Monday, 13 August 2018 09:00

City of the Shroud Review

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City of the Shroud is a real-time, pause-when-you-want strategy RPG by Abyssal Arts. In it, you play the role of a hapless hero of the besieged city of Iskendrun. Your tale begins as you enter the aforementioned city and are pressed into defending a mysterious Haberdasher who knows more than he lets on.

This is where City of the Shroud hits its first of many stumbling blocks. The dialogue is rather hit or miss. Iskendrun is a microcosm of snark and sarcasm that comes through with every NPC you meet. The Haberdasher and your character are the biggest perpetrators of this, drawing out interactions with even the most secondary of NPCs. As an example, the City of Shroud awards you with an achievement for completing the tutorial at about a half hour into the game. It won't be for another hour until you have full access to the gameplay, only about half of which is actual combat.


This would be forgivable if the story was captivating. Most of the dialogue is repartee between the characters, the five supporting cast members hurling accusations at each other, and NPCs snarking at your character. Very rarely does the plot actually inch forward. Most of the title is spent endearing yourself to one of the five major faction heads in the city (the Merchants, the Priests, the Rebels, the Thieves, or the City Guard) either to gain information on them or support their cause. Each faction has their own motivation, but that’s about all the characterization they get throughout the game.

These motivations conveniently set each of the factions against two of the others and allied with two more. It’s very reminiscent of the color wheel in Magic: The Gathering. The comparison to M:tG is not very apt, however, as your selection of faction has no effect on gameplay whatsoever. While each faction has their own specific quests, you retain access to the same units during gameplay as you would in any other faction.


The one thing that faction choice does affect is the progression of the story going forward. The story so far is incomplete, with the current iteration of the game ending on a cliffhanger. As you play, the game will track what choices you have made during your playthrough. Abyssal Arts will be monitoring these choices and will write the next chapter of City of the Shroud based on this feedback. I laud this interesting approach to storytelling, as it lends a sense of ownership and investment to the player and makes the city feel alive — for those on the winning side, at least.

This method of storytelling is certainly risky. The continuation of the story is wholly dependent on the success of City of the Shroud. I can very easily see members of the “losing” faction going into a new chapter dropping the title. Slowly, the number of players dwindles and the title struggles. Those that remain have half a game that won’t be finished as it would no longer be profitable for Abyssal Arts to continue to support it. This is also assuming that City of the Shroud takes off to begin with.


Despite my misgivings about City of the Shroud’s story, I do hope that it continues to get support. The gameplay, when it works, is very fun. The meat of the gameplay is a real-time strategic brawl between your force of four units and the enemy’s force of two-to-eight units. Attacks are input through a combo wheel that is brought up upon selecting an enemy unit. Action points fuel your attacks and proper inputs corresponding to what the game refers to as “Link Gems” create combos that do better damage than basic attacks. At its best, you’re chaining together combos against enemies, shoving them around the battlefield, and manipulating your opponent for massive damage.

Unfortunately, the lion's share of combat is spent waiting for your AP to refresh. While it’s certainly more fun to string together attacks and watch the animations play and sparks fly, this title is better suited to a slower pace. The faster plays, while satisfying, lead to longer periods of downtime while you wait to be able to do anything. As even movement costs AP, your opponent can maneuver around you and out of your attack range, especially for melee units. Then, you have to use the AP you've slowly cultivated to move back into range of your opponent, and the cycle repeats. Even worse, if you run predominantly melee characters, the enemy can sit outside your range and lay on damage while you wait to be able to move.

Further, for about half the game you only have access to two combos per class. As you progress through the story, you can acquire more Link Gems for each class. The Link Gems seem to be distributed randomly, so you may wind up with more Link Gems for a class you don’t use. When you do finally acquire more Link Gems, you can trigger multiple combos at once, supposing you have enough AP to trigger all the inputs. This only exacerbates the above point about never having enough AP, which bogs down the pace of combat.


These AP-related complaints only really hold true in the single-player campaign. The online multiplayer strangely has the AP refresh rate increased. I feel this should be reversed. In single-player, you can pause whenever you want to plot out your next move. Faster AP refresh during single player battles would give the player more control and responsiveness to the new threats that the game throws at you. In multiplayer, this pause functionality is disabled. A slower AP refresh rate would turn the game into a more even give-and-take between players as they plot out their next move against each other while they await their next “turn.” Multiplayer also has some connectivity issues. Despite adding each other as friends within the native friend's list, only my wife could see me as online. During matches, I would notice that her units would phase into other units, both hers and mine.

Further, multiplayer brings problems with character customization to the fore. There are only six options per body slot for each class: a basic color and one color for each faction. Should you run into someone who runs the same composition as you with a similar color scheme, it becomes very difficult to determine whose units are whose. We were unable to really test the matchmaking, as at the writing of this review, I was unable to find anyone else to play the game with. However, matches tend to be one-sided in favor of the player that has progressed further in the game. Abilities seem to be randomly distributed as match rewards, and considering how long it takes to get through to the meat of the game, pulling off the same two combos for any given class until you luck into a new Link Gem can be very boring.


The Verdict

If you squint, you can see a terrific game in City of the Shroud. However, limited character customization, slow gameplay, and an unsure support schedule all keep it from realizing that greatness. Perhaps in time, should the game receive updates and tweaks, it will stand tall as an innovative entry, but not as it is currently.

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John Gerritzen

John Gerritzen is a programmer by education, author by hobby, and game critic by occupation. While he usually favors RPGs, he will play anything that engages him narratively or mechanically. When he's not playing games for fun or profit, he's usually reading or watching anime.