This weekend, I sunk a few hours into a demo for Crimson Herring Studios’ Victorian steampunk cRPG, Sovereign Syndicate. It’s a cRPG that takes a few notes from Disco Elysium, making your protagonist’s mind and personality represent their attributes and specialisations, rather than the classic focus on physical prowess and combat feats.
The demo – which should go public soon – offers an early look at the adventures of Atticus Daley, a Minotaur street conjurer that spends his evenings drowning seemingly endless sorrows in alcohol and narcotics, passing out in drug dens or the back alleys of a Victorian-era London. It’s a run-down, grim, crime-ridden city that seems to share some elements of real-world history but there are also fantastical creatures and steampunk automatons that live, work, and die alongside the human population. It’s a novel setting and one of the game’s immediate strengths.
Awoken from another self-destructive bender by a masked stranger wielding a rare and deadly flintlock revolver, Atticus is given the choice of aiding the stranger or being claimed, dead or alive, as a bounty. While you’re more than welcome to choose death – on several occasions actually – it makes for an uneventful playthrough, so I pushed on. Rather than immediately submit to the stranger, I picked a lock and attempted to make my escape through the sewers rather than submit to the masked stranger.
This led to an hour of weird and mostly entertaining encounters, including interactions with actual NPCs (some of which appear to be future protagonists), devices, and several discussions inside of Atticus’ confused and conflicted mind. It’s all text-based interactions with plenty of flavour-text, but the writing is descriptive, expressive, and perhaps a little verbose. That said, it never feels like dialogue is wasted as it forms an essential part of the core gameplay mechanics.
After the briefest of character creation screens allows you to pick a dominant attribute with a major Tarot card, you’re dropped into a beautiful isometric world that initially sticks close to cRPG norms. You can explore the environment, interact with scenery for some flavour text, read documents, talk to NPCs, and collect several items that serve as currency or puzzle-solving tools. Given the detailed and often gloomy locations, Sovereign Syndicate is one of those cRPGs in which the “highlight all” function is essential to progress.
That said, it doesn’t take more than a minute or two before Sovereign Syndicate differentiates itself with dense, Tarot-themed role-playing elements. Irrespective of whether you’re in dialogue with an NPC, Atticus’s own mind, or interacting with some device, you’re going to be making non-stop decisions. These either contribute to developing one of your attributes or use a combination of those attribute scores and luck to attempt a task.
Starting with the basics, you pick a “focus” that assigns a spread of points to four core attributes – Animal Instinct, Self-Discipline, Spryness, and Wit – and receive a major tarot card assigned to the “deck” of your primary ability. Your attitude in conversations or approach to puzzles continuously earns you a resource towards increasing one of those attributes – yellow bile, phlegm, blood, and black bile respectively.
Each attribute is associated with specific behaviours that mostly make sense. Rushing headfirst into trouble raises Animal Instinct; refraining from alcohol or drugs during an encounter increase Self Discipline; dodging blows in a combat increases Spryness; persuading an NPC to part with information or lying to them to avoid trouble increases Wit.
Once you’ve gained enough of the associated resource, you can choose to increase the attribute score, pick a perk that modifies base scores for specific challenge types, or pick a major Tarot card that can be assigned to modify a deck. The more you raise an attribute, the more it’s likely to be a response available during an encounter. Finally, there’s an attribute that comes up in conversation – again, both with NPCs and within Atticus’ mind – called “Self Reflection”. This seems to reflect the protagonists view of themselves and their status in society, and I’m not certain if this is something you’ll be able to change in the final release.
I’ve left Sovereign Syndicate‘s Tarot system for last as it’s both novel and familiar. Each attribute has an associated Tarot deck that you draw from for challenges, functioning similarly to a d20 with each card assigned a value. Irrespective of whether you’re picking a lock, persuading an NPC, or striking a blow in combat, the luck-based Tarot system works in the same way. You’re presented with the challenge difficulty score; your base score based on attribute levels, skills, and any other buffs; and the difference you need to make up for by pulling a card.
Obviously the lower the difference, the less luck you need statistically but there are some novel modifiers. Major Tarot cards modify deck behaviour, such as providing more cards to pick from or reducing the difficulty of specific challenge types. There are also Tarot variants like “The World”, which adds 100 to your score and guarantees success, or “The Fool”, which adds zero and fails most tasks instantly. These are, of course, based on Tarot cards used for divination or cartomancy – think Major and Minor Arcana decks – that emerged long after the 15th-century originals used for gaming.
To keep the stakes high, you have a final set of statistics to manage: Vigour and Nerve. You can think of it as a split health pool, with physical or combat task failures reducing your Vigour and verbal confrontation failures draining your Nerve. Based on the demo, there are only rare opportunities to increase them so, if either hit zero, it’s back to the last save and a rethink of your approach.
So wrapping up, Sovereign Syndicate is shaping up to be both a dense and tense cRPG, with almost every encounter drawing on the role-playing mechanics, sometimes a dozen times in a single conversation thread. It’s a game in which no interaction feels like wasted exposition or filler, and you’re always using or improving your attributes. However, it’s also going to be a completionist’s nightmare. In theory, you could save-scum your way to success if you had a lot of time to spare, but even this short demo highlights just how difficult a jack-of-all-trades approach will be.
With a novel setting, intriguing characters, attractive visual style, and non-stop role-playing, I look forward to seeing if Crimson Herring Studios can maintain that momentum through a full-length game.
An early demo code for Sovereign Syndicate was provided to gameblur by the publisher.