Hate to go all rules lawyer on you, Yahtz, but aren’t you not supposed to review games that are still in early access? Well, let me rules lawyer you straight back because that was my rule that I invented for myself, so I get to decide the exceptions, that’s rule #1 of rules lawyering. And furthermore, I consider it strange that someone should profess to hate rules lawyering immediately before doing so, it seems to me your honour that my learned friend needs to go back and retake their rules bar exam. Shadows of Doubt is a procedural immersive sim detective game that’s in early access because it’s trying to balance more moving parts than a waiter at an overcrowded Klingon restaurant but I’m reviewing it now for two reasons: one, I played fuck all else last week because everything I tried just made me want to go back and play Shadows of Doubt some more instead, and two, relatedly, I don’t think the no early access rule should apply if I’m planning to overall praise the game. The whole reason for the rule was that anything I complain about might get patched out for the final release, but I assume the developers of Shadows of Doubt aren’t planning to patch out the good parts that people like. I mean, they’re not Activision Blizzard. OHHHHH.
Shadows of Doubt is, from the broad perspective, an immersive sim taken to a logical extreme. It generates a small city with multiple streets and buildings, every single one of which can be fully explored. And I mean fully. Like, sixteen storey apartment blocks where you can enter every apartment and make a spreadsheet of the colour of every resident’s underpants if that’s your thing. Then it populates the city with a horde of NPCs, each with an assigned address, possessions, job, work hours, associates, appearance, fingerprints, blood type, preference for Star Wars or Star Trek, it’s a vast living simulation full of crossing over data points, and every now and again one of those data points murders one of the other data points, and that’s where the fun begins. Setting-wise it’s a dystopian cyberpunk retro mashup where you can be installing cybernetic leg implants one moment and in the next be in a payphone looking up someone’s address from a book, printed on fucking paper like it’s renaissance fucking Italy. And the corpo cops only care about what the plebs do to each other if any of their blood gets on a CEO’s wheel arches, so actually solving crimes has become a sort of eccentric hobby for loners, like doing the crossword.
What I love most about Shadows of Doubt is that it’s a game where you essentially play as Rorschach from Watchmen. There was a Watchmen video game called The End Is Nigh where you could be Rorschach, but that was just a basic brawler and it failed to capture the core essence of life as a homeless vigilante detective psychopath. Who keeps breaking into crime scenes where he’s not wanted and stealing all the cold baked beans. Because that’s exactly what I had to do. I’d hear about a murder on my unlicensed radio, lurk nearby until the cops are finished taping off the crime scene and have pissed off back to their cars to compare Punisher decals, then sneak in and start investigating. And all the while I’m looking for clues and fingerprints I’m also nicking all the loose change and bits of garbage to use as lockpicks and drinking all the beer in the fridge ‘cos I’ve got hunger and thirst meters to worry about and money’s tight because I have to pay for all my handcuffs myself. I don’t know why I fucking love this so much. I tried to break into the victim’s workplace for more intel, and got caught and chased out by the staff because I stank so much from rifling through the bins, and I fucking love that that happened as well.
Murder investigations usually come down to finding an unknown set of fingerprints at the crime scene, then assembling a list of known associates and colleagues and creeping on them until you find the fingerprints’ owner, whom you then cuff while crowing “Ha! You would’ve gotten away it with had you just resisted the urge to examine the victim’s Funkopop collection.” Between murders you balance your handcuff budget by taking side gigs, which usually also involve tracking someone down from very few details, and sometimes you have to use some creative thinking. One time all I had was a phone number and a blood type. So I called the number until it was answered with “Hello, Zebedee here,” or whatever it was. Hung up, broke into the basement of the building I was in, hacked the phone records, determined what building the outgoing call went to, went back to the address book and made a list of everyone living in that building whose first initial was Z, ended up with two results, went and knocked on both doors and beat the snot out of whoever answered. And I went away feeling jolly pleased with myself.
That feeling fades after you’ve done a few cases, figured out how the game usually sets things up and fallen into a routine, but isn’t that just true to life? Most crimes are pretty routine, someone decides they’ve finally had enough of their neighbour’s shit and stoves their head in with a shovel or a paralysed cat, same story plays out every day in the big city. So gameplay shifts from clever clogs crime mystery solving to more a sort of post-dad game workaday slog as you go down yet another list of names, but I like both of those things. The exciting tasty ice cream sundae gave way to a homely, comforting packet of chocolate biscuits. Before I knew it I was roleplaying against my will. Needing to kill time before I could break into a workplace after closing I sat at a bar and bought the cheapest thing on the menu every few hours so the bartender wouldn’t complain. They’d never actually complain or do much of anything besides stare and introduce themselves several times an hour, but it seemed like the sort of thing my dude would do. It might be worth restating that this is an early access game, and as such at time of writing it’s more bugged than a foreign embassy in Moscow.
Half the menu interface doesn’t know if it’s coming or going, I clipped through elevator floors more than once, important mission details occasionally fuck up so sometimes you don’t know if your finely honed detective instincts are failing you or if the evidence you’re looking for has spawned inside the fucking wall again. And if there’s any area I’d recommend the developers give particular attention to in the course of polishing the game, it’s NPC interactions. “Oh my god, I think there’s someone in my house,” declared one homeowner, alert flashing over their head to indicate awareness of my presence. Said individual was, at the time, handcuffed and kneeling on the kitchen floor while I searched all his kitchen cabinets, having already beaten him to unconsciousness twice. And this is just me, but if I were a murderer and had left the bloodstained box cutter I’d used on top of the kitchen counter, and then a foul-smelling detective with bruised fists showed up at my door and asked if he could search my apartment, I probably wouldn’t let him. Even if he did offer me fifty bucks for the privilege. Feels like I could’ve haggled him up a little higher. “Hm, on the one hand I was kinda hoping to escape brutal justice, but then again, fifty bucks! That’d buy a lot of death row hand jobs.”