Sorcerer King is a new game in Stardock’s rather divisive series of fantasy 4X games, Elemental. On the surface, it seems to be yet another strategy game inspired by Master of Magic, but it has some brilliant ideas that make it stand out from the crowd.
Most of the mechanics of Sorcerer King are similar to other fantasy strategy titles. There is city building and expansion, as well as spells researched the same way historical and sci-fi games have you research technologies.
There are also armies and stronger hero units, in addition to strategic maps on which you build and explore, whereas the battles take place on a tactical map. Finally, there are skill trees (both for heroes and for the sovereign – for you that is), and equippable and usable items.
The game does have a few more things going for it – there’s a nice crafting system which allows you to create every in-game item and improve the ones you already have, and the tactical battles are made more interesting by the fact that encircling your enemies gives you a bonus to damage. All these things are fairly well done, though without a unique premise, this game would be a fairly standard 4X title.
Fortunately, Sorcerer King manages to avoid mediocrity by turning the whole genre on its head. Your goal now isn’t to dominate everyone on the map through military power, cultural influence, or economic advantage, as this has already been done by Midroth, the eponymous sorcerer king. The war has already been lost, and your chosen character is merely Midroth’s vassal – as are all the other races returning from previous games.
As the king is clearly going for some sort of ascension victory, destroying the magical shards to fuel a powerful Making spell that will turn him into a god, while also destroying all the life in the world, you have no choice but to rebel against him and try to save the world.
While the plot about trying to stop an evil wizard from killing everyone would not be anything too original in a book or a movie, it has great implications for the gameplay of Sorcerer King. At the beginning of each game, you’re still the king’s subject – which means that he can in many ways help your weak, underpowered armies against random beasts and bandits lurking on the map.
However, he’ll demand power for his evil, world-ending spell in exchange. Early game is all about walking the tightrope as you build up your armies, found more cities, and search for allies, while trying not to enrage the king too much, as he’s more than willing to wipe out the dissenters. You can’t wait forever though, because if the spell of Making is cast, it’s game over.
Sorcerer King is not as freeform as other 4X games – you can’t choose a faction,, there’s no multiplayer, the progress of the spell of Making makes everything time-sensitive (although there are ways of slowing it down) and there are only two victory conditions: killing the king, or building the tower of mastery, which somehow counteracts the spell’s effect. While those changes to the formula keep the game fresh and give it a unique identity, they also make it much less replayable than standard fantasy strategy titles.
Thus, the $40 price tag, which wouldn’t be excessive for other games in the genre, feels a bit too steep here. There are modding tools provided with the game, but they’re fairly limited. You can make your own maps and tiles but not your own quests; you can make your own particle effects, but not your own spells. They can be fun to play around with, but they don’t allow you to alter the game in a meaningful way like map editors included with, for example, the Heroes of Might and Magic games could.
Sorcerer King plays less like a 4X and more like an RPG made in a 4X engine. According to the designer Brad Wardell, it takes inspiration from Star Control 2. Collecting allies for a fight against a bigger threat, and having two victory conditions requiring different playstyles reminds me more of the old Lords of Midnight games, though. This is especially apparent if you’re trying to kill the king, as it requires getting inside his fortress by defeating one of the two boss monsters roaming the area.
It’s even more evident in the campaign mode, where the ‘defensive’ victory condition is disabled, and parts of the map are restricted and can only be accessed after completing a related quest. Even if you’re not playing this way, the map is littered with points of interest which launch short quests – sometimes requiring you to fight, sometimes requiring you to take something from point A to point B, but usually making you pick some choices in amusing text-based segments written by comedian Chris Bucholz.
Choices made in those segments give your sovereign attributes like ‘courage,’ ‘persuasion,’ ‘cruelty,’ or ‘indifference,’ which unlock additional choices in next text-based segments, and sometimes give randomized effects. Your choices can also result in you getting additional units, crafting supplies, and resources that can be hard to come by normally, so the quests are worth doing for that alone.
It’s an interesting mixture of genres that works very well, although it would be nice if introducing RPG-like gameplay went with providing a richer, more complex narrative, as opposed to an assortment of unrelated quests.
Graphically, the game looks nice. The art direction is much more stylized and fairytale-like than previous Elemental games, which helps the game stand out visually. Unfortunately, the design of some of the units and buildings cross the dreaded line into looking like they came from a free-to-play mobile game. Music and sound effects are nothing special – they do their job and fit the tone and setting, but the only track that really stands out is the combat theme. You’ll be hearing it a lot so that’s a plus.
The game is fairly polished as far as newly released strategy games go-it seems that this time, Early Access did its job. There are some minor bugs here and there, like the sound effects of dying soldiers being played before the animation of the enemy attack connects, or changes made to the game’s setting randomly reverting to default, but it’s nothing too distracting.
The only bigger issue I’ve encountered is when trying to get inside the king’s fortress. The event wouldn’t fire until I, for some reason, removed all the heroes from my army. Funnily enough, other players had the opposite problem – the gate wouldn’t open unless the hero they started the game with was in the party. It didn’t break the game, as I was able to add them back in, but it can be pretty annoying, and hopefully Stardock will fix it in the next patch.
Unfortunately, the game does have one fatal flaw, which had me constantly going back and forth, unable to decide if it was a good or bad game. While the gameplay basics are explained in an in-game tutorial, and some more detailed things about units, spells, and city improvements can be found in an in-game help menu, there are many things which don’t seem to be explained anywhere.
These aren’t minor things either. The explanation of differences between campaign mode and the standard new game are nowhere to be found. As those seem very similar to each other (the campaign has a fixed map, fixed minor factions and some scripted setpieces), it can be quite an unpleasant surprise to choose a defense-focused sovereign, fortify your cities, and build the tower of mastery, just to find out that it doesn’t make you win the campaign and you still need to assault the king’s fortress.
Overall, Sorcerer King is a good game that brings much-needed variety to the fantasy 4X genre. While it’s not perfect, playing it is a lot of fun. Hopefully, Stardock will provide more content with the upcoming expansion packs, and other developers will take notice and explore the potential new genre of ‘asymmetric 4X.’
Sorcerer King was reviewed on PC using a code provided by Stardock. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.
The Verdict: 8
- Unique take on the fantasy 4X genre
- Well-written and funny quests
- Involved crafting system
- No manual and lack of important information in the in-game help and tutorial
- High price given the amount of content and replayability
- Generic plot