A deftly told tale, with a well-realized and unique cast of characters. While it sometimes lacks for choice, the choices you are offered are interesting, and anyone fiending for more Disco Elysium could do a lot worse than Sovereign Syndicate.
It’s said that comparison is the theft of joy. When you’re comparing something to one of the greatest games ever made, well, it’s more like grand larceny. In the case of Victorian steampunk RPG Sovereign Syndicate, the comparison is to Disco Elysium, from which Sovereign Syndicate has unashamedly drawn quite a bit of inspiration. In Crimson Herring’s debut title, you’ll guide alcoholic minotaur Atticus Daley, high-class escort Clara Reed, an monster hunting dwarf Teddy Redgrave through an alternate — but well-researched — 19th-century London, furthering each character’s personal goals while engaging in numerous side quests.
A familiar formula, but with a unique setup and setting. While the game is not without its flaws, it’s a true-to-its-roots RPG that knows its job and does it well.
Although copying Disco Elysium’s homework is bound to draw comparisons, it’s also tough to think of a better classmate to copy from (besides BG3, obviously). For those of you who — inexcusably — haven’t played Disco Elysium yet, the game’s main gimmick is that you have a multitude of voices in your head that offer suggestions, opinions, and even opportunities for action as you progress through the game. Put enough points into physical stats, and you’ll be given opportunities to rough people up, snatch objects out of the air, or just flex your muscles. With high intelligence stats, you’ll recall historical facts, solve geometry problems, and so on.
Sovereign Syndicate uses a similar system, with myriad inner voices clamoring for you to side with them whenever key decisions come up. Naturally, this system relies heavily on good writing, and even if the dialogue doesn’t always quite reach Disco Elysium’s level of excellence, it is still very good, and I never found myself wanting to skip over conversations or internal monologues.
While the game certainly isn’t light on text, the internal (and external) discussions aren’t quite as in-depth or lengthy as those found in Disco Elysium — which is neither a good nor a bad thing, but simply makes Sovereign Syndicate a pithier spin on the formula. Moreover, the game’s three characters are very different, and so the voices in your head are nice and varied. As if that wasn’t enough, at the start of the game you choose one of four attributes for each character to be strongest in — each option is also paired with a major Arcana Tarot Card that offers unique dialogue options.
Speaking of Tarot: Sovereign Syndicate uses a familiar RPG style of problem-solving — skill checks — but one that draws from its setting. Occultism, and by extension Tarot, was very popular in Victorian-era London. So, each character has 4 Tarot decks (one for each suit), with 1-14, plus The World (auto-succeed) and The Fool (auto-fail). The four tarot suits correspond to the 4 unique traits your character has, and so a skill check takes your trait level and then adds your tarot draw. Running out of cards, or drawing World or Fool, will shuffle your deck. This means that if you have a run of good draws on a skill your character has a low base score in, you won’t be able to keep it up for long — it’s an interesting system, and a nice change of pace from rolling dice.
There is also a Hope system in the game, with various actions and dialogue options either adding or subtracting from your total Hope. This then allows you to pick certain dialogue options/actions that require you to be Hopeful, or Weary (low Hope) — it’s usually obvious which options will cause you to gain or lose Hope, and the unique options the system unlocks allows you to lean into however your character is feeling. Tracking character sentiment is an underused mechanic in games, and I was very happy to see it put to good use in Sovereign Syndicate.
As previously mentioned, each of the three player characters has 4 unique traits. The traits are different for each character, but all correspond to one of the four Humours: Yellow Bile, Black Bile, Pleghm, and Blood. Picking dialogue choices associated with one of the traits/humours will earn you a point in that humour — collect 10, and you’ll level up the associated trait. This does somewhat encourage non-roleplaying meta-gaming (since it’s ideal to use the dialog options to cover your weak traits, rather than leaning into your strong ones). Still, it’s always nice to see the old-school Elder Scrolls method of skills again, where doing something makes you better at it, as opposed to just putting points in things.
Now, when I say “doing something”, what I really mean is selecting one of a handful of dialogue or action options from a list, and then watching your character do it. Make no mistake: this is an old-school RPG. No rotating the camera, either — these environments were handcrafted to be seen from a specific perspective! And fine environments they are, from the muddy, narrow alley the minatour lives in, to the clean, wide avenues of the main square.
However, these well-made areas wear thin after your umpteenth traipse through them — the game’s got a fair bit of backtracking, and all three characters will quest through the same locations, exacerbating the feeling of “been there”. While plenty of other RPGs have backtracking, you can usually get a lot done in each area. Furthermore, new NPCs, or at least new dialogue options, will often be present. Sovereign Syndicate oft lacks the latter, however, and the former is only true sometimes (and only if you’re doing a good job keeping up with every side quest).
Often, I found myself running for a few minutes, realizing I went to the wrong place, then running somewhere else, having a brief conversation, then running to yet another location — which is fine, that’s narrative RPG gameplay, but the time spent running was nearly as long as the time spent in dialogue. The game could have used an increase in density of NPCs, or else offered more things to do and see each time you passed through the same area.
While this is certainly mitigated somewhat by talking to everyone you see and attempting to complete all the sidequests, the sidequests didn’t feel quite as rewarding as they should have. It’s possible I simply didn’t do the right ones, or didn’t get the “good” endings, but the sidequests I did complete had rewards that never seemed to come into play later in the game, except for those times when you needed money to pick a dialogue option. I found a cat, bought some fish for it, and went back and fed it, and later found the cat in my apartment; petting it gave me a bonus to Hope, and that was the end of that. The rest of the sidequests I completed were similar, in that they gave some small reward, but never interacted with the main plot in a meaningful way (that I could detect).
My other main gripe with Sovereign Syndicate is that there simply weren’t enough options for a lot of the key moments, and the lack of options during scenes where you’d expect to have some agency. For example, in one Clara Reed scene, you sing at a nightclub — it’s a long scene, with a full song that lasts multiple minutes. Yet, despite the song being interrupted at one point by a boisterous patron, there are no skill checks. It seems an obvious place for a check to see if you keep your composure, or even just to see if you hit the notes properly.
It’s clear that sometimes the outcome is simply preordained, and this is an issue across the game — in multiple instances, I succeeded at a skill check for, say, trying to grab a gun, but the bad guy still grabbed it first because that’s how the scene plays out. Fortunately, there are plenty of big decisions that branch the narrative, so even if individual moments lack choice, the narrative as a whole feels shaped by your decisions.
Are some of the elements of the story and characters a bit standard? Sure. But all three tales are so lovingly crafted, and so cleverly interwoven, that it’s easy to forgive their failings and get swept up in the adventure. I found myself rooting for all three characters — even when I was roleplaying the minotaur as a real asshole. The side characters are equally well-developed, with even the BBEG offering some halfway decent arguments for his insidious plot.
I had a difficult time scoring Sovereign Syndicate, no doubt due to the similarity to the giants whose shoulders it stands upon. It isn’t as ambitious as those titles, and I think that’s OK — it’s a quicker, more focused experience, and the 10 or so hours I spent in Crimson Herring’s steam-punk London were by and large enjoyable.
Sovereign Syndicate releases on PC via Steam and GOG on January 15th for $19.99 (10% discount on launch).
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Unabashed FromSoftware fanboy still learning to take his time with games (and everything else, really). The time he doesn't spend on games is spent on music, books, or occasionally going outside.