[13 December 2013]
Episodic games have become quite the rage recently. From early failed attempts with SiN and the Half-Life 2 episodes and the misunderstanding of the concept with Siren: Blood Curse, the idea finally took hold enough in the public consciousness to become viable. Distribution had to change enough to make it technologically easy, and public acceptance of what these new methods could offer was required to make it a cultural standard.
Most often still found in the adventure game genre (though current implementations of DLC and season passes such as Bioshock Infinite‘s Under the Sea episodes is expanding the concept), thanks go to Telltale Games for finally popularizing the idea with the episodic The Walking Dead last year. In its wake, 2013 seems inundated with games and promises of games released in such a format over a period of time.
The advantages are evident to this system. It allows players to get through more manageable chunks of content with a tighter emphasis that otherwise might sprawl out in larger single entities. It also allows developers to course correct should certain elements not work out or become more popular than originally thought—from minor adjustments to grand changes. However, one advantage isn’t as self-evident. It allows the entire play style of the game to shift between episodes.
Some episodic games have taken advantage of this to various subtle degrees, with The Walking Dead‘s shift away from traditional puzzle design to focusing more on interpersonal drama to Cognition‘s introduction of new powers in each episode to slowly acclimate the player and matching the game’s fiction to Kentucky Route Zero’s refusal to up the ante on the game’s tonal weirdness and instead stepping sideways. Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! Episode 2 isn’t quite a full blown upheaval of the systems of interaction from the previous episode, but it changes the flow of play a great deal.
Episode 2 picks up, story-wise, right where the last one left off. You can import your save from the last episode and keep all of your equipment and choices as you continue onward to the looming cityport of Kharé. The game starts in the same way as the first part. You will travel down the road, and story options will pop up allowing you to make choices as the game responds with an ever lengthening strip of parchment etching out your narrative. You are playing one-on-one alongside your computerized dungeon master, following a narrow path, weaving your personal narrative over the adventure’s plot. Then you enter the city, and it soon becomes apparent that Episode 2 is structured very differently than Episode 1.
Whereas in Part 1 you would travel in the same general direction, following the road through the Shamutanti Hills, occasionally coming to a fork in the road leading to different vignettes and encounters, but always moving forward, in Kharé: Cityport of Traps you move in circles. There is still a general push towards progression from one side of the map to the other, but you are generally free to wander around the neighborhoods crisscrossing where you have passed as you head down different streets and pass different locations searching for clues about how to open the North Gate. Eventually you will reach points where you can only travel forward to new neighborhoods and quarters.
There are obstacles and oddities in the encounters throughout the city. Nearly all feature multiple ways to solve them, either through magic, cunning, talking, or you can simply pass them by. The encounters themselves are a new set of happenings, challenges, and dangers. Kharé has it’s own personality that comes alive through the descriptive text and simple audio cues that play out based on where you are in the city. Episode 2 also revamps the magic system, making it easier to understand what spells are available in the actual spell casting screen. But certainly the most entertaining addition to the game is the addition of the mini-game Swindlestones. Essentially a one-on-one multi-round game of Liar’s Dice, it adds a flavor to the cultural ecosystem of the city as well as acting as a conversation device, as your bet can also determine what you ask or say to your opponent.
Soon you will be able to dally no longer and must progress to the North Gate. But if you don’t have all the clues on how to open the gate, the game’s circular quality is pushed to its ultimate conclusion as the city once again opens to your travels.
The main goal of the game is to get from point A to point B. Kharé is a city that is just in the way of the ultimate goal of retrieving the crown of kings. There are several stories going on at the sidelines in parallel to your own trek through the city. There are factions and other interested parties separate from you that have a concern with the city’s future. There are individuals with their own personal narratives that you walk in on and then out of soon after. All of this makes Kharé a simple wonder to explore and have an adventure in.
Sorcery! Episode 2 continues to keep the surprises and sense of old school adventure coming. It could have continued to serve up the same material with new surface level content and still would have been worth playing, but opted instead to change the structure and offer the player more.