STAFF REVIEW of Signs of the Sojourner (Xbox One)

Sunday, March 28, 2021.
by Adam Dileva

Signs of the Sojourner Box art I always appreciate when a game developer tries to come up with something new. I’m even more impressed when they can actually pull it off. Signs of the Sojourner from Echodog Games released last year on PC to many praises and acclaims, so naturally the time has come for console players to experience this unique narrative based deck-building game. That’s right, narrative plays front and center, but the gameplay revolves around the unique card management play that is used to navigate conversations between characters. I’m not sure if there’s technically a narrative card genre, but Signs of the Sojourner is just that, having you converse and connect with people along your journey, talking about the past, present, future and experiences along the way.

Given that Signs of the Sojourner is a narrative heavy game, it’s odd that your character is completely silent. Actually, none of the dialogue is voiced, which would have had me immersed just that little bit more, but I digress. As you play your cards, based on if you do so ‘correctly’, you’ll either get a positive or negative reaction, and thus is the crux of the core gameplay.

Sadly your mother has passed away and now it falls upon you to take over her store. But it’s not so simple, as you’re going to need goods to sell, meaning you’ll have to travel to other nearby towns to find items to sell in your shop. As you adventure from place to place you’ll meet interesting and unique characters, some that will share stories about your dear mother and others that simply are a delight to converse with. Just like how your mother travelled for all those years to stock up her store, you’re going to now have to figure out a way to do the same. Thankfully a good friend back in your hometown of Bartow will watch over the store as you’re away trying to procure a supply chain of goods.

While Bartow is your hometown that you’ll need to return to after every lengthy trip, you’ll get to visit a dozen or so other towns, each with their own style, look and community of people. Given that you’ve never really been on the road by yourself, you won’t really have an idea where you should go, but as you talk to different people they’ll reveal information like nearby cities or shortcuts between areas. Some characters reside in certain towns, whereas others will drift and wander. It’s completely up to you who you want to talk to and when, forging friendships or rivalries, depending on how your card based strategy plays out.

With numerous people to talk to in many places, there’s no way to experience everything Signs of the Sojourner has to offer in a single playthrough. Do you choose to focus on stocking the store and living up to your mom’s reputation while saving Bartow in the process, or do you try and figure out what exactly happened to your mom and her past? There are many branching narrative paths and endpoints, and while there’s not one specific way to “win”, even that will be subjective. This allows for multiple playthroughs and endings, and doing so differently each time gives a unique perspective and experience.

Signs of the Sojourner’s gameplay comes from its card based mechanics. Your cards act as your way of conversing with another character and you have a deck that shows at the bottom of the screen. The middle of the screen shows how many cards must be played in order for a section of dialogue to be finished, and how you successfully, or unsuccessfully play those cards will determine the type of reaction you’ll receive. Each card has a symbol on the left and right edge in the middle and you’re tasked with matching the last card’s symbol with your next card, much like how you play dominoes. These symbols start out with just triangles and circles, but eventually you’ll also have to try and match diamonds, squares and swirls. Each symbol also represents certain traits and ways that conversations will go. Even more interesting, each symbol relates to specific dialogue paths, so there’s plenty of experimentation to be had.

You’re only allowed to have a certain amount of cards in your deck at a time though, so if you’ve built yours around circle and square cards for example, you’re most likely not going to have much luck trying to converse with a character in another town that utilizes mostly a diamond or square deck. Thankfully you can see what each character generally has in their decks before choosing to talk, and outcomes of conversations will affect the narrative and ending you get at the end of your journey.

So to ‘finish’ a conversation you’ll need to either fulfil each ones requirements to succeed or fail, indicated by white dots at the top of the screen to succeed, or a certain amount of black to fail. Each time you get through the play field matching cards you’ll get some small dialogue. Win enough times, usually two or three, and you’ll succeed in that conversation, sometimes getting an item for your store or other pertinent information. Fail enough times by not matching and you’ll lose a black dot, lose all of these and you’ll ‘fail’ the conversation and not get items or information towards the larger goal you’re working towards.

It may sound simple to basically utilize the mechanics of dominos with cards, but there’s quite a bit of strategy involved that took me some time to really grasp. One of the most important mechanics you’ll want to master as soon as possible is how to Accord. This basically adds a safety net, allowing you to play a mismatched card without penalty of failure. An accord will get added to the last card played once four of the same symbol are played in a row, so four triangles for example. This means you can play any card you want next and the accord will go away but you won’t fail the conversation, acting as a proper play even without the match.

The problem I had on my first playthrough was that I was trying to visit every place and collect every type of symbol and card, but you can only hold a dozen or so in your deck, so it’s impossible to do so. About halfway through I was failing so many conversations because I simply didn’t have the correct cards for the people I was talking to, so that’s when I decided to focus on two symbols only and simply talk to solely those people. This meant I wasn’t able to visit certain places because I know I wouldn’t be able to succeed in dialogue with them, but that’s what I then focused on for my second playthrough instead. Again, you’re goal isn’t to talk to everyone and go everywhere, so you decide how you want to steer your focus each time.

You’ll want to acquire as many as items as you can before you return back home, but travelling too far will give you fatigue cards, which are basically unplayable cards that cause an instant conversation fail, making the difficulty ramp up. This is where a lot of my frustration came into play, as I wanted to travel and talk to people but you’re essentially penalized for the amount of distance you travel. These fatigue cards are also not compatible with the accord setups either, and since both sides of the card are blank, you’ll lose one black dot for playing the card, then another when the NPC can’t match it either. Thankfully your fatigue cards are removed once your 30-50 day trip comes to an end when you return to Bartow though.

The other system in place that I didn’t really enjoy was the card swap you’re forced to do after ending a conversation. No matter if you win or lose, you have to choose one of your cards to swap out with one of theirs. This usually results in a downgrade of cards, so you’ll want to always keep one card reserved as a ‘junk’ card to swap out each time once you have a deck build that you’re generally content with. This also means there’s no real ‘best’ deck because you can only hold a small amount anyways, which is why you’ll want to specialize in two symbols or so. I just wish I could have chosen to not swap a card at the end of a conversation.

Road trips take days and weeks, so you’ll see how long the drives to each town is going to take. The calendar will show where the travelling caravan is going to be as well as special events possibly taking place in towns, so it’s up to you the routes you want to take each trip. At the end of your fifth round trip you’ll receive your ending based on your store performance and relationships you’ve fostered along the way.

Signs of the Sojourner appears as if it’s been completely hand drawn, which has its own charm to it. The color pallet is quite varied and each town you visit has its own style and look to it. Aesthetically it almost looks as it’s been quickly sketched and colored, but this also gives it a somewhat playful and warm feel to it. The soundtrack on the other hand was very well done in every way. Just like its visuals, each town also has its own sound and feel to it, making each area feel unique as you visit and converse. While I do wish the dialogue was voiced for more immersion, the light and instrumental soundtrack made up for what it lacked.

Signs of the Sojourner is a really unique and fascinating way to approach dialogue in gaming. While some may see the gameplay as simplistic card placement, there’s an underlying reasoning for your card choices. It’s simplistic to understand the card game mechanics but will take some dedication to not only master its deeper intricacies, though it will require multiple playthroughs to see everything Signs of the Sojourner has to offer. Regardless if you aren’t generally into narrative heavy games or even card based ones, Signs of the Sojourner is a really unique experience that I’m glad to have had.

**Signs of the Sojourner was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 8.0 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 7.0 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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