As I mentioned in my last review of FTL: Advanced Edition, I’m a big fan of video games that can emulate the emergent experiences that you normally get from playing pencil and paper, role-playing games. VR Designs’ Shadow Empires is one such game that has that in spades.
But let me back up—when I first loaded up the game, the first thing I noticed was its cool retro graphics. Everything, including the loading screen that simply shows a simple desert scene, looked like a strategy title straight out of the late 80s or 90s. Its character portraits and unit designs were equally grainy looking. But fortunately for me, I realized long ago to not judge a game for its graphics (the maps are actually pur-dy), especially strategy titles. To put it simply—graphically, Age of Wonders: Planetfall, this is not, but it doesn’t have to be.
Shadow Empires is an exceptionally dense game, with many menus, tables, and statistics within its terribly busy UI. But once I played a couple of 3 to 4-hour sessions, I began to get the hang of things. As the game’s one-man developer, Vic, describes it:
“Shadow Empire puts you in the seat of the supreme ruler of a small nation destined for greatness and reconquering a devastated Planet.
You have Leaders to help you govern your Zones, administer your Organizations and lead your armies. You’ll also have Stratagems available that you can play on various targets.
It is in essence a game about military conquest, but you will also engage in diplomacy, budgets, organizational management, your economy, infrastructure, design and many more details.
The game has a very procedural design that will ensure re-playability and experimentation. Not only are the Planets procedurally generated, also the equipment you are fighting with is.
A separate system for discovery of Techs, Formation Types and Model Types and their research/development also ensures that you’ll have to work with different playing pieces each game.
The game universe is designed to evoke the feeling of being on another planet in some dark future, but at the same time to stay familiar. It is a game that does not deny it is a game, but it has a strong thematic focus on keeping things relatively realistic.
For a strategy game there is a relatively strong roleplaying angle where you’ll need to keep your leaders happy in order for them to do their jobs well and not get any ideas of rebellion.”
Shadow Empires combines several different game genres—at its base, it’s a hex-based 4X strategy game, but it also fuses the old school role-playing elements of games such as TSR’s Gamma World, but with the rich interpersonal relations system of Paradox’s Crusader Kings II. Amazingly, it manages to not only combine these different genres but it also actually surpasses most of the games that offer them.
Even the game’s initial world generation system is pretty granular. My first game was on a tundra planet that hardly contained any food sources on it. It did, however, have 7-meter long advanced vertebrate super-crabs, with massive jaws, and which found my colonists particularly tasty. That game didn’t last too long. My next session took place on a tropical world with ample food and water sources. The only problem was that it also contained a huge global population, composed of many multifaceted factions that were all vying for supremacy.
The gameplay is turn-based and you’ll start off by handing the affairs of your fledgling government, along with the various personalities of your staff. You’ll oversee the colonists that are divided amongst your different zones and eventually, you’ll see the emergence of organizations such as corporations and cults. You’ll want to keep an eye on your advisors and staff members—piss off the wrong people and you’ll gain their ire.
For instance, one young lady that my leader was grooming for success became displeased with a few of the decisions I made. She then formed her own army of rebels and began assaulting my forces on the fringes of my burgeoning jungle empire. It took 6 years, and lots of men’s lives, before I was finally able to destroy my one-time prodigy and her seditious forces (no, I didn’t cry in real life afterward).
Combat can be auto-resolved, or, you can micro every little facet of the battles that you partake in. Things such as the types of weapons your men are equipped with, as well as their armor, environment, stance, and many other factors will come into play. There is no aerial or naval combat as of yet, but VR Designs intends to implement both of them over the coming months. These additions, if implemented well (for instance, no air power on arid maps and no navies on desert worlds, etc.), could just make it my go-to wargame.
As it stands, Shadow Empires is one of the most complex, rewarding, and infinitely re-playable strategy games available on the market. If you’re even remotely interested in deep strategy titles with lots of role-playing and emergent gameplay opportunities, give this one a shot—I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Shadow Empires has some pretty cool 90s looking graphics that make its science fiction gameplay truly shine. However, you want to have a pretty beefy gaming PC or gaming laptop in order to play it at a decent framerate. So, you may just want to invest in a decent gaming rig:
Visit CyberpowerPC’s website to check out all of the other great deals as well!