I have been following the development of Shadows of Doubt since 2019 – so long I genuinely can’t remember how I heard about it. I have never checked up so regularly on a game’s production before, usually just watching whatever trailers are big enough to hit the YouTube homepage. But every month since then I’ve gone back and checked the blog for updates, scrounging for any nuggets of information I could find, piecing all the hints and developer posts together on a mental case board in my mind to try and assemble a picture of how the game might turn out.
Shadows was billed as an open world, randomly generated detective simulator. Neatly summarised, this means that everyone who plays the game would be plunged into their own city, different from any other player’s, and face murders to solve that play out completely differently from anyone else’s. It’s basically an infinite, randomised Midsomer Murders simulator. I was hooked on that premise alone having seen next to nothing of the game itself (which usually books you a first-class ticket to Disappointmentville). In late April this year the game was finally released, and I could find out for myself if my loyal following of it for over three years was worth it. After 20 or so hours and many cases solved, I’ve got a good picture of what the game in its current state (considering it’s still in early access) has in store.
Sticking the Landing
Shadows of Doubt admittedly had a lot to live up to. So many games have tried to deliver ‘living worlds’ where all NPCs simulate the lives of real people. Normally this is never shown to be quite as impressive as the trailers promise, with no game yet ever nailing that immersion of being in a world that would continue to tick on without you – where you are merely a character, not the main one. For my money, Shadows delivers on this promise. You are plunged into a steampunk, noir-style city, filled with randomly generated citizens, living and working in randomly generated apartments and jobs. Every citizen also has relationships with others which could turn sour at any moment, leading to murders which you are left to solve. The fact that these crimes can happen to anyone at any time is an amazing feeling and even walking around the city I’m left wondering what my next case will be. The moment-to-moment gameplay is wonderfully tense as a result. You can really feel like the game really will just tick on without your interference.
The atmosphere is amazing, with the cities being realised in a voxel art style that really meshes well with the dingy vibe the artists were clearly going for. This ambience is supported by an inspiring attention to detail. You can take shelter from the rain in a bar and pass the time in a booth reading the newspaper. It’s all a love letter to the old-school detective fantasy – and a technical marvel, especially considering it was made by a small indie team.
The Case of the Uneven Random Generation
Unfortunately, the murders aren’t the only time the game showcases messy execution. Getting into the gritty details (as you will find yourself doing a lot in the game itself), the beautiful picture the game presents is blotted by some frustrations of the random generation. The game’s biggest selling point can also be its biggest enemy at times. During the game’s side jobs, which mostly involve identifying a target and then stealing something from them, or photographing them in secret (very 1920’s noir of course), you will be assigned a target and given a selection of random information about them such as physical attributes, a fingerprint, a name, hobbies, or an address, to name a few. This is random for every target you are assigned, and becomes of this complete randomness, sometimes you can be tasked to find a target with next to no useful information. In a city of hundreds, knowing someone has blue hair and size seven shoes and likes cats isn’t going to get you very far.
There is no hand holding, very few tutorials, just you and your years of reading murder mystery novels
In these situations, I mostly just took a new case until I found one that gave me something to go on. It reminds me of when Apple made the iPod Shuffle less random because people would complain they would get multiple songs from the same album next to each other. They made it less random to feel more random. I feel the game might benefit from this idea slightly, perhaps guaranteeing that each target comes with at least one piece of information you could use to reliably identify them – say their job, home address, or part of their name. It’s also worth noting, however, that every piece of information you gather about a civilian is stored in your database, and if they come up on another case this will automatically be filled in. This is immensely satisfying and makes the above problem less pertinent as you play. Spend enough time in your city, and you’ll basically have a full profile of every citizen down to what they ate for dinner last Tuesday, which means if they come up as mission targets you can find them with ease.
You Better Not Kill the Groove
I must now commend the game’s main selling point – the murders. Given the issue with the random generation, I was concerned that the cases might feel the same and not very different from each other, as this was my experience in the smaller side jobs. I haven’t yet found one murder that played out like any previous ones, however. The possible ways a murder can happen, at the victim’s home, on the street etc., as well as the numerous ways the killer could be connected, all means that you can’t make any assumptions each time. In my first case, several additional murders happened before I could solve the first one, all looking like the same person had done them. This was intensely cool. Suddenly I found myself tracking a serial killer, and it hit me that another player would never have this exact experience. I solved that case by realizing all the victims were employees at the same firm, and then found shotgun ammo in the boss’ office, conveniently matching the entry wounds. My very next case I handled the same way, investigating the workplace first but finding nothing of interest, before another murder transpired and I was then trying to find links between two victims who did not work together, live close by, or have any of the same friends. This required a whole new line of thinking. I solved that by asking the neighbours of the second victim if they saw anything suspicious and writing down the description of someone they saw leaving at the time of the murder. I found a person matching this profile at the workplace and when interviewing her found out that she knew both victims. I then did what any good detective would do: handcuff her immediately and search her, finding the murder weapon still on her person from the second murder.
Both of these cases really required me to think like a real detective. There is no hand holding, very few tutorials, just you and your years of reading murder mystery novels. Anything you can think of that might generate a lead, you can do.
Shadows of Doubt is incredibly ambitious and delivers on most of its promises, especially the ones that really matter. It does overshoot the mark in places, leading to some frustration and confusion due to the reliance on random generation, but this really isn’t a deal breaker. When everything comes together, it creates some of the most engaging gaming I have done this year.
Content’s always being added in its early access, with the updates already announced looking to address some of the issues with the current game and add even more great detective fantasy elements to the package. If you want to wait for some of these updates before picking it up, I would understand as early access releases aren’t for everyone. But what the game already has is a wonderful proof of concept that has lived up to the expectations I have had for three years. If nothing else, ColePowered Games can wear that as a badge of honour.