Note: I received a free review copy of the game
So, it took me longer than it probably should have, but I was finally able to finish the first part of City of the Shroud. In CotS you play a character that has left their farm to go to the city to make money to help your struggling family. When you arrive, you discover that not only is the city not doing well, as it’s broken up into many feuding fractions, but it is also plagued by portals that will spawn monsters into the city itself. You accidentally end up fighting such monsters and defeating them, giving you the title of Hero even though it’s not wholly deserved. From there you are finally able to make your way through the city discovering that your time there will not be spent getting money for your family but helping to decide the fate of the city itself while becoming a stronger fighter.
So we have to start with the story and the fact that there is a fundamental problem built into episodic games, and that is that the first game has a huge task yet is hampered by its nature. It must get you excited for the rest of the parts of the game, but also must teach you how to play and introduce you to all the ins and outs. If it focuses too much on teaching you the game and introducing the characters, it risks becoming stale. If it doesn’t focus enough on those aspects, then you aren’t getting a real introduction. City of the Shroud does not strike a balance as well as it could. There is a lot of running around and simply meeting characters, with an overwhelming amount of tutorial. I was never completely disengaged from the game, but I do remember thinking “can we get on with it” at various points.
The game also doesn’t have a lot of freedom in the story. This sounds impossible as there are many factions that you can side with that greatly changes the larger picture, but on a smaller scale, the game is very linear. You get a quest, you do that quest and that one alone, and then you get the next. There are very few times you are given smaller choices or multiple tasks to choose from. It stands in stark contrast to the idea that choice is important to the narrative. When you are presented with a choice, it’s rather significant, but this is not repeated on a smaller scale to make you feel like you have more control.
Despite the lack of balance and choice I still liked the story overall. It felt slow at times, but the foundation is there for a potentially compelling game. Each of the factions wants something different for the city and has vastly different methods for achieving it. None of the factions seem inherently evil at this point, but some are more sympathetic than others. Because there is no known main bad guy by the end of part one who you choose might end up being a big mistake, and I like that. There are arguments for and against each faction, and it makes deciding difficult.
Your character also has a humorous relationship with “The Hat Merchant” who you meet at the start. Most of the dialogue with him made me laugh, and I found myself looking forward to the diversion he brought.
The gameplay itself is real-time tactical RPG. You move around on a grid, like tactical games, controlling a team of four characters, and each character type has a range with which they can attack. You have basic attacks, but the game really relies on triggering combos when you do attacks. As you level up, you will unlock new combos for different character classes. There is a variety of classes with which to build your team, and like all games in its vein finding a good balance is a must.
Gameplay being real-time didn’t work that well for me, however. While I slowly got better at it for a while, each match felt like chaos, and it started to drain on my enjoyment. I personally feel that tactical games like this call for the turn-based approach. I don’t want to knock the choice to be real time too much, some might enjoy it, for me though I felt I was battling the game itself as much as the enemies. Even in the end, I would struggle with not being able to completely keep up with everything that was happening. Again, I don’t want to overly knock it, just for me, it didn’t work as well as it could have.
In the end, I am a bit mixed. I can’t say I loved the game, but I far from hated it too. The pacing could have been better, it could have had a few more choices, and I won’t be able to completely get over the real-time approach. However, the story does seem pretty interesting, and I am curious to see how it unfolds. Part one not being the best in this type of game does not mean the rest of the experience will be the same. The first part again has the daunting task of being an introduction. If part two is a little more fleshed out and tightens up a few things, then it has the potential to be a solid experience.
For now, my recommendation of the game comes with a few conditions. You need to like tactical RPGs, and you need to be willing to see this game as an introduction to what might be a better overall experience down the road. If you are hesitant, I get it but keep your eye out. I really do think the groundwork laid in this first part has some great potential, and I hope that I am right about that.