When it comes to RPGs, I am a simple man. All I want is a well written story, some unique and interesting characters that can't be described in a single cliche, a world that consistently follows its own rules, and most importantly, the ability to make a personal impact on the story.
Now that I've written all of that down it sure doesn't seem very simple, but there are some games out there that easily fulfill all of these demands. As you can probably guess from the title alone, the Sorcery! series belongs among that rather esteemed company, especially Sorcery! Part 4 - Crown of Kings as it represents the final evolution of everything the series has put forth so far. The stakes are higher, the atmosphere is much more intense, and the entirety of the experience is far more immersive than ever before.
Welcome to Sorcery!
While all of these are most certainly positive things, they do bring with them one restriction - unlike the previous three episodes, Crown of Kings is just not meant to be played as a standalone game. You can try, nobody will actually prevent you from doing so, but you will be missing some of the amazing equipment only found in the previous episodes, as well as all of the knowledge about the world and its inhabitants.
However, if you're a veteran of the series but have someone managed to lose your save file, there is no need to worry. The difference can be overcome through the use of critical thinking and the tricks you've uncovered throughout your journey so far. As long as you know the basics of how spells and counterspells work, or at least how to make the best use out of your sword, you'll be perfectly fine. And I speak from experience on this one given that I've managed to rather stupidly delete all of my save files.
When you don't know what to do next, make sure to rummage through your inventory for useful items and clues!
Even though I might be a bit of a fool, I am glad to say that Crown of Kings does not treat its players as such. You will be presented with some hard choices, choices that don't have any easy solutions, and it is going to be up to you and you alone to figure out the best course of action. Don't get me wrong, the entirety of the Sorcery! series has always put a heavy emphasis on the player's ability to choose their destiny, but Crown of Kings takes thing a couple of steps further.
Unlike the previous three episodes, Crown of Kings does not feature the ability to rewind time at any point. In other words, whatever decision you end up going with, you're going to have to stick with it! This sounds like a small feature, especially since you still have the ability to rewind time if you end up dead (for obvious reasons), but in reality it adds a whole new layer of intrigue to the story as everything is suddenly much more serious.
Playing the 'little goody two-shoes' is no longer an easy thing to do because no matter how careful you are, you will eventually mess up! Let's say you're sneaking through a barracks with the intent of stealing a guard's uniform, but due to factors outside of your control a loud noise wakes up one of the guards. Will you try and knock him out, buying yourself the precious few minutes you need to escape? Or will you try to greet him and pass yourself as one of the guard, back from a late night shift? Or will you perhaps go for the guaranteed, albeit quite evil option of simply vaporizing the guard into a few specs of dust? Decisions, decisions...
Well that could've gone better...
No matter which option you end choosing there will be consequences in the future, some better than others. For example, if a guard recognizes you and you let him run away, you can almost guarantee that some event later on will be much more difficult because your presence is now well known to the city guard. It is little details like this that make an imaginary world feel truly alive, and it is also one of the biggest reasons why I enjoy the Sorcery! series so much, especially Crown of Kings and its rather... hardcore approach to problem solving.
The threat of future consequences isn't the only thing keeping players from going on an all-out murder spree, however, the writing has a far bigger role when it comes to that. Unlike the majority of games out there, and this includes a fair few RPGs as well, the creatures that inhabit the world of Sorcery! are not intrinsically evil. They are simply trying to live their lives as best they can in the circumstances they're stuck in, which in the case of Crown of Kings means under the tyrannical rule of the power hungry Archmage. There are some races like the Goblins that are heavily predisposed towards tribal violence, but even they prefer not to fight for no reason at all, so you will always have the option to get out of sticky situations purely through your wit alone.
What all of this results in is a world that feels strangely realistic, even though you're being chased down by magical dragons. No matter where you are, no matter who you are talking to, a friendly smile and a simple greeting will get you much further than bursting in with your sword raised high. You wouldn't think this would be a feature worth praising, but its something I so rarely see in RPGs I feel obligated to give Sorcery! a shout-out. Not only does it expand the amount of choices you have laid before you, it also makes the inhabitants of whatever imaginary world you're in that much more believable, and at the end of the day immersion is what makes or breaks a story focused RPG.
Not quite what I expected, but a rather welcome surprise nonetheless!
Continuing on with the theme of sword wielding maniacs its time to talk about the combat in Sorcery! The way it works is that you have an energy bar that partially regenerates between rounds, and in order to deal damage to the enemy you need to invest a certain amount of energy to launch an attack. If your invested energy is greater than the opponent's you will deal damage to them, with the power difference between your attacks dictating how much damage they will take. Since you won't always have enough energy to launch a strong attack, especially if your previous one used up nearly all of your reserves, you can also block the opponent's attack and guarantee you only take one damage from it.
All of this might seem extremely simple, and to a certain extent it is, but there is a good degree of strategy that you can employ in order to really bring down the hurt onto your opponent. Timing your blocks to counter the enemy's strong attacks, using your weakest attacks to essentially waste their blocks, and overpowering their blows with your own are all important skills you would need to learn... if the combat system wasn't so easily exploitable! This was an issue in the previous Sorcery! games as well, and unfortunately Crown of Kings does very little new in this regard.
The problem lies in the fact that every single enemy has a pattern they follow, a pattern that can easily be learned and then exploited with devastating results. Since you can always restart a fight, whether you win or lose, even the most unobservant players will eventually figure out a way to brute force their way through a tough boss. For a game that otherwise challenges you to think up creative solutions to problems, the presence of easy combat is a massive shame as it always gives you guaranteed way out. Why bother bluffing your way through a Troll cave if you know for certain that you will be able to beat the everliving daylight out of every single one of them, and practically leave the cave unscathed?
I think I'm going to need a new sword after this
While the combat system ended up being a bit of a disappointment, I'm glad to say that the magic system is the best it has ever been. Not only do you have more spells to work with than in the previous Sorcery! games, you also have a much greater degree of freedom when it comes to using them to creatively solve problems. And when I say creatively, I really do mean creatively because I still can't believe some of these interactions were actually planned for.
To give you a simple example, Crown of Kings has a massive chain of branching decisions that all revolve around you accidentally trapping a sleeping guard into a conjured patch of quicksand. This isn't something that happens as a part of the story, this is just a situation I ended up creating by casting the wrong spell at the wrong time! Best of all, this was completely meaningless in the grand scheme of things, so to think that Crown of Kings actually has such a detailed resolution for such a ridiculous problem is quite impressive indeed.
This doesn't just apply to the quicksand spell, however, this applies to nearly all of them! No matter how obscure or bizarre the spell is, you can always make some use out of it, provided you think carefully about what such a thing will accomplish. It is here that the brilliance of Sorcery! shines the brightest as I have yet to find a spell that didn't do exactly as I planned, even if the desired result wasn't the best due to my lack of foresight. Pro tip: don't try to burn down a door with the fireball spell if you're standing on easily flammable material. Let's just say it doesn't end well for you and leave it at that.
The final topic I wanted to talk about was the map size, which to my surprise ended up being a lot smaller than in the previous Sorcery! games. While this is usually a very bad thing, Crown of Kings has a good reason for such a small playable area - the world is filled to the brim with places to explore and people to meet. You can't walk two in-game meters without bumping into something of interest, or at the very least a bit of scenery to admire... purely through text, but admire nonetheless.
What this means in terms of gameplay is that you always have plenty of choices when it comes to moving forward. Sometimes even too many choices! When you're sitting at a crossroads and you see five diverging paths in front of you, its a bit overwhelming to just choose one, but that is half the fun of the Sorcery! series. You're not meant to see all of it in one playthrough. You're meant to return to it later on and experience a somewhat different adventure, complete with brand new characters and events you may have completely missed the first time around.
When it comes to storytelling and exploration Sorcery! is one of the finest RPGs I've had the pleasure of playing, and Part 4 - Crown of Kings is definitely the crowning jewel of the entire series. While it doesn't feature many improvements to the core mechanics, Crown of Kings brings with it a gripping story, some spectacular characters, and a world that is incredibly easy to get lost in... and I mean that in the best of ways.
If you've enjoyed the previous Sorcery! games, or if you're a fan of well written adventures that don't treat you like a clueless fool, you'll most likely find Crown of Kings to your liking. If you do decide to play it, I would heartily recommend going through all four of the Sorcery! games in order as there are quite a few reoccurring characters, themes, and items that will further help flesh out the story and create a more personalized adventure.
(Video version of the review, just in case you need some gameplay to go along with it)