The Shrouded Isle is basically Sim Cult, and an intoxicatingly sadistic management mixture it most certainly is. Sure, it’s not quite deep as it could have been, and it doesn’t take too long to experience all it has to offer, but the game’s sharp aesthetic and intelligent turn-based management mechanics kept me enthralled for a good few hours of joyous worship before the monotony set in.
Did you know that in three years, the world as we know it will end? As the leader of The Shrouded Isle’s despicable cult, you do, because of your chosen deity, the mighty god Chernobog, has foretold it, along with his auspicious return. As the game starts, you’re presented with a map of your secluded island, marked with the dwellings of the five clans that make up the main body of your cultist community. Each of these clans must be appeased so that their satisfaction rating remains high enough, or you’ll have a rebellion on your hands. You must scour these loyal households, choosing one advisor from each for the coming season. You must choose wisely: each advisor’s individual personality traits (expressed here as one of some virtues and vices) will directly affect the spiritual health of your cult.
Because, in addition to keeping the households sweet, there’s also the small matter of the needs of your community to attend to. These come in the following flavors: Discipline, Fervor, Ignorance, Obedience, and Penitence. Allowing any one of these to become too low causes a game-over state, and so ensures a balancing act which feels very similar to fellow indie gem Reigns, albeit without that game’s esoteric character…But mountains more darkness.
As you enter the season, each month your must choose up to three of your five advisors to exert their influence on the community. This is where the vices and virtues come in, as each advisor affects the different facets of the cult’s spiritual life, both positively and negatively. For example, an advisor with the ‘Childlike’ virtue possesses an air of obliviousness that will improve the overall Ignorance of your cult. But that same advisor may also have the ‘Flirt’ vice, which will detrimentally affect the community’s Discipline level. You must choose the advisors most appropriate for the current state of your cult, sometimes taking the hit on one particular area to gain to the ground in another.
The character traits — of which there are around 60 — are strongly reminiscent of roguelite dungeon crawler Darkest Dungeon in that they paint a vivid picture of broken, flawed people existing in a less than perfect world. In fact, DD seems to have had an influence on the general feeling of despair that runs throughout The Shrouded Isle. The fact is, you’re an inexcusably awful person doing horrible deeds for an inscrutable evil, and you’re reminded of that regularly.
And that fact is no more apparent than at the end of each season when you’re faced with the decision to choose a sacrifice from your five strong group of trusted advisors. The family of your eventual victim will never be happy, but they begrudgingly accept that Chernobog must be assuaged. Your decision here is vital to your success in the game: pick the right sacrifice with the right vices (the more severe, the better), and you’ll successfully make an example of them, causing a positive effect to ripple through your community. No one likes a Pervert, not even sadistic death cultists, apparently, because murdering an advisor with this ugly vice removes the adverse effects of his presence, and promotes a more disciplined community as a whole. In this way, it pays when appointing your advisors not just to choose the best and brightest, but also a couple of degenerates who will end up being perfect candidates for the knife.
Even for an elder god, Chernobog is fickle, and so likes to throw a devious spanner in the works from time to time by visiting you in your dreams to demand the soul of a particular member of your flock. This isn’t so bad if the chosen one is of the troublesome variety (I was lucky in my first play-through: the big guy requested the soul of the aforementioned Pervert, allowing me to kill two birds with one stone), but what happens when the soul of your most trusted disciplinarian or your best book burner is requested by the dark god? There’ll be a storm to ride out, that’s for sure. Other semi-randomized events (arriving via letters sent to your cathedral) take the form of suggested witch-hunts or outsiders who wash up on the island’s shores. Acting decisively often has its reward, but there are often unforeseen, and usually dangerous, consequences of your actions.
These curveballs offer a welcome switch-up to the formula, but are sadly limited in scope, and therein lies my main criticism of The Shrouded Isle. Once you’ve come across every vice and virtue the game generates in its characters, and dealt with the majority of the issues that arise, you’ve pretty much seen everything the game has to offer. I’d reached that point on my third or fourth play through (each three-year game took me around an hour and a half to complete). This lack of variety isn’t crippling, but it is a shame, given that what is included is of such a high quality.
The game’s overall presentation is one such highlight, and goes a long way toward keeping you interested, even after the new content has dried up. Although the gloomy art is very much from that school of 2D hand-drawn static backgrounds with little movement or dynamism, there’s enough quirky gothic charm to give a sense of a material game world, even without a wealth of complex animations. The portraits of each member of your doomed congregation, in particular, are fabulously realized, with each possessed of a disturbing pose and sinister, shadow engulfed eyes. And let’s not forget the music, which is of a very high standard for a game of this size, and really hammers home the ominous atmosphere on offer.
I’d love there to be a deeper well of content, and hopefully, there will be more added after launch to give players a reason to keep playing. There are multiple endings, but there’s no real build-up to them, and unfortunately, too much samey gameplay to have to wade through before you get there. Still, as a cheap, brisk management sim, it mostly succeeds. It’s just that—and maybe my regular contact with ol’ Chernobog has left me a little cruel and unsympathetic here—I can’t help but want more.
Andy is a freelance writer for Game With Your Brain. You can follow him on Twitter.