A few hours in
Okay, well, good news, bad news. The good news is, I did survive the first year’s summer. And I even found the artist, who as it turns out was Miri Cadwell, can you imagine? After all I did for her. I found this out by grasping that ‘artist’ was one of the words given in opposition to ‘ignorance’, and then querying people with ignorance vices until I found the right one. Sacrificing Miri made house Cadwell… well, not like me, in any sense, but they were markedly less mad than they would have been, otherwise.
I actually got fairly far: I took until the winter of the second year before house Cadwell got their revenge, leading a shadowed uprising against me for selecting too many of their family members.
But okay, first game, right? That was a learning spot. I lost my second game in the third season, plunging penitence into the red and failing to get it out again.
I’ve played about a dozen games at this point. I know The Shrouded Isle has seven endings, all in all; I’ve seen zero of them. I haven’t managed to win once. This is probably in a large part because I’m not good at this game; in fact, let’s not mince words and admit that I’m a terrible fuck-up of a high priest. But an equally-sizable part of it is that The Shrouded Isle is a really very difficult game. Crucially, it’s difficult in a way that has less to do with player skill and planning and more with strict luck and random numbers. And I… worry that The Shrouded Isle‘s long-term viability is hindered as a result.
Before we get into that, though, let’s focus on some good things. The Shrouded Isle‘s all-around aesthetic remains absolutely stellar throughout: It’s incredible from the word go, and this hasn’t diminished. In fact, the more I play, the more I find to be impressed by. The visuals are an obvious hook, but do also pay attention to the incredible sound design. The background music sets a perfect gloomy mood, ambient sounds keep the atmosphere going, and I particularly love how each house has their own designated sound effects — that took me a bit to pick up on. The art style is deceptively evocative for being so simple-looking, both in the environments and in the character portraits. And all throughout, the story writing and character beats manage to hit that intended note ‘this is not normal, but we’re all used to it being this way’. If that makes any sense.
Let me also add that I don’t have any particular issue with The Shrouded Isle‘s gameplay idea, which is a perfectly cromulent form of ‘keeping the meters up’. It reminds me of Reigns, in concept. It’s the execution I chafe against. Because it leads to my own execution so often.
It goes like this: The basic idea of The Shrouded Isle is trying survive for five years, four seasons per year, without any of your ten meters — the five virtues and the approval ratings of the five houses — dipping below a certain value. If you start any season with values in the red, you’re put on blast: If the season ends with those same values too low (regardless of whether or not they’ve gone up during play, then down again) you lose, and then die. That last part’s non-negotiable.
The first challenge pops up here: You have to select five advisors for each season, and you have to activate at least one advisor per month. You’d think that that would be a good thing, since the advisors are your prime way of raising virtue levels. But your advisors are also generally the prime way to lower virtue levels, through their vices: There are nine combinations of vice level and virtue level, with only one of them resulting in a stronger virtue than vice. Unless you’re particularly lucky, there’s a really good chance that any advisor activation is going to reduce one virtue more than it increases one or two other ones. And that only holds if you activate just one advisor: Activate two or three, and the activation bonus is split — but the individual virtue and vice effects are not.
On a theoretical level, it’s possible to play smart here, work with your strengths. The lowest possible vice level is -10, so if you can find a few of those advisors, that minimizes losses and maximizes gains. If you need to raise a particular virtue level, just focus on that one: By using one mapped-out advisor, you immediately get a visual indication of what’ll likely happen. And house reputation gains work similarly to main virtue gains, in that using only one advisor raises one house level a lot while using three raises three house levels a little — while the houses that lower aren’t affected, I think. So if one house hates you, focus on getting a good advisor in for them. If one virtue is struggling, get someone who can help with that. It’s easy enough on paper.
The problem with paper is that it tears easily and it gets mushy when wet. And the problem with this outline is that it relies on a lot of hopeful assumptions. For instance, it’d be great to get one -10-level advisor per house! They just need to have any.
But bad houses, you can try to work around. What’s significantly more damning is the whole ‘random number generation’ thing. Every main effect and every advisor virtue or vice isn’t set, it’s a projection. Either maximum effect or average overall effect, I’m not sure. Particularly for main effects, it’s possible for outcomes to be average, great — or poor, meaning either ‘shitty gains’ or ‘actual losses’.
It’s possible to plan everything right in The Shrouded Isle and then get messed up over a single die roll going wrong. It’s unlike at first, when all your meters have room to shrink and you can try again, but…
Fundamentally, on a mechanical level, The Shrouded Isle is a game about trying to keep together a sinking ship. Just long enough to reach the shore. All meters trend downward: Virtues drop, vices get worse, and both advisor picks and using inquiries to figure out who’s who will make houses hate you. It wasn’t uncommon for me to reach situations where two or three meters would start off in the red, turning that particular season into a mad dash to get everything above water — often burning other meters in the process. Maybe I can get ignorance up, but only if I use this sinner with a -30 to discipline. Maybe I can get house Iosefka back into non-anger territory, but in that case, my only sort-of valid sacrifice is the Cadwell kid — that’s twice in a row, which’ll net me a -100 reputation penalty. Maybe if I get lucky on this roll…
And if you think that’s all of it, wow, do I have news for you. There’s also the sacrifice at the end, which can mess up your plans significantly — oh, that Pervert you were going to kill secretly has the ignorance virtue, which would put ignorance back in the red. Uh-oh! There are random events, either at the start of the season or halfway in, where you’re expected to read a small story and choose an answer: Sometimes these are good, but other times, less so. Then there’s a whole thing with spiritual infections, which — I think this was added in the free Sunken Sins update. Basically, people can randomly get infected, turning their virtues into additional vices. You can confine them in a tower to identify the illness and cure them, or you can just take a stab at curing them and hoping they don’t drown — the ‘curing’ process tends to involve dunking a metal cage underwater. Or you can confine and identify healthy people, and maybe try to ‘purify’ them, improving their virtues. Or turning them into weird fish-people. There are many moving parts involved, is what I’m trying to get at.
And then there’s my ‘favourite’ part, which is Chernobog yelling at you. You’re given a mission at the start of the second season: Encourage this virtue (raising the needed level to not fail), and find and sacrifice this particular major vice (the -30 ones).
Now, as far as I can tell, you don’t have to do this. I’ve ignored Chernobog’s commands for a while without seeing anything for it. But a) I’m not sure a reckoning wouldn’t be coming, b) I assume getting all Chernobog’s desired major sinners, in the correct order, is part of at least one victory condition, and c) since you’ll mostly be sacrificing major sinners whenever possible anyway, you’ll hit on the requested sinner at some point as a matter of course. And once you do, Chernobog changes the rules the coming season: New virtue to focus on, new major sinner to find. The latter isn’t so bad, but the former…
And then suddenly you hit the point of no victory: The situation where nothing you can do will lift you out of all pits simultaneously. And then you lose. With nothing to show for it.
I can’t stress enough how bad it feels to lose like this. Sure, it’s never fun to lose in general. But I think what gets me with The Shrouded Isle is that you have nothing to show for it at the end. I don’t mean this in the sense that I think it should have meta-progress: Not every game needs to be Rogue Legacy. And I understand that it can be weird to see these words typed by the same guy who once spent a whole summer powering away at his Spelunky high scores. But in the case of The Shrouded Isle, I never felt after a loss like I’d learned anything, or gained anything. Maybe the first two, three games, sure. But after that, all my losses were just… up to chance. Gambled on the wrong hidden virtue, accidentally brought a full pack of major sinners, Chernobog changing the rules on me. In all cases I felt like I was doing well, or at least okay, and then suddenly I wasn’t doing okay anymore. And there was no way to get back from that abyss.
Maybe this actually sounds really rad to you. Maybe you’re looking for a mountain to climb, and you don’t mind however often you fall off in service of getting to the top. The Shrouded Isle might very well be your game, in that case; I won’t deny that I’m super curious about getting to one of the seven endings myself. But all the same…
Yeah, I’ve given it some more thought. I think that if I do keep The Shrouded Isle in my rotation, it’ll be in the role of, like, a podcast game: Something relatively low-investment I can do while listening to goofs or doing other mental work in the meantime. That does reduce it from an atmospheric horror game to strict number-crunching and chance manipulation, but then on some level, it’s always been that.
The Shrouded Isle is a gorgeous, atmospheric, well-put-together game that thematically nails the notes of ‘managing a cult is a hopeless and doomed affair’ so well that it’s causing me to feel hopeless about it. It’s definitely a well-designed game, aesthetically more than mechanically, and for only ten dollars you can take your own stab at seeing Chernobog wake. That said, I don’t see myself returning to the island too much: We’re only three weeks in and 2018 has already produced so many incredible-looking games that an island that makes me sigh and rub my eyes at a bad dice roll is unlikely to see a lot of return tourism.
Plus, it rains like all the time there. I didn’t escape the Netherlands to find more rain.
Jarenth hasn’t so much ‘escaped the Netherlands’ as he has ‘temporarily confined himself to the States’, but don’t tell the oversight committee. Instead, follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?