Suzerain Review

December 9, 2020
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First things first: what the hell is a Suzerain? Some sort of rare weather condition? One of those creatures from that D&D game? A bizarre vegetable? Actually, it’s a term referring to the relationship between two nation states. Yes, I wish this article was about bizarre vegetables too. Sometimes you can’t have everything you want.

Suzerain is the latest release from Torpor Games, a Berlin-based indie studio. The tagline on their website states a focus on producing thought-provoking entertainment, and they’ve certainly delivered that here. It’s probably easiest to describe Suzerain as a game answering the question: what if the advisors in a strategy game were the actual game? Take one part choose-your-own-text-adventure, add a hearty glug of Euro Truck Simulator, and season liberally with political theory. You’ve got yourself a Suzerain, baby.

4. Yeah, yeah, I was totally paying attention. Who are you people again?

I’m only half-joking about the comparison to everyone’s favourite trucking title. Suzerain has a similar level of painstaking attention to detail found in Euro Truck. About two minutes into the opening scenes of the game it casually asks what you think of Realpolitik. I’ll save you a Google. It’s a great example of the tone here: think Tropico but wearing a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. That opening scene, by the way, is super compelling. There’s a sense that Torpor has created something pretty unique here.

Rather than the bumbling figure of El Presidente, you take on the role of newly-elected President Rayne. On your shoulders lies the burden of leading the people of Sordland, a nation with a history of bloody revolution and despotic leaders. The country is gripped by a deep economic recession, beset by threats both domestic and international. Torpor has definitely leaned into the history of their home-city Berlin, as there are familiar themes of East vs West, communism vs capitalism, and left vs right pervading the whole game. It’s brilliantly done throughout.

Your connection to all of this comes in the form of a single map, which is beautifully designed. You can take in the country at a glance, and there are helpful pop-ups to tell you where the latest political garbage fire is taking place. And I don’t say that lightly: Sordland is a complete shit-show. As President Rayne it feels more than a little like walking into a room with a pizza and finding everything on fire.

But instead of pizza it’s a presidential role, and instead of fire it’s presidential assassination.

I draw a lot of parallels between Suzerain and This War of Mine. For those who aren’t familiar, the latter presented an entirely grim and unforgiving experience of the realities in human conflict. There are no punches pulled in Suzerain either. Put simply: you can’t really “win” at the game. You can merely choose a direction and hope it doesn’t all go completely tits over the handlebars. Choose to invest in better infrastructure for the poor Northern areas? Great, the residents of that area like you more. But the capitalists who wanted you to invest in a better seaport hate your guts, and international trade keeps falling. There is no pleasing everyone; instead Suzerain is just one difficult compromise after another.

In that sense, the gameplay loop is amazingly well designed. You attend various briefings, listen to your advisors, and make decisions. Spending ten minutes reading various points of view on the nation’s GDP is legitimately boring. But that’s why this game is so good! Torpor has leaned into the minutiae of real politics heavily, and I always find it refreshing to play a game that wears its nerdy leather elbow patches with unabashed pride.

The plotting of the game is definitely where all of the effort has been focused by the developers. Each of your advisors has a completely distinct personality, and it’s easy to start picking up their individual biases. Lileas Graf – Interior Minister – deeply cares about the poor of Sondland, but hates the communist people’s party. Petr Vecturn – vice president, and former childhood friend of El Presidente – a renowned centrist and soul of the party who always looks on the bright side. Lucian Galade – former lawyer and Chief Strategist – always looks for the angles others don’t see… You get the point. The characters jump off the page.

Then there’s your family. Oh poor little Deana and Franc. Behind every politician is a family, and I found these sections of the game utterly compelling. I chose to keep a strong facade after an assassination attempt, so as not to scare my children. But when your wife asks you: are they truly safe? It’s pretty gut-punching stuff, and frankly I cared more about keeping my family safe than I did about the future of Sondland. The plotting and the political intrigue is exceptionally well done. Ultimately, you don’t really have much control over the story. You’re more of an involved observer than you are puppet-master; just like a real politician.

Behold, my stuff.

Sadly, there are some issues. Generally I try to be forgiving as possible, especially to indie studios. Writing a book or recording an album is hard work, but making games is HARD WORK. You’re not only writing a book or recording music. There’s also graphics, UI, UX… Suzerain at times feels like a title which has focused on content over polish. Which, I know, sounds like a really weird criticism. The core game is really strong, but it’s the small things that let it down. See a big yellow exclamation mark over a city? You’d assume clicking on it would give you information. Nope. You need to click on the city name underneath instead. The writing is also – sparsely, I should add – littered with spelling and grammatical errors. For example, Rayne’s son Franc was referred to as both Franc, and Frank, throughout the game. I’m fortunate to be fully relying on my wonderful editors (hello, wonderful editors!) to spot anything I might miss. But if you’re making a text-based adventure game: you cannot afford to make these kinds of small mistakes.

Frank… Franc… Who are you, and why are you in my house?

Ultimately though, Suzerain is a fascinating game. It’s definitely niche: I can’t imagine its blend of story-based adventure, difficult choices, and beard-stroking political discourse will set everyone’s world on fire. But for the price, if you’ve a passing interest in this sort of experience, there’s lots to enjoy.

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Suzerain probably takes itself a bit too seriously, but offers a unique take on the genre of text-driven gaming that’s worth experiencing.
Shaun McHugh

In the winter of 1998, my father made a terrible mistake. He bought me a gift that would forever change my life. That gift? The DMG-01 Nintendo GameBoy. Since then, life has been a blur of consoles, gaming rigs, and modding it till it breaks.