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Sovereign Syndicate Review

Sovereign Syndicate Review

The first thing that struck me about Sovereign Syndicate was the eschewing of classic dice rolls, replacing them with Tarot cards, of all things! After this initial bout of fascination, I was drawn in by the steampunk Victorian London setting, the juxtaposing characters, and the general noir feel the game had. But can this narrative-heavy title win my legendarily short attention span over, or will it fall to the ever-ruthless mercy of the skip button?

In this isometric RPG, you play as three characters, all starring intermittently in the 18 chapters of the game: Atticus Daley, an orphan Minotaur finding himself at the bottom of a bottle and possessing some skill with illusions; Clara Reed, a former corsair and devilishly cunning woman with dreams of leaving London; and the duo of monster hunter and inventor Theodore ‘Teddy’ Redgrave and his automaton friend, Otto. Each of these characters has their own agendas, goals, and stories, but they intersect on occasion making for an interesting webwork of plots and intrigues. I’ve not pickpocketed myself in a game before, I’ll give the game that!

Each character has a unique inventory, no sharing here!

Sovereign Syndicate can be compared to Disco Elysium in its approach to challenges and “combat”; while you will seldom, if ever, run into actual combat, it doesn't mean the game does not have a few tricks up its sleeve. Each of the characters has a set of four unique skills that define them as a person, such as Aticus’s Animal Instinct, Clara’s Tact, and Teddy’s Ingenuity.

Whenever you are required to use one of these skills in the game, be it to open a locked door, misdirect a nosey reporter, or convince a nice little doggy not to bite you, the Tarot system comes into play; each skill corresponds with one of the Minor Arcana — cups, swords, coins, and wands — determining which deck will be pulled from. As an example, let’s say you need to retrieve a confused steampunk robo-puppy from a cupboard; If you wanted to use your Dog Lover skill (which is attributed to the cup arcana), you would pull a cup card and add your corresponding skill to its number. So, if you have a Dog Lover stat of five, the threshold for puppy rescue is 15, you’d need to pull a 10 of cups, or better to succeed! In essence, it’s very much like the classic D20 system used in Dungeons & Dragons; it even has critical hits and fumbles via The World card for an auto-success or The Fool for an auto-fail.

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Luck makes fools of us all

With that convoluted explanation out of the way, how are these stats determined then? Well, when you play as one of the characters for the first time, you are given a set of options, each with a different mix of stat distributions and a Major Arcana — more on that in a bit — allowing you to choose what said character specialises in and what their weaknesses are. Fear not, however, as these stats can also be improved via gameplay; by selecting certain responses, you will earn points that go toward raising a single stat, allowing you to be the absolute best at what you’re good at or even out some of those rough edges.

Major Arcana differ from Minor ones in that they are never drawn but are instead used to unlock special dialogue options. Each Arcana represents a character trait, such as stubbornness, insightfulness, or being a polymath. You gain one Major Arcana when you pick your ability set, after which more can be unlocked via gameplay. Finally, a stat shared by all is Temperament, which represents how the character is disposed to their predicament, with a “good” Temperament representing hopeful optimism and a “bad” one representing cynical pessimism. This, too, can be affected via dialogue choices, with more optimistic answers giving a boost and more jaded ones draining it away. Like the Major Arcana, Temperament allows the character to answer in certain ways, opening up new options that fit their mood; having a “bad” Temperament is not a bad thing.

Unexpected routes may lead to Major Arcana, so remember to experiment!

The plot of Sovereign Syndicate is a bit of a hodgepodge as the stories of our three heroes split apart and intersect, though the common factors come together pretty well as the tale progresses. Additionally, since the game has branching narratives, your experience may differ from mine, so take the following with a hint of salt. I’ll do what I can to avoid spoilers, though if you want to go in completely blind, skip the next few paragraphs. There are two threads that all of our characters come across relatively early in their respective journeys: a masked man asking for their assistance in some clandestine affairs and a serial killer on the loose targeting courtesans… in Victorian London. Though this Jacob the Tearer is not always prominent, the mystery surrounding it is enough of a presence to keep the plot going.

While I won’t go into detail on the three different heroes’ tales, I did enjoy them all, as they all seemed very different: Atticus' sections felt like something out of a gritty cop drama, whereas Clara felt more like a spy thriller, and good old Teddy was a more straightforward affair with some interesting thoughts on consciousness and war. However, where the plot is interesting, it did feel very top-heavy in terms of content. Within the first four or five chapters of the game, I felt I had a bunch of little side quests to do, people to meet, and places to explore, whereas the latter half of the game felt very empty. While there were still things to do, talking to everyone after a new chapter started didn’t feel rewarding, which can be really demotivating in a game where talking is mostly all you do. The payoff for the plot was ok, if a bit rushed, though the few red herrings and clues the game gives you were pretty smart!

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On rare occasions, you are even shown some nice artwork for scenes!

In terms of mechanics, the game is quite simple: click the mouse. You navigate the map by clicking on where you want to go — double-clicking to run — and interact with characters and points of interest by clicking on them! You can highlight interactable objects with the tab button and can open the inventory and journal via hotkeys, but that's about it. In general, the game ran well, though the pathfinding is a bit wonky; beware of stairs when walking about, the characters tend to get stuck more often than not! There are some very limited puzzles, though they boil down to “find thing”, followed swiftly by “find thing to use on thing”, so not really rocket science. As mentioned above, there are main and side quests to do, most of which award you with items, money, or sometimes Major Arcana, though in rare cases, you may get something special, like a lovely little tie for Otto! If you decide to play the game, though, be careful and save often. It is not always clear what will lead you to end the current chapter, meaning some side quests may be locked off for good.

In addition to blocked-off quests and the temptation to never leave the stairs, the camera was one of my main quibbles with the game. Unlike in most isometric titles, you are not able to move the camera angle at all, with it being firmly locked on your character. While this wasn’t an issue with larger maps — though not being able to look around freely did make navigating harder — the way the camera would move and sway based on your movement gave me a bit of motion sickness, which I very seldom get.

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To its credit, the game did teach me a bit of Spanish

The sound design for the game is ok, the ambient sounds are solid and fit the steampunk vibe, though there is a distinct lack of variety, with the same short background music loop playing quite often. The game is also missing voice acting, which I would have sorely appreciated; it’s a wordy game, and I tend to get my lines crossed when tired. Otherwise, I have no complaints. The visual design is solid as well, with the characters deserving a separate mention, as some of the more magical or technological creatures, such as cyclopes or automata, are depicted well. In general, the game is as dingy and steamy (not like that, calm down) as one could expect from steampunk London.

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I'm... not going to risk it. Or... maybe?

I enjoyed my time with Sovereign Syndicate. Its plot was engaging and had some interesting twists and turns, though the ending was a bit of a letdown. I wish it’d had more content throughout the experience, and even more wish it’d have some voice acting, but these are more general quality-of-life improvements than actual issues. I liked the characters, I enjoyed the not-so-on-the-nose references and jokes the game offers, such as blatantly giving you a cube called the Lament Configuration and selling you Lute boxes, and it kept me entertained throughout. I was frustrated with not being able to finish quests due to bugs or going too far in the plot because I was engaged, meaning there was value in what was offered. However, due to the small things piling up, I can’t call this an exemplar of the genre either. In conclusion, if you fancy a story-heavy steampunk mystery, I heartily recommend this title and personally will be keeping an eye on Crimson Herring Studios, as they show promise with this debut. If, however, you dislike reading a lot or want something more snacky and action-packed, this may not be the one for you.

6.00/10 6

Sovereign Syndicate (Reviewed on Windows)

Game is enjoyable, outweighing the issues there may be.

Sovereign Syndicate is an enjoyable tale of three people, murder, revenge, and redemption. Though the lack of voice acting and minor bugs may keep some away, if you’re in the market for a good story and an interesting mystery, I recommend giving it a try!

This game was supplied by the publisher or relevant PR company for the purposes of review
Martin Heath

Martin Heath

Staff Writer

Professional Bungler

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