Red Stewart reviews Open Sorcery: Sea++ for PC (Steam)…
In his initial review of the indie drama Tru Loved, Roger Ebert garnered significant backlash for noting, at the very end, that he had written his entire critique solely based off of the first eight or so minutes of the film. While it was not the first flick he had walked out of, it was the first time he had done so without 1) watching the majority of the picture and 2) revealing that factoid early on. He would later apologize, issue a redux article, and promise to never again criticize a motion picture without seeing it all the way through.
I bring this up because it had been my goal, in the world of video games, to replicate the late great Mr. Ebert’s post-Tru Loved conviction: that, no matter how much of a slog a video game became, I would at least finish the main story to give a fair assessment of a product that artisans of a development team had invested effort into creating.
Alas, such was not to be the case. Developed by Abigail Corfman and published by Open Sorcery Games, Open Sorcery: Sea++ (which shall henceforth be referred to as Open Sorcery for the sake of ease of writing) marks the first time I have given up on a game. At 10 hours in, I decided I had had enough: the story wasn’t interesting, the “gameplay” was agonizingly mundane, and there was very little in the way of production value to make it seem like significant work was put in (in turn, making me feel slightly less guilty about shortchanging it). That’s the short answer – for the longer one read on.
Story is what I usually start off with, but before going into it, I should specify what Open Sorcery is. If you’re an older gamer, chances are you remember those retro text-based RPGs where literally everything was dictated by written prompts: navigation, combat, scavenging, item usage, NPC interaction- all were done through clicking a button ala “move north one space,” “talk to X,” or “pick-up flower” amongst a plethora of other commands.
That’s the kind of title that Open Sorcery strives to be. I have a friend who described this genre best- “there’s a novelty to it I can admire, but at the end of the day it’s too out-of-date for me.” I don’t know if I hold that exact same ultimatum as I have always said that, if a game has a strong enough narrative, it can overcome any challenges with its presentation. Whether or not that belief will hold true for future encounters remains to be seen, but for Open Sorcery, I can say that it did not deliver on its premise, which is admittedly intriguing. From what I could gather, you play as a female individual named Pisces who has undergone some tragic event in the real world. As a result, she now finds herself in a limbo state, represented as a tangible ocean (as I did not complete the title, I am unsure as to whether she was dead or simply in a coma). Her goal is to return to the surface, and so you spend your time doing just that, beginning with rebuilding a submarine-type machine and then traversing the murky waters to regions unknown.
Open Sorcery’s narrative is divided into two strands: on the one hand, you have the aforestated grand quest, and on the other you have a personal journey of identity. With the former, you’re going around meeting kooky characters, surveying unique locales, and striving towards a singular goal. With the latter, Pisces is trying to remember her past life, and so you spend parts of the storyline discovering broken memories and mending them. These memories contain descriptions of significant life events, disclosing info that slowly pieces together who Pisces was prior to whatever happened.
Open Sorcery isn’t the first game to attempt this dual-faced storytelling: Myst, the first Witcher, The Talos Principle, and No Man’s Sky are just some examples of others that have done so. Of course, those titles contained conventional interfaces and systems that allowed their writers to balance quest progression with data disclosure- revelations were rewards for completing puzzles and/or objectives. In contrast, Open Sorcery is much more open-ended in scope. You can stumble upon mementos whilst navigating a submerged area without doing much in the way of story progression, meaning you learn things haphazardly without connecting it to the journey at large. To be clear, it’s not that you can do major story advances without finding a specific sect of memories, due to them being tied to spells (more on that in the gameplay section), but what I am saying is that, by not attaching these to specific story beats, they feel divorced from your oceanic jaunt. It’d be like playing L.A. Noire but giving you the option to interview subjects whenever you wanted- sure, you’d eventually get the whole shebang, but the individual intrigue of the mystery would be undercut.
And that’s what happens here. I honestly didn’t end up caring about Pisces’ quest to (literally) find herself because anything that builds up that side of the story is scattered throughout the game hub and consequently feels arbitrary. And since she lacks a strong personality, there’s no foundation for the memorandum to build on.
Now, I know some people might say I’m being too harsh here- that a free roam game should encourage player freedom in any way possible, even if it is to the detriment of the plot. My counter-response is, if you’re talking about something like No Man’s Sky or Breath of the Wild where the story comes second to the exploration, then sure, I can see where the developer is coming from. Open Sorcery doesn’t get that same luxury because, being a text-based adventure, it is more reliant on its fictional tale than the game world; heck, the prelude to the title screen flat-out states that it is tackling heavy themes concerning mental illness.
So, if the secondary synopsis doesn’t work out, how about the mainline one? Does this yarn about a spirit girl trying to free herself from the realm of aquatic purgatory triumph as something worthwhile? You probably know my answer is no. The problem here is there is just way too much padding. A text-based adventure was always going to suffer from pacing issues courteous of its movement/action interplay, however the writers seemingly went out of there way to make this even worse than it should have been. Going from place to place often involves doing tedious tasks for the sake of acquiring necessary resources. To repair your sub, for instance, you have to forage external areas for parts and barter with this scammy mammal who only accepts dark matter for currency. With the former, you’re often met with violent obstacles that only go away if you do some tiresome chore like finding a charm for an octopus or solving a ghost’s riddle, only you can’t solve that specter’s enigma until you go to their abode and memorize/jot down a bunch of random stuff that you wouldn’t think twice about. With the latter, the primary method of getting dark matter is through mining it from patches located throughout the outdoor abyss, only all of these patches are hidden behind obstacles that you have to resolve, and by obstacles you have to resolve I mean crossword puzzles. No seriously, these things are sprinkled everywhere in Open Sorcery ad nauseam, as though some0ne actually thought they would be consistently fun over the course of hours.
Thankfully, the individual NPCs you have to talk to are unique enough in tone that they end up being quite entertaining. I never once felt that I was dealing with a repeat customer if you will- they’re each distinct and give you interesting tidbits of information about the domain Pisces has found herself in. An Angel, for instance, talks about G-D and the power of faith, while a hacker divulges the truth about your past life, and still later a giant turtle speaks about balancing honor against inherent desires. Unfortunately, almost all of them come with one of those banal undertakings I talked about above, making Pisces communications with them culminate in something mundane. Not helping this are the aforementioned pacing issues, which have you spend 2-3x as much time walking from one place to another as you do talking to people, meaning those characters and their chattering ultimately make up a small part of your experience.
It’s also a shame that the vast majority of these entities aren’t rendered artistically as it would have been nice to see some sort of pictorial representation, though I know I will be hit with the argument that books don’t use pictures, which I can’t counter. Video games are a visual medium, but this is a text game at its core and should not be critiqued for not having something unnecessary to its being.
So, in that case, what are the graphics like? Well, you don’t have a VN here, but you do have nice backdrops for each world, with some variation depending on the location you’re in. 9 times out of 10 they’re static images of some type of environ, like a temple, market, abysm, or storefront. However, you’ll recall that I called Open Sorcery’s production value lackluster, and you’ll find that to be a consistent hitch in each of the technical categories, beginning with the GFX. Yes, the actual art style, which relies on strong inking, is nice to gaze at, but it’s also very blurry. Now, I get that the developers might have done this to make the on-screen words stand out, but there were plenty of ways of accomplishing this without compromising the scenery, such as adding highlighted bubbles around the sentences. I also didn’t understand why there was so much repetition with the images- each screen you move between could have contained its own handcrafted background, which might have helped with the navigation (more on that in the gameplay section).
Outside of that, there’s honestly not much more to say here. Sometimes the phrases or individual wordage you have to read have light stylish changes done to them, such as color alterations or small animation strokes, but overall it’s clear that graphics were not prioritized for this game.
Sound doesn’t fair much better, and when I say sound I mean all three of the categories. There’s no voice acting and music is sparse. Some places contain a short track that plays on a loop, but these vary in quality from being harmonic to hear to being a little tough on the ears, especially when you have to listen to it for an extended period of time. I don’t quite understand why there was a severe lack of melodies here- even if you want to argue that there were budgetary constraints, there is so much copyright free music out there that someone could have easily gone out and grabbed a track that best fit the tone/atmosphere of the location in question. In fact, RuneScape’s entire OST is free for grabs, and that’s a game that I KNOW has similar areas to anything in Open Sorcery. It’s inexcusable.
Sound effects are more prevalent, but they’re still very sparse. Certain actions like compiling diction and digging up motivations generate a set din, but a lot of things like using said motivations, spellcasting, moving, avoiding dangers at the last minute, and even dying don’t have anything. It’s ridiculous, for a text game of all things, to not have a decent soundscape to immerse players into the story.
The gameplay is pretty standard for this genre, but this is a case where that’s for the better. As stated back in the story section, you do everything through clicking on lexeme buttons- using items, talking to personas, perusing signs, all of it is straightforward. There are two aspects here, in particular, that I really appreciated: one is that any permanent action you can do is prefaced with a warning indicating the eternal nature of it, and the second is that if an object of yours cannot be used with something, you get an indication and don’t lose the thing in question for trying. This is especially nice since motivations and elements are hard to come by.
The two are used as part of Open Sorcery’s interaction systems, which form the crux of the gameplay. To progress through an area, you have to do activities that cause an effect on a hindrance in your path- sometimes this involves solving a puzzle, but most of the time you are actually finding a mote (what are referred to as the aforenamed motives and elements) or nostalgic fragments that, when put together, forge a spell for you to cast infinite times. It’s simple and it works like any other RPG-esque system.
What doesn’t work is what I ranted about in the introduction, and that is the process of finding these materials. A minority are out in the open free for grabs, but the lion’s share are locked behind dull, dreary endeavors that are not fun: the acrostics get monotonous, helping people via scribing the dumbest details possible feels inane, and exploration is muddled courtesy of areas being large in scope without a map to reference/fill out the fog of war on.
I know it seems like I’m whining, and maybe I am, but as someone who managed to make it through The Witness (or even the first Assassin’s Creed) I just cannot convey how onerous these all are. I elaborated about a specific one before (aiding phantoms), but that’s just the tip of the iceberg of the headaches ahead of you. One subaquatic region has you trying to concoct a potion to bypass a blocked-off pathway: the only way to make it is to sneak into the house of a troll and find his recipe book so you can search for the specific ingredients. Only, you have to rely on pictures of the integrants over names, and to find these, you got to go all over the map in the hopes that one of these turfs contains the right mix of vague descriptors for you to pluck from!
Does that sound like fun? Cause you will be doing it for hours on end, even with a Steam Wiki guide to reference. The sad thing is this isn’t the worst case of what I am speaking at length about- the part that caused me to quit comes much later and includes a giant archive building you have to rummage through.
To add salt to the wounds, there are some minor bugs and poor optimization to contemplate. Dialogue options with non-players, for example, will disappear when you reinitiate a conversation with someone, losing access to a vital solution you need. The optimization, though, is where things take a real dip- when you click on something, you would expect .5 a second for it to register, right? After all, we’re talking about a game in a genre that’s all about tapping a button on a mouse: it’s literally the most basic thing you had to get right. Well, unfortunately, in Open Sorcery, it will take you 1.5-2 seconds for an action to commence! You might be thinking that this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when EVERYTHING is based off of waiting for the effects of a click, you will notice it very fast and get tired of it even faster.
So what do you get with Open Sorcery: Sea++? You get a throwback to a genre that died for a reason- sure visual novels were birthed from the ashes of them, but they’ve at least added an extra dimension that freshens things up for a sect of the gaming populace. Pure text-based adventures feel cheap and outdated, and OSS goes out of its way to make those facets worse than they already are through limited artwork, a sparse score, and inconsistent SFX. The writing, which should have been the saving grace, throws half its lot on identity riddles that rapidly lose their emotional momentum via being poorly strewn in the hub, while the other half is focused on an odyssey hampered by some of the worst filler I have had the misfortune to experience.
As the title implies, you get a number of puns in the script that relate to the literary and compsci fields, making it fun to read (if you’re familiar with those topics), and the personalities you encounter on your voyage can be even more fun to get into dialogues with. But they are spaced out between objectives that are a chore to complete courtesy of their compartmentalized sub-goals that depend upon menial labors and external memorization/penning.
If you find text-based adventures appealing and were one of those guys who drew their own map of the original Legend of Zelda from the 80s, then perhaps you’ll like what Open Sorcery: Sea++ has to offer. For the rest of you, steer clear.
– Vexatious gameplay
– Tedious exploration
– Lackluster sound
– Limited art and music