January 15, 2024
Crimson Herring Studios
Crimson Herring Studios
It’s a cold, grey dawn in a dank alley on the East End. Snoring among empty liquor bottles and barrels of rotten herring lies a sprawled, dishevelled minotaur, top hat askew and horns coated in week-old grime. He opens a bleary, bloodshot eye and feverishly winces at the morning sky, the sun’s rays momentarily shadowed by an extravagant airship floating past. Steam hisses as the city wakes, and the minotaur reluctantly rouses his groaning, gin-soaked bovine body to face another day in the Queen’s London.
Sovereign Syndicate is a narrative-driven RPG set in a steampunk Victorian version of East London. It draws its gameplay inspiration from non-combat isometric CRPGs such as Disco Elysium, focusing on character personality and relationships as a means of progression rather than fighting prowess. Featuring a trio of protagonists, multiple story outcomes, and a tarot-based chance system that replaces traditional RPG dice rolls, this title creates an intriguing, intertwining narrative that draws you in and keeps you hooked to the very end.
Sovereign Syndicate’s world is full of mythical creatures, but firmly rooted in the socio-political traditions of steampunk. Werewolves are both a threat and a social class, with those inflicted with lycanthropy shunned and consigned to a “Containment Zone” at each full moon. Technological advancement rubs up against capitalist morality: while wealthy humans are often augmented with mechanical body parts, blue-collar workers compete with steam-powered automatons for meagre wages. The world is brash and improper, rife with thievery, gambling, drug abuse, and general skulduggery. Citizens of this London seek the solace of opium dens, brothels, and underground dog-fighting arenas, trying to eke out as much joy as they can from their often cut-short lives.
While this paints a rather bleak picture, Sovereign Syndicate is far from gloomy. The muted colour palette of this isometric world is often punctuated with rich splashes of colour or dynamic vignettes, and the characters you meet while exploring are varied and eccentric. For most of the game, you’ll be walking through the different streets of London and chatting to the locals. There’s an overarching murder-mystery plot to solve, as well as numerous personal quests that involve collecting items or using your characters’ skills to solve dramas.
The three playable characters in Sovereign Syndicate each come with their own tarot deck that represents their skills and personality traits. Skills are divided into four aspects that correspond with the suits of Minor arcana, such as Swords and Wands. When a skill such as Wit or Analysis is checked, you draw a card from its relevant suit and add that card’s value to your character’s level: if your score is higher than the check’s difficulty, you succeed. Selecting dialogue options that relate to a particular skill rewards you with its corresponding “humour” (ie. experience points), meaning that you’ll constantly be improving the skills that you lean towards using.
Successfully completing a skill check can also reward Major arcana, which adds a personality Trait to your character (such as Creative or Vengeful) and unlocks related options in dialogue. You’re also able to influence each character’s outlook on the world by changing the amount of Hope they have, which can be gained by choosing optimistic actions and experiencing joy, and lost by acting cynically or being harmed. Different levels of Hope unlock positive or depressing pathways for quests respectively. These systems work together to make every interaction feel important in shaping the protagonists into unique, believable characters throughout your playthrough.
I began my adventure in Sovereign Syndicate as Atticus Daley, a minotaur illusionist with a troubled past, a taste for gin, and a penchant for accumulating debt with ne’er-do-wells. Right away the narrative goes into a dark place: Atticus has been trying to drink himself to death in a squalid back alley of Beggar’s Lane. Having failed in his attempt, he finds himself answering to a mysterious Masked Stranger and dragged along to an opium den, where he is encouraged to recall traumatic memories and ultimately seek to resolve his sordid past.
In the next chapter, I was introduced to the wily Clara Reed. An accomplished singer and fan collector who moonlights in sex work, Clara’s tale begins on the lavish airship of local billionaire cyclops Lord Braxton. She entertains Braxton and her circle of suitors at the Velvet Rose brothel in an attempt to raise funds to escape London and begin a new life abroad – however, Clara’s compassion compels her to first investigate a recent spate of murders attributed to “The Courtesan Killer” whose victims include former colleagues and compatriots.
The final playable character in Sovereign Syndicate is actually a duo. Teddy Redgrave is a red-bearded dwarven war veteran and engineer extraordinaire, whose automaton companion Otto is both friend and assistant. Teddy and Otto work as monster hunters, protecting the residents of London from dangerous creatures such as oversized cane rats and rogue werewolves. When Teddy receives word that his neighbourhood is to be demolished in the name of economic progress, he and Otto seek out local criminal mastermind Molly O’Malley to see what they can do to protect their home.
Each chapter begins with a prompt reminding you of where the current character’s story left off before setting you free in East London to explore at your whim. While you’re usually scouring the same streets, docks, and alleys with each character, the numerous discoveries to be made between chapters means this never feels like backtracking. NPCs have different responses depending on who the current protagonist is, what sort of arcana make up your tarot deck, and your shifting goals and responsibilities, making each interaction unique and intriguing. The protagonists’ stories begin as separate tales but quickly overlap and intertwine in multiple ways, and each one is incredibly likeable in their own unique way.
Engaging with the world of Sovereign Syndicate and searching through how the map changes chapter-by-chapter is incredibly satisfying for the most part due to the game’s rich, decadent writing. Travelling to a new location shows a brief loading screen with a few paragraphs of beautifully descriptive prose that sparks the imagination and truly sets the scene. It makes each investigation and dialogue interaction feel like something from a forbidden Victorian novel, majestic and often salacious. The narrative prose is luxuriously verbose in the most delightful ways. I absolutely devoured each luscious description of a gaudy casino or a dishevelled minotaur’s garret. The sassy Oscar Wilde quotes that frame each chapter work wonders for keeping the game’s tone consistent.
Character accents and personalities come across incredibly clearly, with tonnes of interplay between each character’s inner monologue. I found myself relieved at the lack of voice acting, instead allowing the expertly written text to speak for itself. Handily, certain pieces of obscure slang and important tidbits of information are highlighted in the dialogue window with tooltips that provide context. These prevent you from getting distracted or confused by the many colourful NPCs’ turns-of-phrase, and are often used to add humour or gravitas to a scene.
Quests in Sovereign Syndicate that progress the narrative are clearly marked with point-of-no-return warnings, but I was otherwise pleasantly surprised at how satisfyingly hands-off much of the journey remained. The journal keeps basic track of quest progress, but rather than a step-by-step quest log and map markers, you’re instead rewarded for paying attention to your surroundings and listening to what people have to say. Most of the optional side quests contribute to your characters’ relationships or story in some way, and can be solved with logic and persistence.
A few technical issues cropped up during my playthrough, though developers Crimson Herring released patches during the review period to address some of the larger ones. Your characters can occasionally get stuck on pieces of scenery while walking through the world, and there were a few bugs to do with outfits that popped up here and there. I also found the final moments of the game to be a little underwhelming. While the narrative threads come together and there is a satisfying climax, some of the payoffs for individual choices weren’t quite as impactful as others. That said, with multiple outcomes depending on player choice, it’s possible that my particular ending just wasn’t as fleshed out as some of the other options.
With each character’s unique collectables, multiple endings, and a number of missable quests, there’s plenty to keep you coming back to Sovereign Syndicate after finishing its roughly twelve-hour story. While it takes many of its cues from non-combat RPG heavyweight Disco Elysium, there’s more than enough personality and life in this narrative to set it apart. It’s worth playing for the excellent writing alone, with its imaginative world and satisfying questing rounding out the experience nicely and making this an absolute delight for any lover of a good tale.
- Luscious, decadent narrative writing that draws you in
- Fascinating, imaginative steampunk-London to explore
- Satisfying quests that reward player intuition and curiosity
- Resolution feels a little unfinished
- A few minor bugs
A witty, vicious, and charming-as-heck romp through a Victorian steampunk city, Sovereign Syndicate wraps its tight, character-driven story in layers of deliciously decadent prose. Delving through the seedy underbelly of this alternate-universe East London is compelling on its own, made all the more intriguing by the different perspectives of its trio of protagonists. Despite a few glitches at launch and some slightly rushed final moments, Sovereign Syndicate is a deeply satisfying narrative RPG and an absolute pleasure to play through.