Sorcerian Original: There’s only one Original

Sorcerian Original is the Windows 98/95 compatible remake of the… well, the original Sorcerian, a game first released on the PC-88 back in 1987. As remakes go Original’s a fascinating case of the very old meeting what was at one point in time the very new. The graphics for example have been completely overhauled, many environments now boasting atmospheric special effects such as scrolling clouds, animated backgrounds, and sparkling water although they all still retain the distinctively blocky look of their 80’s ancestor, everything from dark caves to lush forests unapologetically constructed from very square tiles. In fact under that beautiful surface Sorcerian Original is so close to the slightly later revisions of Falcom’s classic (so that’ll be PC-98 and onwards) that it’s perfectly possible to use old maps and walkthroughs to see you through the game’s various challenges; every pot, sword, and NPC still exactly where Falcom placed them over a decade earlier.

This sort of not-remake remake has always worked well for the developer (just look at Ys‘ numerous reissues over the years), and by pinning Sorcerian down as one very particular and largely unchangeable experience Falcom bestows a (deserved) sense of importance to the game – it’s not outdated design, it’s classic fantasy adventure Sorcerian – and also give us a great example of the company’s cool business-minded head in the process: Why waste any time or money “fixing” something that’s never been considered broken?

Of course as an example of digital role-playing conceived at a time when not even scrolling was something to be taken for granted (or technically possible depending on the hardware in question) and nothing was set in stone, there’s little about Sorcerian in its original or Original forms that screams “RPG” in the ways we’ve come to expect from the genre label. Here your party of up to four characters follow each other in a neat line through free-roaming side-scrolling environments peppered with light platforming challenges and brief conversations with everyone from local villagers to divine beings while small bats, enormous flying dragons, and everything in between are kept at bay by holding down the melee and/or magic attack keys and then nine times out of ten running straight towards and often through them, hit reaction deemed something for other games to bother with. Combat’s not quite as passive as Ys’ “bump” system, but it’s not all that far off Adol’s legendary charge either.

Equally unusual is the game’s storytelling, which offers players a series of short disconnected quests to tackle in any order they like before moving on to a grand dragon-slaying finalé rather than a more typical, and linear, epic adventure. Obviously some scenarios will be too hard for a fresh party to clear (I should mention that each adventure displays a difficulty level before heading out) but everyone’s welcome to try whatever they like whenever they want to, even if an inexperienced team may lack the strength to open doors in some of the more challenging quests.

This capsule approach makes Sorcerian lean more closely to the way I imagined old pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons sessions to be, where heroes would venture forth from their favourite tavern at the request of the king or in response to the breathless pleas of whoever just burst through the door. It also gives these tales the breathing room to be as unique as Falcom cares to make them, quests encompassing everything from castles standing tall in endless desert sands to giant galleons bobbing on the sea and elf villages sitting in the trees, all without ever having to spend any time explaining exactly where any two locations are in relation to your home base in Pentawa, or why the king/town/warrior you helped from one village isn’t on hand to assist in another scenario. “We made this up because we thought it would be fun” says Sorcerian, baffled as to why you’d ever need any further explanation.

This creative freedom leaves an indelible mark on every quest. A giant tree visibly spans multiple screens, its top forever out of sight. The “Medusa’s Head” storyline litters the area surrounding an ominous door with people turned to stone. You leave fading footprints in snow-covered caves and when you find yourself so high up in the sky you can talk to the gods the clouds below subtly scroll by. There are times you’ll  have to throw hard-won treasures into bottomless pits, find a way to obtain clothing that’ll allow you to plunge into fiery lava, and gather vital ingredients for a magical brew. Sorcerian Original’s filled with ideas, enemies, and NPCs that pop up once, maybe once in one room, and then never, ever, again.

This intoxicating scene-setting is aided immensely by the 140+ page manual, a thick tome that gives only the bare minimum of space over to information on menus, controls, and installation issues just so it can dedicate the rest of its impressive length to fascinating world-building details. Every adventure you can undertake is accompanied by an illustrated short story to help shed some light on the current situation, with the following pages given over to stunning inked images of key items and the monsters you’ll have to fight past to get them. It feels less instructive and more a traveller’s journal filled with tantalising snippets of perils yet to come, every page offering glimpses of powerful demons, magical threats, local strife, and descriptions of powerful spells you have yet to learn, all of them bearing incredible names like TIMIDITY, LOST MEMORY, GO MAD, and SUFFOCATE.

In another unconventional twist, Sorcerian also marks the passage of time. Characters can age, visibly progressing from youth to middle to old age as the years wear on (quests, training, and a few other activities cause time to pass in Pentawa) – you’re even free to create a fresh party filled with fifty-eight year old would-be heroes if you like (in fact any age between 16 and 58 is allowed), their relatively advanced years reflected in the vast quantity of stat-altering bonus points they start off with in recognition of their increased life experience. The major drawback to this, beyond these characters beginning their Sorcerian-ing off much closer to their grave than an energetic teen (more on that in a moment), is that starting stats can’t exceed ten in any particular area. Because of this caveat you can choose to kick things off with a team of more capable than average all-rounders, but as fun as it would be your designated fighter can’t begin their adventures as an octogenarian muscle-mountain, and they won’t have the time to gain as many natural stat bonuses as someone you’ve personally steered through their fantasy life.

Your adventuring team can also have individual jobs, intended to be their unseen profession when they’re not busy smacking orcs in the face with something sharp and pointy. These can be anything from the more traditional priest and spy to cheesemakers and florists, each available occupation (this is determined by a combination of the character’s class, age, and preexisting abilities) having a direct impact on their stats.

As your party can have such rich lives it’s only natural for death to play an equally prominent role, and so in this game anything from natural old age to a trapped door is able to kill off even the strongest of Sorcerians. Some of these dangers can be mitigated by a various skills, spells, and potions – I’d recommend always having flasks of MELT and STONE FLESH available for everyone to use at a moment’s notice – and for everything else a combination of money and luck is enough to bring back a fallen friend (with younger and most recently deceased characters being more likely to return from the great beyond), although should their attempted resurrection fail they’re gone forever.

The silver lining to this terrible cloud is that even if the worst happens and you do need to replace a teammate with someone completely new it’s not the complete disaster it could have been. There’s nothin stopping you from re-doing older, easier, quests with your newbie and although they may not contribute much for a story or two they will be surprisingly well protected by any leftover (or freshly bought) fancy armour your more well-travelled teammates have acquired along the way. Death is definitely something you’ll want to avoid, but it’s not so devastating you can’t learn to live with it.

It’s fair to say that Sorcerian can at times be more unintuitive and vague than modern tastes have grown accustomed to: During one quest I picked something up too early which meant a crucial line of dialogue failed to trigger, and in another I removed an important gem at the wrong time, accidentally making it impossible to continue. But even then Sorcerian Original’s got such a strong sense of mystery and life to it that it’s virtually impossible to not become utterly absorbed in these unpredictable mini adventures. Everything is a compelling unknown here, to the point where even town menus contain intriguing options that won’t always have a clear purpose or directly contribute to your ongoing survival, such as allowing your party to spend time praying at church or learning how to identify monsters while out and about. Sorcerian’s ambiguous simplicity is as much as a strength as it is a source of frustration, your imagination warmly invited to fill in the gaps as your party shimmy up giant tree roots in underground caverns, navigate frozen waterfalls, and douse magical fires to retrieve angelic blades.

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