Before venturing into the depths of the Victorian underbelly, it’s necessary to clarify something. The two most misleading marketing fluff doing the rounds regarding Crimson Herring Studios’ are their newest “RPG” Sovereign Syndicate being called a Steampunk Disco Elysium and being labeled as a CRPG. Mind you, this label was given to the game not by the developers, but by people who’ve played it and of course, influencers/streamers. Sure, Sovereign Syndicate is inspired by Disco Elysium and its dialogue system and the UI bears an uncanny resemblance to ZA/UM’s pathbreaking CRPG. But other than that, Sovereign Syndicate is anything but Disco Elysium and the comparison only does it more harm than good. As for the CRPG thing, Sovereign Syndicate is not one, at least judging by the commonly accepted definition. With that out of the way, presenting Gameffine’s Sovereign Syndicate review.
SOMETHING IS IN THE AIR
Sovereign Syndicate’s biggest strength lies in its interesting setting and overall quality of writing (for the most part). Sovereign Syndicat is set in 18th-century Victorian London but with a Steampunk+fantasy twist. In Red Herring’s rendition of the landmark era, minotaurs, werewolves, cyclops, dwarves and more inhabit the grimy streets of London along with the cultural diversity of humankind. Industrialization is in full swing, steam-powered technology is booming and colonization is all the rage. The game puts you in the excrement-soiled boots of not one but three distinct characters, all from the lower end of the social strata. Gracing the HD monitors of PC players are Atticus Dailey, a minotaur who is not unfamiliar with going on a gin-fueled bender, Clara Reed, a clever lady of the night who just wants to get the hell out of London, and the monster-kicking duo of dwarf Teddy Redgrave and his trusty sidekick robot Otto. How this works is that each character is controlled separately in their respective chapters and the game switches back and forth between them (a bit too much at times) to present the players with different perspectives on an overarching story.
Sovereign Syndicate started strong and pulled me in with its interesting and distinct main characters, intricate worldbuilding, and a good sense of mystery. The devs convincingly portray the lore and politics of this unique world thanks to some quality yet verbose writing. The story takes a long time to get going though, and the pacing can put off a lot of players. There are lots of moments where nothing seems to happen and there are sections where the game rapidly shifts player control between the three heroes to get the story moving. The story culminates at around 15 hours and left me wanting more. It feels like the setup to a grander adventure. The writing overall is decent and the usage of colloquial terms & contemporary slang does add to the immersion. There is a heap of unnecessary lines of text that painstakingly describe mundane items and locations to the point it gets jarring. At times it can also feel like some of the dialogues go on far too long for no reason other than to flex the skills of the writer.
Speaking of dialogues, the game makes good use of the internal monologue system from Disco Elysium where it feels like five messed up strangers are each hoisting a one-man party inside your head. It’s also a nice little detail that these internal voices are different (at least their names) for each of the characters. What’s disappointing is that the lack of any voice acting undermines the potential of this system. The devs have said that voice acting is on their priority list if the game becomes a commercial success. It doesn’t even have to be full VA. Just voicing the internal voices will go a long way to making each of these internal voices feel distinct.
PARTY IN MY HEAD
As for gameplay, Sovereign Syndicate is a lot less fresh. From the outset, it looks like a proper RPG where you get to shape the personalities of the characters and indulge in choice-driven gameplay. If you ask me, the game feels more like a standard choice-driven adventure game than an RPG. Sure, you have different attributes (replaced by the voices) that can be increased, dice rolls (replaced by Tarot cards), and an inventory. But is that all an RPG is?
Sovereign Syndicate lives and dies by dialogues. Each attribute is represented by one of four experience points cleverly termed — yellow bile, phlegm, blood, and black bile. Picking the corresponding dialogue option increases the associated XP by one and once the XP bar is filled, the attribute levels up. Players can also unlock traits and Tarot cards that in turn unlock new dialogue options. It’s a talking person’s game. That being said, most of the dialogues you choose feel like window dressing in the sense that they enrich the world-building but hardly affect the story. This is not just a Sovereign Syndicate issue but one that’s seen in a lot of games that want to be a CRPG.
In the place of dice rolls, the game uses Tarot cards but it’s a very similar system with the success/failure rates being highly left up to chance. The Tarot card system also seems to have been downgraded from a literal deck-building system to a handful of cards you simply unlock. These open up additional dialogue options and nothing much. You also have an inventory but its use is limited to consuming a handful of stat boosters. Combat also takes place through dialogues. That’s completely fine but what’s not fine is that you cannot fail in Sovereign Syndicate, no matter what. Aside from a red pill vs blue pill scenario at the start of the game, I was never treated with a game-over screen. Even if you fail a large portion of the skill checks, it still rewards you with XP.
Exploration is a pretty standard affair. From the get-go, you are given access to a handful of small maps you can explore at will. They’re the same for all characters and you can talk to people, do side quests, and inhale the Victorian London air. I highly wish that the game opted for an isometric camera angle or at least, given players full control of the camera. As it stands now, some weird angles that make the indie production values stand out. Environmental design is also mixed. There are some decent-looking levels where the fantasy meets steam-powered technology themes pop out and also several places that just look plain boring. Character animations are a bit stiff but nothing immersion-breaking and the game uses comic-strip panels for combat encounters which look cool. The music is pretty forgettable and loops a bit too often for my liking.
All things considered, Sovereign Syndicate is a decent first attempt from Crimson Herring Studios. The setting and characters alone make it worth playing, especially considering the price. The game would have benefited from a tighter narrative and a more fleshed-out Tarot card system. Here’s hoping that the game does well enough so that the devs can implement partial voice acting (at least) and learn from its shortcomings to make an improved sequel.
FINAL RATING: 67/100
Sovereign SyndicateSovereign Syndicate
- Interesting setting and lore
- Decent story and writing
- Internal voice system
- Underwhelming RPG elements
- Rushed climax
- Uninspiring music and visuals