City of the Shroud Review

Ok, City of the Shroud, it's time to have that talk. No, not the one about where little gamers come from. The one about humor in videogames and why it's so hard to pull off. Unless your name is Matt or Trey or Tim (as in Schafer) - and even if your name is Matt, Trey or Tim - you're asking the near impossible. You're asking a (hopefully) large community of players to agree on something: your sense of humor, as translated into your dialogue and characters. It's a tall order. 

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Of course, City of the Shroud is not primarily a comic game. It is a semi-turn-based tactical fantasy RPG in the same approximate gameplay ballpark as The Banner Saga or X-Com. Unlike those games, however, City of the Shroud almost immediately breaks the reality logic wall, with characters telling each other what to do in terms of using controller inputs. I'm guessing the writers and developers thought this was amusingly incongruous. The only problem being that it is embedded in what is supposed to be at least a semi-serious story about warring political factions, suffering refugees, dubious morality and city under siege by a demonic infestation. From the first moment. City of the Shroud can't find a foothold in either the world of game-referential humor or serious fantasy. Games in which characters recognize that they are in a game can be funny and inventive, but City of the Shroud never really parlays this conceit into a payoff and it almost immediately undermines the actual story and characters.

At least for the opening hour or so, the vast majority of the game consists of clicking through endless-feeling, momentum-killing lines of dialogue, heavy on exposition and backstory but only marginally engaging as creative writing. As more characters and the game's five factions are introduced, the story becomes more interesting, and as the player's party grows and the balance between combat and dialogue improves, so does the overall pacing. Each faction in the city - the merchants, the guards, the noble protectors of the poor, etc - sees itself as on the right - or at least, pragmatic - side of truth and justice and using the demonic portals to their advantage, and this moral ambiguity is interesting. If only it was the foundation of a better-crafted story and more critically, rewarding gameplay. The core of City of the Shroud consists of pingponging around the city map, performing fetch and kill quests with and for various factions, raising your affinity with some and losing favor with others. Eventually encounters become full-on 4x4 battles.

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As described by the developers, the current release of City of the Shroud is just the opening of a multi-chapter story that will evolve and change based on the actions and choices of its players. This is intriguing, but no matter what happens in the story, it doesn't seem likely that the game's combat mechanics will change.

Although it can be optionally played as a pure turn-based RPG (which helps infuse the action with a bit more tactical feel), City of the Shroud is built to be a hybrid between real-time and turn-based combat. Characters move on a grid, have slowly-accruing action points to spend on attacks and combos, and find, earn or steal gems along the way that unlock various chain attacks and special moves. There is no grinding or traditional RPG character progression in City of the Shroud, although there are classes, each with unique weapons or special abilities. Pretty early on, its squad-based combat coalesces into a basic rhythm that remains essentially the same throughout the game and is never terribly exciting or tense. Played in the game's intended real-time mode, most battles don't really require or reward tactics or strategy and in most cases, the most effective way through is to simply kill each enemy sequentially. Happily, the speed of combat and movement can be adjusted but the lack of variety in enemy and character models is an impediment to keeping things interesting in the long term. 

Production values are, unsurprisingly for a small team, modest but not unattractive. The static art that illustrates the dialogue, the combat animations and effects and musical score all contain a fair amount of repetition and recycling. There are some interesting and relatively detailed environments and allowing the player to speed up text helps move the story along. Quirkiness, sight gags and stabs at humor abound but the world never felt organic or more than a collection of conceits.

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Despite having some cool narrative hooks and an overarching premise that will span several player-influenced chapters, City of the Shroud lacks a coherent, consistent tone and central character about whom we care. Verbose and in need of an editor's red pencil, the writing falters when it tries to be funny and the combat lacks fluidity, variety and intensity. City of the Shroud contains some original ideas but the game built on them doesn't quite do them justice.