Sovereign Syndicate is an ambitious new CRPG and the first game by indie developers Crimson Herring Studios. Despite taking the heaviest inspiration from the modern classics Disco Elysium and other series like Shadowrun, it’s evident how many other aspects of the genre influence this passion project.
The mystical and steampunk elements feel close to the classic CRPG Arcanum, and the Victorian London setting gives the experience a slight edge, as everything is ingrained into the culture of that time.
The gameplay is rooted in everything we love about the genre, with random chance dice rolls and character building. That being said, there are many different components that Sovereign Syndicate tries to hit, and it doesn’t always stick the landing. Luckily, the narrative elements are exquisite, making this title worth checking out.
This is a great indie game for pre-established fans of RPGs like Disco Elysium. Despite a handful of issues, its unique take on the genre provides a charm that I love seeing in the modern gaming age.
The opening of this game starts off very reminiscent of Disco Elysium, as you wake up with partial amnesia from last night’s alcohol bender. Yet, many of the similarities stop there, as a unique world grasps you: a steampunk Victorian London that mixes the depressive characteristics of the natural world with steam-powered magic.
The first quests are with Atticus, where you follow leads from your past as an orphaned minotaur and find what events led to where you are now.
After exploring our starting scenario with Atticus for about an hour, you are switched to Act 2 with the prostitute Clara Reed. Then, Act 3 switches to the dwarf Teddy Redgrave and his robot companion Otto.
As you play through the game, each brief hour or less segment has you controlling, for the most part, one of these three core characters. Each character has their own side narratives, personalities, and motivations, yet as the story continues, you’ll find their stories expertly colliding together.
One of the core benefits of continually switching the narrative like this is that it allows you to form each narrative in its own way. For other RPGs, it can be demanding to be a bad guy on your first playthrough.
You’re too scared to bad mouth an NPC or commit gruesome acts on your first go. It feels less controversial in Sovereign Syndicate, as you have three separate characters to play. That being said, I found that the ability to roleplay as I wished was stifled as the options to do so are rather limited.
Each narrative does an exceptional job of exploring its own side of the world. Clara is more ingrained in plots such as the courtesan killer and her journey to escape London. Teddy deals with many of the corporate and monster-hunting sides of things. Then, Atticus’s core plot is more honed in on an intense personal journey. That said, you’ll find how these characters’ journeys eventually get tangled into a nifty web of intrigue and deception.
At times, having multiple plots can lead to unwanted complications; you need to remember where the different strings of the web lead. When a fascinating clue is uncovered for one character, you’re often pushed onto the next one.
When I returned to characters, I failed to remember the details for quests and side plots. Furthermore, having multiple narratives running in the same locations led to a lot of backtracking, as you must revisit areas numerous times to pick up more pieces of the larger puzzle.
Despite these problems, the main narrative is grounded in an exciting setting, unique situations and quests, and, most importantly, immaculate writing.
You battle the different voices in your head, like in Disco Elysium, which guides you to a personal conflict while trying to solve the mysteries around you and those that plague your conscience.
The mysteries of London have you dissecting lycanthropy, the dark capitalist underbelly that runs through the city, and other terrible secrets for the inhabitants. Inside your mind, you can use subsects such as grace, intellect, and impulse to guide your decisions. The writing is easily the most detailed and well-chiseled aspect of this experience.
Additionally, I loved that they incorporated more cultures than the common Victorian Londoner; Spanish, French, American, and even African cultures pop up through the plot, including lots of native speech and history. Words and phrases are also defined in-game, allowing crafty dialogue in different situations.
Although it took a few acts for the narrative to reveal the core plot, the narratives began to overlap wonderfully once they got going. For a first release by indie publisher Crimson Herring, I am astonished by the quality and excited to see what else they have down the road.
A Camera With A Mind of Its Own
The visuals of Sovereign Syndicate, similar to its setting, are a unique mix of steampunk, fantasy, and Victorian London aesthetics. Although much of the graphics aren’t as well crafted as what you’ll find in larger productions, it still displays how style can often triumph over realism and graphical fidelity.
A slightly invasive issue with the visuals is a grainy fog or blur that makes some of the locations look low-poly. Despite this, the locations themselves are well-detailed. There are both small claustrophobic alleyways and large open centers.
If anything, I wish there were more unique locations to explore throughout the game, as, sadly, the continual backtracking to these locations only highlighted each of their individual imperfections.
While the camera works fine at its best, I found multiple locations where the camera made odd choices and framed scenes in a way that just looked bad. This is likely because the game’s isometric view changes from place to place.
The camera angle constantly shifts, unlike in various other isometric RPGs such as Disco Elysium. This means the camera would often shift into new and sometimes unflattering spots as you move your character through the environments, which may annoy some players. Additionally, invisible walls and somewhat broken areas are present throughout the game.
Luckily, the game has other fantastic art to compensate for lackluster elements. Two standouts are the tarot card and comic book visuals that pop up occasionally through the plot and bring tons of charm.
The tarot cards have the charm of medieval art and constantly reminded me of the beautiful style of the game Pentiment. Additionally, the comic book visuals, akin to the original Max Payne, allow the more tense scenes to play out with perfect pacing and detailed visuals. The actual stylization of the characters and locations in both the game world and in images is fantastic and deserves praise.
The sound design, especially with in-game music, is enjoyable, which led to multiple tracks through the adventure being stuck in my head the next day. Additionally, they nailed the satisfying ring of succeeding in a skill check and the heart-shattering sound of defeat when you just don’t have what it takes.
A beautiful song sung by the character Clara Reed that marks a significant turning point in the story can be heard in her story trailer.
I Hope You like Reading
The core gameplay is once again very similar to other games in the genre, particularly Disco Elysium. Like Disco Elysium, there is an RNG dice roll mechanic where your crafted skill set determines how likely you are to pass a dialogue skill check.
Yet, instead of rolling dice to determine the outcome, you pull a tarot card, which determines success or failure. While this mechanic is just a percent lose or fail chance akin to a game of ‘higher or lower,’ it makes the skills you choose matter.
Other than these skill checks, other dialogue options are often determined based on the skills you pick at the start of the game.
While it’s easy to criticize many of these more minor situations as simply giving you the illusion of choice, I love how the game is hellbent on making every interaction feel like your own, even in the slightest instance. This standout feature, unlike some other subpar elements, holds up to the other greats of the genre.
While the dialogue and statistical RPG parts of this game work wonderfully, frequently, the quest design can be obtuse. Some distinct instances, such as typical fetch quests and weird parameters that may have temporarily softlocked my playthrough, had me rubbing my head in frustration.
Although it’s plausible for some to have an issue with the lack of combat, the detailed writing systems were entertaining enough to carry the core experience for me.
Pros and Cons
- Unique setting with its own atmosphere and charm
- Multiple narratives that all mix together
- RPG mechanics such as dice rolls and character archetypes provide a unique experience for everyone
- Expertly crafted and engaging writing for a diverse range of characters
- At times, lackluster presentation, weird visuals, and broken camera
- Multiple narratives may alienate the quest structure for some players
- Backtracking and repetition
- Lack of interactive systems, such as combat
A Stunning Story Lacking Polish Elsewhere
At its core, Sovereign Syndicate proudly provides its unique take on the narrative CRPG genre. It’s no wonder that despite some limitations, the structure was easy to recognize coming in for the first time; all of the mechanics and systems were built on top of what CRPG fans adore already.
I can tell from the gameplay and the online developer journals that this experience is a passion project of fellow CRPG story lovers, and that’s what shines the brightest while playing.
Although I wouldn’t encourage fans outside the genre to play this game, if narrative-focused RPGs are your jam, this is a great experience to try out, as the character and narrative design hold up to many other greats in the genre.
Sadly, a few lackluster elements of the game, such as camera and visual bugs and a lack of elements other than dialogue, make this game somewhat tricky to navigate.
It definitely could use a bit more polish. But despite its faults, Sovereign Syndicate is a rewarding adventure to delve into, and I’m pleasantly surprised at the heights it reached.
Dashiell played this game for a total of 22 hours, stopping to smell the roses and taking in the entire main plot within this time. He may even go around and do another lap when he finds the time.
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