Into The Spine of: City of the Shroud

A promising first episode.

We arrive at Iskendrun, an unknown and mysterious town for a “simple” farmer like ourselves. While we are at the gate of the city, security officers are checking anyone who wants to enter. We witness the game’s first lines of dialogue and the tone is already established: City of the Shroud is packed with dramatic moments, but most of the time joined by an ironic and – sometimes – silly but likeable mood.

Due to a missing document we are prohibited to enter the city, but all of a sudden a portal opens, deadly creatures start coming out of it, and it’s riot time (but without Three Days Grace’s song playing, disappointing). We meet a hat merchant, who is a quite old man with a sarcastic sense of humour and also our new combat master. He doesn’t fight, though. In fact, he never does and I’ve grown to hate him when he gave me stupid quests like delivering extravagant hats to people (sorry, spoilers). While speaking with this strange man – and having some funny dialogues that break the fourth wall – he teaches the core of the game. The tutorial begins, providing the first impressions of gameplay mechanics.

City of the Shroud is an episodic Tactical Combat RPG – like, for example, Final Fantasy Tactics – but in real-time. If you haven’t played FFT or any similar game, it goes like this: each battle takes place on a “board”, a scenario divided in squares. Every character is located in one square and they move around and attack depending on where they are standing and their unique characteristics. Gunners can attack from long distances, for example, while Brutes, the starting class, only attack to adjacent spaces. Each attack – the basic types are magic, fast and power – consumes one bar of AP (Action Points), and every time you only move, it consumes two bars. There are some green squares, too, which appear from time to time and give extra AP when your character steps on it. AP is charged over time, and the cooldown differs from class to class.

When approaching to an enemy for an attack, a wheel will pop up showcasing the character’s abilities and available moves. You can select more than one direction (always that there is enough AP) before closing the wheel in order to create a “route”, a chain of ordered commands (a.k.a. combos). There are special attacks and abilities that can be performed by using Link Gems, special moves which require two or more directions. The interesting part is that when you select all the required objectives, you don’t just do the special ability, but also all the previous commands. Let’s see: if you want to use Headbutt with a Brute, it will cost right and up, and the Brute will first hit with the basic attacks it has on the right and up, then it’ll do the Headbutt. During combat, you will have to think of strategies, manage your time wisely and learn the best plays to beat all the enemy characters and win the battle. There are six classes to unlock and you can create your party of four as you wish (even repeating the same class for each slot, if you are boring enough).  

Overall, I found the gameplay system entertaining and with enough room to experiment with different ways of outplaying your enemy. Due to this, combats may feel unique and you won’t be bored for the five or six hours this first episode needs to be completed. However, I don’t feel the combat is deep enough for veteran players who have experienced others games in the genre, and the lack of difficulty selection is a miss. I have only lost once, and because it was a battle with “special events” which I don’t want to spoil. Knowing what was going to happen, I just changed my strategy on the second try and it was easy peasy. In addition, there isn’t a progression system as the characters don’t gain levels, but it is possible to equip them with Stats Gems. These special items add better stats (the usual ones: HP, Dexterity, Strength, etc ) and are dropped randomly after finishing battles (new moves are obtained in the same way, except with some unique ones).

You can play random battles to grind these, or just for fun of course, but it wasn’t really necessary for me. Don’t think I’m a really good player or anything like that. It took me around two hours to learn the basics, and I started dancing on enemy corpses in no time. As for the AI, it works fine, but not always. AI I really hope the developers add levels of difficulties in future episodes, or at least in the Definitive Edition that’s coming out next year (also for PS4 and Xbox One). I almost forgot: beware of the occasionally dumb camera, it’s fixed and you cannot control it, becoming tedious when characters are far from each other.

The tale is narrated by dialogues, some written passages and no cutscenes whatsoever. Dialogues are charged with humour, or cold seriousness, depending on who we are talking to. Characterization is well done, and it goes a bit farr: the depiction of the society we are walking in is one of the strong keys in City of the Shroud. It might not be deeply explained or described, but you will encounter thoughts about poor and marginalized people, debates about what to do to make things better… it’s hard no to find similarities with the real life global society. You will never have an explicit dialogue about capitalism, the incalculable influence of the Church or the brutality of the police force, but it’s all there. I’m not implying the characters are necessarily complex, though, as most of them are simple – some even flat-designed – but in the bigger picture, they all work. Lastly, you can sense the ‘nameless’ protagonist (you can choose how it’s called) is hiding something, and there’s an aura of mystery around him. And an old-fashioned cloak.

After each combat, we will get to visit a number of city locations parts freely by selecting them on a map, along with the characters within. The story might not be quite original for now – remember it’s still an introduction – but it has potential. Actually, this potential is the most exciting and intriguing part of CotS and it has an ambitious reason: the developers are writing the story while taking into consideration the decisions you choose. Yeah, you have just read that right. A remarkable proposal when you consider that this game was a kickstarter and it has a small studio behind.

I wrote decisions back there, right? Although they aren’t all that crucial – honestly there are some ambiguous ones and others that apparently go to nowhere -, they change the quests you will have in your journey. The game and history are divided in factions. You will get your time to know each leader and have a glimpse into his/her ideals. And, when the time comes, choosing a side is needed. This will affect what you do in the rest of the journey but also how the others factions react to you and among them, what happens to the city and another details. It doesn’t stop there: there is a chart with a changing graphic on the map. It displays “the power of balance”, an indicator for whose faction is being more influential. This “rating” was express with characters opinions about other factions and so on, but it is supposed that this results will be a major key in the upcoming episodes.

Remember how I put “deadly creatures” in the beginning of this review? It wasn’t because, most of the time, they are a piece of cake. They have the same designs as we do, the same classes and abilities, the same everything except a change of colours. I’m not kidding. It always felt awkward that “creatures” were coming out from the portals but they were just like the characters you use. With a different palette. Something similar happens with the design of the talking characters: they are repeated. The principal ones are unique – it would be illegal if not -, the secondaries are the same. It’s a real shame when you the rest of the artistic designs are interesting – the main song is sweet. Couldn’t find a reason for this decision besides probably production costs, and it dulls the experience. So, be ready to meet generic dude #3 for multiple times. Send regards.

Closing the article, I have played some combats online with my pal Nic Reuben. The online options are almost non-existent: you can only play only with friends, with the party you use in the single player – including stats and selected moves – and not much more. Impossible to personalize the battles, no map selection and some network issues – lag and abrupt disconnections. The netcode will probably be fixed after launch, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for new extra modes or options for the online in the future. The resulting package is bland. It’s just a small addition, one that might be enjoyable if you play against challenging rivals, which wasn’t the case – sorry Nic, I know you tried man. And it’s okay.

CotS main focus is its single player experience, and while it has some clear and important downsides, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy my walkthrough and I’m interested in knowing what will happen with the story that is being written as you read these words.

A copy of City of the Shroud for PC was provided by Stride PR on behalf of Abyssal Arts. The episodes will only release in this platform (Windows/Mac) until the “definitive edition” releases. Make sure to visit the official site for more information.

By Axel Nicolás Bosso

Latino. Almost a psychologist. Shameless Yakuza lover. Likely to remind you that objective reviews don’t exist. @Axl_Bosso

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