Calling this the Dwarf Fortress of 4X games would not be entirely wrong
Type: Singleplayer, Multiplayer
Genre: Strategy, 4X
Developer: VR Designs
Publisher: Slitherine Ltd.
Release date: 3 Dec, 2020
VR Designs (the VR stands for Victor Reijkersz, not Virtual Reality) is hardly a household name, but among wargamers it’s a pretty well regarded developer, who have made games like the Decisive Campaigns series as well as Advanced tactics. This is their first attempt at making a 4X strategy game though.
4X for those who are unfamiliar with the term standards for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate, and these games typically have you start small, ruling over a single city or one planet in a larger galaxy, and then expand into a mighty empire. Shadow Empire is no exception in this regard but it’s by no means a run of the mill 4X strategy game, but a unique entry into the genre that ultimately plays unlike anything else, and the developers background as a wargaming developer shines through in more than a few places.
Story & Setting
Shadow Empires is a game that has a surprising amount of backstory, with very little of it actually mattering to the game itself. Although if you want to know about what came before, and why your people are stranded on a desolate planet that has no liquid water on its surface, and where people are getting eaten by 3 meter tall carnivorous land squids, then the manual has you covered. Well, kind of, it still goes over the whys in rather broad strokes.
What you need to know is that it’s the 9th millennium AD, and humanity managed to nearly wipe itself out. Humanity has over the past millennia first colonized the solar system, and with the discovery of warp drive by the Clans they were able to reach the stars. Thanks to their advanced technology, humanity were capable of colonizing planets that at first glance might be inhospitable to any and all life, planets where lava streams flow like water across the surface, planets where the atmosphere is made out of pure cyanogen or planets with hostile wildlife capable of tearing a tank to shreds. Yet somehow humanity prospered. During this expansion humanity had basically split into two, the Clans who formed the Galactic Republic and the Terran Empire, with the republic being the one that looked more towards the stars.
It should come as no surprise that the rulers of humanity would dream of eternal life, as so many who came before had. The difference between past attempts at eternal life humanity now had the technology to accomplish it, in a way at least. And this is why the “shadow cloud” was created in the Terran Empire, a cloud of nano-machines that had the combined computational power to hold human conscience. Any future rulers of the empire would be mere puppets to the Shadow Cloud from this point, as the first emperor to upload his conscience was now the real power behind the throne.
At the same time the Galactic republic spread across the galaxy, colonizing tens of thousands of planets, only stopping when it ran into alien life that it could not easily conquer or integrate into its empire. It was a time of relative prosperity, and humanity thrived. But nothing good lasts forever. The Republic found itself being torn apart by forces from within. Extremist governments wanted to break free and what first started as localized conflicts soon spread out into the entire empire. Even planets that were relatively untouched by the war itself found themselves on the brink of destruction, as they could not get the resources they needed to sustain themselves. Planets with billions of people were reduced to housing just a few million, and during the war it was the most valuable industries that were targeted first. Humanity was plunged into a new dark age.
This was centuries ago. Humanity has now started clawing its way back up, with people scattered all over the empire forming small nations built upon the ashes of the of the Galactic Republic. And during this time the tendrils of the Shadow Cloud has started reaching out, trying to influence and control the scattered human colonies.
Saying that Shadow Empire looks and sounds like something from the 90’s would only be a mild exaggeration. It’s not a good looking game. That’s not uncommon for strategy games though, but the poor graphics does bring a few problems with it.
The map is made out of hexagons, and you can see what the terrain for that region is on it. This includes forests, deserts, lakes and so on. The problem is that it’s not always clear exactly how “bad” the terrain is. It can sometimes be hard to tell if a piece of terrain is so rough that your tanks will struggle getting over it. This is a turnbased game so you have time to check every hex individually, but that can be tedious, so you’ll sometimes end up with units not being able to traverse hexes that you thought were clear enough.
Units are represented by square counters that look like something from a tabletop wargame. You can either chose to have NATO symbols or a picture of the unit type on them, with a small NATO symbol at the bottom, as well as a number representing their strength and a coloured square shows how in or out of supply they are. The counters are pretty easy to read, even if they’re not all that detailed.
Apart from the main view there are a lot of menus and sub-windows you need to enter during gameplay, and these continues the games tradition of looking dated. At times it can feel like reading an excel spreadsheet with a slightly messy layout, and the graphics on these menus are even more minimalistic than in the main view. If you’ve ever played the game Stars! then this might bring back memories of that game, with its utilitarian graphics and reliance on sliders.
At the start of every turn you’ll get a report of major events that happened, which an accompanying image. If you’ve conquered an opponent you’ll see some soldiers cheering, and if you’ve researched something new you’ll get a view of a scientist reporting it. The graphics here does not look great either, with stiff 3D models pasted over a somewhat low-quality background.
The games soundtrack is unlikely to win any awards either. It’s there and it’s inoffensive, but it does not add much to the experience. The same can be said for many of the sound effects that sound suspiciously similar to what was used in Civilization 2. They’re better than nothing, of course, and still give some feedback, but they’re not great.
A comparison was made to Dwarf Fortress at the start of the review, and while Shadow Empire is a completely different game to Dwarf Fortress, there’s still a few similarities. For one it’s a really complex game where you can, depending on your starting conditions, chose how much of this you want to deal with. If you want to give yourself an easy start then go for a friendly planet with plenty of food and water, and an atmosphere well suited for human life as this way it’s enough to just understand the basics, but if you want to test yourself, and really have to use all of the games systems go for a planet with an atmosphere that would kill any human who’s not wearing a protective suit, where water is rare and has to be mined, and where giant spider monsters roam the land and eat anything they stumble upon.
Shadow Empire is a 4X strategy game where you’re striving to become the dominant power on a planet. A huge war happened, and most of humanity was killed, but a few people survived, and over time they started forming communities that were built upon the ruins of the fallen empire that came before. You’re playing as one of these groups of people, and you start with a city or two and a few soldiers, and need to expand outwards from there.
But before you can start doing that, you need to generate your starting planet. And here you can already see the first sign of this game being something special. Planet generation is really detailed, and after you’ve selected what general type of planet you want the game will then randomly generate its conditions. Things like distance from the sun, atmospheric composition, gravity (based on its size), rainfall in different regions, the tilt of the planet and so on are all things that the game keeps track of. You can re-roll if you don’t like the conditions the game gives you, but the variety you can get here is something that gives the game a lot of replay value.
Once you’ve got a planet that you want to play on the game can really begin. You’ll be given a starting zone (or more, depending on your settings), with a major city in it as well as some resources. Scattered across the map will be more zones as well as neutral space. The other zones will be controlled by another faction, be it a major or a minor one, while the neutral area will be filled with raiders and hostile wildlife.
Expansion is the name of the game, and unlike something like Civilization you are incentivized to not build “tall” (that is, focus on a region and make it as strong as possible), but rather try to take as much land as you can, while still not expanding so fast that you can’t defend it, and develop it. There are valuable resources out there, and taking other cities and outposts can net you a lot more people, who can then in turn work to produce more resources, colonize new areas or join the army.
Warfare is risky, but also one of the parts of the game that feels like it’s the most well thought out and developed. This is probably because the developer has a background in making detailed wargames. When two armies bump into each other conflict will start, and as the attacker you can drag in other adjacent units that you have that have enough movement left to move into the hexagon. Once the fighting starts you don’t have much say over what’s going on, the two sides will fight until one retreats or is destroyed. Different units have different stats that make them well suited in certain roles, like a light tank will be more than enough to deal with lightly armed militia, and they can just smash through their lines with almost no risk to themselves, while anti-tank guns will be better to deal with tanks. Heavier tanks are expensive and requires larger guns to deal with. Artillery an fire at the enemy without exposing themselves, unless the enemy has counter artillery. It’s more complex than it sounds and there are far more factors at play here, but you don’t need to know exactly what everything does to play the game, it’s usually enough to have a decent idea about what’s good against what.
There’s more to keep an eye on than just what’s good against what. What resources do the units cost? Tanks will eat up your industrial capacity when you recruit them and requires a constant supply of fuel, but you get a lot more fighting power per solider if you use tanks than if you use basic infantry, so if you’ve got surplus resources but very few people it might be better to transition to a mostly tank-based army, while if you’re expecting to fight in rough terrain and have lots of spare people then regular footsoldiers might be the way to go.
Supply lines are important to keep track of. Units need to be within supply, and in order to extend supply you need to build roads and supply posts. Depending on the nature of the road they might not have enough capacity to supply a large army, so then you need to improve your infrastructure. A unit that’s out of supply will be far less effective and will slowly starve to death. Keeping units in supply is probably the most important part of warfare in Shadow Empire, and it takes a bit of getting used to. Luckily the supply overlay, once you’ve figured out what all the numbers mean, is very good at showing you where any issues in the supply line might be.
Units needs to be designed, and what parts you have access to will depend on your research. It might be tempting to just put the biggest guns and the most armour available on everything, but doing this will result in far too expensive units. You also need to take atmospheric conditions into account. Your infantry might have the best armour available, but if the atmosphere can kill them they need environmental suits more than bullet proof armour.
Fighting is of course not the only thing you’ll be doing in Shadow Empire. Other parts of your empire needs attending to. There’s a lot of people who need to be kept happy. Your workers of course can’t become too unhappy or they’ll revolt, and in order to make them happier you can increase their salaries and also produce different buildings that improve their quality of life. Advisors and other important members of your empire also needs to be kept loyal and happy, and once more increasing their salaries is one way of doing it, but your decisions over the course of the game will also influence how happy and loyal they are. An advisor who values democracy might not be too happy about you cracking down on people protesting with force and someone who thinks that the market should rule can get upset if you’re not giving your companies exclusive rights to certain things. Choices that affect their happiness usually also come with other consequences as well, appeasing your workers rather than shooting them can be expensive. How nice or tyrannical you want to be is really up to you, and the choices here do give you different bonuses depending on the direction you chose to take your empire.
Research is handled in a more hands-off way than in most other 4X games. It’s done automatically, as long as you have the right councils in play (these can be there from the start, or you’ll need to unlock them, depending on your starting conditions), and then they’ll automatically try to discover new things to research, and then research those. You’re not going in entirely blind here, as in reality you’re just re-discovering old tech, but you don’t have the same say over exactly what gets researched as in a game like Civilization or Endless Legends.
All of this is barely scratching the surface for what’s really in Shadow Empire. When it comes to dept, Shadow Empire is almost unmatched. But that also means that there is a lot to learn before you start playing, and here Shadow Empire does not do a great job. It pretty much just throws you into the deep end, and expects you to figure things out. There’s a substantial manual for the game, but not a tutorial, and while there is a quick start section in the manual, that describes the most important functions, it does not do a great job at describing how to give yourself an easy start for your first game. So to learn the game you either need a fare bit of patience, or use an external source to learn the game. And this is not helped by the interface, which can be clunky and a bit hard to navigate, with the most important things not always being the easiest ones to reach. For an example, you need to go through your secretary in order to change the budget, which is crucial to do when you’ve got members of your empire who are getting a bit unruly, and in order to reach them the easiest way is to click on “rep” in the upper right corner, and then you can call your secretary by clicking on call in the upper right corner of the new window that opened. Things like this make the game harder to learn than it probably should be.
Congratulations on making it this far! Unless you skipped all the descriptions, just looked at the pretty pictures and want to read the verdict, which is still fine, but I take back that congratulation in that case.
Shadow Empire is by no means a perfect game, the lackluster graphics and the fact that it’s not very beginners friendly are serious blemishes on it, but when it comes to the sheer depth and replay value it’s unmatched. There’s so much in here that you can play it for years and still likely find new things and develop new strategies.
Luckily there are resources out there to help you get into it. DasTactic made an excellent beginners series on youtube, and I would recommend anyone who’s interested in learning this game to take a look at that. Ideally such things should not be needed, but this is one of those games where it’s worth jumping through some hoops to get to the point where you start having fun with it. It’s like Dwarf Fortress in that regard, getting into it takes a while, but once you’ve grasped the basics it becomes incredibly addictive, and I would go so far as to say that this is a strong contender for being the best 4X game ever made. It’s not a game that’s easy to love, you really do need to put some effort into it, but that’s effort well spent for a game as good as this.