Sorcerer King is something of an oddity. It opens with the premise that you've played some other fantasy 4X game and lost. The world is now under the rule of an evil wizard with god-like powers, and you’re the ward of a small province under his control. Your goal is to build up your forces and form alliances to challenge him without drawing his suspicion. All the while, you'll see a ticking "doomsday counter," which marks how close the villain is to re-making the world in his heinous image.
That counter is a big pace-setter. Early on, when you're leading a pathetic band of covert rebels, you have little to contend with. As you grow your army, capture more territory, and forge alliances with other factions, however, the Sorcerer King will respond in kind--and you must be ready. Your basic troops, mostly bog-standard soldiers, pikemen, and archers can only do so much on their own, and they soon become obsolete unless you track down new items and equipment. This is where Sorcerer King's strongest feature--roguelike-inspired encounters--comes into play.
Throughout the map you’ll find caves, dungeons, inns, abandoned villages, and plenty of other locations that offer isolated role-playing moments. Each one presents you with a situation that you have to resolve. Some are as simple as solving an obvious murder, while others require you to make judgment calls, such as guessing the intentions of a creepy-looking undertaker. How you proceed in each one of these situations will affect several stats, such as your fame in the world or your favor with the gods. Those traits, in turn, determine how other factions respond to you and how quickly the Sorcerer King recognizes you as a capable threat.
These vignettes do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to establishing and fleshing out the setting. Each is well written, often laden with nuanced takes on morality as well as a wink and a nod to leave you with a chuckle. In my time with this not-quite-retail build, I found dozens of scenes across two matches--and not once did I see a repeat. It's still too early to see if that will hold for much longer, but my initial impressions are positive.
It's great to see so much effort put into these scenarios because when it comes time for the mid-to-late game, they are the only way to get essential gear. As your poorly outfitted conscripts begin squaring off with ogres and dragons, they need more than dull knives and leather armor to survive. Completed quests will net your army a variety of rewards, such as a permanent reduction in the doomsday counter, holy weapons, or magic scrolls. You can then either equip your armies with the new loot or upgrade and enchant items for even bigger bonuses down the line.
Like many games of its type, Sorcerer King comes in two main pieces: big-scale strategy and tactical skirmishes. Both depend on each other, but the meat of the play is in the up-close-and-personal fights. Here, all the work you've put into crafting the perfect soldiers pays off. Depending on which items and enchantments your forces have, they'll gain powerful abilities or have the armor to shrug off all but the mightiest blows. Even before you hit that stage, the tactical battles are excellent. Archers, pikemen, and mounted units all have their own strengths that play off each other, making for a broad array of options. During one of my favorite moments, I ordered my soldiers to circle a group of ruffians. When it was time, I used a shield-bash to push the bandits into a narrow path. With the enemies blocked on all sides, my marksmen let loose a hail of arrows on the helpless scoundrels. Laying out these kinds of plans might sound involved, but Sorcerer King's interface makes it quick and easy.
On the other side of that coin you have the grand strategy. In this part of the game, you'll develop alliances, build cities, tap resources, and launch a broader assault on the wicked Sorcerer King. One of the biggest new additions to the game since its debut in Early Access last year is the "favor system" for courting potential allies. Given that the whole premise is founded on asymmetrical combat between rebels and an all-powerful mage trying to the end the world, you'll want some friends to help you out.
Yetis, wraiths, dwarves, and plenty more dot the map and await your olive branch, but there's a catch. The Sorcerer King isn't dumb, and he's working each of these factions too. Speaking with any group will cause your relationship with one of the others to deteriorate, pushing them closer into the Sorcerer King's eager embrace. The yetis and the dwarves, for example, don't have much love for one another--so you'd better be ready to make some sacrifices and figure out who will be the best match for your own strategy.
It'll be interesting to see how diplomacy plays into Sorcerer King's single-player campaign, but, at the time of writing, the story mode isn't live. So far, there's only a sandbox in which you can customize your leader and pick some options for your starting map. I haven't had time to finish one of these matches yet, putting four hours into one and eight into another. I'll have a more complete review in a few days when I've had the opportunity to dig into the end game and the campaign.