you uncover them. It will become common practice as you’ll need to alter the beam of light on towers to help you solve puzzles and uncover the location and weakness for each of the seven serpents.
This means that, unlike the previous Sorcery games, you’re not confined into a linear path. You need to traverse the entire map to find each serpent’s weakness, and then uncover its location, preferably in that order. You’ll stumble across terrain that is impossible to cross, only to have to backtrack to use a beacon to alter the land back to a friendlier age when means of crossing were available. All this backtracking gives Sorcery! 3 depth and playtime that dwarfs its predecessors. I finished the first two chapters, combined, in less time than it took me to track down all seven serpents in this new episode.
Much like 80 Days, Sorcery! 3 keeps track of how long your journey lasts. By the time I had killed my last serpent, 41 days had transpired which was, apparently, too long. I took my own sweet time exploring the vast landscape as much as possible. Still, I was told that even though I had slain all the serpents, the Archmage had gotten wind of my journey. It was a bitter sweet victory. I will be trying again. Similar to 80 Days, the replayability here is high. Speed runners can keep trying to beat their best time through the Baklands.
The combat in the game is similar to the previous titles which is the game’s only real Archilles heel. I do not like the combat system in these games (many will disagree with me). While I’ve been told that there are cues in the text indicating how creatures will react, I find the text during combat nebulous at best and downright misleading at worst. It’s not a game breaker by any means, because no matter how badly you fare in combat you can always replay the fight knowing a little better what to expect and what cues to look for, but that means I had to replay many battles several times simply to avoid the game telling me how erratic my combat was. When In truth, I had fell to the “numbers game”.
It got so infuriating, I reached a point where I dreaded combat encounters and would select choices to avoid fighting as much as possible. It’s a testament to the writing, storytelling, and everything else within the game that I am oblivious to it. I’d rather spend my time exploring this world and solving its puzzles than guessing at numbers. And I was never good with numbers. Besides, each serpent has a weakness that makes combat easier (or not necessary) if you are smart enough exploit it.
if you prefer to wave the magic wand, you can cast spells in Sorcery!. You need to invoke various constellations – each representing an arcane rune – in order to spell out magical words. Most of these are self-explanatory, and a few are fairly standard for an RPG – ZAP lets you unleash a lightning bolt, while HOT creates a fireball – but many are less bourgeois and open up a wide array of possibilities. For instance, JIG forces creatures to dance to an enchanted melody played on a bamboo flute, and SIX creates five clones of the caster that can be used to confound and attack foes. Some spells drain your stamina when used, while others require a magic focus like sand or a flute to work. No spell is a red herring, it can be used to get you out of a sticky situation – often resulting in hilarious consequences.
If this is your maiden foray in the Sorcery! world, you can create a new character and start fresh at the beginning of the Seven Serpents, but where Sorcery! 3 excels is after playing through both parts one and two with the same character and then importing them into this chapter with an inventory and history intact. It ushers in a truly epic feeling as you use a cap that you found back in the Shamutanti Hills to cast a spell, or run into a character from Khare out in the wilderness. There is a sense of continuity and accomplishment that just doesn’t happen that often in video games.
Whether you’re continuing your quest or starting a new one, Sorcery! 3 is unlike anything you’ve ever played. It is a real eye-opener. Its hybrid of puzzle-solving, combat, and liberal choose-your-own-adventure handling have created a novel form of entertainment that I absolutely cannot wait to get back into. Once again, inkle Studios has outdone themselves in creating the paradigm for interactive fiction, and causing us all to wait for the next chapter with bated breath.