Yeah, I don’t think I like Shrouded Isle very much.
The monochrome art style it’s plumped for is certainly eye-catching enough, and the choice of a sickly green-yellow hue is fitting given the subject matter of preparing your island settlement for the awakening of a Cthulu-like elder god — albeit one carrying the significantly more generic and/or copyright-friendly moniker of Chernobog. You are the high priest of the cult controlling the island, and it’s your job to keep the populace on the Lovecraftian straight and narrow by stamping out heretic tendencies such as “being curious about the outside world”. Mostly you do this by sacrificing anyone found harbouring them to Chernobog. You get three years of seasonal “turns” – twelve in all — to boost your population’s Ignorance and Fervour levels above minimum required thresholds in the hope that Chernobog will be pleased with what he finds when his deep-sea alarm clock goes off and he finally wakes up.
As game concepts go this is not the worst I’ve ever heard. Unfortunately Shrouded Isle has a significant problem in terms of the mechanics through which that cultist concept is translated into an actual game, because once you peel away that ghastly facade what you find underneath is ridiculously prosaic: Shrouded Isle is actually a game about making numbers go up and/or down, and making sure some of them don’t go down too far. I’ve not encountered a game this slavish about having you balance the books since Football Manager, and it is a bad thing for Shrouded Isle when the closest comparison I can find is a game that’s not a million miles away from being Accountancy Simulator 2017.
Let me elucidate: in Shrouded Isle your population has five general attributes: Ignorance, Fervour, Discipline, Penitence and Obedience. Aside from the name, there is no in-game distinction between these attributes. Each of them is an arbitrary number between 0 and 100. Chernobog demands that you keep these numbers above a baseline of 25, and occasionally he’ll come up with a seasonal demand that you bump one of them up above 50. There are no in-game events that affect these attributes. The only thing that makes them go up or down are the actions of your council of advisers. You have five positions in your council, each responsible for maintaining one of the attributes, and each of which is filled by one of the ruling families on the island – so House Efferson is responsible for Penitence, while House Iosefka is responsible for Fervour, and so on. Each season you pick one of the eight members of each family to serve on your council, and they’re the ones who carry out your will in e.g. whipping all the villagers to make them more Penitent or whatever.
There is a catch, however. Well, more three catches. Number one, you only have three months’ worth of actions to do in a given season. Each month you can pick between one and three advisers to carry out an action; if you pick a single adviser their action will have a big positive effect of around +15 to the attribute they’re responsible for (there’s some RNG involved in exactly how much an attribute increases by), and if you spread your actions out amongst three people it’ll have a smaller effect of around +5. Number two is that each of your advisers has a single Vice and a single Virtue, both of which are unknown when the game starts, and both of which will impact attributes unrelated to the attribute to which they have been assigned. For example, if Lazlo Blackborn is assigned to improve Obedience then he’ll increase it by anywhere between 5 and 15 from his primary action, but his Narcissist Vice means that picking him to do an action will decrease Penitence by -20. His Virtue of being rather Dull means that he’ll also increase Ignorance by +10, but it would be a bad idea to pick Lazlo to do anything if your Penitence attribute was critically low.
Picking which advisers will carry out actions in a given season is therefore a matter of balancing the positive effects of their primary action and their Virtue against the negative effects of their Vice. This is complicated further by the final catch, which is that each ruling House has its own independent approval rating of your performance as High Priest. Selecting an adviser to act on your behalf raises the approval of that adviser’s house to a greater or lesser degree depending on how many advisers are doing actions this month, in a similar fashion to the action effects themselves. Not picking an advisor causes their house’s approval rating to go down by a flat -5. Allowing a noble house’s approval of you to drop too low will incur the risk of a rebellion.
This makes it tricky when the end of the season rolls around and you have to pick somebody to sacrifice to Chernobog, because the sacrifice has to be one of your five council members. No matter who you choose to tie to the bloodstained altar you’re going to take a big approval hit from their house for doing so, although if you’ve managed to discover that they have a Major Vice such as Embezzlement the approval penalty is reduced slightly from -30 to -20. Vices and Virtues are uncovered by choosing advisors to carry out actions during a season; pick an advisor enough times and you’ll eventually find these out, although you also get a limited number of free Inquiries that do the same thing if your approval with a noble house is high enough.
That was an incredibly dry set of mechanics to describe, and it can’t have been much fun to read about either. And yet that’s the experience of actually playing Shrouded Isle; it’s reduced the promising theme of cult management to a pure and (very) simple numbers game, and it’s not even a particularly interesting one either because I figured out the optimal approach within the first half hour of playing it:
- Picking a single advisor to carry out an action is only a good idea if one of your approval or attribute ratings is perilously low and you need to give it a big boost.
- Otherwise it’s always preferable to pick the maximum three advisors per season, for two reasons.
- One, you’ll uncover Virtues and Vices faster.
- Two, it spreads out the attribute and approval increases and decreases in such a way that you don’t tank any one number to a non-recoverable level — if you pick a single advisor then the attribute penalty from their Vice will be amplified along with the bonus from their action and their Virtue, and the Vice penalty is always higher than the bonus. By spreading out your actions it ensures that this penalty will at least be mitigated by somebody else’s positive action.
There’s some minor thought required in selection of advisors as you’ll need a set that’s good at whatever you want to increase that season (or at least not actively detrimental to it) as well as a patsy for the sacrifice — but even this is usually a no-brainer once you have a sufficient number of Vices/Virtues uncovered. No, what challenge Shrouded Isle has lies in obfuscating its mechanics, since I had to figure out all of the above through trial and error. Once I knew how everything worked it was childishly easy to keep everything at a healthy level and I never even came close to failing, and ninety minutes after clicking Start Game for the first time I was looking at the “Chernobog Awakens” cinematic; not coincidentally this marked the point where I was done with Shrouded Isle because it has zero replay value. What would I replay it for? The thrilling clicking-on-things-to-keep-numbers-high gameplay? The paper-thin concept that, art style aside, it doesn’t even try to play to beyond the odd random event? There are apparently five other endings for fucking up on each of the attributes, but intentionally losing a game of Shrouded Isle would be even easier than winning it; there’s nothing interesting there when I can probably just go and look at the endings on Youtube by now.
Even though at £7 Shrouded Isle does not exactly break the bank and it’s wrong to expect anything particularly ambitious out of it as a small indie title, it still feels ridiculously anaemic both as a game and as a cultist simulator, and I was expecting it to at least come close to nailing the latter quality. Instead it’s a good idea that’s completely wasted on Shrouded Isle, and that’s something I’d feel sad about if we weren’t living in an age where the stars have come right and you can’t move three paces without tripping over some kind of Lovecraft-themed IP. As it is, though, I’m perfectly happy to pick up the sacrificial knife myself to consign Shrouded Isle to oblivion.