Review In Short
Ben says: "A really interesting game that takes the Reigns template of "balance these things or die" and adds more things to balance. I loved the setting although I've yet to have a successful runthrough. Definitely something to try when you have an hour or two available and one I'd be happy to return to if released on Switch or iPad."
The season’s end draws near and a sacrifice must be made to protect the village. On the one hand I have the liar Preben Blackborn and on the other I have Bela Kegnni and her contagion. If I kill Preben then my standing with the Blackborn’s will fall dramatically as I killed the kleptomaniac Lazlo Blackborn last season but if I offer Bela then the town may lose some of its ignorance which will cause big problems. The real issue is Chernobog, my god; he has demanded I find and sacrifice a liar.
The choice suddenly becomes a lot easier…
The Blackborn’s are not happy about this…
Welcome to The Shrouded Isle, a game that puts you as high priest and demands you sacrifice one of your number every three months. If you can do this whilst pleasing Chrernobog and keeping each of the five families and traits in balance then you will survive and win. That is not an easy task though and much of the game is spent trying to resolve the tensions between each group lest one fall too far and you end up being the one that is sacrificed! In practice, The Shrouded Isle borrows much from popular card swiper Reigns but adds to it with far more complexity and a much darker tone. Where in Reigns you just had to balance the four aspects of religion, populace, military, and finance, this has you maintain order between ignorance, fervour, discipline, penitence, and obedience all whilst dealing with squabbling families and a demanding god.
You begin each season of three months by choosing an advisor from each of the five families. These are: the Kegnni’s who encourage ignorance through book burning; the Iosefka’s that stoke fervour through the building of monuments; the Cadwell’s that enforce discipline by confiscating goods; the Efferson’s who encourage penitence via flagellation; and finally the Blackborn’s who keep the townsfolk obedient through their investigations of heresy. Each has a family tree1 from which you can select a member to become an advisor for the season but you’ll first of all want to investigate them as much as possible.
Juggling advisors and statistics is not an easy task
Successful investigation is key as with it you can unearth the vice and virtue of each villager. These generally start off as unknown but by spending an investigation you can upgrade it to a rumour. For example, when selecting Yaromir Efferson I may see that his virtue is rumoured to increase discipline so I can reasonably assume that using him for this season will help boost my discipline statistic but if I can’t see his vice then I won’t know what negative affects he’ll have. Further investigating a rumour will lead to a hard trait for that person which can be either major or minor; a minor virtue of chaste might mean that they will add 10 points to discipline but having the major vice of being a liar may lower penitence by 30 points. As nearly all of the traits are hidden to begin with, you need to use the limited number2 of investigations you have carefully to choose your advisors. A key factor of investigation is that it isn’t free; the more investigations you perform against a family, the higher the cost in terms of standing with that family (so if I used multiple investigations against the Efferson family then it may cause my standing with them to fall from satisfied to neutral).
Once you have selected your advisors for the season you will play a turn for each month; with every month you’ll need to select between one and three of your five advisors who will then perform tasks in keeping with the families traits but will also alter statistics based on their vice and virtue. For example, if I were to choose Vallen Cadwell to confiscate some goods, he would raise discipline as an outcome of that confiscation (in keeping with the family trait) but his minor virtue of being dull would increase ignorance whilst his minor virtue of cynicism would decrease obedience. Adding more advisors may help as it will divide the stat changes between them but then it may not cause my discipline level to rise enough.
When a turn occurs with your chosen advisors, there is then some dice rolls behind the scenes which determine the outcome of your actions. In the case of confiscating goods, whilst this should raise discipline, the die may roll in such a way that discipline actually decreases due to a mistake on the part of your advisor. It is in this way that The Shrouded Isle can become frustrating as even if you choose the perfect advisors to boost your low stats at the expense of ones which are bountiful, you can still end up being derailed by a random number generator.
The Cadwell’s and Blackborn’s shouldn’t be so happy - it means I have room for some investigation and sacrificing!
Each house has a leader and this is where the second batch of progress bars comes in; if your rating with a family falls too far, then death is surely waiting for you. At the end of each month the leaders reactions are shown which will rise and fall depending on if you used their particular family member. Due to this it isn’t possible to simply choose two bad advisors in the hope you won’t have to use them as your rating with their family will then fall throughout the season. This house rating is also put at peril by investigations and sacrifices with multiples of either severely lowering your standing which results in less investigations during the picking phase. Fortunately it is possible to investigate your chosen advisors as much as possible during the season although this is still at the same cost to house ratings. I felt this was a particularly clever system as you’ll frequently end up with a family being negative towards you at which point you have to almost choose and use one of their members blindly as investigations will just lead to a further fall in standing.
At the end of the season you then have to make a decision about who is going to be sacrificed. You can only pick from your five advisors and the house rating will be affected heavily if you haven’t uncovered a major vice about that villager. Whichever family you pick will end up resenting you whilst the others will like you more for sparing them. Unfortunately it isn’t as easy as just picking the biggest sinner as you’ll have to find one first, make sure you haven’t sacrificed from the same family in the previous season, and you’ll need to make sure their vice and virtue don’t alter your precarious statistics further as typically the vice will fall whilst the virtue will rise3.
Discipline must be maintained so I should choose advisors that will boost this statistic.
If one of your statistics should fall too far, then you’ll be warned that it needs to be above a certain level (usually 20%) by the end of the next season otherwise the game will be over. Even more frustrating is that Chernobog will occasionally speak to you in your dreams and demand a particular statistic needs to be maintained to a higher level (usually 50%). Chernobog also has specific demands when it comes to who should be sacrificed with him often asking you to seek something specific (i.e. “The Scholar”). You don’t have to do this but the ending of the game will differ depending on how many of his orders you followed. There are seven different endings available in the game and when you finish a game (either by winning or dying) you’ll see a summary screen showing how long you lasted, the number of villagers you sacrificed, the number of major sinners sacrificed, how many traits you discovered (out of 60), and how many villagers were awoken. It’s a nice way of seeing progress and gearing you up for your next attempt.
If balancing all of these different moving parts wasn’t hard enough, there are also events that can randomly happen either between seasons or months. These tend to be about a single person or family and will give you multiple choice answers that will affect some statistics. Oftentimes the result is unknowable and so you may answer hoping to boost allegiance with a family only to find that it has massively decreased one of your other stats or standings instead. It is worth mentioning at this point that there is a huge amount of flavour text for the different family members. My favourites were probably the Efferson with a major vice of being a pervert that had the text “it does no harm to the squids” and Milos Cadwell who was described as winning a gruel-eating contest against his Lord. There is enough written that they don’t tend to repeat and it does make the people who are essentially just a bunch of stats4 seem a bit more lifelike.
It is impossible to know if these answers will offer good traits, bad traits, or something else entirely!
A couple of months ago the developers added an update titled “Sunken Sins” which added a number of new mechanics such as contagions and The Tower. These contagions, if unnoticed or not taken care of, will spread to other members of the family and will drastically reduce the characters virtue. You can cure them by observing them for a season in the tower and then purifying them during another season but this means they are out of action for several turns. The tower only has three slots so it becomes a balancing act of locking up the people you don’t need yet or taking the gamble and trying to purify them without examining them first; this can pay off with one of my villagers becoming ‘awoken’ which essentially gave them a major stats boost but the downside was that they became very difficult to execute without severe stat penalties. The update also changed the duration of a game from a 3 year period to a 5 year period. Whilst they called it “DLC” it actually appears as a free update to the game so you need to revert to an old version of the game if you don’t want it; I feel that they could have improved this in a similar way to how The Darkest Dungeon handles DLC with options to toggle off features you do and don’t want (i.e. I may want the new contagions system but prefer to stick to 3 year game durations).
Whilst I didn’t encounter any major problems I do have a couple of gripes. The first is my usual indie rant about the lack of 21:9 support; I wasn’t surprised that I was locked to 1440p but it doesn’t seem like it would be difficult to extend the edges with some decoration or even a solid colour other than black. The other issue is to do with undoing; most tasks can be undone before you fully commit so you can select a different advisor if you decide that one isn’t right for you before you start the season. This doesn’t extend to the tower where selecting a purification or investigation cannot be undone but blocks the villager out for a season. This caused a frustrating end of the game for me as I put someone in for purification who I actually needed to sacrifice but I couldn’t then cancel the action in order to appoint them as an advisor. A minor gripe but one that annoyed me as the continuous autosave meant restarting the game just took me to the same spot rather than the start of this turn phase.
On the positive side, I loved the duochromatic interface and in particular the way that you could choose from various shades with suitably gothic names such as Poison Ivy, Sacramental Wine, or The Deeps. The music, whilst subtle, has a melancholy about it similar to The Darkest Dungeon or the music in the wait line for Disney World’s ‘The Haunted Mansion’ ride. I also enjoyed the little musical embellishments when you view each family tree with some warped strings or the reeds of an organ similar to the incidental effects within Don’t Starve. Steam trading cards and achievements are also included but will likely require several runthroughs to acquire them all.
Failure tests the mettle of heart, brain, and body.
The Shrouded Isle is an odd beast of a game; it almost implores you to pore over the vices and virtues of every villager in order to make the season great but then it hits you with a random number generator and the slight absurdity that you choose an advisor to sacrifice rather than a regular villager. The lack of a tutorial or much in the way of help is something I’ve criticised Kitfox Games of before5; this is definitely a game where you’ll either lose your first game in order to understand how it works or one you should approach after watching some tutorials.
Overall, I massively enjoyed my time with it and found it to be a much more fulfilling experience that that offered by Reigns. The cultist setting is absolutely perfect and it feels like a game that could be expanded over time with some extra systems and traits. It is also something I’d pick up again on either iPad or Switch if it were ported over.
For now though, Chernobog is hungry; time for another Blackborn to climb the sacrificial altar…
An important thing to note is that each family is a different size so there is an inherent necessity to balance your sacrifices over a 5 year period. This is especially true of the largest family, the Iosefka’s, as it can be very easy getting trapped with having to make multiple sacrifices from the same tree (which ends badly). ↩
I believe it works out as 2 investigations per family per season if the family is satisfied with you, 1 investigation per family per season if they are neutral, and nothing if they dislike you. This obviously isn’t very many when you may need 4 investigations for a single person to uncover both their vice and virtue! ↩
So killing a liar will boost penitence but killing a pyromaniac will lower fervour. This works well as you’ll typically use someone with a major vice multiple times in a season lowering that stat but boosting family standing; when you sacrifice them the vice statistic will go up whilst the family one goes down. Careful balancing is key! ↩
There is a cool feature in that you can rename the villagers if you want although only their first names. ↩