While browsing Steam for new games to play a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon Kitfox Games’ newest release, The Shrouded Isle. Put simply, it is a cult simulator in which you play as the head of a murderous religious sect inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. The game is divided into seasons, and you must survive three years in-game in order to achieve one of six endings. To succeed, you must make decisions about what community members to sacrifice to your eldritch god, while also monitoring your cult’s attributes (such as ignorance and penitence) and appeasing five distinct political families. All in all, it’s essentially a resource management game where the resources in question are oppressed citizens you hold power over.
I knew I wanted to play this game as soon as I saw that it was Lovecraft-inspired. I first encountered Lovecraftian references and stylization in Digimon Tamers, perhaps my favorite television series of all time, and one that was largely written and conceived by Chiaki J. Konaka. Konaka is also a Cthulhu Mythos writer, and from his work I gravitated toward Lovecraft’s original stories. For years now, I’ve been a fan of all things eldritch and abominable, so naturally The Shrouded Isle grabbed my attention.
Having now played it, my thoughts on the game are mixed. There is a lot to like about it, but its more repetitive and underdeveloped aspects make it hard to recommend to other people. This is due in large part because there is very little to be experienced throughout The Shrouded Isle‘s mid- and late-game that is not also experienced in its first ten minutes. As soon as I booted the game up, I was impressed by its dichromatic and eerie visuals. Striking yet simple, the art direction really sells the narrative aspects of an oppressive cult with no room for escape.
Unfortunately, rather than starting off with strong artwork and revealing more as it goes along, The Shrouded Isle reveals all its cards on the first hand and asks you to stare at them for hours on end. With the exception of its short ending sequences, the game relies on the same exact gameplay sequences throughout the entirety of its run-time. There are no new locations to uncover and explore, as you never get to explore any of the town in the first place. Players are treated to an overhead view of the community that displays all the prominent families’ estates and little else. When making decisions about which cult members to punish and which to let lead the community, players then see a different screen repeated over and over again. The experience feels like playing a standard RPG without ever getting to leave the Main Menu or Options interfaces.
The Shrouded Isle‘s gameplay is every bit as repetitive as its visuals. What you do in the first season of the first year is exactly what you’ll do in the final season of the final year. You go through three rounds per season, selecting up to three community members to lead the cult in activities such as book burnings and repenting for sins. Each community member has one attribute that they are particularly strong in, and another that they are particularly weak in. The gameplay basically amounts to varying your decisions enough to never let any of the principles of your cult (penitence, obedience, etc.) get too low, while also frequently choosing representatives from each of the five powerful families. The longer you go without giving representation to a specific family, the more dissatisfied that family becomes. If you’re not careful, the game will end prematurely as your community rebels against you.
The gameplay is definitely repetitive, but is it at least enjoyable? I would argue both yes and no, depending on how long you have been playing. My first several playthroughs prompted little but frustration, as I struggled to balance the cult’s attribute levels with the various families’ satisfaction levels, all while being fairly uncertain about how to do so. The game drops you into its system without much explanation, so it takes a while to get a firm grip on how best to move forward and avoid death by usurpers. Once you figure out what you’re doing, The Shrouded Isle provides some genuine fun. It’s the kind of thing I could envision myself replaying if I wanted a challenge that was predictable enough to confront while tired and without thinking too hard. The time limit in particular is utilized effectively, as it gives the player a set goal without being so strict as to make the experience feel like its cut short at the end.
Unfortunately, I can envision many players giving up on the game long before they achieve this state of mildly fun predictability. The Shrouded Isle‘s initial learning curve is quite steep, and there is little tangible reason to overcome it. If you play with the hope that unlocking the various endings will make all the repetitive decision-making screens and attribute balancing scales worth it, you are highly likely to end up feeling disappointed and perhaps even bitter. Five of the game’s six endings have no meaningful differences from one another, and even the sixth (and “true”) ending falls flat. It’s hard to get excited about the coming of Chernabog when Chernabog’s design doesn’t possess any of the tropes that help make Lovecraft’s abominations so memorable.
Ultimately, The Shrouded Isle is a long slog through constant repetitions of the same exact screens, with nice touches of Lovecraftian style that fail to mask the game’s lack of substance. The art direction is charming until the effect wears off from repeated exposure, and the music is well-composed and atmospheric but not enough so to make the soundtrack especially memorable. Perhaps the game’s biggest fault is that it draws upon classic horror narratives for inspiration but fails to deliver more than the barest bones of its own story. The Shrouded Isle isn’t a bad way to pass the time once you completely deduce its formula, but the formula isn’t charming enough to warrant doing so in the first place. The game contains a variety of interesting ideas, but none of those ideas seem to have progressed much farther than the “wouldn’t it be cool if…” stage. The game is currently available for $9.99, but I can’t truthfully say it’s worth that much when there are so many better options out there.
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