Signs of the Sojourner, the innovative narrative deck-builder developed by Echodog Games makes its way to consoles this week, including the Xbox One. Originally released on Steam in 2020, the game was met with praise and adulation, so Echodog Games teamed up with publishers Digerati to bring it to as many gamers as possible. Part of what initially drew me to Signs of the Sojourner is the fact that it’s about communicating and building relationships, something that I feel has been lacking in my life over the past year, ever since the pandemic started. Obviously, there are life lessons to be learned from certain games, but can a game really teach you anything substantial about relationships and how you communicate in the real-world?
You play as an unnamed protagonist who appears to be female, but you only ever see their silhouette so you can’t be sure. Surprisingly, for a game that revolves around dialogue and communication you are a silent protagonist; letting your deck of cards do the talking for you. Both of these design choices allow more players to feel immersed in the game, letting you imagine what you look like and how your side of each conversation might go. So you play as a young adult who has just taken over your recently deceased mother’s store. Your mother stocked the store by journeying across the countryside as a part of a caravan, picking up various items to bring back and sell at the store. Since the store is now yours you must join the caravan and buy/collect items by talking to various people in order to stock the store and keep it running. Luckily, your best friend Elias is willing to help you by running the store while you’re away. Bartow is your hometown, (where the store is located) and there are more than a dozen other cities/towns you can travel to. You must start your first trip with the caravan but after a few stops you can deviate from the path if you talk to certain characters. By talking to people you learn about other cities and the routes to get to them and they are conveniently added to your map. Most characters stay in the same city but aren’t always available to have a chat. Who is available can change from playthrough to playthrough as well. Some characters move to different cities on their own and others might ask for a ride or advice on where they should go.
You get one or two objectives when you first leave on a trip, and some of these are time-sensitive. By pausing the game you can access a calendar that lists the caravan’s scheduled locations as well as any special events that might be happening in certain towns (you gain the special event info by talking to certain people). If you have timed objectives like finding an instrument for Elias for the Roadhouse show they will also be marked on the map and in that case you have to return to Bartow before the date if you wish to complete it. Failing objectives won’t cause you to fail the game, you’ll just end up having slightly different conversations with the people involved. Some of them might get angry with you while others will be understanding. The game takes place over five trips and ends after you return from your final trip. The first trip is about thirty days and the next four are roughly fifty. If you don’t return on your own by the final day you’ll get a prompt and you go there automatically.
One of the overarching storylines in Signs of the Sojourner concerns Nadine, the head of the caravan, who is being pressured to remove Bartow from the caravan route which would hurt a lot of the town’s businesses. If you do a good job stocking your store you can prevent this from happening, but again if you are unable to stock it properly or don’t want to it’s not a game over. There are multiple endings. I played through the game 4-5 times and each time I had a different ending. Some of the endings will happen after you have a conversation with someone, the ones I got were kind of obvious asking if you’d like to leave with them. There was one that was sort of sporadic; I thought I’d just be helping someone with a task, but it turned out that was one of the endings. You have the freedom to travel wherever you want (as long as you have a route there) and talk to whoever you want (if they’re willing) so the game has a decent amount of replayability.
Onto the main gameplay system, which is the uniquely innovative card game that functions as your method of communication. When you talk to someone an interface comes up showing the cards in your hand at the bottom of the screen and at the top there are empty spaces to play cards. Each card has at least one shape on each side and the goal of the game is to complete conversations by playing a card that matches its left shape to a shape on the right side of the other person’s last played card. There are four regular shapes (circle, triangle, diamond, square) and one extra shape which gets introduced after a few trips. Each shape stands for a different set of personality traits such as empathetic and observant for circle and creative and industrious for diamond. Each character you talk to has a deck primarily made up of two shapes and their conversational tone is usually linked to their traits (but not always). Before entering a city the two main shapes that its inhabitants use are displayed for you to see.
Sometimes a character will have a few cards with other shapes. People that change locations usually have either one or two cards from their new location or mostly new cards and one or two from their previous town. But it depends on the person, some of the more stand-offish or loner characters might only have their original shapes which could indicate that they are stuck in their ways and/or stubborn. The more experienced members of the caravan, like Nadine, also have a more varied deck which makes sense since they go to a lot of different places and talk to many different people. The person you’re talking to always plays the first card (you never get to play the first card which is kind of annoying since obviously in real life either person could start a conversation) and then you play a card and vice-versa until the playfield is full. Each set varies in length from four to six cards needed to be played for completion.
When you start a conversation there will be one to three white dots above the playfield as well as one to three black dots. The white dots indicate how many successful sets you must complete to have a positive conversation and the black dots specify how many mistakes can be made before the person will end the conversation. When you complete a set one of the white dots gets added to the conversation line above the playfield and the character you are talking to will have a short, usually positive dialogue with you. If either of you plays a card that doesn’t match, then all the previous cards in that set are removed and a black dot goes onto the conversation line causing the person to say something negative. After a conversation is over between one and three of that person’s cards will appear on the screen and you must pick one to replace one of the ten cards currently in your deck. Once you learn which towns have which symbols this mechanic becomes crucial in preparing your deck for where you’ll travel next.
That might have sounded kind of simple, and it is on the surface, which makes it very easy to pick up; however, there are many extra mechanics that make the card game much more intricate and enjoyable once you learn and master them. One of the most helpful ones is the Accord, which automatically gets added to a card when four of the same shape have been played in a row (so two cards) and will keep moving up if cards with the same shapes continue to be played. This acts as a safety net and if you or your conversation partner play a card that doesn’t match then that card goes back to the last accord which then disappears. I quickly learned that having a good amount of cards with the same shape on both sides was very useful. There is also a special card that you can acquire from some people (Elias always has some) called an Accommodate card. When played it duplicates the card before it. These are extremely useful for making Accords, and they have the potential to be used in every conversion.
Cards can have one of eight bonus attributes, such as Chatter which lets you play another card immediately after playing the card with the chatter ability. Another attribute is Observe which will show you the other player’s hand. Most of them are extremely useful; however, one of the most useful is Reconsider which redeals your hand after playing the card. There are two ways to get cards with abilities. The first is to get them from other players after a conversation. The second is from random encounters while you are traveling between cities. Some of these allow you to add an ability to one of your cards. I like how the names of all the abilities make sense in terms of an actual conversation.
One of the negative mechanics in the game, and quite possibly the most frustrating aspect, are the Fatigue cards. Every time you travel a certain distance you gain one Fatigue card, these cannot be matched with any other card and will trigger two black dots when played (just one if played after an Accord). If you’ve been on the road for a while you can have four or five or even more Fatigue cards which can make completing conversations very difficult. This mechanic makes sense, I just wish you earned them at a slightly slower pace. There are a few ways to get rid of them; some of the aforementioned random travel encounters will remove one, and after your second trip you can gain a furry companion who appears at random stops and gives you the chance to remove a Fatigue card if you complete a conversation with them (I think the only way to fail those is to play multiple Fatigue cards). At the end of each trip, you lose all your Fatigue cards which is such a relief.
The second reason this game appealed to me was that I felt like I needed to play something relaxing after getting beat down for two weeks working on my last review (Curse of the Dead Gods). I thought a narrative-focused game with an interesting-looking card game as the substitute for dialogue choices would be a piece of cake and a breeze. It took me longer than expected to get to that point. Winning in games, like most gamers, is ingrained into my brain, and at first I had a hard time accepting that I couldn’t succeed in every conversation. I found that this added a real-world aspect for me, in real life you don’t always have positive, meaningful conversations, but in most cases, it’s not a big deal – life goes on. You also can’t really fail in the game so there really isn’t anything to worry about. Some people will get mad at you but if put in the effort to understand the mechanics and build a thoughtful deck you’ll have more successes than failures. Each playthrough takes three to five hours, so you can always start over or try again if you want to see what else is possible in the game. I didn’t learn anything new about relationships or conversating, but it did reinforce some things/concepts I’m aware of but often ignore. A few of the card attributes are good starting points, like prepare, observe, listen, and reconsider. If you’re looking for some life-changing lesson it’s not here, but who expects that from a video game anyway? However, what it does offer is worth exploring and experiencing.
The art style in Sign of the Sojourner fits perfectly with the gameplay and soundtrack. It’s got a hand-drawn look to it; obviously, it was drawn using a computer, most likely with a tablet, but it has slightly imperfect lines and the color choices really stand out. Each city has its own color palette, from the multi-colored art fair streets of Pachenko to the blue skies and yellow road of the country vineyards at Rimina. Then there is the rainy dock of Old Marae made up of what seems like every shade of blue there is. Some of the cities change in appearance over time like Bukam Boro which gets more colorful, active, and also cleaner once the railway connecting it to the big city of Anka is completed.
The soundtrack is another highlight of the game. Each city has its own track. They’re all decent, but some are very catchy and they all seem to embody their respective cities. Aldhurst has a lot of musicians so it’s a much more complex song than some of the others, with multiple stringed instruments like guitars and what sounds to me like violins. Clifton has the most catchy song, it’s very upbeat and the first time I really noticed it was when I was starting to get the hang of the game and it just seemed like the perfect song for the moment. Anka’s track is fast-paced to match the hustle and bustle of the big city. Each track is unique and it seems like the composer made use of a multitude of instruments to create all the different songs – I’m pretty sure I heard a sitar in one of them. The only downside is that some of the cities/towns are more difficult to get to, you have to talk to the right people at the right time and usually succeed in your conversation to learn the routes, so those tracks don’t get nearly as much playtime. The sound effects also fit well in the game. One particular aspect I liked was the fact that the text being displayed on the screen made a different, more digital sound when androids were talking compared to when humans were talking.
If you’re looking for something different and unique then Signs of the Sojourner deserves your attention. Its simple-to-learn card game mechanic does a fantastic job of symbolizing a lot of the core concepts of communication, and once you learn the best tactics to use you’ll want to experience everything the game has to offer. The game has a high replay value, each time you play you will find something new, meeting new characters, discovering a hidden city, or maybe learning about your character’s past. Or you can blaze your own trail and try to unlock one of the many alternate endings. Even if you don’t normally play story-focused games or card games, Signs of the Sojourner should have something for you and is definitely worth checking out.Become a Patron!
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.