Your cards are your voice in Signs of the Sojourner. That might sound strange, but it’s a faithful description of its unique gameplay, which has you matching the symbols on your conversation cards to navigate turn-based dialogue with a sea of quirky NPCs.
You follow a nameless protagonist on a caravan route, looking to keep your late mother’s shop alive. Along the way, you’ll encounter all manner of people as you search for trinkets to sell and reminders of her past. At its heart, Signs of the Sojourner is a narrative-driven deck builder, and though the conversation cards and mechanics are simple to understand, key decisions require a lot of thought.
You start with a limited deck of cards that evolves as you meet new people. Every time you speak to someone, you swap out one of your own cards for one they played, mimicking your character’s growth as a person, taking a piece of each new experience with you. This, alongside special mechanics during conversations such as Clarify, Accord, and Observe, are all an ingenious way of taking simple human connections and turning them into an entertaining game.
This is complimented by an absolutely outstanding soundtrack, which varies from town to town. In the first few towns, it’s tranquil and pleasing, some of the most relaxing music I’ve ever heard, while it shifts to lively and upbeat as you explore more populous locations. The art style is fittingly simplistic, too, with heavily exaggerated characters and soft watercolour backgrounds.
Unfortunately, a disheartening grey cloud of game balance overshadowing Signs of the Sojourner. It’s just far too easy to mess up conversations and miss out on vital information as a consequence. Every character has two symbols that define their personality and are reflected in the cards they play, and you’ll often be unable to match their symbols if you haven’t met that person or visited their town before.
While this is an intended mechanic – you must gain experience talking to someone that thinks and behaves differently to you before you can reach an accord with them – I even failed conversations with people who had the exact same symbol combination as my own cards. This really mars the gameplay experience, and quickly took Signs of the Sojourner from a soothing, tranquil adventure into a brooding slog where I had to overanalyse my decisions and choose to avoid certain towns and people if I wanted to advance.
For what it’s worth, I love deck-building and card games in general, and its the need for calculated thought and precise action that are often what I look for in those games. It feels a little misplaced alongside the serene soundtrack and humanitarian themes of this game. Drawing cards that aren’t helpful in your conversations becomes increasingly frustrating; I had many encounters that were going perfectly, only for one bad hand to lead to three negative expressions in a row. This often results in important clues being missed, and since there’s no save feature to fall back on, mistakes and bad luck are crushingly final.
Part of the reason this is so disheartening is that playing a card that doesn’t match almost always leads to two failures in a row if the NPC can’t respond to it, which feels like an especially harsh punishment. Combine this with the fact that your deck steadily fills up with useless Fatigue cards during your travels, and you’re left with a hand that exacerbates the breakdown and will kill a conversation on the spot.
The counter to this is to focus on a single pairing of symbols and a small group of towns, as the developer wants you to play through multiple times to see the many endings and experience everything Signs of the Sojourner has to offer. Ultimately, this approach makes the game feel incredibly thin, as it feels heartless to write off entire towns and stop caring what certain people have to say. A playthrough is roughly 3-4 hours in length, but the restricted feeling might make the first your last.
While I could understand this approach if there was a grittier aesthetic, even the shady characters in Signs of the Sojourner are often friendly and approachable. This disconnect between the frustrating gameplay and the carefree tone sapped my enjoyment, as it became clear that the inspired premise and serene production that first endeared me to this game are overshadowed by the harsh balance. Shifting that balance in an update would go a long way to redeeming this game for me.