Review: City of the Shroud (PC)

Developer: Abyssal Arts

Publisher: Abyssal Arts

Genre: Strategy RPG

Platforms: PC

Rating: N/A

Price: $19.99

Episodic video games have carved their own niche in the gaming landscape in recent years. Ranging from story-heavy games like The Walking Dead and Life Is Strange to more mechanics-focused titles like Hitman, this approach of releasing pieces of a game over a longer stretch of time has gained popularity amongst gamers and developers alike. Indie studio Abyssal Arts joins the party with the first chapter of their new strategy RPG City of the Shroud. This episodic adventure has a twist, however: future chapters of the game haven’t been written yet. Where many other episodic stories are already written before the first episode is made public, Abyssal Arts has yet to write chapters 2-4 of City of the Shroud. These upcoming installments will be created based on the narrative decisions that players make during the first chapter. It’s an innovative approach to storytelling and game design…but will it pay off?

Content Guide

Sexuality: Marital infidelity is implied at one point in the story. A noblewoman invites a priest into her home and informs him that her husband is away; upon seeing that he is accompanied by another person, she asks why he has not come alone as he usually does.

Violence: The core gameplay involves attacking and killing enemies. There’s no blood or gore of note, however, as enemies fall down and vanish when you kill them.

Spiritual themes: One of the factions in the game is a group of priests whose morals and influence over Iskendrun are just as mixed as their less religious counterparts.

Review

In City of the Shroud, you play as a destitute farmer seeking work in the big city of Iskendrun. After bribing a guard to let you in, you discover that the city is under attack: portals are opening around town, from which monsters pour out and attack the townsfolk. After saving an old hat merchant from an already weakened monster, word spreads of your good deed; soon the entire town refers to you as the “Hero of Portals” and requests your aid in various matters. The situation turns from bad to worse when a magical shroud suddenly envelopes the entire city, trapping everyone inside with the monster-spewing portals. What follows is a tale of action and intrigue, as you meet the most powerful people in the city and investigate the mystery behind these magical happenings.

Throughout the course of the game, players choose to align themselves with one of the five factions that control Iskendrun. Each faction has its own ideals and goals, and view one another as either allies or enemies to their cause. They also suspect one another as being the culprits behind the portals and shroud that threaten their city. This plays into the game’s unique approach to storytelling: which factions the community of players leans toward will inform how Abyssal Arts writes the upcoming chapters.

Unfortunately, this approach to storytelling has a significant downfall, namely that your choices currently lack consequence. Any faction could be plotting against the city, but the game never gives you a good reason to suspect one over another. As such, aligning with a faction feels like a decision based entirely on personal preference, either for a faction’s ideals or for the personality of its leader. The anticlimactic ending to the first chapter drives the point home: since the story isn’t fully planned out, the writers aren’t willing to commit to any major narrative beats.

If there’s one aspect of the story that succeeds, it’s the game’s dialogue. From the get-go, City of the Shroud’s writing is filled with witty banter between the game’s characters. Almost everyone else in town sees you as a means to an end, and they usually don’t bother to hide it. The hat merchant, a bizarre old man who spends as much time trading in secrets as he does in clothing, stands out in this regard; his wonderfully dry sense of humor is easily one of the highlights of the game. Your character responds with amusing cynicism and annoyance, eventually fitting in with the city’s self-absorbed inhabitants by finding his or her own innocuous ways to annoy the townsfolk. Even though the game’s overarching plot failed to reel me in, I nonetheless found myself chuckling throughout the adventure.

The main gameplay in City of the Shroud is its strategy RPG combat. The game starts off with a series of tutorial missions spread out over the first couple hours of gameplay, introducing you to the basics of the combat system as well as each of the character classes: Brute, Defender, Mage, Duelist, Machinist, and Gunner. In each encounter, your team—comprised of up to four characters—appears on a grid-based environment in which you square off against an opposing team, which uses color-swapped versions of the same characters that can appear in your own party. Each character has a meter that slowly builds up over time, and when sections of the meter fill up, you can deplete them to move around the battlefield or perform attacks.

When you choose to perform an attack, a large wheel that resembles a controller’s d-pad appears onscreen; moving your cursor from the center of the wheel to one of the four cardinal directions (up, down, left, or right) will activate an attack and deplete one of the sections of your meter. The key to success is in utilizing special attacks, which you learn over the course of the game and have additional effects beyond dealing damage, such as stunning your opponent or buffing your party. These special attacks require you to rotate your cursor around the attack wheel, thus using up more of your meter. With proper planning, you can activate combos—multiple special attacks— at the same time, turning the tide of battle in seconds.

The tutorial missions do a good job teaching you the combat system, and while the mechanics are difficult to explain, they’re actually quite intuitive. Additionally, while the combat runs in real time by default, you can initiate “Wait Mode” by holding down the spacebar. This stops time completely and lets you plan actions at your own pace, which becomes especially helpful later in the chapter when you have more characters to keep track of. Once you complete the tutorials, the game gives you a full squad of four team members to customize.

The game also features an online PVP mode, where you can battle real people with your squad. I wasn’t able to try PVP for this review, however, as the game was not out and no one else was playing online. Not much additional information was provided about this mode by the developer; the only stated difference between multiplayer and single player is a lack of the “Wait Mode” option in PVP.

Outside of combat, you can customize your party to your heart’s content. The four squad members can be swapped out for different classes between missions, and each class boasts distinct strengths and weaknesses, accommodating for multiple playstyles. Here is where you’ll also decide which special moves to equip to your characters, as well as boost attributes such as attack strength or health points.

Despite all this customization, City of the Shroud’s core gameplay suffers from a lack of variety in other aspects. Aside from their color, the enemies all look and act the same as your own party members. While this consistency ensures that you always know what to expect from your opponents, it quickly ceases to be interesting. The game would really benefit from unique enemy types, and perhaps some bosses that take special effort to bring down. Additionally, the outcome of all but one every encounter hinges on which team kills the other first. A greater variety of win and loss conditions are sorely needed to keep the gameplay feeling fresh. By the end of the chapter, I always knew exactly what strategy I needed to employ from the moment an encounter began, and that predictability hampered the experience.

Aside from combat, the only other gameplay present is the dialogue system, which plays out like a visual novel. Dialogue is expressed entirely through text, with a name and image appearing above the dialogue box to indicate which character is speaking at any given moment. The opportunities you have to actually make a decision are few and far between, though, and as mentioned above, they lack any weight or tangible consequence. In addition, only a handful of important characters have their own unique depictions; the side characters share images with one another, making them feel particularly meaningless to the overall story.

One of the few characters to receive their own unique image

All things considered, City of the Shroud’s first chapter isn’t bad, but it’s not particularly good, either. It gets some things right: the basic gameplay mechanics are solid, the customization accommodates for different playstyles, and the dialogue is cleverly written. But it feels like the game is biting off more than it can chew. It desperately needs more variety in its gameplay, and the storytelling leaves much to be desired. If there’s a glimmer of hope, it’s that the game isn’t technically finished yet; this is only the first of four chapters. Hopefully as Abyssal Arts continues to write the story, we’ll see player choice have an impact on the overall narrative. Future chapters could also be a great opportunity to expand on the strategy RPG mechanics that have been introduced. With improvements in these areas, City of the Shroud could become a pretty special game by the time it releases its Definitive Edition next year. But if all we see is more of the same, it’ll end up a disappointment.

Review copy generously provided by Stride PR.

The Bottom Line

 

 

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Michael Mendis

Michael Mendis loves to discuss gaming, Christian faith, and how the two interact. In addition to his main hobby of playing video games, he also enjoys watching movies, anime, and baseball.

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