As an introvert, I often find myself having to explain what having a conversation feels like, and why it can sometimes feel so difficult. What it's like when you just don't have the energy or the ability or the knowledge to engage with the topic your partner is presenting. When you misinterpret the emotions and intentions which your partner is communicating, and respond in a way that makes them feel angry, frustrated and above all unheard. When your fatigue overwhelms you and you're just too exhausted to say what needs to be said.
No video game has ever reflected that experience so perfectly as Signs of the Sojourner.
This narrative card game from Echodog Games, centers on the art of building relationships as represented by a deck of cards. Your deck is your character, as it represents the skills you have learned and the emotions and impressions you carry with you after each and every conversation. Will you become more emotional and open? More closed-off and direct? Talkative and always chattering or patiently preparing and accommodating your conversation partner? All of these options are equally valid, and will provide you with varied and unique experiences as you travel through the game's stunningly designed world.
You take on the role of a nameless protagonist who has been put in charge of a small country store following their mother's passing. Joining the caravan with which their mother once traveled, the player travels through a series of unique towns looking for items to stock the store's shelves. Along the way, they will build new friendships, discover secrets and perhaps even learn more about your mother as you follow in her footsteps and uncover her past.
Gameplay takes the form of building conversations using you and your partner's cards. Your conversational partner will react using one of up to five different emotions (represented by symbols), and you are encouraged to respond with a compatible card. If the two of you can build a connection, then the conversation is successful, and you will come away having gained something new, whether it is knowledge, items for your store or increased trust and confidence. However, if you respond in ways which frustrate your partner, the conversation may stall and end unproductively, with the two of you feeling frustrated, irritated and unable to speak further.
Fortunately, there's plenty of cards with special abilities to help your conversation along. For example, "Accommodate" will copy the symbols of the card your partner just played, while "Prepare" will allow you to draw any card from your deck and place it immediately into your hand. My personal favorite, "Clarify," could be placed anywhere in the conversation where the card fit - extremely reminiscent of a conversation tactic I find myself relying on all too often.
A game about conversations can only work if the characters you converse with are engaging - and Signs of the Sojourner certainly accomplishes that. You encounter a variety of individuals throughout your travels, beginning with your supportive childhood friend Elias and expanding to include such personalities as the one-armed thief Klaus, the somewhat worryingly pickle-focused Tosuto, and the polar opposite sibling duo of crime-happy Lil' Basilio and his straight-and-narrow shopkeeper brother Big Basilio. I was especially enthused to learn that robots and androids were also a part of Signs of Sojourner's lore - the confused, rather rusty XN-220 was one of the most difficult characters to hold a successful conversation with, yet still managed to be both fascinating and charming.
Another point which is important to mention is the absolutely stunning array of diversity present in Signs of the Sojourner's cast of characters. As you travel with the caravan, you'll encounter people of all skin colors, ages, genders, professions, socioeconomic levels and more. In addition to the previously mentioned androids, there are non-binary human characters who use they/them pronouns, such as the enthusiastic nut salesperson Alexis. I especially loved how each character, despite being represented by a single portrait and a few facial expressions, very clearly possessed their own unique sense of style, from roadhouse owner Samuel's wild pink-and-purple beard to candy vendor Isabella's colorful, sweets-themed outfit.
In addition to being about making conversation and finding new friends, Signs of the Sojourner is deeply focused on exploring its rich, varied setting. Travel is a central theme of the game. The protagonist starts out as part of a traveling caravan and, as the game goes on, is given the opportunity to continue as a member of the caravan and strike out on their own. Each town on the caravan's route was a unique, fully developed location with its own personality. The gentle, colorful, painting-like graphics combine with a gorgeous soundtrack to make each town incredibly memorable.
I especially appreciated the focus on food culture as a key element of developing a town's personality and "vibe." Many of the items which the protagonist can find for their store are various edibles, which range from the fish pies of rain-swept harbor town Old Marae to the tantalizing dried fruit of the Desert Oasis. Several times while playing, I found myself needing to get up and make myself a cup of tea, as all the conversation about Bukam Boro's delicious matcha made me quite thirsty.
Another interesting element of Signs of the Sojourner's setting is the role which climate change and natural disasters play in its world. The player is brought into a world already struggling - Old Marae's water level is constantly rising, the once-flourishing agricultural paradise of Rimina is nearly deserted, and the player's own hometown, Bartow, begins the game as a fading near-ghost town in danger of being dropped from the caravan route entirely.
Partway through Signs of Sojourner, the player is given the chance to experience a disaster of their own when an earthquake shakes the ground and the caravan becomes lost. I found this to be the most powerful moment throughout Signs of the Sojourner's beautiful story. As you set out to find the caravan, suddenly, a new, never before seen emotion begins to pop up throughout characters' conversations, represented by a disarmingly cheerful pink spiral. This is Grief, and its sudden, unexpected, overpowering appearance in the game is a painfully accurate reflection of both how sudden and enduring this deep feeling can be.
There's so much story to experience in Signs of the Sojourner - it's certainly not a game to play through once and then leave to gather dust on your shelf (or, rather, in your Steam library). A single playthrough of the game is quite short, as the player has only five trips with the caravan to convince leader Nadine to keep Bartow on the route. However, it features practically endless replayability, with more secrets to discover and bonds to form with each journey through the game's world.
Signs of Sojourner's calendar system ensures that you can't accomplish everything in a single playthrough, too. I found myself moving from "broad" playthroughs, where I tried to have as many "good" conversations as possible, to more "focused" ones centered around bonding with a specific character, attending scheduled festivals, or uncovering the secrets of the player character's mother's past. The game's replayability is further helped by it existing within a dynamic, living world - different characters will live in or move to different towns each time you restart the story, meaning that no two experiences will be exactly the same.
Multiple playthroughs of the story are also recommended because Signs of Sojourner's unique playstyle does feature a bit of a steep learning curve. My first time through, I found my second caravan trip significantly more difficult than the first - you go from completing a partial route with only circle and triangle cards appearing to being expected to finish the full route and also running into diamonds and squares, for which I felt more than a little bit unprepared. Trying to do everything led to me having several unsatisfying conversations with negative outcomes, as I struggled to balance all the different possible conversation options within my limited deck space.
It also took me a great deal of time to adjust to the fact that you are required to discard one card from your deck and gain a new one after each and every conversation. On more than one playthrough, I found myself leaving the Diamond card-focused Aldhurst and Rimina utterly unprepared for Old Marae, where the forthrightness of the Square card reigns supreme. It was especially frustrating that, later in the game, talking to your childhood friend Elias generally met having to accept a weak card into your deck, as his conversations typically feature only simple, early-game options.
The most frustrating element of playing Signs of the Sojourner was definitely the fatigue system. As you travel along the caravan route, you accumulate Fatigue cards at a rapid rate. Fatigue cards cannot be matched with anything, and more often than not lead to an unsuccessful conversation when they pop up in your hand. While there are a few ways of getting rid of fatigue on the road (most notably hanging out with your dog Thunder, who loves you unconditionally and will always match with any card you play) they occur both infrequently and randomly.
Late in your journey, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer number of Fatigue cards, which can make up close to half your deck. This can make having conversations in towns further along the route, such as Anka and Tosende Canals, an extremely difficult task. The only way to permanently remove Fatigue is to end your journey by returning to Bartow - and, of course, the cards begin to accumulate once again as soon as you next set off.
However, the frustration of the Fatigue feature and the difficulty of preparing for some later-game conversations did not make Signs of the Sojourner an unplayable or unenjoyable experience. Ultimately, it is a deep, rich story, set within a stunning world, which utilizes unique gameplay to accurately reflect the feeling of building relationships and holding conversations. Set out on the journey, follow the caravan, and see what you might learn along the way.
Kate reviewed Signs of Sojourner on Steam with a code provided by the publisher.