Review: Signs of the Sojourner

I found myself feeling very divided in my opinions as I played Signs of the Sojourner. Actually, that’s not altogether true; my opinion was relatively clear insofar as it was a game I really wanted to like if the darn game would stop getting in the way. But that may or may not be its fault. Or maybe it is the game’s fault, but some people are going to still like it… look, maybe I should start again.

One of the really interesting aspects of the general indie explosion on PC is that its given space to explore a lot of game formats that weren’t really common before. At first, this started by exploring game types that had fallen out of the triple-A budget pipeline – games that just were no longer profitable being produced at the scale of big retail releases. From there, though, we moved into strange combinations of games and then into totally alien territory.

Signs of the Sojourner is definitely in that latter category. It’s an RPG… but it’s an RPG wholly without any of the combat or currency systems you might expect. It’s a deckbuilder sort of game that features a very constrained set of mechanics, and it is entirely based around talking. It is, in every way, a very experimental game.

Does it work? Well… uh… herein lies the meat of the review.

Signs of the Sojourner is out on May 14th on Steam. The PC version was played for this review.

Accord

At the start of Signs of the Sojourner, you’re introduced to the basic premise. You live in the maybe-post-apocalypse, maybe-not town of Bartow, having inherited your mother’s store following her death. Your mother was part of a caravan of traders that moved across the vaguely Southwestern-feeling area, picking up goods to be resold in various towns, but Bartow is out of the way and not heavily trafficked. So your job is to revitalize your mother’s store by taking up the caravan… at least ostensibly.

The point of the story is that this is very much a place to jump off and go in other directions. When you start, you have this as your tacit objective, but it’s very clear that you are not on rails beyond the fact that you need to rely on people to explain routes and establish connections with you. Even from an early stage, you can reject the directives given to you by the caravan and head off in your own direction.

Everything in the game, really, is about talking. There’s no combat, there’s no haggling over prices, there’s just the people you choose to talk with. Based on who you choose to talk with and support, how you opt to inhabit the world, whose favor you win… well, that ultimately determines how things will turn out. A single playthrough is not terribly lengthy (a few hours), but you can have wildly different outcomes based on these conversations.

Unfortunately, this is also where things get tricky. But in order to explain that, I have to go into detail about the game’s mechanics.

Interjection

See, as I mentioned, Signs of the Sojourner is an RPG, and it’s one all about talking. Rather than having talking as something you put points into or anything of the like, though, this is a game wherein conversations are the mechanic. You lay down cards in alternating turns with your conversation partner, trying to ensure that the left-hand symbol on your card matches the right-hand symbol on their last played card. Each of the various characters has a couple of different symbols they use.

Match enough times and you get a positive response, with a certain number of positive responses needed to fully unlock a conversation. Fail to match correctly and you get a negative response, with a limited number of negative responses before the conversation ends poorly. After each conversation you get to take one card you saw and replace an existing card from your ten-card deck. Several cards also have specific effects, like allowing you to insert them back along the conversation where they would be a match or letting you immediately play another card.

So far so good, right? Alas, the details quickly bog things down, starting with the fact that you only have two symbols on each card, and it’s very easy to get into a conversation with someone who has symbols you don’t match, leading to a quick disaster of a conversation even if you’re trying to play correctly.

The idea, of course, is that failed conversations teach you to speak to these people… but you only get one shot at these conversations, and it’s very easy to fail out and then miss something, making it… well, not a choice. You didn’t opt to let go of that particular conversational branch; you were forced to. And loading up on cards from failed conversations in the hope of succeeding next time causes problems when you run into people who use the symbols you do have…

Oh, and it also causes problems because you can’t increase your deck size and you can’t decline a new card. You always get one, whether you want it or not.

It gets more frustrating. The thing is that each symbol is supposed to represent a distinct tone – empathetic, professional, creative, forceful, and so forth. But the cards you play don’t really correspond to that in any way, and they feel arbitrary as a result. Instead of succeeding at a conversation because you were forceful, you feel like you succeeded because they played squares and you had squares.

In fact, that immediately lends itself to the idea where you could actually build your deck to be more focused on a specific sort of interaction, and one wherein you got to choose how to approach people… but you don’t get that here. An example – at one point in my playthrough, I was asked by a character to distract another character for a heist. If I went over to talk to that character, I’d have no choice about how that interaction played out. I couldn’t choose to warn the would-be victim or actually distract her or anything; I could either distract her or walk away.

In many ways, it feels like the game’s entire purpose – making conversations the entire focus of the game – is actually worse than the traditional RPG way of handling things. Instead of focusing on different conversational skills and letting you choose your approach, I constantly felt like I was fighting an uphill battle against the game to do the things I wanted to do.

“Get me an instrument,” says my childhood friend. So I go to the place where there are instruments. But I can’t match the symbols for the conversation, and so the door is shut in my face. There is nowhere else to get an instrument. I am chastised for failing in that sidequest, not because I wasn’t making the effort or because I didn’t care, but because there doesn’t seem to be a reliable way to make this mechanic actually work.

Maybe I’m missing something, some explanation or way of playing cards that makes all of this make sense. All I know is that I kept liking the idea of a game that was all about conversations and exploration a lot more than I liked the actual experience, and the mechanics were basically the big reason why. It dressed up with a card game instead of just conversation skills, but the result was making it feel like the most frustrating game of Go Fish just to have my results match my intents.

Reflection

It’s a rare game that can irritate the hell out of you with its central mechanics and still enchant you enough that you’re willing to overlook that fact, but to Signs of the Sojourner’s credit it matches that bar. While the characters are all animated in a traditional visual novel style – a few static portraits sliding on and off the screen – the art style is so expressive and distinct that it feels far more lively than the many games doing so. It feels distinctly expressive and organic, with sharp economy of line and distinctive design.

The music is another high point. Every tune in this game is an absolute perfect mood piece, managing to convey what these towns feel like, how empty (or not) they are, the comfortable feel of a weary home or a bustling town at the edge of a railroad, or even just a calm coastal vineyard.

Indeed, the art direction is one of the strongest parts of the game as a whole, from the music to the designs to the simple bumpy animations of your truck trundling along back roads. Symbols and important points on your UI are clear and easy to understand. The cards themselves for conversation look good and feel understandable; indeed, aside from all the mechanical issues, it’s never a matter of not understanding what cards do at a glance.

There’s a distinct worn-down beauty shot through the entire game. It’s the sort of thing that could easily get dreary, but ultimately winds up working well simply because the artists and composers were working from love and with a clear understanding of goals.

Disagreement

I ultimately had a hard time assessing Signs of the Sojourner. In one sense, it’s a pretty easy thing to evaluate – as much as I loved the presentation, I wasn’t actually having fun with the game, and the sense of never playing with a full deck (pun very intentional) grated on me the whole time. In the other sense, though… this is clearly a production with a lot of love going into it, and I can’t help but feel like maybe my evaluation is too harsh in a sense.

In truth, I’d really like to hope I missed something; that there’s a way to make the conversational mechanics less annoying that, for whatever reason, I simply never figured out. That’s what I hope for. And I think the people who can find it – or are willing to go through what feels like a roulette wheel for conversational outcomes – get more space to really dig into this game and all of its distinct oddities.

There’s a lot to love here, but I don’t think the main mechanic works very well. Which is sad, because I wish it did. I want to love it, but ultimately I just found it frustrating, and watching the credits roll felt like a compromise. So be fairly warned before giving it a shot.


~ Final Score: 6/10 ~


Review copy provided by Echodog Games for PC. Screenshots courtesy of Echodog Games.