I’m fascinated with things like game jams and 48-hour film competitions: the ability to think of a thing, plan it, and execute in the space it takes for me to write one Crossfader article (sorry, Ed) boggles my mind. THE SHROUDED ISLE was developed by Kitfox Games under the name THE SACRIFICE during a game jam where the theme was “You are the monster.” It did very well for itself, and interest spurred the devs into developing it into a full-fledged game. While “full-fledged” will mean different things to different people (playthroughs are relatively short and are designed for multiple replays), it still represents a game’s transformation from prototype to product, and a great product at that.
In a bid to see what else could be possibly simulated or managed, THE SHROUDED ISLE puts the player in the robes of the High Priest of an Eldritch cult. In three years the dark god Chernabog will rise from its eternal slumber and bring the world into a new age, presumably one of darkness, madness, and other things that H.P. Lovecraft thought would make for dope novels. In that time it’s up to the player to work with the five ruling families of the island to ensure that the village remains loyal to its dark god. Players must decide which members of each family will do the best job at ensuring that villagers remain ignorant, fervent, disciplined, penitent, and obedient. Each villager has a virtue that increases one of these traits, and a vice that decreases it, but it’s important to discover each of them, as they have a bearing on what effect their sacrifice will have on the villagers. As High Priest, you’re privy to the demands of Chernabog, and in addition to keeping your flock generally brainwashed and pious, it’ll ask you occasionally to buff a specific virtue and sacrifice a particular villager in order to appease it.
“Look, Kelly, this has nothing to do with the fact that you’ve been a huge bitch all winter, or that I’m pretty sure you stole my whittlin’ knife. Chernabog’s orders.”
What strikes me the most about THE SHROUDED ISLE is how simple the gameplay is. Not just the “pick which villager would be the best at what job then balance who you kill” mechanics, but the numbers and systems behind it all. I could easily see this sort of underlying equation being used in an entirely different sort of setting, but the fact that it IS so simple and the subject is what it is makes it a wonderfully sinister piece of software. The idea that these villagers that rely on you for spiritual guidance are in reality nothing more to you a series of randomized equations (which they literally are to the player) evokes a whole other layer of subtext that could be picked apart. The player character doesn’t REALLY care about these people; the black god Chernabog just requires sacrifice in order to bring about a new dark age of horror, and the easiest way to do that, and win the game, is to keep the populace fanatically devoted to Him.
THE SHROUDED ISLE becomes wickedly challenging towards the later part of the game, so much so that I almost described it as a puzzler. Alliances shift, families need appeasing, and your dark lord also has requests to ask of you, and it all requires the proper juggling to ensure that you make it to the next season alive, and that the “right” person doesn’t. Calculations require a number of variables being factored in to ensure things go according to plan, and it can get very stressful as you essentially weigh how much you can afford a family not liking you against how likely they’ll be stoked to open rebellion. How much did you work their family’s representative that season? Do they have any grudges with any other families? Will the villagers mourn their loss or accept it solemnly? Who knows, but you’d better figure it out soon, because the lord of the damned isn’t getting any damneder.
It’s a living
Playthroughs are designed to be relatively short, about an hour depending on how many cinematics you sit through. That being said, THE SHROUDED ISLE contains six different endings depending on how well you do and who you choose to sacrifice. The game really tries to test you as well, as it’s set up to force you into a horrible loss. This is usually a result of one of the families rising up against you to turn the sacrificial tables.
SHROUDED ISLE also has an interesting visual style, using a two-toned color palette for somewhat of a pseudo-retro look vaguely reminiscent of an original Game Boy. If the default green scheme turns you off, fret not, as SHROUDED ISLE devs are on hand to provide a variety of color schemes to satisfy even the most discerning of Elder Gods. The grim character design hearkens back in some ways to DARKEST DUNGEON, another management sim based around eldritch horrors, in that everyone looks very stoic, and also no one has eyes. I suppose it’s easier to drive a ceremonial dagger into someone’s chest if they’re not looking back at you in fear. Also it should be noted that the soundtrack is excellent, making use of church bells as well as guitar riffs to create an engaging soundscape.
Inquisitioning has never been more fun!
THE SHROUDED ISLE is a nifty little game that seems deceptively simple but belies a much more difficult task. This simplicity is part of its charm, as is its replay value. While not exactly a meaty experience, it’s still fun and challenging, which makes it truly worth it in the end. Fans of Lovecraftian horror and puzzle games will find themselves a willful devotee to this cult simulator.
Reviewed on PC