We’re showing our age here, but we’re not sure where we’d be without the Fighting Fantasy series of books. We can picture individual moments and sequences in those green-spined choose-your-own-adventure books, our fingers stuck in pages so that we could reverse back to the choice that led to our death. The books were the gateway to bigger, deeper RPGs and board games, and we’re carrying a lot of gratitude for their writers – Steve Jackson and his partner-in-crime Ian Livingstone – for taking us by the hand and leading us into nerdery.
But of all the choose-your-own-adventure game books that came out around this period, there were none as daunting to a little seven-year old as the Sorcery! series. Everything about them made us trepidatious. They were taller and bigger than the other books, which just screamed ‘more to get lost in’. Manticores and slime-eaters glared from the cover. And, more fear-inducing than them all, there was a separate spellbook that covered all of the incantations that you could cast. The series was deep enough to have its own supplementary material.
I don’t remember if I ever completed one or all of the Sorcery! books. In all likelihood I cheated my way through them. But they hold a special, fearful place in my heart, to the degree that I’m not sure I’m actually the right person to review a new, digital edition of the series. I’m likely to lack objectivity and gush about them. But sod journalistic integrity: I’m going to play and enjoy it, and do my darnedest to be impartial.
What you’re getting in Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: The Complete Collection is what you’d expect: all five books of the series, linearly running one to the other. The book series was designed to be played through as a single, long campaign, and that’s exactly what is possible here. Alternatively, you can just skip to an individual book, but that would deny you progress and some stored items. You’d have to be an absolute monster to play it that way.
Playing Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: The Complete Collection is like reading the original books, but with a series of busybody assistants doing everything they can to enrich the experience. There’s a painter, updating the world map as you go, lovingly rendered in line art and given some height through a touch of papercraft. There’s a butler, logging all of the items that you’ve collected and noting all of the changes on your character sheet. And there’s a wizard, collating all of your possible spells, and gently prompting you to use certain three-letter spell combinations via a fancy constellations mechanic. Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: The Complete Collection has the most helpful of dungeon-masters to guide you along.
But the pinnacle is a Time Lord, acting like a thumb in the book. Whenever a choice doesn’t go your way in Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!, you can press LB to reverse back through every single choice in the game and emerge at the spot you want. It’s incredibly intuitive and generous, and allows you to min-max your path through the game. If there’s a fault, it’s that you can get too lost in it, optimising your experience to the point that you forget to enjoy it. But that’s on us rather than the game.
When we saw that Inkle (makers of 80 Days and the seminal Heaven’s Vault) had decided to take the reins of this adaptation, we wondered why they had bothered. They are fantastic creators of their own worlds, so why did they feel the need to borrow someone else’s? It doesn’t take long to find out why. Their presentation is immaculate, and it serves to elevate the source material. It’s almost an act of preservation, offering the best adventure books ever written in the ideal means of engaging with them. We suspect that Inkle are huge fans and owe a lot to Steve Jackson.
If there is a flaw, it’s in the original books. You need so many tools and time-reversals because Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! is an unforgiving, nobbly little series. Notoriously, it has sections where ninety percent of the paths lead to death, or – worse – a return to where you came from, creating infinite loops of misery. Achieving a good ending in the second book, Khare Cityport of Traps, gathering information from every noble, is an exercise in futility and requires a near-perfect playthrough. But with Inkle’s adaptation, there is at least hope. You can turn the time-dial and find that perfect playthrough, like a safecracker.
Otherwise, the books are as magical as we remember. The original John Blanche artwork is included, in all its grotesque glory, and they trigger alternating feelings of nostalgia and disgust. For new players, the art might seem out of place, but we loved that Inkle preserved them here. But what makes Sorcery! shine for us is its delight in subversion. Steve Jackson had written dozens of books by the time he came to Sorcery!, and he feels playful and spiteful here. A situation will present as simple or even archetypical, but Steve Jackson will pull the rug just as often as he keeps it in place. An old man up a tree, a princess in a tower and an innocent fairy will play to type or be completely the opposite, and the joy is in seeing which way they turn.
Perhaps the biggest deviation from the books is the combat. In the books, fighting was extremely flawed: you were committed to a set of combat stats, and you were doomed if you rolled poorly in setting them up (we always cheated, and we suspect ninety percent of players did the same). Skirmishes were down to the luck of the dice too.
In Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: The Complete Collection, combat is an unusual beast, somewhere between Play Your Cards Right and Rock, Paper, Scissors. Instead of rolling some dice, you choose the combat value, and then compare it to your opponent’s. Beat their number, and you score a hit. But each time you pick a high score, your capacity for picking high numbers reduces. You are limited to picking low. So, you’re looking for clues and anticipating the enemy, picking low scores when they pick low (which regenerates your energy), and hitting slightly higher than them when they choose to aim high.
We will be honest: we dreaded combat situations. Most of them can be avoided, so there’s that, but other times they are inevitable. Our fault with the system is that it’s been included to avoid feelings of RNG, but it feels like we’ve swapped one form of randomness for another. Instead of rolling dice, we are subject to the whims of random enemy attacks. They change each playthrough, so there’s no memorising what they do, and there simply aren’t enough clues to make the choosing of attacks anything less than random.
Combat is a canker in the wonderful, sprawling branches of Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: The Complete Collection. We learned to avoid it so that we could focus on what was good, which was virtually everything else. This is a loving, loyal adaptation of some stellar adventure game books, and losing ourselves again in the dungeons and alleyways of Titan gave us a shiver of nostalgic glee. Whether your motivation is reclaiming your youth, or exploring the early days of RPGs, then Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: The Complete Collection will put you under its spell.
You can buy Steve Jackson’s Sorcery: The Complete Collection from the Xbox Store