Every so often, you discover a game that sinks its claws in you. It’s the kind of game that you enjoy playing, enjoy reading about, enjoy watching videos of and enjoy talking about with anyone that will listen. They’re games that you want to succeed because you want to see more of them through DLC, expansions or emulation by other developers. They’re the kind of games that have done something so well that you’ll compare other like-minded games to them. They probably have flaws, most games do, but you see past them anyway because you enjoy the game so much.
Sorcerer King is one of those games for me.
It’s not too hard to imagine how it may have never come to fruition. Sorcerer King is the fourth game in the Elemental universe and it’s proceeded by games ranging from borderline terrible (Elemental: War of Magic) to something that’s almost great (Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes). Each of these games had a few mechanics that were either interesting and not well-realized, or well-realized but not terribly interesting. E:WoM’s attempt at a diplomacy mini-game through dynastic gameplay (marrying off sons and daughters) felt new and interesting, if not well polished. In contrast, Legendary Heroes’ focus on the heroes wasn’t necessarily innovative, but it brought about some familiarity and focus to the game experience.
Stardock’s Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes:
Stardock’s Sorcerer King:
None of these games had found the balance between innovation and familiarity though, and the lack of a resounding success was deafening. Had Stardock abandoned the property and the Elemental universe all together, many might have understood that as a practical business decision. Even the most hardcore fans of the Elemental series like myself (who still considers Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes to be among my favorite 4X games) would have understood that move. So in many ways, Sorcerer King feels like a reboot of Elemental. Where some people, including myself, disliked the very same-y factions of the Elemental games (their inspiration in some part taken from the Song of Ice and Fire book series by George R.R. Martin), Sorcerer King has introduced many “minor” factions that consist of some familiar, and some not-so-familiar, fantasy races. (Editor’s note: Unfortunately for the time being, they’re not playable factions, but simply having the universe opened up this way helps its immersion a great deal.) Where a couple of the games had difficulty in conveying the type of game they wanted to be, Sorcerer King makes it very clear what its design focus is.
What is Sorcerer King? Well, that’s a bit harder to articulate. I’ll call it a 4X/RPG/Rogue-like hybrid. Stardock originally threw around the term “asymmetrical 4X” and the goal of that marketing strategy was to highlight that the AI players aren’t playing the same “game” that you are. Minor factions (now referred to as “Rivals”) have their own goal of simply surviving, and the titular Sorcerer King’s goal is to complete his world-ending spell and become a full fledged god. Meanwhile, your goal is to rise from the ashes of a ruined empire and eliminate the Sorcerer King, bringing peace to the world, or conversely, build the Tower of Mastery, effectively making YOU the god.
The game has a strong emphasis on RPG elements within the typical structure you’d expect from a 4X game. Yes, you’ll eXpand your empire (albeit slowly), and you’ll eXploit the resources you come across through your eXploration and, along the way, you’ll be eXterminating many monsters, ruffians and minions. However, because of the game’s intended difficulty (you are going against an established evil empire), there’s a certain “rogue-like” feel to it, as you’ll likely be forced to try more than a few times before you win, changing your strategy and gameplay style each time.
Perhaps, I should unpack all of that just a bit more. You and the rest of the minor factions have recently lost a great war to the Sorcerer King in rather dramatic fashion. After he has all but destroyed you and your rivals, he stops short of obliterating you in hopes of drawing your remaining life force to complete a spell meant to help him ascend to godhood. Throughout this process, he attempts to keep you and your potential rebellion quelled long enough to inhale your soul bit by bit. What the Sorcerer King fails to understand is that you’re very capable of usurping him and, if you play your cards right, that’s exactly what you’ll end up doing.
In the process, you’ll dance on a tightrope of balance between doing what’s best for your people and appeasing the Sorcerer King. That inhalation of your soul I mentioned earlier is tracked via the Doomsday Counter, a gauge of how far along the Sorcerer King is in his ascension process. Points are added to the Doomsday every 10 turns or so, but they also get added when you’ve done something to upset the SK or you willingly give up some of your essence in exchange for “favors”. Nearly everything you do affects the Counter both positively and negatively and that tightrope dance is an attempt of balancing out the events that add to the Doomsday Counter with actions that reduce it.
But what about gameplay? Well, first you’ll…
eXplore: You start with a single city and a small group of hearty(-ish) adventurers. Your first order of business is to send that party out to explore the surrounding area, looking for treasure chests, quest sites, strategic resources, hero sites, crystal shards, rival factions, and last but certainly not least, the Sorcerer King with his two roving lieutenants.
Few games give better and more compelling reasons to explore. The treasure chests contain crafting ingredients and crafting recipes that allow you to craft bigger and better items utilizing the game’s crafting system – something we’ll discuss in detail later on in the review. Occasionally, you’ll stumble upon a special golden treasure chest that contains some very strong weapons and armor. They’re rare and not in every game, but they’re very exciting when you find them.
Maps are also littered with quest sites. Each of them is given various difficulty level categories that are easily determined through their mouse-over tooltips. These quests play out like a choose-your-own-adventure story and are extremely well written. Stardock brought over Chris Bucholz from Cracked.com to start writing for them and the game is much better for it. Most of the quests are humorous and quite a few of them have had me laughing out loud.
The quests give a wide variety of rewards, from crafting items and recipes to rare units only obtainable through these tasks. How you react to these quests results in the accumulation of various character trait points. Did you choose the courageous yet possibly much more difficult choice? You’ll likely gain a point in Courage as a result. Did you run away, crying like a 4 year-old preschooler? You’ll undoubtedly gain a point in Cowardice.
Along the way, Sorcerer King’s Dungeon Master, a gameplay system that reacts to how many points in Courage or Cowardice you’ve accumulated, will present random events based on your acquired character traits. This rather unique system works well in engaging players in quests on a deeper level and sometimes those random events really change the balance of your particular playthrough. It’s not just a mechanic thrown in at the last minute. Your choices matter in Sorcerer King.
Next are the hero sites, which are critical because heroes play a pivotal role in the game. Remember, Sorcerer King is a hybrid 4X-RPG, so finding these sites that can add more champions to your adventuring party can be a significant boon to your military. Finding an appropriate site leads to a simple text quest that ends with you being presented with an opportunity to recruit that particular hero. Needless to say, stumbling on such a site is exciting and will really help your cause.
The rival factions and the Sorcerer King himself are obviously there for your discovery too, but alas, we’ll have to save our discussion of them for the later sections of this review.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly when it comes to exploration, are the crystal shards. Finding them and subsequently claiming them is vital to your survival. They are not only important to claim, as they are a major source of mana, but finding them quickly in order to protect them is also imperative.
eXploration in Sorcerer King, as a result of all the different elements that Stardock has crammed in to it, is exciting and provides that one-more-turn feeling in each game you play. It’s fantastic and it feels like the grand culmination of a few game’s worth of positive iterations. The bar starts off pretty high.
eXpand: City eXpansion, as a result of the aforementioned war, is limited in ways that both make sense story-wise and avoid the dreaded city-spam problem that nearly every 4X suffers from. There are certain tile groupings that allow you to settle a city, and they aren’t all the common. This leads to fewer cities which helps the flow of the game as its main focus is meant to be on the adventure rather than empire management.
In addition, the Sorcerer King is always watching you, and he wants you to stay a minor faction until he’s done with you. As such, he’ll be sure to scold you when you begin to expand and eventually, your “threat level” – a gauge of how much your actions threaten the Sorcerer King and subsequently, how strongly the SK’s response will be – increases. Thus escalating the tension and the stakes.
You’ll also be on the lookout for Crystal Shards and strategic resources while exploring. In order for you to take advantage of these resources, they must either fall within your natural city’s zone of control or for you to use your pioneers to place Outposts that expand your city’s ZoC. Claiming these resources require logistics, an additional resource in and of itself that provides a somewhat-artificial limit to what buildings and units you can build at a time. Hold that thought, though, as we’ll discuss logistics deeper in the eXploit section.
Outposts aren’t just window dressing; they play a pivotal role in Sorcerer King. They not only help you claim critical resources and expand your territory, but they also create road infrastructure. Roads make moving your armies faster. That may seem kind of obvious and maybe even common in 4X games, but in Sorcerer King that ability to move armies quickly takes on a whole new level of importance. You’ll only have a few armies capable of defending your realm and since they’ll normally be out exploring and tackling quests, being able to get them back to home turf quickly to defend your cities is paramount.
As a result of these limitations, your kingdom never feels too big and it certainly isn’t overwhelming in the latter stages of the game. It’s a smart take on curbing this long-standing issue in 4X as it both accomplishes its goal, and doesn’t feel artificial in its limits because of the established lore.
eXploit: Sorcerer King does an excellent job of incorporating eXploitation as an important gameplay mechanic. There are a number of different resources in the game, all of which are important. First, the strategic resources: metal, crystal, and horses. Each plays a necessary role in the training of your top tier units. Sentinels (the upgrade to basic soldiers) require metal, enchanters (which cast beneficial buffs during combat) require crystal, and knights require both metal and horses. Each strategic resource that you claim is good for a few units that utilize that particular resource and once you incorporate that resource in a trained unit, that resource is no longer available for exploitation. This may sound risky; However, if that unit is killed, the resource returns to your pool. In this way, the game encourages you to seek out the resources and then risk them further through combat.
Every unit requires a certain number of logistics points. Your logistics are based on and increased by certain buildings within your city, through skill points allotted in your sovereign’s skill tree, random quests, administrator units that are stationed within your city (received either as a “gift” from the Sorcerer King or as a reward from quests) and cast spells. Logistics is one of the biggest limiting factors in building multiple army stacks, so seeking out their sources is imperative in Sorcerer King.
Then there are the crystal shards that I keep bringing up. Claiming them once they are in your zone of control increases the amount of mana you pull in. Mana can be divided among three different focuses. Lore, Skill and, well, Mana. Mana is the quintessential resource for spell casting. Lore is required for spell research. Finally, Skill is required to increase your Sovereign’s level. You can manually set the distribution of incoming mana to the various focuses as you see fit. The system is very reminiscent of the classic, Master of Magic and it works just as well here.
Of all the aspects of eXploitation in Sorcerer King, the crafting system is by far the deepest. In order to really access this system, you have to first build up your cities. You need three buildings: Alchemist, Jewelry, and Scribe to unlock various modes of enchantment. Then, you’ll need to go adventuring! Each time you beat some enemy stack or cleanse a place of villainy, you’ll be rewarded with crafting materials. This could be anything from flawless iron and mushroom spores to demon horns and gemstones. Each ingredient has its own property such as increasing hit points, initiative, or spell resistance. You combine all of these in different ways to make armor, weapons, jewelry, spell scrolls, enchantments, and more to gear up your armies for the ultimate battle. Truly, a paragraph or two in a review cannot even begin to scratch the surface in Sorcerer King’s crafting system.
Another aspect of eXploitation in this game is through your relationship with the Sorcerer King. In the early game, there’s this sort of diplomatic dance you do with the ultimate evil. You want his gifts- administrators, crafting supplies, spells, etc.- and yet you want to avoid raising his ire. Every so many turns he comes to you offering help or threats. Accepting his treasure makes the Doomsday Counter go up (if it reaches max, you lose). Defying him puts his forces at war with you. The player is forced to make a choice whether to continue exploiting this charade of camaraderie with the SK to gain critical game components or to openly defy him because the cost has become too high.
Speaking of relationships, there are a few Rivals thrown in the mix that are doing their best to survive as well. Your relationship with each of them requires some work on your part, via completing quests or giving up some of your hard-earned mana. Each of them is represented by a beautifully-drawn diplomat on screen with their own unique music. It’s small touches like theme music that go a long way towards a more immersive experience since their tone and dialogue fits each Rival well. You feel compelled to help these factions, and sometimes destroy them too, as a result of how well fleshed out they are. My personal favorite include the Ice Lord Yetis, the Swamp Giants and the Keepers of the Flame, a group of sentient fire elementals.
Obtaining and maintaining an alliance with your Rivals leads to a point where they give you their faction champion, a powerful hero that represents each faction. Over time, they will provide you with units, mana, items as well as other boons if you ask them infrequently.
Again, it feels like Stardock hit the right notes here. They finally got away from the bland and not-too-different factions of the Fallen Enchantress games and introduced some real fantasy fare. In the future, being able to play as a faction like the Keepers of the Flame or the Ice Wargs would make this gamer a very happy camper.
eXterminate: Combat in Sorcerer King is fast, furious and fun. That’s good for two reasons. First, you’ll be doing a lot of it, so making combat quick ensures that games don’t take forever. Second, it helps balance the game between the tactical battles and the strategic adventure. Never pulling the player away from either for too long as to lose perspective, but given enough depth for the battles to matter. A wrong move here can and will get you killed, but if you take a moment to consider your troops’ abilities and skills, coupled with your sovereign’s ability to intervene via spellcasting, you should prevail even against slightly stronger foes.
Combat is both turn and round-based, with each unit given a chance to attack based on its initiative rating. The higher the rating, the more often they can attack. High enough ratings lead to a unit or hero being able to attack multiple times in one round. Like I said before, success in combat is highly reliant on skills and abilities. Each unit and hero has their own distinct set and each hero obtains more as they level up.
There’s more depth to combat than a quick glance would expose. Each of the myriad units have special abilities that they can use with some unique to individual unit types that can alter the outcome if you incorporate them correctly. Up against a lot of cavalry units? Then be sure to train pikemen, as they’re great against mounted units with their “Slay” ability granting additional damage. A bunched group of small, squishy units pestering you? Use the archer’s ability “Rain of Arrows” to wipe them out in a one fell swoop!
The animation during combat is superb, by the way. Easily some of the best animation you’ll see in a fantasy 4X. Hell, the animation and artwork throughout the whole game is superb. Definitely Stardock’s prettiest game. The hand-drawn look has a timeless quality to it, in my humble opinion. You can’t say that Sorcerer King isn’t easy on the eyes, that’s for sure.
Anyway, back to business! So who are you fighting? Aside from the groups of ruffians and barbarians that plague the desolate lands, your ultimate enemy is the Sorcerer King. You don’t start out at war with him, but that doesn’t stop his minions from occasionally attacking you. They have their own missions, and making the player happy isn’t one of them. You’ll also run in to his minions while out and about completing the quests that litter the map. Eventually, you’ll have either angered him enough that he declares war on you or you will decide to preemptively declare war on him. In doing so, you’ll likely be up against a force far greater than your own.
Sorcerer King very much encourages the proverbial “Stack of Doom”. You’ll only have a handful of armies (depending on the map, somewhere between 1 and 4 main groups) that you’ll be leveling up and using to clear out the map. Each of these stacks will usually consist of a core set of units that you’ll do your best to keep alive, since long term survival increases their level and combat effectiveness. The higher the level, the more powerful and capable they are at actually taking on and defeating the end-game Sorcerer King’s units.
Then there’s the minor factions that I’ve mentioned before. Once they’ve “turned to the dark side”, i.e. sided with the Sorcerer King, or simply because you don’t like their look, you can declare war on them and eliminate their small empires. In doing so, you’re required to eliminate their towns and defeat their heroes. It’s not easy, but the reward is loot that’s exclusive to each Rival. That means that this reward is usually very powerful loot that can help shore up your party’s potential weaknesses.
Not everyone will like the combat in Sorcerer King, however. The combat lacks line-of-sight penalties or requirements, there are no range limits on bows or other ranged weapons, and there aren’t any positioning bonuses (like flanking). There is, however, a bonus for having multiple units surrounding a particular enemy unit (swarm bonus). The quick pace might be a turn-off for some, especially those looking for Age of Wonders 3-like depth, but I feel it suits the tempo of this game exceedingly well.
Let’s not forget spells! Spells in Sorcerer King are limited by your sovereign’s ability to cast them in battle as well as your mana stores. Each sovereign starts with a predetermined number of spells that they can cast in the heat of battle. For most sovereigns, it starts with one, but for others like the Wizard, their ability to utilize the elements in battle adds more. The base number can be increased as you progress up your sovereign’s ability tree. To further differentiate the sovereigns, they each start with unique spells.
Spells can easily and often turn the tide of battle. Are forces are being overwhelmed by a high initiative stack of doom? Summon an Ice Elemental and simultaneously freeze all of the units in place to even the odds. The summoned units are all pretty tough, so the Elemental should make short work of most units. Have a bunch of “low-lying fruit” to take care of? Use flame wave and watch as they all drop. Spells feel appropriately weighty and slightly overpowered, but are limited in ways that balance them out well which does a great job of making you feel powerful, yet not too powerful.
For me, combat strikes a great balance between the requirement for tactics, being quick and being easily understandable. Your mileage may vary here, though.
eXperience: Put simply, there aren’t any other games like Sorcerer King. The closest comparison is Arcen Game’s AI War, but that one was a bit more confusing and less player-friendly than Stardock’s game is. Describing Sorcerer King as a RPG experience within the structure of a 4X game is probably the best way to put it. The focus on RPG elements, like the level progression of not only your heroes, but also your sovereign, and even your city allows for an almost constant need for “just one more turn” to see what you can do next. The crafting system adds depth to item management that doesn’t exist elsewhere.
The way that Stardock linked Sorcerer King’s game systems so well, each of them creating additional weight to your decisions for both short/long-term planning, comes together to create one of the best games that Stardock has ever made. It’s easily the best game of the Elemental series because it dares to be different while doing a pretty good job of creating a new and cohesive experience.
Are there issues? Yes. No game is perfect. Sorcerer King is burdened by some bugs that have been present throughout its Early Access period and, at the time of this writing, are still present. Attack animations are sometimes unsynched with damage animations, tile yields don’t always show up correctly, and there are a couple weird nuances with sounds overlapping each other. There’s also this one bug that crept up in to about a third of my saves where upon reloading a saved game, the fog of war magically disappeared, often on only a portion of the map. I’m happy to report that this particular bug, including a few other persistent bugs, was addressed just before release. So, while there are still some bugs and nuances present, Sorcerer King is easily Stardock’s most polished and stable game in some time.
The fact that you’ll only ever play as one faction leaves some replayability issues, however. That’s compounded by the fact that the game will only ever end in two ways, you either kill the Sorcerer King or you build the Tower of Mastery, effectively replacing the Sorcerer King with yourself by taking over the world. You’ll only ever fight the same two lieutenants and the final battle with the Sorcerer King himself plays out the same way, despite its difficulty.
Some of this is mitigated through the rather different playstyles of the sovereigns, and the various directions each game can unfold. You’ll need to have played a few games before you start seeing the same quests as there are over 400 unique adventures in game and of course, responding to them differently can change the outcomes with their respective rewards. Not to mention, the various minor factions each give unique quests, items, conquest rewards, and heroes through alliance.
However, this is easily its biggest concern for me in regards to its broader appeal. That, coupled with the narrow focus of its gameplay is what I fear will turn away most people. There is much more replayability here than most people will see on the surface, but that won’t be immediately obvious to most players. Also, after you’ve beaten it a few times, the appeal of playing again does begin to wane with so few victory conditions and the lack of endgame variability. It will likely take multiple playthroughs to get to the point where you even beat it, hence my likening it to a rogue-like, but once you’ve beaten it a few times, your interest might dwindle.
On the flip side, I’ve played nearly 80 hours and I keep coming back. I enjoy the adventure and the variations each game brings. I still haven’t seen all the Rival heroes and I still haven’t beaten it with each sovereign and before I put it down, I think I’ll probably make a good effort to do so. While I’ve sounded a bit negative for the past few paragraphs, I want to make something clear:
This is my personal game of the year so far and I don’t see that changing.
However, I recognize that it may not be the perfect fit for everyone due to its respectively narrow focus and moderately-limited replay value, and I can’t give it our highest award as a result.
Troy’s Additional Perspective:
I have a lot of different thoughts on Sorcerer King (SK). First, I want to talk about what I like about the game. The combat is great. It’s fast. It’s tense. It gives me tons of option. It’s everything I want in combat. I also like the heroes. When it comes to combat, I like them better than the heroes in Endless Legend. They have lots of fun and interesting abilities. I like making my adventuring party stack of doom and using them like an RPG troupe. Getting heroes from the minor factions as a reward for quests is exhilarating. Leveling them up is fun and much deeper than most games. I also like the sovereign advancement trees. I think they’re better than the Ideologies in Galactic Civilizations 3. The designers did a great job on them. I also think SK has contributed something great to the entire 4X Genre: a new win condition! Now we can add “Climax” to Conquest, Diplomatic, and Tech/Spell as victory conditions. I think the whole genre owes this game a great debt, and I cannot wait to see where designers take that idea from here. SK’s contribution in this regard cannot be overstated.
However, I do have a number of problems with the game. First, it’s the entire premise for the game. You’re going to play the same race against the same enemy every time. There’s never a surprise or deviation on that front, so every game is going to be essentially the same. All the different leaders, quests, minor factions, and surprises from the Dungeon Master don’t ever change the basic dynamic of the game: kill the SK before the Doomsday Counter gets you. Second, the game forces you to play in a certain way. This is where it’s frenetic rogue-like side comes through. If you’re the type of player that like to turtle in one city and then strike out from there once your building tree is done or if you’re the type of player that likes to leisurely explore the world, you can’t really do that in SK. If you like creating huge empires with lots of cities and citizens that require your tending, SK does not allow you to play that way.You have to play the game the way the designers envisioned or you lose. Period. Third, more alternate win conditions such as achieving a diplomatic victory by uniting all the minor factions or joining the Sorcerer King against those factions by helping him destroy the shards in exchange for becoming his apprentice weren’t explored. Likewise, focusing on conquering all the minor factions won’t give you a win. Every game, you have to essentially play and win the same way. For me, it shuts down much of the potential replayability and fun the game might have to offer.
Nate’s Additional Perspective:
What I like about Sorcerer King has to do with what I am known for; music and graphics. Apparently, I’m a snob. Stardock really knocked it out of the proverbial ball park when they added soothing music similar to the Sword and Sorcery movies from the 80’s to some really striking graphics. This world is the best iteration of the Elemental series. Animated effects like snow, roaming stacks of squishy creatures, and the clean UI makes me a happy gamer. Yes, we’ve seen this before in their previous games, but it’s obvious that they have learned. This game is not hard on the eyes. Adding the animated characters and the varied goodie hut backgrounds makes for a compelling experience. There is much more to the game, but it has already been covered. My main issue is with the lack of variety at the end. I’d like to see four or six or maybe even eight different lieutenants that are randomized from playthrough to playthrough where each one brings something unique. Their combination with the SK creates additional emergent gameplay that makes the final “Boss Battle” really memorable.
TL;DR: Stardock’s finest game since Galactic Civilizations 2 and easily their best product in the Elemental series. It’s hard to describe and even harder to put down. If you like fantasy 4X and RPGs and don’t mind a steeper-than-normal difficulty curve, this is likely your new favorite game. Stardock managed to combine an old universe with new ideas that, for the most part, work extremely well. However, it’s probably not for everyone as there are some fundamental gameplay elements that some people won’t be able to enjoy. For the right player, like me, this game gets a higher score than I can objectively give right now.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You enjoy RPGs as much as you enjoy 4X games
- You’ve enjoyed the Elemental games, despite their known weaknesses
- You want to play a new take on the genre and don’t mind learning new systems
- You like a challenge and don’t want to win your first few games
You Might NOT Like This Game If:
- You hate the idea of the Doomsday Clock (even though it’s somewhat configurable)
- You need your games to be technically perfect
- You want a traditional 4X game
Rob has played for 78 hours through various alpha and beta builds and on various computers, most notably an HP Omen with an Intel Core i7-4710HQ @ 2.5GHz, 8 GB of DDR3 RAM, and a GeForce 870M.
Disclosure: I purchased Sorcerer King through Stardock’s Founder’s Program and have played every iteration at various lengths since early alpha. At least 30 hours of my total play time consists of the latest two beta iterations. I’ve also invested myself in providing feedback to the developers on a regular basis, but have no investment in the company in any other way.