I won’t deny the claim that I’m a sucker for steampunk, but I’m also not going to pretend that there’s a lot of bad attempts at steampunk out there. People who see the Victorian-era aesthetics and hear the posh accents without really thinking about the foundations of the genre drive me berserk. And that’s just straight steampunk. When you try to mix in fantasy elements, and do it badly, it gets worse. I’ve already had one bad steampunk experience this summer, so I was understandably gun shy about the demo for Sovereign Syndicate. After going through the demo, well, still pretty gun shy.

Sovereign Syndicate has you taking on the role of three different characters in an alt-history/fantasy London, though only one of these characters is available to play during the demo. And being fair, the demo’s pretty damned short. My first playthrough was done in less than half an hour, even factoring in me just puttering around the starter area, and followed what I’m assuming is the “main” storyline (which we don’t really get any progress on).

“Yes, that charming London cosmopolitanism and genteel attitude I’ve heard so much about.”

Playing as an alcoholic minotaur named Atticus Daley, and yes you read that right, you wake up from a failed attempt to drink yourself to death and meet an enigmatic stranger who wishes to enlist your services. Of course, you’re in no rush to meekly follow along. You can explore a couple side areas in an isometric RPG style, provided you have the skill to access them. Skills are dependent upon four stats based off the “humors” of early medieval medicine, and skill checks are made using tarot cards, each suit corresponding to a specific stat. Occasionally, major arcana will show up in the shuffle, adding a considerable bonus or (in the case of The Fool) nothing at all. Depending on your starting “build,” this will make certain tasks easier or harder. Aside from your base stats, you also have “Vigour” (health) and “Nerve” (psyche) stats, though what exactly impacts these stats is not immediately apparent in some situations. It is entirely possible to die in several different and somewhat gory fashions in the demo, and presumably these will stay in the full game.

It’s basically impossible at this particular moment for Sovereign Syndicate to avoid comparison with Disco Elysium. The user interface looks like it was taken straight from that game and given a brass skin. The use of stats and how they interact, particularly with how they each provide different perspectives on the character’s current situation or task, is differentiated only by the labels used. Skill checks using cards instead of dice pools feels more “swingy” somehow, even with major arcana which helps mark the lowest card. One could very easily be forgiven for thinking this was some sort of mod rather than it’s own game. The art style is somewhat different, obviously, as is the music and sound effects. But it’s hard to shake that feeling of poor imitation all the same.

Though sometimes, you do at least look cool surviving your failures.

While I’m normally a fan of demos, and especially well done demos, it almost feels like this one backfired. There’s not quite enough story to either satisfy as a brief experience or properly tease the full release. You’ll pick up items, some of which are useful, others seemingly useless, all of which have no good explanation about their utility or contextual hints about how they might be used. The actual structure and layout of the suit decks isn’t explained particularly well. Worse, there are situations where you’re already talented enough without drawing a card to pass the check, but you’re still forced to do so for some obscure reason. The constraints you run headfirst into are obvious and frustrating, which isn’t a good thing for a demo because you’ll have long since stopped being interested about overcoming them. One hopes that Sovereign Syndicate will be more enjoyable once the full game is released, but the demo does not exactly inspire confidence.

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