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Sorcerer King forces you to create turn-based strategy in a scenario where you’ve already lost. The world slides into the arms of an evil magic-wielder, with horrible monsters roaming the countryside, and you step in with a town, a spell, a champion, and a few supporting fighters.

Even the bad guy, the Sorcerer King in the title, assumes you’re his minion and that all is well in his total domination of the landscape.

Unlike a traditional 4X strategy game, you’re not just looking to eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. You’re trying to survive against odds stacked high against you, using the abilities of your fighters, your city, and your own spells to yank success from the maw of failure.

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You’ll work to find allies, protect the magic crystals that dot the landscape and form the last line of defense against the evil Sorcerer King, and figure out how to destroy enemies three times your size and power.

It sounds grim. But thanks to a healthy dose of humor, some nifty spells and abilities, and big rewards for smart strategy, Sorcerer King manages to engage you from the start.

A successor to the Fallen Enchantress games (and better than most of them), Sorcerer King also comes from publisher/developer Stardock. It’s available now for Windows PC for $40.

What you’ll like

The humorous quests

Sorcerer King

Above: A Sorcerer King quest that offers you the ability to recruit a new unit.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Questing in Sorcerer King is definitely the best part. Quests trigger when you enter a spot on the landscape with an NPC building of one type or another.

Generally, quests take the form of a setup — always a funny one — plus a few options. Depending on what option you choose, the rewards change, and some lead to combat or a second location for looting or fighting. Stardock hired Chris Bucholtz, who composes funny stuff on Cracked, to write for Sorcerer King. Many of the quests will make you guffaw.

Sorcerer King fans did a pile of the (paid) programming to get hundreds of quests into the game from December through January, as part of an unusual arrangement with Stardock. Bless them for it: The quests add immensely to the game’s entertainment.

You come upon a murder in an inn, for example. Your options include resolving to find the murderer — or resolving to find a safer inn. When you confront the traveling salesperson everyone agrees did it, he admits that he does black out and wake up covered in blood. Note: He says “covered in blood.”

Sorcerer King

Above: He’s a sleazeball all right, but he’s YOUR sleazeball now.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Many quest rewards include convincing random people to join up with your party. Between that factor and the incredible Hypnotism sovereign ability, I ended up with armies that included History Enthusiasts, Stable Boys, Former Roughs, a Troup of Bards, a Sorcerer King toady, a Former Fortune Teller, a Lazy Census Worker, a Reckless Mayor’s Son, ogres, barbarians, spiders … all much more interesting than the game’s stock units, though they their abilities often mimic them.

The RPG elements

Sorcerer King

Above: You’ll collect items from chests and quest rewards that can be combined into armor, weapons, scrolls and potions for use on the battlefield.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Your tiny characters level up as you fight with them, and you’ll find materials to make them gear (and upgrade it) as well as add abilities to their battle arsenal.

The result is an RPG flavor for a strategy game, which adds depth to the fights and fun for the player. You can walk into a conflict where you have one tiny unit against a field of powerful brutes, and walk out a winner — if you smartly use the unit’s leveled-up abilities and talent tree, your own sovereign abilities gained over time, and the items you’ve crafted and equipped or stashed away in inventory.

Playing battles all the way through

Sorcerer King

Above: You’ll choose spells to learn that you can use in place of a unit’s turn in your battles. They have dramatic impact on how battles go.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Typically, I start strategy games playing battles to their conclusions. Then as the game goes on and combat becomes repetitive, I start auto-resolving fights. Then I get bored, and it doesn’t matter how close things are, I’m clicking the auto-battle button as soon as it comes up.

Not so here.

Sorcerer King does a fine job of auto-resolving conflicts. But playing them is surprisingly rewarding, to the point that even after dozens of hours of play, I was still running most battles hands-on. Some of that was the variety of champion skills (more on that in a minute), but a lot of it was just how much impact combat strategy created on the tiny battlefield grids.

I’m especially a sucker for Hypnotism (and Tame, and to a lesser extent Dominate) as sovereign abilities you can pull out during close battles. The first two give you the opportunity to win some of the most powerful monsters in the game to your side –- an almost irresistible mechanic.

The replay value

Sorcerer King

Above: You can customize your sovereign and his or her starting party at the start. Hint: Choose Hypnotism. Always.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Sorcerer King generates factions and what you’ll find on the maps randomly. Combine that with the varying sovereigns you play (each of whom has different units and starting parties) and the variety of what spells you choose or how you customize your sovereign at the beginning, and you can create a very different-feeling game from any you’ve played before.

Even the bad guy’s progress on the doomsday meter, which adds an element of urgency to the game as a whole, appears to be affected by the random generation, due to the opposition he faces (or not) from the factions he encounters. Some games, the meter creeps; in others, it flies.

Each game feels completely different.

Your powerful champions

Sorcerer King

Above: A champion is about to cast a spell during this battle in progress.

Image Credit: Stardock Entertainment

You start the game with a champion (which you can select as part of picking the first starting party), and their abilities add fascinating dimensions to the battlefield. You can auto-resolve battles, but they engage you when they are at all even – and sometimes when they’re not, especially if you have Hypnotism in your back pocket and are hunting for allies.

You’ll recruit new champions along the way, either by saving them, picking them up as part of quests, or by receiving them from allies. Each has a distinct skillset that dramatically changes gameplay. Your archer might set tiles on fire that kill enemies later who run through them; your magician might freeze every enemy on the board for a turn that doesn’t resist his spell. And so on.

The skills vary widely even on a single champion, and no two feel exactly alike.

What you won’t like

The thin, slapdash campaign

Sorcerer King

Above: Avoid the campaign; it’s much more fun to wander the map looking for adventure.

Image Credit: Stardock Entertainment

Perhaps it has something to do my with strategy in strategy games – somewhat plodding, brute-force development of the strongest units, which I then use to crush opposing enemy forces –- but the campaign in Sorcerer King, while long, added little interest to the game. GamesBeat held our review to be certain that we had the opportunity to fully test the campaign, which wasn’t available until launch.

It feels, as with other Stardock strategy games – we’re looking at you, Galactic Civilizations – the campaign was the last thing to be completed and the aspect of the game that earned the least love. Too few quests propelled the action: For a long stretch, my only quest was to defeat the Sorcerer King. While a worthy goal, wasn’t that just the objective of any randomly generated game here?

Other campaign quests popped up as part of the map exploration, but they seemed mostly designed to spur additional exploration of other parts of the map, and it was hard to see where they had a significant impact on the game, or its battles, or even told a compelling story.

The occasionally repetitive enemy lineups

Sorcerer King

Above: Not you guys again.

Image Credit: Stardock Entertainment

At far too many times in Sorcerer King, I would engage a collection of enemies, stomp them, go to engage another pack – and have to double-check to make sure I wasn’t just re-doing the last battle. Same units, arranged in the same formation, with the same abilities – only minor differences convinced me that I was in a legitimate battle and not suffering a bug.

Even packs of enemies at opposite ends of the map will sometimes follow predictable patterns, and in a game like this one, where that map changes with each playthrough, that’s unacceptable. Yes, I enjoy the battles, but not enough to do exactly the same groups over and over again.

Flavorless factions

Sorcerer King

Above: The factions you’ll ally with (or argue with) during this game. They change from replay to replay, but don’t offer much change to the gameplay.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Ally factions will help you in your battle against your evil nemesis, and they typically don’t like you much, creating colorful and entertaining dialog options.

Unfortunately, they won’t add much fun or challenge to the gameplay. Choosing the “correct” option when dealing with a potential ally rarely forces you to make difficult sacrifices. They don’t offer you much except materials, units, or champions (if you’re lucky) to fight with.

Whether you woo them or not feels like it matters little to your overall success.

Dull, tedious city management

Sorcerer King

Above: Your starting city. You’ll get awfully sick of seeing it.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Cities offer no way to queue construction, so while they at least remember how far along you were in crafting a unit or a building if you change your mind and then return to it later, you still have to manually begin each new piece of construction when the last finishes.

It does aid you by running through the rotation of idle units, idle cities, and so on before giving you the Turn option. Still, there’s just too much of a “What now?” feeling when a city asks you yet again for guidance, especially if you have sovereign abilities active that reduce summons to as little as three turns.

Cities’ production can be gradually slow thanks to thralls of the bad guy, and you’ll need to place outposts in areas that have materials your city needs to construct certain units. I wish I could say those complications felt more like challenges than annoyances.

Conclusion

Sorcerer King

Above: The Sorcerer King will offer you things throughout the game until you attack him outright. Accept his gifts and you’ll pay the price, from loss of mana or materials to a faster-growing doomday counter.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Sorcerer King offers a nice strategic balance, and the feeling of carving a swath through a landscape already dominated by your enemy gives the game a fun, challenging feel. Galactic Civilizations may be a more-polished Stardock strategy title, but Sorcerer King offers more enjoyment and certainly a lot more humor.

Avoid the cheap campaign and go straight to the business of winning back the world from the evil king. The combination of challenging combat and crystal defense will force you to both attack and retreat, and the doomsday counter adds urgency to your play.

Forgive the occasional battle repetition, annoyingly hands-on cities, and the milquetoast faction system. You’ll still find dozens of hours of enjoyment just proving that you can win, despite the odds, on a playing field that tips deliberately uneven.

Score: 85/100

Sorcerer King is now out for PC. Stardock provided GamesBeat with a download code for this review.

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