A series of disappearances targeting vulnerable citizens, is stirring up London. Finding themselves unwittingly investigating those incidents are four Londonners: Atticus Daley, Clara Reed, Teddy Redgrave and Otto. Initially unrelated, the four protagonists’ paths inevitably intertwine. With the varied skill sets of Atticus the Minotaur magician, Clara the courtesan, Teddy the mechanic and Otto the automaton, their unlikely collaboration might just be what was needed to uncover the ongoing mystery.
Victorian London with steampunk and fantasy twistsYes, Sovereign Syndicate features Minotaurs, automatons and more anthropomorphic Londonners in its fictional depiction of the metropolis. Set in Victorian times, it merges aesthetics from that era with steampunk elements. The resulting universe is an interesting one with interactions between four-legged citizens as common as one-eyed ones; while not being devoid of societal issues that contrast contemporary ones.
Despite an overall atmosphere that is decently executed, Sovereign Syndicate’s presentation is often left wanting. This is due to the under-populated environments. For a city as vibrant as London, even by Victorian times standard, Sovereign Syndicate’s version feels more like a small town than a country’s capital. Even if it boasts large areas allowing you to explore in an open-ended fashion, a sense of emptiness prevails; even in traditionally crowded areas such as taverns and casinos. This depiction doesn’t reflect the experience you’d expect while in a traditionally bustling city, even in a game. Additionally, even with the limited NPCs, you can only interact with a handful of them; of these only a few will engage in vaguely interesting conversations.
In addition to being more populated and having more dynamic interactions between NPCs, the presentation would be further enhanced with voice acting. But considering that this is an indie title, the budget might be understandably limited and the scope might have been above what they could deliver in terms of decent execution.
Sovereign Syndicate plays as most cRPGs, from a top-down isometric perspective. You can explore in an open-ended fashion and tackle most quests in any order. As some areas are quite large (but relatively underpopulated), exploration can feel overwhelming but luckily there’s the handy option to press Y to highlight interactive environmental elements. The option to fast travel to areas also helps in this regard.
Given the popularity and bar-setting execution of Disco Elysium, new titles of the genre are easily compared to the latter. Sovereign Syndicate does share similarities with Disco, and could even be termed Disco-like for their likeness from the UI to conflicting internal monologues of the protagonists. However, these inspirations often feel too derivative of the source that it borders the line of being called a copycat. The following are just a few instances that reflect this: you start the game after a night of heavy drinking; it’s a cRPG with a murder-mystery plot; even some lore terms and “side quests” are eerily reminiscent of Disco.
That said, Sovereign Syndicate’s presentation does pack some originality. You get to successively control four characters in an original universe, where some areas are accessible only to certain characters; allowing you to piece together the mystery from different perspectives while indulging in its text-heavy descriptions and conversations. It also includes some hand-drawn stills as “cutscenes”'. These add some unique flair to its execution.
A cRPG that swaps dice rolls for tarot cardsWhile there are some unmistakeable similarities with Disco Elysium, Sovereign Syndicate differs with its own spin on cRPG mechanics. It is also a text-heavy, combat-free cRPG but most prominently, it swaps dice rolls for tarot cards.
During interactions with NPCs and environmental elements, you will often have the choice between several options. Steal from an unconscious drunkard or not? Donate some coins to a begger or keep your money to yourself? Based on your decisions, your accompanying skills will improve. Based on this, you can unlock new traits and tarot cards which can unlock new dialogue options and increase your chance of success for certain actions.
In addition, the temperament score determines certain dialogue choices. Your temperament can in turn be improved/worsened by your actions such as having a positive or negative outlook on a certain situation. The game also introduces humours (phlegm, yellow bile, black bile, blood) that influence associated attributes.
In such ways, Sovereign Syndicate offers branching dialogue paths and a number of different outcomes. But even if it boldly swaps dice for tarot cards, the mechanics are similar to dice rolls yet somewhat unintuitive. You have success rates for certain actions which are determined based on flairs that you possess. Your flairs level up if you choose certain dialogue/actions, while those that you don't choose remain stagnant. On top of these, the inclusion of humours and temperaments seem to overcomplicate things, even if some aspects such as the accumulation of humours don't necessarily happen without your active involvement. While this can lead to confusions, it's a commendable attempt to disguise dice rolls with new mechanics.
An interesting take, but often derivative and in need of improved executionConfusing aspects of Sovereign Syndicate persist while tackling missions. It is not clear which missions you can tackle, even if you can “track” them to be seen on the screen. For instance, I couldn't find the elusive “ladsman” or inquire about the love affair of a colleague of Clara until much later than when I could start tracking these missions. A better approach would have been to unlock only missions that can be tackled right away, instead of hours later.
The game’s highlight, the tarot mechanic, could also have been improved with a more literal approach to tarot cards. For example, this could have included individual card draws from a full tarot deck that directly impacts your actions. This would have made for a more compelling experience and consequential actions. Furthermore, the tarot aspect, while an original twist, does not totally feel cohesive with the plot and universe. In its current state, it's more akin to an elaborate dice throw than actual tarot card draws.
Then there’s the fact that Sovereign Syndicate often feels too derivative of Disco Elysium. It really starts to feel its own when the separate characters’ stories merge, but this only happens towards the 7th chapter (out of 18) and several hours in. But even if you stick to it until then, the similarities persist.
On the technical side, Sovereign Syndicate works well for the most part. However, on several occasions, it wouldn't recognize my controller input, especially the left stick movement. There were also instances where my character was stuck in place and couldn’t move elsewhere. As I played a pre-release build, I hope that these issues get patched in an update before it is officially released.
Combined, these issues indicate that the game would have benefitted from better execution and the result could have been better had the game been in development for longer and with a narrower scope. It might appeal to cRPG fans or fans of narrative-driven games as this game is not shy in indulging in narration but there are better alternatives out there. That said, Sovereign Syndicate is still a commendable debut for Crimson Herring Studios from which they can build upon.