2015 has seen an explosion of quality RPG and strategy titles for PC, which is a godsend for a sci-fi and fantasy nerd like myself. It’s actually depressing to do the math and figure out how many hundreds (and hundreds) of hours I’ve sunk this year into Pillars of Eternity, The Witcher 3, and Galactic Civilizations 3 combined. Now that I have Sorcerer King to play until MGS5, I don’t need to consult a psychic to predict my social life won’t be improving much in the near future. Hey, don’t cry for me, Argentina. With games these good, I ain’t complaining!
Sorcerer King is a 4x type strategy game with RPG elements, from Stardock Entertainment. Stardock is also responsible for one of my absolute favorite games of 2015, Galactic Civilizations III. Considering that masterpiece side-by-side with Sorcerer King, it’s hard not to say that Stardock is having a banner year. These guys are masters at crafting fun to play, surprisingly immersive strategy games. That holds true for Sorcerer King as much as it does for Galactic Civ III.
Sorcerer King is one of those games well suited for summertime, a time when you can easily burn through 8-10 hours of gameplay in a single play session and scarcely notice. It beats getting a sunburn, that’s for sure! Sorcerer King features strong gameplay that will appeal to most fans of the 4x strategy genre: it’s another great example of “one more turn” style gameplay that becomes highly addictive right away. If you’re a fan of games like Civilization, Total War, or Endless Legend, I’d strongly recommend Sorcerer King. You already have a pretty solid grasp of this game’s fundamentals: and even if you haven’t played 4x games before, this is a good one to start with.
With an art style reminiscent of Total War: Rome II mixed with Divinity: Original Sin, Sorcerer King represents a unique take on the tried and true 4x formula. In games like Civilization, the goal is to simply flourish better than your rivals and wind up controlling the world. In Sorcerer King, that battle has already been fought. And a big bad guy called the Sorcerer King already won. As one of his subjects, you are basically preparing for a massive coup. The building up of your kingdom, armies, and magical abilities are all in preparation for this inevitable final battle.
Meanwhile, the Sorcerer King is dwindling down a doomsday spell that builds in potency with every instance of discord, chaos, or bedlam that occurs under your watch. When he gains enough dark energy, all life on the planet is sacrificed in a spell that makes the Sorcerer King an immortal god. Obviously, that isn’t a good thing. As the player character, you spend the game working to delay this spell for as long as possible; while also ramping up your power to take on the despot himself.
What’s interesting about this mechanic is that throughout the game, you have the option of working against the Sorcerer King as a kind of double agent. In other words, you can accept help from the evil, red eyed ruler under the auspices of governing his realm…while secretly amassing land, experienced soldiers, and magic in the meantime. Keep in mind that this ruse only works for so long. Eventually you will have to face the Sorcerer in all out war. If you prefer, you can be a brave bastard and start an open insurrection from the first turn. Once again, it’s totally up to you.
The ultimate goal is to either forge alliances with your rivals or conquer their resources by overwhelming force in order to overthrow the Sorcerer King. At the same time, you micromanage the growth of your rapidly expanding cities and kingdoms a la Civilization. You can play out this scenario in a campaign-like story mode or in a more free-form mode. The elements of the game involving civilization expansion are mainly standard fare for this genre of PC game: it’s the elements that derive inspiration from old school RPGs that make Sorcerer King more of a beautiful synthesis than a retread.
Despite Sorcerer King’s fidelity to the basic tenets of 4x design philosophy, this is far from a paint-by-numbers, generic Civ clone. There are a number of novel features unique to Sorcerer King that make it stand out in a field of relatively same-y games: an alchemy/crafting system, a grid-based/ turn-based combat system, moderately deep RPG elements, and its unique and charming visual flair. The map and characters are brightly colored, and the enemies are appropriately fantastical in tone, ranging from the standard barbarian to darker looking monsters. What’s more, nearly every line of dialogue or description provided in the game drips with good humor and charm.
As an example of a unique game feature that’s not merely cosmetic, Sorcerer King has quests; which is unusual for a 4x game. The aforementioned crafting system is also unusual, since the items you create are used on an individual basis, the way characters in a traditional JRPG might. Each one of your troops can be equipped with a variety of weapons and armor. You can also craft potions, magical items, and other useful tools to be used in the game’s combat system.
What you can craft largely depends on the ingredients your explorers uncover, or what resources your Sovereign has access to. This is a good reason why even the most militaristic of Sovereigns have good reason to explore the map for its many randomly generating treasure chests, as well as invest in workers to gain resources: good items or the occasional health potion can go a long way towards keeping your unit alive and keeping the doomsday clock abated.
Yet another aspect of Sorcerer King that feels inspired by traditional RPGs are its location-triggered quests and events – though neither of these elements are featured as prominently as they might be in a more straight-forward RPG. Station your troops at a local inn, for example, and a dispute may arise over the conditions of their room. Maybe the upstairs tenant having a loud party and keeping your men from sleeping. Do you punish him? Party with him? Demand a refund? How you handle these instances has an impact on many things, including your sovereign’s character traits and the rate of the doomsday clock. These random events give the game’s strategic features even more of an RPG sheen. It helps you get more into the fantasy theme of Sorcerer King by heightening your sense of adventure as you roam the countryside; looking for treasure chests, roaming bandits, monsters, or interesting dungeons is rarely this fun or this prominent in a 4x game. And the combat itself – another example of how Sorcerer King synthesizes RPG and strategy game design elements – is largely fun and addictive.
Yes indeed, the combat system is straightforwardly good, clean fun – though it’s also skippable in the same way that Total War: Rome II allowed you to fly through combat sections based on the likelihood of victory. Like Rome II, half of the time you won’t want to skip it. One interesting feature in Sorcerer King is that units stacked next to each other, or within one square of each other in all directions, will attack in unison for every strike against the enemy. This adds some strategic depth to the battles themselves, which are further deepened by the addition of champion characters, magic users, and other unique party members.
The game also has skill trees for an assortment of characters, which is more common to 4x games than the crafting and questing, but still stands out as another element taking cues from RPGs. Everyone from your Sovereign to your generals to the cities themselves have customizable skill trees and differing areas of specialization. I can’t overstate the degree to which each play through can be tweaked and re-approached to form a whole new experience.
Sorcerer King provides huge variety in what kind of leader, army, cities, and soldiers you can lead: like the classics of this genre, the replay value is astronomically high. By default, you can play as 6 different sovereigns: the Wizard, the Commander, the Tyrant, the Guardian, the Priestess, and the Tinkerer. Each of these characters have access to completely different starter abilities, ‘spell books’, and starting parties.
And if you don’t want to play as any of the base 6 roles, the game offers a custom sovereign designer to drool over. I’m a sucker for features like this that let my imagination run wild in a way that integrates with gameplay: creating a custom king and kingdom is a nice and streamlined example of this. And the customization isn’t purely cosmetic, either: you can tailor which starting abilities, character traits, and soldier types you begin the game with as well. This is a huge reason why I also love Galactic Civilizations III: being able to create my own nation with my own head-canon goes a long way in inspiring those hundreds of hours of gameplay. Whenever it’s time to make decisions as your sovereign or engage in diplomacy, having a well formed backstory and character model for your protagonist in mind helps to really immerse you in playing Sorcerer King.
I mentioned Spell books: Spell books determine how quickly particular abilities are available for research. These can provide your Sovereign either strategic magic (which is used outside of battle, in the overworked map) or combat-centric so-called ’tactical magic’ to be used in the turn based battle system. This further contributes to the level of customization and strategy the game engenders: do you focus on strategic magic, like being able to heal your soldiers between battles? Or do you focus on building your sovereign’s abilities, which can be used a limited number of times per battle to drastically turn the tables? The choice is yours.
This is a game that allows for lots and lots of customization, without ever losing the sense of streamlined simplicity that’s established early on. That being said, you can either make or break your entire game session depending on how wisely you play the game. Grab up too many cities too quickly, and you’ll find them besieged with enemies in short order. Wait too long on a smaller map, and there might not be much open territory left by the time you work up the nerve to venture outside the walls of your empire. For anybody new to the genre of 4x Strategy, if you don’t back up plenty of saves, the gods will weep for the fate of your people. And your sanity. And your keyboard, if you end up smashing it against the wall in frustration. This is known in the strategy game world as ‘save scumming’, and you better believe I’m guilty of it. I don’t see any shame in not wanting to hate yourself for the rest of the day just because you rolled a 6 instead of an 8.
It can be stressful worrying about that doomsday clock, or running out of supplies, or being sneak attacked by the enemy. You have to play this game with an intent to be prepared for any major uh-ohs. And as you get closer to end-game, that huge spell power meter that’s been steadily rising throughout the playthrough suddenly becomes majorly important. Be sure not to forget about it, which is actually easy to do your first time through: you can alter the rate that the spell builds power in the settings, but no matter what, the spell charges up through the entire game. Lose a battle against raiders? The clock jumps forward a bit. Make a dunderheaded policy decision as leader of your nation? That meter continues to slide forward. This is a game that punishes bad decisions, so you have to be careful about what you do and how – especially in the harder difficulties. It’s not a game with a difficulty curve to be taken lightly: start off in one of the lower settings to build up a basic understanding, and then challenge the game on the harder difficulty modes once you’ve built up the skill and courage.
Like other 4x titles, Sorcerer King allows a huge level of customizability and variety to its map size, player characters, and skill trees. Unlike other 4x games, it has plenty of unique RPG elements to help it stand out in a sea of similar titles. The game stays fun and relatively easy to play, even once your empire spans huge swaths of territory: which is easily one of the most important feature to a 4x game. Next to Galactic Civilizations 3, it’s my favorite 4x strategy game of the year so far. Even if you’ve never played a Civilization or similar strategy game, give this one a try! If you’re someone who can get into the genre, you’ll be surprised how quickly those first hundred hours fly by.