Every once in a while, a game comes along that claims a unique mechanic or twist on conventional genres. City of the Shroud, an episodic real-time strategic RPG is already a winning card in hybrid genre bingo, but it also brings the wisdom of the herd into its narrative development. Developers Abyssal Arts are writing the overall storyline for each episode to fit the outcome chosen by the majority of players. This democratisation of narrative design sounds like an innovative and original take on the traditional branching storyline, but is it all that it seems? And, perhaps more importantly, is the underlying game good enough to keep you interested?
There is a great deal to like about the visual style of CofS at first. The almost cel-shaded graphics are striking, but it soon becomes clear that there is little variety to be found in its art style. Environments are disappointingly one-note, characters only fit a small range of class types with no distinguishing features save a switch of palette, and perhaps most egregious, NPCs have about six different faces which are recycled so that nobody can have any lasting impression. This becomes almost inexcusable given that it’s static portraits being reused, and after the third or fourth identical merchant or refugee I was left wondering whether there had been some kind of glitch in my copy of the game.
The main thrust of the narrative takes place through limited interactive static conversation screens. The result comes across like an unambitious visual novel and lacks even the basic dialogue trees of traditional RPGs. In fact, the decisions that will decide the ongoing story of CofS amount to little more than choosing one of the various factions at a few points in the game. As a result, it seems odd that the developers are trumpeting the democratic narrative aspect for what amounts to little more than an opinion poll. I found myself feeling nostalgic for the rudimentary mechanics of branching narratives, which was surely not the intended aim. Even within these limited parameters, the story is clichéd fantasy fare and offers little to stand out.
Does CotS redeem itself through its innovative combat system? Well, not really. There is a clear attempt to develop something new here, but it just doesn’t hang together. As you progress through the game you unlock extra moves that you can assign to directional buttons in order to string together combos in the real-time battles. This sounds good on paper, but the reality is that the battles themselves are far more suited to turn-based action.
Keeping track of the various characters is a frustrating exercise in juggling plates that inevitably results in one dying whilst you are busy pulling off combos elsewhere, unless you use the pause function. The inclusion of this turn-based by the back door alternative seems to be a tacit admission that the system is better suited to stop start play. Real time with pause has been used to great effect elsewhere, but some kind of AI control for the other team members would offer the flexibility to stick with real time play more. There are a good range of character classes, but the whole system does not encourage you to try them all out.
My overriding reaction to City of the Shroud is one of disappointment. The pre-release claims promised a genuinely innovative approach to branching dialogue and an intriguing battle system. The result is a clichéd and limited standard fantasy story that has little scope for variation and a battle system that doesn’t really work as designed.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of it all is that the various factions of the world and their interactions with one another have the real potential to offer a fantasy commentary on the big issues of our time. The role of class, religion and economics in societal conflicts, as well as the plight of refugees and terrorists/freedom fighters are all included here in a basic form, but the result seems to be a graph that shows which faction has the most support from players. In effect, the main unique selling point amounts to not much more than the ‘what other players chose’ screens at the end of TellTale adventure episodes rather than the genre evolving dynamic that I was hoping for.
It is difficult to recommend City of the Shroud. It offered so much but delivers very little. The dialogue is linear and devoid of interaction, the limited number of character portraits is frankly absurd, and the combat system just isn’t fun. I’m not sure how Abyssal Arts intend to work in player choices to their overall narrative given the lack of any real decisions to be made; indeed so few are these decisions that they don’t really justify the episodic structure in terms of either narrative development or player involvement. In short, rather than an ambitious failure, City of the Shroud ends up being a shadow of the game that was promised. Perhaps best to draw a veil over this one.
Version tested: PC
Definitive Edition coming to PS4, XBO & PC