Signs of the Sojourner isn’t scared of being a deck-builder in the scariest year in recent memory. Besides all that other stuff going on, the genre isn’t new or novel on the simple strength of it’s mechanics anymore. Developer Echodog Games couldn’t agree more. With a dense narrative adventure centered around a young shop owner traveling the country to get wares to sell, combined with clever and simple card mechanics, Signs of the Sojourner truly feels like the first great game to adapt the concepts of the genre into something that exists well outside it.
After the death of your mother, the small hamlet of Barlow seemed caught in a holding pattern. Her shop was the prize of the village, and was the sole reason a country-spanning caravan stopped there, bringing tourists and supplies with it. Keeping the shop closed threatens not just the livelihood of the town, but your mother’s legacy, so you take your first steps into reopening it. This means joining the caravan as it loops from settlement to settlement, curating interesting things to sell, helping the folks you meet with their problems, and becoming very good at negotiating.
That last bit is key. The crux of this game involves talking to people to get leads on products to pursue, or just general information about the world around you. Instead of being presented as dialogue options in a twisting tree of potential outcomes, each back and forth is represented by a quick game of cards.
Each piece of conversation is punctuated with a game played on a linear track. You and your target take turn dropping cards onto the board, matching various symbols end to end like a game of dominos. Getting to the end of the board without failing to match means the conversation will progress to the next step. If you can win a predetermined amount of these rounds, you will have a successful conversation.
I found this to be a curious and effective way to present the art of dialogue. Both “players” want to have a good outcome, generally speaking. You can’t purposefully bork the flow of play and expect a good result, and the NPCs aren’t actively trying to block your progress. It always feels like a co-op experience, just like any good faith chat should.
The symbols you match are varied and all mean something. Circles represent empathy, triangles are rational thoughts. As these symbols get mixed and matched on these cards, the minutiae of conversation becomes a legible abstract. It can also double as a sort of language and cultural barrier. As you leave the central orbit of your home and surrounding towns, people use ever stranger symbols to talk to one another. If you don’t have cards that match, you’re going to have a hard time communicating with them.
The first real “aha!” moment I had in Signs of the Sojourner is when I tried to chat up a strange chili pepper merchant and completely failed. As our strings of cards fell apart, I was met with increasingly short retorts of her explaining that she doesn’t understand the words I’m saying. There’s no easy way to prepare for these fall-on-your-face encounters but to just fail and learn from it. Because every conversation requires you to take a card from your partner and replace one in your deck with it, you literally begin to learn how to talk to them and people like them. Anyone who has traveled to a new place and tried to strike up a conversation with someone can relate to this.
Gameplay wise, this can be a pretty rough barrier to progress. There’s no way to get new symbols without talking to people who have them. You’re destined to fail when you talk to them, meaning you have to just sacrifice any real breakthroughs with possibly a whole town’s worth of people before you can competently chat your way to their rare goods, or get info on secret locations.
As events unfold throughout Signs, the demeanor of the people in the nearby towns change. In turn, this changes the way they interact with you, and the symbols they’re cards have. As a mechanical reflection of a narrative beat, I found this to be super clever. As a person trying to find the best and most efficient way to play this game, I had some real struggles.
In towns, the people you can converse with show up as portraits. You can hover over them to get a snapshot of the mood they’re in, as well as the symbols their cards consist of. These symbols only really represent what they may have the most of. Or maybe they only represent what they had the first time you meet them? It’s unclear, and as you take follow up trips to check on these folks, it’s largely inaccurate.
It’s saving grace for Signs in spite of all this is it’s length. You get five trips total before the end of the game, and each trip is maybe 20-30 minutes of traveling, chatting, and bartering at most. There’s a plethora of things to see, people to meet, and endings to experience, and it’s impossible to see them all at once. The replayability is super high, and allows you to dedicate whole playthroughs to specific regions and groups of towns to unlock their secrets without investing too much time to do so.
Deckbuilders have not needed a compelling story, interesting characters, and a sturdy plot to be satisfying. Games like Iris and the Giant flirt with setting and tone shifts not common in its peers, but it’s still identifiable a run-based card collector designed to be played through without stopping and smelling the narrative roses for too long. Signs of the Sojourner is the first that really nails all of those storytelling aspects, and suggests that maybe the best thing for the longevity of the subgenre is to start creating experience with these in mind.
This game was reviewed on PC with a review code provided by PR.