Horror video games are successful when they induce anxiety through visual design and game mechanics. The Shrouded Isle, a cult manager sim that was released in 2017 and recently came to Nintendo Switch, is a successful horror game. While the developers at Kitfox Games took aesthetic inspiration from Lovecraftian lore, I found myself paralyzed by a crippling fear of making the wrong decision, not by a sense of cosmic horror.
In The Shrouded Isle, I’m put in charge of a secluded village controlled by several houses. I must investigate the virtues and vices of each house’s members and appoint an adviser for the season. Those advisers then do their part to control the village, by doing such things as increasing the village’s ignorance to the outside world or bolstering their religious fervor. I reward one of them with the privilege of being sacrificed to the dark god our village worships after they’ve all carried out their tasks, and the cycle begins anew next season.
To succeed, I must delicately balance my cruel control over my villagers, the relationships I have with each of the houses, and the ever-dwindling supply of advisers to choose from (I sentence one to death at the end of each season). The game induces a ridiculous amount of analysis paralysis, which feels ceaseless; each decision I make is a double-edged sword.
The complexity begins when seeking out advisers. Each adviser I investigate can reveal not only a specific virtue, but also a vice. Virtues are worth seeking out, as they can increase the strength of each house’s functions, such as discipline or obedience. I also have the choice to seek out an adviser’s vices, which have an adverse effect on the village. Advisers with heavy vices will give you more rewards when you sacrifice them, however.
There are no good decisions when it comes to picking an adviser for a sacrifice. Killing an adviser with a vice that hurts the village will improve my situation, but it will harm my standing with the house. This is by design: Every decision you can potentially make is a bad one. But they are all bad in unique ways.
The game’s free downloadable content, Sunken Sins, further complicates the situation. Potential advisers can get stricken with afflictions that I must purge them of. The process takes time, and pulls people out of my pool of potential advisers for the season. The DLC basically just gives me more variables that can, and will, go wrong.
The Shrouded Isle is one of the hardest games I’ve played in the past few years — not because of any external physical challenge, but one that’s wholly technical. The anxiety of constant decision-making adds up. The further I progressed in the game, the harder it was to keep all the plates spinning before they came crashing down. It’s a masochistic challenge, to be sure, but the mental gymnastics are satisfying when I finally succeed. This isn’t a downside to the game — it’s the point. The thrill comes from overcoming the fear of a situation where the odds are heavily stacked against me.