Shadow Empire, by developer VR Designs and published by Slitherine Ltd, is a turn-based 4X game that draws heavily from the ideas and structure of VR Designs’ specialty, war games. As a result Shadow Empire is distinct among the genre of 4X games. This makes it a challenge to grasp but in many ways deeper, becoming a title that strongly appeals to a niche audience.
Shadow Empire’s setting is post-apocalyptic. A galactic human civilization has fallen, and you begin your empire on one of their former planets, seeking to conquer and ultimately dominate all the other factions on the map. At first, the game has an almost science fiction Mad Max feel, but as time goes on and you start recovering technical knowledge, the game becomes both more futuristic and civilized.
The overall game arc should be familiar to anyone who has played a 4X game before. You start with a single city and a small number of troops and are forced to deal with rival civilizations and the various impediments that get in your way of world conquest. Throughout this process, you build infrastructure and develop your cities, look for resources, fight minor civilizations and “barbarians”, and jostle into a position where you can defeat other major civilizations later in the game to the point where you have a dominant position on the planet and you are declared the victor.
One of the most fundamental things that separates Shadow Empire is the simulation aspects. The game features nine different world types, all of which vary dramatically in resource access and particular threats, ranging from Siwa class which are the closest to Earth in environment and have a reasonably high chance to feature extraterrestrial life to fiery Cerberus worlds, to frozen Boreas worlds, to life filled but hostile Medusa worlds. The generation process then takes you through several planet generation steps that have a very big impact on what your game experience will be like, from what sort of agriculture is possible, to the level of deadly radiation or alien life you face, to how many survivors exist on the planet at the start of the game. This simulation continues throughout the game. Season, rainfall, and environment all impact your farming and distance from the sun and weather will impact the effectiveness of your solar plants. This simulation also serves to inform the one aspect of the game that serves as the biggest point of differentiation between Shadow Empire and every other 4X game I have played: logistics.
Logistics in Shadow Empire are handled by networks of transportation infrastructure connected by stations, both in the cities and between them. Infrastructure comes in three varieties: dirt roads, sealed roads, and railroads. Dirt roads and sealed roads are used by truck stations, with railroads using either train stations or high-speed rail stations. These stations generate two types of points, one that determines the total amount of goods that can be carried as well as a certain amount of action points that determine how far you can carry them. In the event you can’t quite reach between your cities or whatever location you need to transport supplies to, then you can build additional stations or alternative buildings that just extend the range of your logistic points.
As the game goes on and your cities get bigger and your infrastructure network becomes more strained, you will be forced to expand your logistics network. This plunges you into the overall system of constraints in place in order to force you to consider how you are going to expand. The first of these, which is pretty standard across 4X games, is resources. There is a collection of them, of increasing rarity, all of which make sense for the setting. The next layer, which is a bit more unique, is populace. Any given city has a populace that is made up of workers, who are directly employed by the state, and population, which is not. In order to be able to build (and run) your buildings you need to have sufficient workers, and in order to get enough workers you need to a) make them happy and b) have enough for them to do. If you lack either of them they will shift into the population and if they are unhappy as population they will leave either for another city entirely or flee the city altogether and live as free folk. There are of course a set of buildings you can build that will improve the quality of life in your cities, and thus keep your people happy. Of course, these buildings all require resources to build and maintain, creating an elevating series of constraints that leave you always pressed for something.
The tech system allows you to invest in discovery and research. Discovery is a bit of a random process, as you have no choice in picking the techs that will be discovered, they are generated from the subset of those that are available to be discovered, based on specific previous techs and overall tech quantity. Once a tech is generated it is available to research. This is an active choice, though how the research is handled varies a lot based on the specific tech types. For normal binary techs (economic, military, air force, and formations) you simply pick it and then once it has accumulated enough research points it emerges as a fully usable tech.
For military models, you need to build them using a combination of whatever parts are appropriate for the model. So for example, infantry require you to pick a weapon and armor, for a tank you would need to pick a gun, armor, and an engine. The final category is linear techs, which gives you a bonus rather than unlocking an option, with the bonus growing in a linear manner as your overall completion percentage increases. However, the closer you get to 100 the more difficult it is to progress on the tech, so it behooves you to switch around between them in order to maximize the overall bonuses you are getting.
There is so much more about Shadow Empire that could be discussed in explaining the game that it would be extremely difficult to go over all of it in a relatively concise review. Shadow Empire’s reference manual has almost 400 pages. The game is dense, and while the game has some very good tooltips, it would be a lie to claim that this game has a small learning curve and is easy to pick up. Despite this real cost, it feels like there is very little to learn that is pointless or useless. It is a real cost, but if it is one you are willing to pay it is worth it.
Failures and Limitations
Beyond the game’s sheer density, the places where Shadow Empire fails are three: clarity, user interface, and multiplayer balance.
Probably because of the mere presence of a reference manual, the vast majority of how Shadow Empire is played is not in the game itself. In-game there is a barebones tutorial, but you will have to spend a fair amount of time simply learning how to do things and why your decisions produce the results that they do. This makes the game take a bit longer to pick up than it could have, and it feels like something that could potentially have been made better. The game has a lot of very good tooltips, but they are incomplete. In order to get some information, you need to make reasonable decisions you have to either look up the information in the manual or potentially go through a series of menus to get to the specific information you require. In some cases this is necessary. It would be tough to get a tooltip to explain the logistics system, but there are some areas, such as formation research, where it clearly feels lacking and others, such as how much impact leaders actually have on their area, where the information is almost completely absent.
This lack of clarity extends to the lack of good tutorials. Now this is somewhat resolved by YouTube videos and of course the manual, but for a game as ambitious and promising as Shadow Empire, that system should do as much as it can to draw in the player to showcase how well built the game is. Some may find the challenge of getting through an opaque system to be rewarding and perhaps even enjoy the game more, but I feel that their numbers will not overshadow the number of people who would not give the game the chance it deserves. There are a number of reasons why this could be the case, but considering Shadow Empire’s was essentially created by a one man team, it almost certainly comes down to lack of resources. It is disappointing, but understandable.
Shadow Empire’s user interface issues are in kind with the clarity issues. If you accept that nested menus are necessary for the game, then at the very least there should be intuitive ways to navigate them, which is done to some extent. At any point where you see a leader referenced you can click on their headshot and their character sheet pops up. But decisions are presented to you that require 2-3 clicks to get to the information you need and a pretty adept understanding of the menu interface, which would only come with a great deal of time. If you are given a decision about a city, you should be able to just click on the city name in the decision, and be taken to the city’s location on the map to pursue information on it at your leisure; if you are asked a question about which political party your spy wants to support in a foreign country, you should not have to click out of the decision, go to the strategic map, and then move to the country in question so you can review what the political parties support. Much like the tutorial issue, it feels like the game’s UI is getting in the way of the game’s potential for success. This is disappointing for me, because I really, really like this game and I fear this user interface will get in the way of it achieving the sort of larger audience that I feel it has the potential to capture.
While the game features a multiplayer mode, it was clearly designed with single player in mind. “Goody hut” rewards vary widely in power and getting a strong tank or walker early on can completely disrupt the balance between players, resulting in someone running away with the game as they conquer minor civilizations, and perhaps even major civilizations, with ease. Similarly some starting neighbors are more dangerous than others, and getting into a fight for your life against slavers can be fun and interesting in the early game of a single player run, but in multiplayer it can cripple you enough that you are permanently unable to catch up. The slaver issue can be resolved with restarts and the goody hut issue can be resolved with house rules, but it is unfortunate that these house rules are needed in the first place.
Shadow Empire as a whole is an achievement. It combines some tried and true elements of 4X games such as procedural generation, turn-based combat with a variety of customizable units, a diplomacy system, and more yet still innovates, rolling in features not just of war games but also games from entirely different genres to make something that I feel is truly special.
The first of these, logistics, is something that is unique among missing from almost all 4X games. Tracking logistics is complex and can be potentially limiting. However, a lot of the late-game problems that feature in 4X games, specifically unlimited growth and a decline in challenge, are a direct reflection of a missing logistics system. Shadow Empire thankfully includes one and gives it the importance it deserves. It serves as a method to supply both troops in the field and conquered/colonized cities and forces you to make hard decisions about when you want to use your limited resources to build up the cities and infrastructure or you have and build for expansion. It also provides a real cost for claiming wilderness. You need to spend resources building roads and buildings to provide your expanding troops the resources they need.
It also provides a lot of interesting context to decision making. Do you really want to take the time to exterminate a group of mutants who are attacking your borders when it is probably going to be a net negative in resources? Can your infrastructure system handle the shock of absorbing a protectorate or client minor civilization into your empire? Can it handle this city you are invading? Do you want to suboptimally place a colony city in order to allow for a more efficient expansion of your web of roads and railroads? These are all real and meaningful decisions that Shadow Empire features and differentiate it from other 4X games out there.
The character system, and how it interacts with your national characteristics are also quite fun and unique. Each character has a selection of stats and skills, many of which are quite relevant to different roles you could assign them. On top of that they have a capability, which is a general reference of how good they can become and directly influences skill growth, and a profile which shows their preferences and dislikes. So, for example, a character could strongly prefer the Heart profile. Every time your heart profile goes up this character will get happier, every time it goes down this character will be displeased. This creates really interesting dynamics in regards to determining how you want to govern your country.
You may have specific goals for regime stats in order to get the right bonuses to help your country run effectively, but if really good leaders dislike where you are headed you risk reducing the character’s effectiveness and eventually losing that leader to a rebellion. So you are either forced into making decisions that counteract your goals or spending your valuable political points on cards to make them happy again. When you start adding in a steadily increasing number of governors, formation leaders, and more it results in a really complex tapestry of competing political forces all of which want something different from your country.
The world generation system, and the procedural elements related to it, are fantastic. It is dense and somewhat opaque unless you are familiar with how things such as how gravity can impact the atmosphere or how planet age can change the composition of the crust. But each time you play you can see how different combinations of factors change the set-up and if you find specific things that you like (such as large ruins, in my case) you can figure out how to repeat it. If you want variation, then you can gain access to a truly astounding number of potential starting situations. This combines very well with the number of starting options, allowing you to easily and effectively create a world that fits your needs while still having the potential to surprise and challenge you.
I could go on, but part of the reason Shadow Empire stands out for me is how many of the subsystems both work and work well. My complaints are entirely on the interface and opacity side of things, the gameplay itself is superb. Every part of the game is crafted with obvious effort, intelligence, and care that it seems to be only one step short of a masterpiece.
Shadow Empire is a triumph. This does not mean the game is perfect, as no game is, but it sits as a game that pushes the entire genre of 4X games in a very positive direction. It has been years since I played a 4X game that truly captivated me, and I had largely given up on the genre. Shadow Empire is different. It pushes the genre in directions that I did not expect it to ever be able to go, and it has resulted in a truly wonderful game that I think any true 4X fan who can tolerate the user experience flaws should check out. I expect to be playing it for years to come.