As our associate editor Tyler Colp recently put it, the fate of Disco Elysium 2 is uncertain, but other games might make up for it. One such potential plug for the Disco-shaped hole in our hearts is Sovereign Syndicate, a CRPG set in an alternate Victorian London. You can tell it’s an alternate reality because the menu screen shows it’s got zeppelins, as all alternate realities are required to have by law. The minotaur’s a bit of a giveaway as well.
While the final version of Sovereign Syndicate will have three player-characters to choose from—Clara the corsair, Otto the automaton, and Atticus the minotaur—the current demo is restricted to the minotaur. An alcoholic in a top hat, Atticus Daley is a small-time illusionist and big-time loser who begins the game in extremely Disco Elysium fashion by waking up from a bender with a head full of voices and a gut full of bad booze.
The similarities extend to the interface, which scrolls dialogue down the right-hand side of the screen as abilities like Wit and Spryness offer their opinions, each illustrated with a stark portrait. One difference is the addition of an external voice called the Crone, who the other chatterers are upset to find cohabiting your skull. The first quest in my journal is to figure out who she is and what she’s up to.
More pressing matters emerge in the shape of the masked stranger who wakes me up, insists we have business, then waits for me to pull myself together. This opening scene involves meandering around a grubby London street, examining discarded junk. From a newspaper and a poster I pick up a couple more quests, one to find some missing orphans, the other a mysterious “courtesan killer”. From the other garbage I pick up my handy sword cane, and some gears and cogs I’ll be able to sell later, immediately reminding me of all those bottles I recycled in Martinaise.
One exit from this street is blocked by an electrified fence, beyond which is the Werewolf Containment Zone. I can’t remember the last time three words made my imagination feel so fizzy, but tragically the Werewolf Containment Zone is beyond the scope of this demo. Instead, we move on to the Red Lotus, an opium den where I’m a regular customer.
Things can go a couple of different ways here, depending on whether I cast an illusion to make myself look a little more human, or stay bull-shaped and force a confrontation with the bigoted centaur behind the front bar. Attempting skill checks, like the one to cast an illusion, costs Nerve. That’s a resource lost whether you pass or fail, based not on dice, but drawing tarot cards face down then choosing one to flip. Each of the four suits relates to one of your four abilities, and while the rules aren’t clearly explained, I muddle through just fine.
Picking dialogue responses and making decisions flagged with abilities gives you points in the bodily humor (opens in new tab) linked to each one. Animal Instinct is yellow bile for instance, while Self Discipline is phlegm. They’re the equivalent of experience points, with every 10 letting you choose to either increase that ability by a point, increase one of the skills related to it by three points, or take a card from the major arcana that has some kind of special bonus.
One major arcana card I earn highlights whichever facedown card I draw during a skill check has the lowest number, while another gives me back three Nerve points every time I flip a face card. It’s a flavorful idea, as is the character sheet styled after a phrenology exam—though given my bull’s head, it also looks kind of like a diagram for cuts of meat.
Successfully hiding my horns makes the next interaction easy, but on a replay I try dealing with this bouncer the hard way. Confrontations are shown as comic strips, each panel a separate step, whether it’s an attempt to bribe your way out of trouble or rapping someone on the chin with the pommel of your cane-sword. The black-and-white pictures are another flavorful touch, like old-timey newspaper illustrations or some of Kevin O’Neill’s art for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. These blow-by-blow comics get in the way of the story less than another combat system full of range penalties and movement modifiers would.
Sovereign Syndicate’s demo covers a few more interactions inside the Red Lotus, then wraps up. It’s clearly got a long way to go, with a suggested release window of “holiday 2024 (opens in new tab).” Right now there’s no way to move the camera, and the ending’s pretty abrupt. It remains pretty high on my list of anticipated games, not out of any particular interest in steampunk—never a big fan of Arcanum, I’m afraid—but because I’d love to see more wordy, Disco-like CRPGs that emphasize story, and squeeze in characterful oddities like the Werewolf Containment Zone. You can try the demo for yourself on Steam (opens in new tab).