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Review: Paper Sorcerer

paper_sorcerer01Paper Sorcerer (PC)
Developed and Published by Ultra Runaway Games
Release Date: November 21st, 2013

PC REQUIREMENTS:
CPU: Pentium 4 1.3 GHz
Memory: 512 MB RAM
HDD: 500 MB available space
Video:  Geforce2 MX 400 64/128-bit SDR, 64-bit DDR or better
Input: Keyboard and Mouse

All you need is a dream, a good pitch, and probably a good bit of nostalgia these days to get a game funded through Kickstarter. That’s how Jesse Gallagher set about bringing Paper Sorcerer into existence for a mere $13,000.  Promising to bring back the dungeon crawlers of old with a touch of modern day playability and a charming story and presented with a unique and immediately eye-catching art style, Paper Sorcerer has to spin quite the yarn if it’s to live up to those lofty expectations.  Does it?

The game surprisingly casts you in the role of the villain – an evil sorcerer sealed up in the pages of a magical tome to be sealed away for all eternity. Being none too pleased with this predicament, you must battle and battle and battle your way through the pages of your literal literary prison to see the light of the real world once again. If you’re coming to Paper Sorcerer for anything more from its story though, you may as well back out now, because the narrative is about as paper thin as the title would suggest and is merely just a device to give its unique aesthetic purpose.

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When you put a reference to your graphical style in your game’s title, then you’d probably best be bringing your A-game to make sure that it actually stands out as original, and that for sure is what Gallagher has done here. Paper Sorcerer’s visual gimmick of creating a mystical world that looks like the inside of a worn old book is immediately striking with its severe shading and slight filtering over lit areas to tie the whole aesthetic together. Character portraits and static enemy sprites are treated much the same, combining elements of early-90′s comic books and Dungeons & Dragons manuals to tie the whole storybook fantasy theme together quite nicely. It’s a look that should seem strangely out of step with the ambient techno soundtrack that accompanies the visuals, but the look is stylized enough that even with a bass-thumping electronica beat blaring during battles, the whole presentation still manages to hold itself together.

Paper Sorcerer is all about its dungeon exploration and party customization, and fans of titles like Etrian Odyssey and older Wizardry installments will immediately feel right at home with all the options the game provides. Over the course of Paper Sorcerer’s very brief tutorial, you’ll begin building a party of summoned creatures that will aid you on your journey. Each creature is drastically unique in terms of their strengths and weaknesses, stat growth, equippable items and, of course, the passive and active skills they’ll bring to the party in and out of battle. Counting your main Sorcerer character, there are a total of fifteen creature classes to mix and match, and the game does a pretty solid job of providing good descriptions for each potential new party member before you fully commit.

The variety of potential party members can be a bit overwhelming at first, but having finished the game with a balanced party (Sorcerer, Werewolf, Skeleton, and Witch) and replayed the first couple of hours with a few other party configurations, it’s safe to say there’s a loadout for just about any playstyle. Party members can be further customized by a skill trainer in the game’s hub world and stat scrolls found in chests, but a little more stat management and options for skill progression could have fleshed the experience out a bit more and feels like a bit of a missed opportunity for this kind of game.

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Once your party’s geared up and ready for action, it’s onto the dungeon where puzzles, loot and, of course, the thrill of battle await. Exploring dungeon floors is done first person, and you interact with objects and obstacles in the environment by simply clicking on them. Each floor consists mostly of sets of winding hallways, doors, and various switches and levers to interact with, and most of the game’s enemy encounters are visible on the screen as big clouds of black smoke. For the most part, dungeon exploration is pretty run-of-the-mill for these kinds of games and a little too predictable, featuring lots of split paths, halls with dead ends, and hey, why not, a few more hallways just to keep you guessing. A few floors have optional side quests and secret treasure rooms that can be found by pressing the right buttons or clicking on the right things, but the combination of the game’s aesthetic choice and bland map layouts lead to a samey feeling that sets in early and never really goes away.

Paper Sorcerer’s combat thankfully makes up a bit of ground where the overall exploration fell behind. Doing battle in Paper Sorcerer is tough and demands strategic thinking over mindlessly mashing on the “Attack” command. Trying to grind out levels to overcome a challenge won’t work because battles almost always come down to more than just raw damage output. You’ll be expected to make full use of your party’s entire lineup of skills, spells, and status effects to survive even the trashiest of trash mobs the game will be pitting you against, and since you only have to worry about skill cooldown timers and keeping track of your available energy to use them, Paper Sorcerer’s combat system has a lot of simplicity and elegance to its depth. That said, a lot of normal encounters in this game WILL last longer than some boss fights in other RPGs, but that really makes the combat all the more satisfying to engage in, and since most fights in dungeons are at pre-determined locations and don’t respawn, it hardly ever feels like a nuisance.

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What can become a nuisance are the odd occasions where the difficulty spikes to “Oh, that was complete bullshit” levels. Sometimes enemy groups are a little TOO well prepared to completely lock down your entire party with debilitating status debuffs and ailments, and pound you into the ground unanswered. On another occasion, one late-game encounter had an enemy that could inexplicably one-shot my entire party by dealing ten times their max HP levels, and I only won because I got lucky enough to kill him before he could do it. You’re rarely ever in danger of losing too much progress due to a botched fight because, thankfully, you can save and load before any encounter, but when things spiral hopelessly out of control it can feel almost impossible to recover.

More troublesome nuisances come from the telltale signs that Paper Sorcerer was either largely developed by someone a bit on the inexperienced side or it was rushed out the door to appease its Kickstarter-backed audience. It’s hard to believe that one would look at the technical issues this game has and be satisfied enough with it to let it out the door any other way.

For starters, every single possible element of the user interface is atrocious. Menus seem thrown together haphazardly with very little attention paid to placement, categorization, or text formatting, and it’s not uncommon for the UI to completely bug out and suddenly stop responding to changes you’re trying to make or the cursor to get caught trying to scroll up and down to off-screen items. In my entire time playing the game, I was never once able to get any full party-effecting items or spells to work because the menu for selecting all party members doesn’t even seem like it’s implemented. The only saving grace here is that these bugs are limited to trying to use menus in a dungeon, whereas in combat they function just fine.

I guess I should cast Mass Heal on this menu system, but it won't let me.

“I guess I should cast Mass Heal on this menu system, but it won’t let me.”

More bugs arise while trying to explore the dungeon and can often inhibit progress. Using the mouse cursor to click on items in the environment feels like it only works 70% of the time, and the “Search” message that appears on screen to indicate there’s something to find in the area appears to have a mind all its own and just likes to show up from time to time for no reason whatsoever. I also ran into two or three instances of puzzles’ switches not responding at all, which required a restart of the game to finally make work. I also strongly advise against saving inside the dungeon when you know you’re going to quit, as reloading the save resets all of that floor’s doors to closed, which makes finding your bearings again needlessly difficult.

Some really smart, satisfying combat and a unique visual presentation aren’t enough to cover up Paper Sorcerer’s numerous technical faults. There’s an almost pretty decent dungeon crawler in here buried under the myriad of technical issues and overall sloppiness, and I did have a good amount of fun with the game when it decided to behave. That said, I can only cautiously recommend Paper Sorcerer based on its low price for entry and if you’re looking for a decently customizable combat experience, but are also willing to forgive a lot of really obvious flaws.

Final Score: 4.5/10

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