Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books offer much of the same experience as modern-day RPGs provide. With their origins back in the 1970s, it is something many of us, myself included, would have missed out on. Tabletop RPGs are a nice middle ground between a full-fledged video game RPG and a choose your own adventure style book.
Many developers have tweaked the formula slightly to turn this style of narrative into something more ‘gamey’; games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead or Dontnod’s Life is Strange melded full player control with a gripping narrative filled with player choice. So what if you strip away any ‘gameplay’ just to focus on narrative and choices? Well, Sever did just that with The Life and Suffering of Sir Brante, and the results are nothing short of phenomenal.
Story – Gripping tale of death and deceit
Set in the Great Arknian Empire, your character is one of the four children of the Brante family. In this world, each person must live by their Lot; their predetermined way of life handed down to them by the Twin Gods. A Nobleman’s lot is one of wealth, riches, and leadership, whereas a Commoner’s lot is of suffering, hardship, and servitude. Nobility runs in the bloodline of the well-to-do families across the Empire; however, you can become Noble through hard work and dedication to the Empire. This is the situation that the Brante family find themselves in, your Grandfather and Father have been granted the title of Nobility, but it does not run through their blood.
You begin at the start of your life, a toddler exploring the world with the help of your family. And these choices shape your character. Growing up a Commoner poses many obstacles, ones which you can choose to abide by, completely avoid, or run head-on toward.
The sheer amount of choice given to the player is staggering. Even the most menial choices could have rippling effects that won’t become apparent until later on in life. You may have helped a character out of the kindness of your heart but later found out the character has risen to a place of significant influence; that little choice granted you a powerful friend. And they can equally hinder you in the future, locking you out of choices that you wish you could take.
The story is gripping. You often hear people say they can’t put a book down, and that was the case for this visual novel. Sever created a rich world, filled to the brim with social, political, and religious strife. The constant battle between a person’s agency and the will of the Twin Gods is portrayed perfectly. This, combined with deep political and social hierarchies, creates a living, breathing world that is equal parts interesting and terrifying. How the Noblemen keep the Commoners down, how different rulers are conspiring against one another.
This would all be great as a book, but it is even better to have my own influence on the story. The writing is solid too. I never felt like I was reading a massive block of text; the descriptive text mixed with graphics on the right side of the screen painted a vivid image of the Empire, its people, and its many towns and cities.
Gameplay – The paradox of choice
The game is presented as a visual novel. Turning pages to advance the story. There are other tabs like a family tree, stat page, and map of the world, but I spent little time on these screens. The majority of the gameplay comes from the choices you have to make. Should you hold your tongue against a Nobleman or speak your mind and suffer the consequences? I was constantly battling what I thought was right and what was best for my character.
There are small choices that influence your stats as a child, increasing your willpower or perception, for example. However, even the menial decisions mold your character. You may find yourself locked out of the decision you would want to make due to your attributes being too low or your relationship with someone being too negative. Helping the wrong person when I was 16 came back to haunt me when I was plotting against the Empire.
You have typical stats that determine your character personally, and as you progress, you unlock stats like manipulation or scheming (two traits that I was particularly high in). Also, there are other things to worry about like wealth, or your families’ power or unity (the latter being extremely low for my playthrough). These made me think about my actions even more. I wasn’t solely trying to improve my character; I was interested in saving some money or helping out my family to improve our relationship.
There seem to be few ‘main’ paths you can take; the route I tried to take didn’t work out how I planned, and my life panned out completely different than I had intended, and honestly, it was a breath of fresh air. It’s usually pretty easy to make the decisions you want to make in RPGs; Mass Effect’s paragon and renegade options make two distinct paths. Sever took me on a journey. I had initially planned on becoming a well-educated man, with keeping my family happy the main priority, but that dream fell to pieces. Quite quickly, my family fell apart, and my education had turned into something more sinister.
The sense of dread I felt when finding out I couldn’t make the decision I would like was awful, but it made the choice that much more impactful. Sometimes my hands were tied, and there was nothing I could do about it, and as annoying as that sounds when at the moment, I was hooked. Some scenarios are unlocked because of your previous choices; I even missed out on a final chapter due to my choices. I admire any game that is willing to lock you out of content that took so long to craft. It only reinforces the importance of choice in The Life and Suffering of Sir Brante.
Graphics and Audio – Drab and Dreary
Taking place in a medieval land, the Great Arknian Empire has both its grand locations home to the Noblemen and the more humble locales home to the Commoners. The only glimpse into this world is through black and white illustrations that naturally give off a dark tone. While there is a distinction between the rich streets of Eterna, the capital city, and the hovels of its undercity, the images are still bleak. Most character portraits look tired and somber, and there’s no wonder after you experience what life is like. The biggest issue with these is that there’s not much variation. Many of the images are recycled throughout the game; however, I spent very little time looking at these as I was focused on reading, so it wasn’t a big issue.
The music and sound complement the story so well. The chirping of birds while you explore the garden as a child, the soft piano music while you and your mother explore the wilderness, to the somber sounds after one of the inevitable deaths you will face. While no particular track stood out, at the same time, it was never overbearing, distracting me from the narrative; they were the finishing touch on a gripping story.
The Life and Suffering of Sir Brante was reviewed on PC; a review code was provided by GPT Media.