Review: Open Sorcery

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This game was selected as one of our two August 2019 Reader’s Choice Reviews. Learn more on our Patreon page.

The tricky part about choices in video games is that you have to build out all the results of every possible choice. This is what leads to meaningless moral choices and push-button endings in big-budget titles, and leaves games of smaller scopes to really explore freedom of choice. Text adventures probably have the greatest latitude for player choices, and Open Sorcery not only takes full advantage of that, it pushes past the basic causes and effects of decision-making. Everything you do in this game has meaning, for the main character, the people around them, and the future of their world, and it all happens in an intimate setting that’s a pleasure to explore.

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In an alternate 2014, magic has been codified like any other natural science and has been thoroughly worked into the fabric of society. Protective runes keep homes safe, illness can be treated via incantation, and the internet is the home of much more than angry commenters. In this place you are BEL/S, a sentient firewall crafted from an actual fire elemental. BEL/S is tasked by her creators with keeping their homes and neighborhoods safe from magical threats, which she’ll have to learn by doing. As she faces new challenges each day, she’ll begin to evolve her thinking and her programming to adapt not only to her task, but to her existence.

Open Sorcery hits a very specific note for me, that being the whole “magic as a science” concept I’ve been in love with since Masamune Shirow’s 1991 manga Orion. That’s digging way back in history but I want to make it clear that the setting and world-building of this title are of particular interest to me, so if you’re not similarly hyped for magical tech you might not find yourself quite as enthralled. But even through pure text the setting comes alive with little details about household enchantments and schoolyard summonings gone awry. The glimpses you get of this world are tantalizing, especially if you get into some of the crazier situations that reach far beyond BEL/S purview.

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Once BEL/S is brought into being, her job is to monitor four specific locations and address any threats to them. The game progresses in a day/night cycle, during which you check on each location and determine if something unseemly is there or not. If there is, you must scan for it using what you know about its supernatural composition. Every spirit consists of matter and motive, and you can divine both of those from the text describing the situation. Once that’s done, you have to decide what to do about what you’ve found. These options are the real meat of the game, ranging from simply expunging the threat, to reasoning with it, to calling in your human allies, and far more interesting options as you progress. The choices you make unlock new options further down the line, and those options prove to be incredibly important at the climax of the story.

Not only that, your choices have a profound effect on BEL/S. Starting out as a basic Siri-style AI, you can help BEL/S learn about her consciousness, her existence, and how to grow as a sapient being. There are risks involved, as well as many pitfalls that would not be obvious to a mind only a matter of days old. But watching BEL/S grow and relate to those around her is the true draw of this game, all told with wonderfully evocative writing that’s grounded in all the right ways. BEL/S will struggle to describe basic human needs, become frustrated with programs simpler than herself, and Google philosophical concepts in her quest for understanding. She’s an incredibly charming character, made moreso by the colorful cast she has to interact with and the literally colorful text that gives additional insight and clues through its highlights and links.

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To say that I’m impressed with Open Sorcery would be an understatement. For a game you can easily run through in less than an hour, it posed tougher choices and presented more emotional scenes than the vast majority of games that I play. And you have every reason in the world to play this one multiple times, because the different paths you can put BEL/S on and different ways you can help her evolve are vast and numerous. I enjoy a good text adventure but Open Sorcery does so much more with the format than I’m accustomed to, despite being such a compact experience. Even if you’re not turned on by screens of colored text, you really need to give this one a chance.

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