There's a line in The Lord of the Rings that succinctly captures the desperation of the Fellowship's forlorn journey. It comes near the end, as Sam and Frodo make their way through Mordor. Sam says that he's not sure that they'll have enough food to get home after all is said and done, but Frodo's response--"I wouldn't worry Sam. It's just to get there …"--sells the air of fatalism, the creeping realization that this trek to save the world will almost certainly claim their lives. It's a quote I kept coming back to throughout my dozens of hours with Sorcerer King. Despite its almost saccharine, cartoon aesthetic, Sorcerer King is a morose adventure.
In Sorcerer King, the world's been taken over by a nigh-omnipotent wizard. He's fractured the land, scattered the world's people, and committed himself to casting a spell to unmake existence. If that sounds familiar, it's because it's not too far from J.R.R. Tolkien's works. Your job is to lead one of the last remaining nations against this incredible force and stop the apocalypse.
As you might suspect, the deck's been stacked against you right from the beginning. You're small, weak, and the few soldiers you have defending with you are poorly trained and poorly equipped. That insignificance is reinforced by a Doomsday counter, which steadily ticks up as the Sorcerer King gathers his power--a constant reminder of the struggle that lies ahead. So you set yourself to vying for the allegiance of other races, forging new, better weapons and armor, and gathering what strength you can before one last, glorious battle to determine the fate of the world.
It's a tired setting, but Sorcerer King executes the idea with remarkable deftness. As you build your empire and colonize new lands, you'll find dozens, if not hundreds of little vignettes. Packed away in libraries, abandoned villages, and old dungeons, these scenes are the meat of the narrative. Each one provides a piece of a much larger branching narrative that collectively serves several roles.
First, and perhaps most importantly, they're each expertly written and packed with cute twists or hilarious, tongue-in-cheek dialogue. Rarely trite, these clips ooze style and flair, brightening an otherwise hackneyed setting. They also help you role play a bit. Your leader may be ruthless and determined or may be the snarky sort. Those traits are culled from your decisions in these rogue-like scenarios. It's a novel way to approach the issue of personality development, particularly in a strategy game, but it works and, indeed, it's brilliant and affecting.
Your choices have broad implications too. Establishing new alliances, one of the other key tactics for success against the eponymous Sorcerer King, depends on the decisions you've made up to that point. Creatures and spirits will react to your reputation, and may be more or less willing to join forces. Given the overwhelming nature of the threat, those friendships are vital. With whom you choose to shack up matters, and could mean the difference between a successful outcome or the end of the world.
These two facets of your grand strategy, while important in their own right, feed into the broader theme of marshalling armies and hammering out your empire. You are the resistance here, and you're fighting a defensive war against a much better and stronger opponent. Deception, gathering magical equipment and summoning mythical creatures are, next to forging those alliances, your best option if you want to succeed in the quest to save the world..
As you continue your campaign against the big baddie, you'll quickly realize that even your best troops are pretty pathetic. Armed with little more than swords and spears, they don't have much hope against the legions of demons and mutated beasts at the Sorcerer King's beck and call. You can, however, equip your armies with new gear. You can loot special equipment from corpses, craft it yourself or find it in one of the game's vignettes. Regardless of the source, superior accoutrements can help an average knight beat dragons. Because of this, Sorcerer King breaks from more traditional strategy games, resembling its Civilization-inspired brethren only in the broadest of strokes.
Instead, Sorcerer King is a delightful fusion of genres that should always fit together well--role-playing and strategy. Both tend to play to the theme of growing stronger and developing over time, but until now, neither have found each other in quite so satisfying a package before.
Sorcerer King is a delightful fusion of genres that should always fit together well--role-playing and strategy.
Since strategy tends to deal in the very large scales of nations and continents, while RPGs tend to stick to the realms of the personal, it is surprising to see everything click so well here. Each time one of your troops crosses paths with a monster or minion of the Sorcerer King, the game will shift into a tactical battle. Here, you can individually direct your pieces, use a variety of combat manoeuvres, and then toss in some of your own spells to support them. Your options here are numerous, and you're encouraged to explore them all. You can easily win out-levelled fights, provided you mix in the right amount of planning and tactical prowess.
Conversely, on the strategic map, your time will be spent moving items and units around the field to cover outposts and safeguard your cities. Thankfully, Sorcerer King includes some useful menus and search functions, letting you easily organize your inventory. You can rework the equipment for any of your troops as needed. Provided they fit the necessary requirements, you can pass around top-level gear to your outpost easily, and, as long as no two get hit during the same round, you can defend a large area with relatively few men, if you so choose.
The benefit here is that such tactics should give you a better shot at stopping the apocalypse, which is what this is all about. The stark, asymmetric backdrop of this war presents a very unique stage. Your only goal is to get there and beat the Sorcerer King. Everything else--creating long-term infrastructure, setting effective tax policies, all the minutiae that form the heart of other strategy games--is secondary. During some runs, I even caught myself sacrificing scores of my own people, essentially committing mass genocide, for the sake of saving everyone. Sorcerer King consistently encourages this kind of desperation, particularly as the game's omnipresent Doomsday counter ticks closer and closer to The End.
Predictably, the asymmetrical nature of the game bars any sort of multiplayer, a staple in most strategy games. While there is a campaign mode, it's pretty bare bones, with only a few substantial differences from a round of play in sandbox mode. This limits replayability quite a bit, despite its seeming absence of limitations. The vignettes and factions become predictable after a while, and after your eightieth Magical Axe of Awesomeness, the charm of finding new items runs a little thin. That said, what is here is special and should keep you busy, even it wears out after a while.
Desperation is the best frame to understand Sorcerer King, and the game is fortunate that it's both fresh and effective, presenting a wholly unique take on the same fantasy and strategy tropes we've all seen dozens of times before. But desperation isn't the only thing Sorcerer King has going for it. Throughout, vignettes treat you to pieces of distilled levity and constant growth, item discovery incentivizes constant exploration, and the complex political world backing the whole campaign forces some tough choices. Together, these pieces come together to create a great twist on the classic 4X formula.