Suzerain: The realpolitik visual novel that isn’t a power trip

By Mason Quah

SUZERAIN places you in the shoes of President Anton Rayne, newly elected president of the nation of Sordland, who after 20 years of civil war and dictatorship carries dreams of the impossible.

The Impossible in Suzerain is to survive one term as president and be re-elected without losing your values, your family, or your life. The game makes you work for every minor success as you navigate the complex networks of individual and group actors trying to push their own agendas through your presidency.

This is a step away from many contemporary political simulation games. The genre is often defined by the impossible feats it allows, from winning world war 2 as Germany, establishing a socialist republic in America, or resurrecting the Byzantine empire in the twenty first century.

The game shines in its writing and worldbuilding. The game’s narrative is highly focused on President Anton Rayne, and the decisions that must be made to reform a broken nation. At the same time the game offers choices oriented towards Anton as a husband and father.

The game’s most powerful scene to me was of the president’s weekend barbeque as he solemnly tells his teenage son what it was like to grow up under the country’s dictatorship and civil war. You’re given the option to bypass the conversation entirely, to be stern to your children and cold to your wife and this makes the decision to engage with them more meaningful.

The politics of the game are more realpolitik than ideological. The game ends with a political compass of your decisions but pursuing an ideal carelessly will leave you blindsided by the game’s many opposition factions.

It is your choices in the game that determine who the opposition is and who can be trusted. A reformist and democratic President Rayne will see opposition from the old guard and the army. An authoritarian Rayne will encounter the oppressed minority groups that are recruited into extremism against you.

All information in the game must be scrutinised. You are given a dictionary of the world, introducing you to key players and terms as they appear but the meaningful exchanges are all lensed through the opinions of your advisors, with their own alignments and agendas. I find myself keeping a notebook for narrative games like these, where I write down suspicious and trustworthy characters and speculate about future events in the game.

The game’s main screen also has a stack of newspapers, equally lacking in impartiality both from the ideological leanings of the publications and your decisions to placate or antagonise the media giants behind public opinion.

The game does a good job of making you question your decision making. Every economic decision will be second-guessed by the next day’s business papers. Every use of the presidential veto to block a harmful bill makes it that much more questionable if you should have run on a platform of weakening the executive branch.

There are areas where the mechanics can conflict with the player. The game operates with “ironman saves” which prevent the player rolling back decisions unless they opt to replay the game fully. This adds consequence to decision making but can also drag out game time for people wanting to explore all possibilities.

A potential middle ground might be to emulate the hybrid systems that many strategy games use, giving the option of ironman playthroughs but allowing for casual playthroughs without them.

The one area where the game’s writing falls short is that it prevents you from being proactive. For the majority of the game you are only allowed to take action on issues brought to you by your advisors. Even if you spot the foreshadowing of a future invasion, you cannot increase the military budget until your military advisor asks for more funding.

The lightness of the game’s mechanical layer in favour of story sets Suzerain apart from other political simulators. A better comparison can be made to the format of visual novels, such as Long Live the Queen, albeit with a more serious tone than its anime counterpart.

Overall, Suzerain is an imaginative combination of themes and genres that aren’t traditionally connected. It succeeds at sucking the player into its world and conveys passionately the struggles of escaping reversing harsh political and economic trends and the clashes of rival nations and superpowers.

Suzerain is the debut game of studio Torpor Games and is available on PC and Mac from Steam, GoG and Humble Bundle.

Featured Image: Screenshot (Topor Games/Fellow Traveller)

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