Way back in the day, long before video games were any good, the cool new narrative mechanic was Choose Your Own Adventure books. Wildly popular back in the '70s, '80s, and '90s, the CYOA genre died off sharpish with the invention of point-and-click games, text adventures, and video games with vast, sprawling branching stories, which allowed players to have all the fun of meaningful choices without all the tedium of having to turn to page 32 only to find out that you've died, again. Well, you still died a lot. But the computer did the page-turning bit for you, at least.
The CYOA genre came back around full circle in 2013, with Inkle's fearless adaptation of the Sorcery! books by the founder of Games Workshop and Lionhead Studios, Steve Jackson. Inkle is a studio known for its mastery of word-wrangling; the very thought of attempting to map out the intricacies of the stories the team writes is enough to send just about any writer screaming for the sweet release of death. It was Sorcery! that catapulted Inkle into the spotlight — and now, with its four-part series ported to the Nintendo Switch, hopefully more people can see why.
Sorcery! begins in the Shamutanti Hills, in a small town called Analand, where your protagonist begins their quest. The first part of this epic tale unfolds like a normal choose-your-own-adventure: It's a brief romp through a bog-standard fantasy setting. In fact, it's this first part that is easily the most forgettable of the series, so even though we've played through this game at least four times... we can't exactly remember much about it, either. And that's okay — Part One of Sorcery! is basically the bit where you dip your toe into the bath to see if it's the right temperature.
Part Two, on the other hand — set in the chaotic, confusing labyrinth of Kharé, The Cityport of Traps — is the bit where you drop a bath bomb into the water, and everything turns sparkly and colourful. This chapter, populated by weirdos, beggars, thieves, and ghosts, is utterly brilliant, if a little repetitive.
It is within this city, a city that is trying to either trip you up or outright kill you, that you will learn the ropes of Sorcery! quite quickly, or die trying. Inkle has employed a clever trick in their video game adaptation of Jackson's work, by replicating the page-flippery of a CYOA book with the ability to rewind and replay a section of the game at just about any point. You will use it, and you should use it, a lot.
If you get in a tussle with a goblin and lose half your health, no problem — try again, and do better. If you see a burned-down house, and you explore inside only to find a flesh-hungry soot demon, then rewind and make sure to skip the house. This isn't about getting it right the first time, or even about living with your failures. This is a game about exploring down every single alleyway and finding which one nets you the most gold and information. It can be tedious, and it's in Part Two that the tedium is most pronounced, but knowing the story and the setting inside-out is your reward — and there sure is a lot of information. So much so, in fact, that we would bet that no two players have had the same experience through the game.
In Part Three, you'll see why information is such an important currency, as the saga comes to a glorious head. There are seven snakes you need to kill on your way to Mampang, the city inside which the Archmage has barricaded himself in preparation for your arrival, as the heralded ruination of his evil plans. The snakes are his messengers and spies — but they cannot be killed by mortal means. Instead, you will have to scour the countryside, using whatever you've managed to gather in your bag of tricks to find clues as to the serpents' weaknesses, as well as the power of time itself, a recurring theme in the game, and the intriguing magic system that relies on memorising three-letter spells, and whipping them out in the correct scenarios.
Part Three is followed quickly by Part Four, the culmination of everything you have learned and gathered in the preceding parts — from how much money you've managed to gather, to the god you've chosen to accompany you, to whether or not you spared an unimportant character back in Part One. Every single variable that you have come across up until this point may save you in a sticky situation, or lead to your downfall. Imagine a giant map of tangled dependencies, branches, saved information, clues, and logs of all your individual choices, and you'll be some of the way to picturing what this game looks like in the back end. It's truly a marvel to witness, and not just for narrative design nerds.
Unfortunately, the downside to the complicated network of strings and wires holding the game together is that sometimes, bits of it fall off — that is to say, it's rather glitchy. We didn't have too many game-breaking bugs, and even the ones we did have were solved by quitting the game and restarting (which isn't too much trouble, as the auto-save will take you back to the last decision you made), but occasionally we found ourselves nervously praying that the entire game wouldn't just spontaneously decide to delete our save.
But while it is irritating and a little nerve-wracking to have to deal with bugs and glitches, it still feels like a miracle that this game works, works (mostly) well, and works well on the Switch to boot.
Sorcery! is truly an insanely masterful narrative oeuvre, because it toys with convention and genre in ways that are surprising, delightful, and tricksy all at once, and although we say this as total fans of Inkle's work in general (so your mileage may vary, especially if you didn't enjoy Heaven's Vault or 80 Days), it's such a perfect game to have on the Switch. It can be played in short chunks, or long, note-taking sessions; whether you devour it in bed or take your time on the TV, it's just as beautiful — although the text is, perhaps, better suited to handheld, and you get the bonus of being able to use the touchscreen for fiddlier bits.
We'd like to believe this game is exciting and weird and interesting enough to recommend it to anyone — but realistically, it's a game for those who love stories, consequences, and reading The Cave of Time with a flashlight under the bedcovers.
A masterful, intricate work of fantasy which weaves together themes of history, magic, power, and corruption over a four-part story, Sorcery! is a pitch-perfect adaptation of the choose-your-own-adventure books from the '80s, and one of the best narrative games on Switch. A few bugs and issues here and there dent the experience, but it's hard to mind too much when the rest is just so good.
I used to love choose your own adventure stories. I might check this out sometime in the future after they have had a chance to iron the bugs out.
Man. I need to get these. Never played them. I have done many CYOA books in the past though.
Is the text Steve Jackson's or is it an adaptation?
Looks great, mind. Creature of Havoc and Ian Livingstone's Crypt of the Sorcerer next, please.
(...and if you are wondering, there are two Steve Jacksons do this stuff - the Games Workshop founder who wrote these (and started the FF series with Livingstone) and the American guy who contributed to the FF series among many other things)
My mom gifted me the first two books long back when I wouldn’t have been even the sparsest appetizer to a lion. Still enjoyed them well into my teens. Never found the last two.
I wonder if they were even published in the US..
I guess i can check them out now. I am glad to read the narrative holds up.
The bugs and glitches are alarming.
Thanks for the review!
My inner pedant would like to point out that Sorcery! is part of the Fighting Fantasy series, "Choose Your Own Adventure" was an entirely different book series.
Great news! Will definitely pick this up
@KateGray This isn't a comment about technical performance on Switch versus other platforms, surely? I'm not sure how you mean this part, Kate - I understand that the flow of the game has a lot of complication and dependencies, but I would have thought a handheld-capable machine would make that easier to parse, rather like having an actual book in your grasp. Alas that Switch doesn't do note-taking very well...
In any case, I am very interested in this, having owned some of the books. I wonder how the game might add to the experience of playing the originals.
@chardir I think CYOA is just a catch-all term for these types of books now. There were so many different series back then.
@Diogmites Yes, kind of, but Kate specifically mentions "The Cave of Time" which is the first book in the actual CYOA series. The Fighting Fantasy series was somewhat different.
Technically Sorcery! are not part of the FF series - initially at least.
They were published first in Penguin as a stand-alone series for adults, before being rebranded as a sub-series of FF when republished in Puffin.
(They are set in the same universe, Alansia(sp?) Iirc)
But yeah, they are definitely not part of the Choose Your Own Adventure brand!
@Rambler I think it's an adaptation — there are some things in the game that only a game could do.
And as for the two Steve Jacksons, I was actually going to mention that! It's a really fun fact! But it wasn't entirely relevant, so I didn't 😅
@chardir The CYOA series is, as far as I know, very litigious about people misusing the name. BUT I think it's the best descriptor of this particular genre of books, and I wasn't about to go into loads of detail about that in a review
Eh, this looks very basic compared to The Warlock of Firetop Mountain game
@Gitface They were extremely helpful with the bugs I experienced during the review period, and ironed them out in no time, so I have faith that it'll be much more robust at launch
@Rambler Haha, glad I'm not the only pedant!
@KateGray That's fair, I shall put my inner pedant away for now
Probably the best "choose-your-adventure" videogame I've ever played - full of emotion, adventure and unexpected twists and turns. The ending is just phenomenal - I'm really tempted to play through it once again.
@KateGray Good to know! Thank you!
I absolutely adore these games, had the books when I was a kid and these are just great adaptations. Please people, give this a chance!
@Rambler Actually, Inkle just posted a thread that includes a lot of the changes they made!!
@Rambler i thought the two Steve Jacksons were one in the same for a couple decades.
@chardir When Kate mentioned The Cave of Time, i inferred she just meant that if you enjoyed reading that title, you would enjoy this game. Or even if you have a penchant for reading fiction at all, you will enjoy these. I definitely see how that can be interpreted less broadly.
Thank you for the review! It reminded me how much I enjoyed reading a CYOA book (Journey Under the Sea, I think) as a grade-schooler.
I think with my games backlog as it is I will wishlist this, but maybe seek out a few vintage CYOA books and share with my kids, to see if it kindles a spark in them, too.
@Diogmites I mean, it's nuts that ONE of them did so much as it is!
the games are great but not for this price
I'll never support Steven Jackson.
Way back in the 90s I played a game of Fighting Fantasy with him at after a Living City event, and then like 11 years later I played Munchkin with him at Comic Con ... AND HE DIDN'T EVEN REMEMBER ME!!
So other then buying like every Munchkin expansion, a lot of the re-releases, the board game, all of the other Fighting Fantasy based games, and this game ... I wont give that guy any support.
Oh I liked got a huge collection of the books off eBay but I don't think he gets a cut of that, so all good.
Can't believe I played through The Citadel of Chaos (book 2) about 10 times (without cheating) in order to beat it. Was genuinely scared to turn the pages in case I suffered an untimely death. The Sorcery books (4, count 'em!) were the height of sophistication back then. Nothing topped them. Shortly after, I lost interest though.
Not sure I want to go back and play this game. I have a sneaking suspicion my fond memories will be exposed as nothing more than misplaced nostalgia.
It reminded me how much I enjoyed reading a CYOA book (Journey Under the Sea, I think) as a grade-schooler.
@Teksetter If you were a furball, I would swear we were separated at birth. As it is, lovely human that you are, I can only say I am glad someone else feels the spirit of those times as deeply as I. Others may say dismissively, "encore la nostalgie, c'est tout", but I feel like we saw some cool things before they were overly commodified. And we thought things were too commercial then!
@HeadPirate I'm not sure what the American Steve Jackson looks like - maybe he really looks like the other one and youve got them confused? They might look exactly the same. Or maybe there is a third one out there...? Like a Steve Jackson cos-player?
This all sounds great and enthralling, but as someone who read his share of bog-standard CYOA books back in the day, but never came across this series, I'm still left with two fundamental questions, which I'm not sure can be answered without spoiling stuff:
I'm not knocking the review or even the vision of the game here, really... but hearing that a product of a genre that I would've thought would be a slam-dunk perfect fit for computerization would be "rather glitchy" is worrisome .
@Rambler There is a Stevi Jackson. If you google Fighting Fantasy the link to the authors lists Stevi Jackson erroneously.
She actually kind of resembles how one might imagine Steve to look if he was a woman.
If a CYOA game has bugs and performance issue something is deeply wrong.
Aha! Stevi Jackson could be the third Jackson. It's like a murder mystery
(Well, not really).
@Fath - IIRC the first and third books are not super complex; the second is essentially set in a massive maze; and the fourth is not as complex as Creature of Havoc, but still has space for eternal loops, fake endings, huge detours and dead ends. Dont think it's got any fake paragraphs to wind up people trying to cheat.
@KateGray - thanks for the link! Really interesting read and I like the way the seem to have expanded The Seven Serpents.
Edit - I couldn't remember the name of the last one so looked it up, and there was the term 'Adventure Gamebook'. Not heard that in years! Better than CYOA, I think.
Darn, combat sucks? I guess I'll remove it from my wishlist.
@Rambler Alas, the Three Steves have been found! The convergence is nigh! Tonight we shall climb atop our roofs , shed our garments and burp at the moon!
Soon the Greatest of Steves shall come forth and the world shall be awash with dread! And games.
Mostly games. No dread at all, really.
A Mega-Steve! A Steve of Steves, the sons of Jack, on a pinnacle of power
He's got a good scam going if that's the case, seeing you needed a press or VIP pass to play with him at Comic Con. Or maybe the first guy was the imposture ... that makes more since, some dude hanging out at a D&D event trying to sell his competing product is already shady.
@HeadPirate What??? It was only 11 years since Steve met you that one time! Like, how could he have possibly have forgotten you - you, out of the 100s of other total randos he likely crossed paths with / played games with over that short span of a little over a decade?! Unbelievable.
I know right?
In fact, at lot of the 400 or so people he played with each of the 3 days of comic con said they had played pervious years and he totally forget them as well!
Can you believe that guy???
@HeadPirate how do you play a fighting fantasy book with someone else? Also I'd be happy the creator took the time to do that for me, I definitely wouldn't hold a grudge
I mean, he wasn't really "doing it for me" ... back then Jackson, Greenwood, Salvatore, sometimes even Gygax would all play Living City to network and promote their own projects. Party and DM was randomly assigned, so if you got to play with them it was just luck. I've played with all of them except Gygax (who I never even got the chance to meet to even sign something).
Comic Con it was an VIP event. You could sign up if you had a press pass and committed to reviewing the game or if you had a VIP pass (either the one you pay for or the one they would give to like game suppliers and the like).
And like ... clearly sarcasm, I can't believe so many people don't see that. If I was going to complain about someone not recognizing me it would be Masahiro Sakurai. Remember me? We've talked like ... 2, 3 times a year at press events? Only white guy in the room 90% of the time? You laugh every time I tell you my name for some reason? Not ringing any bells?
Also I would call out Phil Spencer, who called me by name and asked about my wife the second time I met him. 3 years after the first time, when I asked him like a single question. To be honest, a lot of "big" COE types can do that. It's incredible.
@HeadPirate your life story is extraordinarily nerdy
Ha! Yes nostalgia is alive and well and I’m enjoying my Stranger Things and pixely 8-and 16-bit indies now before the 80s fade to passé and the millennials bump us into irrelevance. Really, I think we were blessed with a great time to grow up and imprint on things.
While I’m no furball - in fact I spend considerable time and money to stay un-furry - I certainly agree we are kindred spirits! It’s always a pleasure to exchange messages here with my furry northern friend.
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