Is a human being inherently good or naturally evil? This question is one that has been asked throughout the ages and has been philosophised about by countless great minds. When playing Kitfox Games’ The Shrouded Isle you get to experience your dark side and take control of a sinister cult. As the cult leader, you are tasked with keeping the citizens of the island ignorant, obedient, disciplined, full of fervour, and penitent over the course of five years until the Old God Chernobog returns to rule all.
The shrouded isle is, at its core, a management sim. You have five stats (Obedience, Penitence, Discipline, Fervour, Ignorance) to maintain and balance as you move through the game phases. Each phase will present you with choices/selections that will affect one or more of these stats. If a stat drops below a certain threshold and stays there for too long its game over. If there are two stats below that threshold at the end of a season, it’s game over. Your resources in the game are the very people you are trying to oppress in the name of the Dark One. They are presented to you in the form of five houses each with their own family blessed or cursed with randomly generated attributes. Each house has an approval stat and if any of them drop too low, it’s game over (are you seeing a pattern here?). The strange and slightly disturbed characters in the houses all have vices and virtues, and these are your commodities that will affect the five main stats. Every season you, as the leader, must select a representative from the houses and the bonuses or penalties they bring with them. They will then be assigned various standard cultish tasks that will have a bearing on the base stats, like burning books to promote ignorance or flagellating sinners (I told you it was dark!) to instill obedience in the poor wretches of the village.
From the start, you will know some of the traits of your cult members and through a limited amount of investigations every turn you can dig deeper and uncover minor to major variations of the vices/virtues. For example, a particularly penitent character might be discovered to have the major virtue of ‘accusatory’ or an enemy of ignorance will eventually display the vice ‘curiosity’. It is up to you to decide if and when you are going to bring these strange characters and their houses into play and selecting the right devious combinations that will keep your cult on its path to eternal darkness is the crux of the game.
At the end of each season, Chernabog demands a sacrifice and you must select one of your flock for a trip to the altar. This, as with every little decision in the game, has knock-on effects on stats and house loyalty so you must choose wisely. The gameplay loop then continues to the next season and eventually to the next year. As you advance, side challenges will be introduced in the form villager disputes, dreams sent from the old god telling you to focus on one stat or to uncover a particularly dangerous vice for the next sacrifice, and having to isolate cultists in the tower when they are showing dangerous ailments. After five years, if you have kept the houses doing your evil bidding and the villagers are all enraptured with your teachings you will achieve one of seven, yes seven, ending cutscenes.
The Shrouded Isle is like a birthday present that is wrapped up in a giant box with colourful wrapping paper and a beautiful bow but when you open it up it’s a dressing gown and slippers. The art in the game is very pleasing on the eye, even if it is depicting vile cultists and blood sacrifices. It uses an almost charcoal painting style and the pictures of the villagers and the cut scenes are all amazingly sinister. You can tweak the two-colour pallet in the settings and all the colour choices worked well. Your ears are treated to a dark orchestral soundtrack with distant bells and deep cello themes, backed up by stormy sound effects. The writing for the main game and the side challenges while simple is excellent and upholds the depraved vibe of the characters when they come to you with a problem. This audio, visual, and linguistic combination really creates a very atmospheric game that establishes and builds tension with every click of the mouse.
The tension in this game is tangible as it does not hold your hand. From the start, you are thrown in and left to control the creepy cult by yourself (There is no Culting for Idiots Handbook). You will figure out the basics in a playthrough or two but they will probably not last very long. With each further playthrough you will get to grips with the delicate balancing act that is needed to progress through the years (each year taking about 20 to 40 minutes to complete). At this stage, the game both frustrates and excites. With every game over, I gritted my teeth and with every discovery and sacrifice of a major sinner hiding in my cult I laughed an evil laugh (no really, I did). In the beginning, it felt like I could really take to this cult leader thing and then something changed, well actually, nothing changed. The game continued from one season to the next, one year to the next in exactly the same way. A couple of seasons in I was able to confine, examine and purify my afflicted cultists when a new mechanic was introduced, but other than that it was all rinse and repeat gameplay. From here I found myself growing more disinterested with every passing season. I could have stopped the game and come back to it later, but, I would still be coming back to the same thing without any hint at variation in the future.
The Shrouded Isle is a game about bad people doing cruel things in the name of a dark god, but it’s not a bad game, in fact, it is a very well-made game. Its component parts are all high in quality and are put together with great care by the small but talented dev team. If you are a diehard management simulatorist (is that a real word?), then this could be a delightful twist on the subject matter you are used to in your games and well worth a look. Unfortunately, I simply found myself wanting something more to do than the gameplay delivered to me. I longed for a twist, for a new mechanic that would up my fervour for the game just as I had with my minions but that never came to light, completely blunting the sense of achievement I had during my first few playthroughs. There have been hushed whispers in the dark places of the world that The Shrouded Isle is coming to Nintendo Switch and I believe that this will be an excellent platform for the game, promoting small play sessions that will prolong its lifespan and ease its repetitive nature.