The year 1991 was a banner year for the partnership between SSI and TSR. Death Knights of Krynn, Eye of the Beholder II, Pools of Darkness, and a few other titles all came out that year rivaling the kind of output from many of today’s publishers and devs for any one property exemplifying it as a very different time.
SSI had also taken risks in promoting several different ways in which to adventure in TSR’s fantasy realm of Dungeons and Dragons. For more serious adventurers, there were the legendary “Gold Box” series of titles such as Death Knights and Pools of Darkness. For a little more adventure without as much tactical meat, and in first-person, there was Eye of the Beholder. And for more action than crunch and story, there were games like Heroes of the Lance. There was even a dragon “simulator”, Dragonstrike.
Not all of these were resounding successes, but they did demonstrate the kind of vision that SSI and the devs who worked for it attempted to leverage across TSR’s properties much like how Lucasarts would diversify Star Wars via flight sims, first-person shooters, and that one fighting game no one wants to ever remember.
Shadow Sorceror, created by U.S. Gold and published by SSI in 1991, was another imaginative take on the Dragonlance world of AD&D, attempting to strike a balance between hardcore AD&D fans and new players that may not have any idea of what THAC0 meant. It was also a follow-up of sorts to Dragons of Flame in 1989. In that game, players led the iconic “Heroes of the Lance” in a side-scrolling, beat ’em up bid to slay monsters and ultimately freed slaves imprisoned under the cruel eye of a red dragon and its master. Before that, there was Heroes of the Lance in 1988, also an action oriented take on AD&D. Like both of those titles, Shadow Sorcerer was also loosely adapted from the Dragonlance adventure modules.
In Shadow Sorcerer, the player is now tasked to escort hundreds of these refugees to safety across a wilderness crawling with evil, all the while having to ensure that monsters don’t eat a few of them along the way as well as keeping everyone happy and moving toward the same goal of survival. Like before in Dragons of Flame, there are no characters to roll up or real statistics to meticulously keep track of — all of that is represented in-game with bars instead of hard statistics. Aside from equipment and whether something is +1 or +3, etc.., this is simplified stuff meant for action-heavy play.
Again, and for the last time in the series, players get to control the legendary Heroes as party members in mouse-driven combat and exploration. Gameplay switched between an overland map and a more intimate, isometric view for party-based exploration and combat. Viewing things from the overland map, players had to move their gold icon (representing their four-person party of heroes) from the top of the map down towards safety as far from evil as possible via hex-based movement. Grey icons following behind represented the refugee train following their footsteps. Everything also happens in real-time from moving around the map to exploring areas and in having your casters memorize spells for use.
The refugees for the most part won’t do anything other than follow and sometimes complain, or die, as starvation and bad guys whittle their numbers down. Everything depended on what the heroes did to keep everyone alive. Some might even split from the others and follow their own way, or even decide that things weren’t “so bad” back where they were and head back for a “touching reunion” with their former slave masters. The player will also have to deal with the “Council”, the leaders of the refugees, whenever it comes to specific orders or addressing them during a nightly meeting if the player is on the same hex that they are in the overland map. You could even swap members of the Council with the Heroes in your party, though they aren’t really the adventuring type.
Packaging-wise, the manual was typically filled with detail as many CRPGs boasted back then. It went over the basics of the mouse-driven interface, menus, and point-and-click mechanics while the other half doubled as a primer to the Dragonlance world alongside AD&D terminology and a listing of the monsters that would be besieging the player. The “Journal Entries”, referenced fiction that the game would use as a part of its atmosphere, were also packed into the end. It, like the game, was the “ultra lite” version of the kind of detailed content found in the Gold Box series.
Shadow Sorcerer saw something of a limited release in comparison to its more complicated cousins, its casual take on AD&D gameplay heading to platforms such as the Atari ST, the Amiga, and IBM PC compatibles running MS-DOS. Strangely, it never hit consoles such as what Heroes of the Lance had done years earlier on the NES, though SSI was also particularly picky about which titles were ported over to the growing market.
With its simple interface and emphasis on real-time action, it could have been a good fit, following the same kind of isometric fun that titles such as EA’s The Immortal, Software Creations’ Solstice on the NES, or Landstalker on the Genesis delivered on a lone-wolf level. From that perspective, it was a considerably better at the kind of casual action that its predecessors had attempted without appearing clunky.
Its unusual mix of casual elements amidst the overwhelmingly hardcore dungeons surrounding it make it one of the odd-man-out titles of the SSI/TSR lineup though when compared to Heroes and Dragons of Flame, it was something of an improvement. Nowadays, like many of SSI’s AD&D titles, it largely floats around the ‘net as abandonware or the occasional auction item on Ebay, the final chapter in a fast-paced take of one of the most popular AD&D settings at the time.