Game Overview by Mike Finkelstein
I have to admit something: I'm just not that invested in the Dragon Slayer series. Oh, the games are fun, and I've reviewed them well, using the clinical eye of a game historian to understand their place and the grand scheme of video games. I can see why people (back then and even now) can find these games enjoyable... it just always felt like something was missing from that dynamic for me. And nowhere was that more of an issue than with Sorcerian, the fifth mainline title in the increasingly expanding Dragon Slayer franchise.
Make no mistake, Sorcerian is probably the most expansive and dynamic game in the series. It's a blend of platforming, RPG, and adventure game mechanics, all built on a team of heroes going off to have multiple adventures to protect their world. Threats rise and fall but this band of heroes continues, adding members, replacing fallen allies, and building their skills to take on any threat that may come their way. It's an interesting way to build the game, and it does allow for a lot of customization and adaptability. What I felt was missing, for me, was the fun.
At the start of Sorcerian players are tasked with making their first party, with up to four characters within. The classes (fighter, wizard, elf, and dwarf) are basic and easy to comprehend without even needing an instruction manual. Plus, with additional jobs you can learn and earn in town, there's a wide variety of ways to craft these characters. Each mission you run ages your characters by a year (with them starting at 16 years old by default), and taking time in town to train (to use experience, to learn jobs, and to craft magical items) uses more years of their life. And, yes, they can age and eventually die, so you have to balance their life against all the adventures they'll take.
The game is broken up into three scenarios of five missions each. You can play these in any order you see fit, although the first mission of each scenario is generally the easiest. Some missions require certain conditions be met by your party. Sometimes that means your party needs have leveled up at least once (from running a previous mission). Some have puzzles that required a certain class or job in your party. Sometimes you need to only have three members in your party so a character you find during the mission can join up with your team. The game isn't always good about telling you the needs of the mission, meaning you can sometimes waste time faffing around trying to figure out what to do. But that is pretty standard in adventure games in general.
When this game came out in the U.S. it was published by Sierra Games and, frankly, that feels like a perfect fit for this adventure. Each mission, despite its basic platforming and combat mechanics, feels like its predicated on adventure game tropes. You'll end up going around, collecting items for no obvious reason, all so you can slot those items into other places to complete obtuse puzzles. Sometimes you have to traverse across the landscape a few times, talking to various NPCs to get hints and unlocked progression in the quest tree. Exploring, talking, and random collecting are the order of the day. Those kinds of game mechanics were Sierra's bread and butter, what with all of their famous Quest games. Despite this originally being made by Nihon Falcom, this game feels like a perfect fit for Sierra's wheelhouse.
But while the game feels of a piece with Sierra's output, that doesn't necessarily make it fun. Wandering back and forth through random screens, looking for some item you missed or some obtuse bit of dialogue you have to trigger so progression can be made, that can be incredible tedious. Legitimately this has been an issue with the series since Xanadu, a game that basically forced you to figure out the obtuse path through the game. But as many features as this game adds in, it would be nice if the basic exploration mechanics of the game could evolve and not be so fiddly.
I might not have noticed this so much if the game had a larger emphasis on combat over puzzles. Unfortunately, the combat in the game isn't just basic, it's entirely inessential (outside of the bosses). Basic enemies will appear in packs and while you can fight there there's no impetus to do so. Very rarely is a pack of enemies required, hardly ever blocking the way out and never guarding a key item. Most of the time they also aren't worth much in the way of experience at all (a pack could be worth five points while a mission is worth thousands) meaning avoiding them is better than fighting.
The bosses are different, of course. Most of your missions involve going to some place to fight some evil guy that has risen up, and that always leads to an inevitable boss fight to cap the adventure. The fights are required, and worth a fair bit of points, but they aren't really hard. If you have healing magic on at least one party member you can generally tank most of the damage you take easily. And once you have decent equipment and a level or two under your belt (all of which you'll have once you complete your first mission), the bosses become laughably easy to kill. A few hits and they're dead, over and over again.
It's a pity that the game has all these flaws working against it because the presentation is top notch. The music, arranged by Kenji Kawai, is filled with bangers, solid RPG music tracks that really suck you into the soundtrack. The graphics are quite nice as well for the era, detailed and sharp while nicely evolving the "house style" of the Dragon Slayer series. I liked looking at this game, and listening to it. I just didn't enjoy actually playing it.
It's weird, really, because I get what Nihon Falcom was going for with this release. It's blend of exploration and action does feel like a natural evolution for the franchise, a way to de-emphasize base grinding so that the game can focus more on adventure. Unfortunately the rudimentary exploration and adventure mechanics here rely more on hoarding and chance than actual dynamic puzzles. Nihon Falcom's ambitions, I think, were just too much for the technology of the era and the pieces don't come together they way they should. I like the concept of Sorcerian far more than the execution, and that's a real pity.
Similarities to Castlevania Games
Weirdly, despite being far more of an adventure game than a platforming action title, you can still see some elements of the Metroidvania genre to come... just not the good elements. Any time you were exploring around in Metroid, that's the same feeling you get beating your head against an obtuse puzzle in Sorcerian. The two styles manage to come at the same problem from different directions.
With that said, some elements of the adventure genre, of which Sorcerian is a part, did come into play in later Castlevania games. If you ever struggled gathering the Mandragora and Nitro to blow open a wall in Castlevania 64, you can thank Sorcerian and its ilk for those kind of puzzles.