Bad to the bone.
Sorcerer King, the new game from developer Stardock, is a turn-based 4X strategy game that also incorporates elements of a fantasy RPG into an interesting gaming experience.
The game’s eponymous villain is the ultimate evil king. There is little in the way of backstory to explain why the Sorcerer King is ruling this world, and why he wants to destroy some magic shards dotted around each map the player navigates, except to say that he’s a bad guy hell-bent on total destruction and he must be stopped at all costs. That being said, the game’s official website has a lengthy timeline for those who are curious to investigate Sorcerer King’s lore in more depth.
Race against time.
The player begins by selecting a sovereign type from an assortment of classes that include a Wizard, Tyrant, Priestess, Commander, Guardian, and Tinkerer. Spellbooks the chosen sovereign takes into battle can then be customised before the player selects one of the available maps. Maps can also be customised in terms of their size, difficulty and available magic.
The first thing to note about Sorcerer King is that the player is always fighting against the clock. As the game tells the player, every 10 turns the doomsday counter at the top of the screen increases. When it is full the Sorcerer King casts the Spell of Making, which essentially spells defeat for the player and everyone else.
The pressure is on from the start – Sorcerer King is not a strategy game that encourages gentle exploration, resource gathering, research and diplomacy in the mould of, say, Civilization. Instead, the game is very much about survival rather than military domination. That’s not to say that research and diplomacy don’t play important tactical roles – they do – but these aspects are part of an overall urgency that underpins the gameplay within Sorcerer King.
This sense of urgency is evident in the frequency with which Sorcerer King asks the player to adapt to changing circumstances and make snap decisions rather than informed, calculated choices. In my first skirmish match I chose to play as the Commander, and was asked to make preparatory decisions before the game even began: should I stockpile resources or build an army in secret? Should these resources be used for forging weapons or crafting potions or scrolls?
I found this kind of on-the-spot decision-making to be a pretty interesting aspect of Sorcerer King. As I proceeded with my initial forays I frequently came across similar scenarios: at an abandoned village I had the choice of conscripting a debt collector or abandoning him to the elements. At a local tavern I was asked whether to help some locals clear out nefarious creatures from their settlement or leave them to their own devices. I chose to help, and after the battle some of the villagers decided to join my army. At other times I decided not to get involved in the dealings of others, as I had my own units to preserve.
Battles can be fought by taking direct control of units and fighting it out, or by utilising an auto-resolve feature for an instant conclusion. Personally I tended to fight most of my battles myself. For the most part these encounters were pretty short, thereby allowing the player to avoid getting bogged down by frequent tedious skirmishes. Chests and battles provide loot that can be crafted into more powerful items for the player’s army, while battles also provide XP allowing the player’s sovereign to level up and unlock new abilities.
While each of these instances might seem like microscopic choices, these decisions are taken within the wider context of the game’s doomsday scenario wherein the player is always racing against the clock. In this setting I always felt like I was reacting to situations as opposed to being proactive. While this isn’t necessarily typical of a standard 4X strategy game, where the player has the freedom to go out into the world to explore, conquer or reach the stars, in Sorcerer King it works despite ostensibly being quite restrictive. The larger problem of the doomsday counter is the game’s main imperative, driving the player and the player’s actions.
Explain it again.
While there is a lot to like about the creativity and inventiveness behind Sorcerer King’s approach to 4X gaming, there are a few issues that could have used further attention.
Certain tactical elements within the game are not explained that well, traits and diplomacy in particular. This is a surprising aberration given that, largely, the game does a good job incorporating inbuilt tutorials to the player’s first campaign or skirmish encounters.
I also felt like some of my ranged units were extremely weak, often being wiped out after one hit from a more powerful long distance foe. Sorcerer King is a hard game, with spikes in difficulty. This, however, can partly be put down to the adaptation required to play the game’s take on 4X gaming – it’s not about building up resources and collating power for dominance of the map, but constantly managing things on the go and finding the right balance between risk and reward.
One more round.
Sorcerer King has a very fresh feel about it, from its tactical systems to the risk management it asks of the player. The presentation is bright and clean. Once I got the hang of things, the ‘one more turn’ mantra that players of established turn-based strategy franchises such as Civilization will be well aware of, started to come into effect.
Sorcerer King is a game that should appeal to both fans of 4X and turn-based strategy games, and those with an open mind looking to experience something new in the genre. It can take a while to get to grips with everything it has to offer, in particular the doomsday scenario, but it pulls through with aplomb and should keep players coming back for more.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.