Crimson Herring Studios' Sovereign Syndicate is a top-down CRPG completely dedicated to the narrative aspect of the genre.

Apart from this somewhat dry description, there's no way or reason to hide the fact that it's clearly inspired by Disco Elysium, the CRPG landmark of "I shape my character's personality the way I want". Some four years after DE's release and sweeping success, we're starting to see the first games following in its footsteps.

A centaur, a minotaur and a mysterious masked man walk into a bar...

The setting of Sovereign Syndicate is London during the reign of Her Majesty Victoria... if Victorian London was home to Minotaurs, Centaurs, Cyclops, Dwarves, Werewolves and prostitutes. Well, werewolves it probably had, but everything else is surely a figment of the imagination of the people at Crimson Herring. We as players will control three different characters over the course of Sovereign Syndicate, which depending on play style is 15-20 hours long, and divided into 18 chapters.

Atticus Daley is a Minotaur. He has mastered the art of magic, at least in the realm of illusions, which allows him to pass as a human when the occasion calls for it. He is also an alcoholic and is down and out, given to his addiction. He wakes up in a dark alleyway with three bottles of gin in his arms, which is not at all unusual. What is unusual is that a masked man will approach him and make him an offer he can't refuse if he wants to live. The mysterious stranger has unexpected news - Atticus' mother, who left him as a baby in an orphanage, is alive, in danger, her trail has gone cold, and the fate of the entire Empire may depend on her fate. Atticus must help in the search to locate her... and perhaps this will be the occasion to overcome his demons. Or maybe not, and it's just the next step on the cliff.

Clara is also talented in singing.

Clara Reed is a courtesan, at the top of her profession when it comes to the elite clientele seeking her company. Her adventure begins on the private airship of Silas Bragg, Lord Braxton, a cyclops who, as the richest and most powerful inventor-industrialist in the modern Empire, has also earned a title of nobility. Opulence and comfort are beyond imagination, and Silas is particularly generous. But Clara can never stay in one place for long, whether it's temper, whether it's that people from her past are after her and seeking revenge for initially unclear reasons, she's already decided that the next day she'll disappear without telling anyone, not even those closest to her. At the last minute, the need for significant extra resources arises, and Clara is running short to secure them - something that would be difficult even if the London courtesans weren't trembling under a new threat, the Courtesan Killer who is targeting and butchering prostitutes.

Theodore Redgrave is a dwarf, an inventor, but also a notorious monster hunter, specializing in what everyone else is afraid to get close to, mainly werewolves during their transformation. He is always accompanied by Otto, a steam-powered robot of his own design. His main concern is to upgrade Otto with the latest technology, but also to find a way to keep his prosthetic leg from bothering him. There are rumors of a new serum that can work wonders in the field of artificial mechanical limb grafts... rumors that lead him to the port's most notorious gang, and its leader, the ruthless Molly.

Theodore explores places where no one else dares to go.

In the gameplay, the influence of Disco Elysium is evident. For starters, there is no combat, with the few instances where we are led into open conflict unfolding in graphic novel-style panels, where we might have to choose some actions from a multiple choice menu. So all the focus is on the story and the way the protagonists approach the challenges.

Each character has four different personality traits, unique to each one. The first time we control one of the protagonists, we can choose which of the traits will take precedence. The Atticus who chooses to be closer to his Animal Instinct will be more brawny than the Atticus who prefers to demonstrate self-discipline. Clara can move socially with either grace or tact, while certainly not neglecting intelligence. Theodore can be ingenious or impulsive, analytical or empathetic.

There is rarely unanimity in our inner voices, but is it really for the best?

No matter which trait is emphasized, they all coexist in the protagonist's head, and comment on the events... just like in Disco Elysium. Otherwise, how powerful they are only affects the relative skill-checks when attempting an action, which works exactly as in DE, with an aesthetic difference befitting the setting: instead of dice, we roll tarot cards, each of which of course has a specific numerical correspondence.

Hit points don't exist - it's generally very difficult to see the game over screen, and if you do, the game will just load the last save - so the last stat that has any gameplay significance is temperament. The characters' reaction to various events around them increases or decreases their mood, from desperate to hopeful, which can make different options available in the dialogue.

London is full of interesting characters, but not everyone is what they seem.

As mentioned before, this all takes place in an alternate version of Victorian London, and in this realm Sovereign Syndicate does an excellent job of capturing the atmosphere that one expects from this setting, especially in the poorer and more seedy neighborhoods that we'll mostly be moving into. Harbors that are ransacked by gangs, alleys in which homeless people seek refuge, dives in which catatonic patrons hunt the dragon, orphanages that do what they can, which is to say, not much, are our field of action. And now and then, visits to places of unimaginable opulence, just to highlight social inequality.

The graphics aspect doesn't even attempt to impress, but is content with the aesthetic rendering of what we all more or less have in our minds as Victorian London, at least through pop culture, where it succeeds well. It's worth noting the complete lack of voice-over, something that didn't bother me at all, but surely a prospective player of a game that relies almost entirely on dialogue should know this.

London is also full of dark secrets, but perhaps appearances can be deceiving.

The review began by highlighting the narrative nature of Sovereign Syndicate. It can therefore conclude with an overall assessment of the story. The individual mysteries that the protagonists investigate are interesting enough, and of course at some point they all intertwine. But the overall conclusion, once we are transported to Braxton Manor, is not entirely satisfying, as everything suddenly moves too fast, the answers to key questions are rather vague, and it is hard to believe that the potential failure will have as cataclysmic an impact as is implied. At one point I was left with the impression that I was watching the prologue to a longer story... and after five minutes, the "orthodox" ending probably confirmed this. If there is indeed a sequel, it needs to emphasize consistency and pacing of the narrative.

Go to discussion...

RATING - 80%


Top Hat Gear

Successful application of the Disco Elysium recipe in an atmospheric setting. The story's conclusion should have been less rushed and more cohesive to provide a more complete experience.

Νικόλαος Δανιηλίδης

Great Old One, hardware enthusiast, game collector, man of culture.

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