I stand inside a hollow tower. The room is empty enough that I can hear my own heartbeat echo on the walls, yet something tells me I am not alone. In front of me sits an hourglass on a wooden table. As I pick it up, a booming voice breaks the silence. “TIME” it declares. The hourglass has a cap on it that can be easy unscrewed, allowing me to dump the sand on the ground. However, before I am able to do so, the game stops me. At first, my character senses that he is about to mess with some really messed up magic, the type that should not be trifled with gingerly. I click on, only to find a second warning, this one written out in red letters that what I am about to do will have irreversible effects on my game. It does not tell me what these effects will be, rather, urging me to keep exploring until I am educated enough to make such a choice. I screw the cap back on and run out of the tower into a garden of similar buildings, each holding their own secret and difficult dilemmas.
These are the scenarios that the Sorcery series has built a franchise on. Small and big choices, each taking you down a different path, with consequences that are not always clearly identifiable. Part 4 closes the narrative you have been weaving through the past three games, and the closer you are to the finale, the more perilous each choice becomes. While Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! Part 4 is unable to shake off some of the problems that have plagued its predecessors, it paints a wonderful narrative web that gives a satisfying conclusion to the Analander’s adventures.
The game picks up exactly where part three left off, within sight of the frightening citadel of Mampang, home of the powerful Archmage that stole the Crown of Kings. Out adventurer has made many choices to get here, and several of these will determine what path you will encounter. If you were unable to defeat all seven snakes in the previous part, they will have alerted the Archmage to your presence, making the entire fourth part much harder to get through. Luckily, I spent a couple of playthroughs being an anal completionist, so my path into Mampang was much easier to swallow. This initial area is your basic Sorcery! gameplay, branching paths letting you visit all you can in the map or hoof it towards your objective until something stops you. It is when you finally make your way into Mampang (through one of about half a dozen methods) that the game really starts to differentiate itself from the other parts.
Despite all of the possible choices the Sorcery! games presented you with, you were always able to rewind time and redo them to get the desired result. Developer inkle knows that you have probably abused that feature to your benefit so the second half of Part 4 removes this ability. I instantly changed the way I played the game. Suddenly, every move I made could mean missing a potential clue, losing a valuable item, or even death. The developers play to your carelessness as well, often placing you in situations where escape means giving up a key item and changing your play style going forward. Thankfully, your adventurer can now don certain outfits to disappear in the crowd or stand out in the right way. Finding a monk’s robes let me coax people to divulge more information while a captain’s armor let me through some key guarded doors without resorting to violence. And when death did come, it was not a keyboard flinging moment. Inkle cleverly implements the lore to not make death as permanent as you would think, letting you tread more carefully than before while avoiding any frustration.
Unfortunately, there were some vexing design choices that did not fit in as neatly. Much like in part two and three, Sorcery! Part 4 requires you to scour the map for clues before you are able to get into the final area. This would not be so annoying if it had not been done before, but at times I felt like I was yet again in search of a McGuffin, this time with even less clear instructions than before. Figuring out exactly what you have to do to reach the Archmage is presented in a clever way, but once you get your “aha!” moment it is pretty annoying to go do it. Also, the amount of magical items I gathered throughout my journey meant that I could basically cast any spell I wanted. Since the magic system only lets you cast certain spells in certain areas, I resorted to a lot of trial and error to see which of the spells at my arsenal could get me through to the next area. Much like with the other parts, the only time I have a problem with Sorcery is when the mechanics running under the hood show themselves. It did take a few hours before I started abusing some of these mechanics, though, and if I had not been so careful in the previous chapters, I might not have the luxury I had in my playthrough.
But these problems are to be expected, almost endeared, by fans of the series. They never took away from the detailed world brought to life by some fantastic writing. The game continually impressed me, as casting weird spells in places where they would clearly not be of use would always deliver some hilarious consequence. This attention to detail extends in the way your choices impact the game. I would often run into characters from previous parts, forcing me to scour my brain to see if they had to return me a favor. And while it is probable that a lot of these encounters do little to alter the outcome at the end, Sorcery! Part 4 sure made it feel like every choice I made had a significant impact on the world.
It is this level of polish in storytelling that makes the Sorcery! games must plays for any adventure game fans. They might not have the graphical fidelity of The Witcher 3 or the massive cast found in the Mass Effect trilogy, but the Sorcery! games weave the their gameplay into narrative so well that you have to hold them in the same regard. Part 4 is not without its flaws, but once again inkle manages to evolve on their formula while delivering a satisfying ending.
- Branching paths with choices that matter.
- Gameplay twists that keep you on your toes.
- Fantastic world building through great writing.
- Yet another McGuffin search at the end.
- A lot of trial and error to cast the right spell.