If you’re like me, you probably have a massive backlog of games. It’s not surprising, Steam sales have become the bane of our existence. In my case, I sometimes buy games and wonder why I bought them, like Chrome. I almost wrote something about that game, but I kept dying even on easy, so I bailed out of playing that one.
So let’s see what else I got. It’s a bit early in the year to write about Amnesia: The Dark Descent, stuff like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim has been done to death, and I don’t think there’s interest in me writing about the Telltale Wallace & Gromit games…
Here we go. Shadowgrounds, a game from Frozenbyte, a Finnish developer who’d later be known for the Trine series of games. This was one of their earlier efforts, and holds a bit of a memory for me. We have to go back to the far-flung past of 2006 to explain this story.
While Steam is an absolute juggernaut and considered the gold standard of PC digital distribution now, back in 2006 Steam was a much different beast. Besides Valve’s own titles, there wasn’t much third party support for the storefront, outside of a few indie games like the wonderful Darwinia and the one-note forgettable Rag Doll Kung Fu.
Frozenbyte’s Shadowgrounds was one of those early adopters of Valve’s content delivery service, and while it probably wasn’t a breakout hit, I remember it being one of those standout games during Steam’s early years. Considering this was during the transition period for PC gaming where games were still sold in physical boxes in stores, this was probably a better place for the game than being stuck in a bargain rack at a GameStop.
I bought this along with its sequel, Shadowgrounds: Survivor during a Steam summer sale. I was familiar with the game through a demo, but I figure the full game was probably worth a try. It being $1.24 during a Steam summer sale probably helped too, as I’m a sucker for impulse-buying games for super cheap.
You play as engineer William Tyler, who is sent to the moon Ganymede to do some routine generator repair. As expected in fiction like this, stuff goes wrong and aliens begin to invade. Armed with only a pistol, Tyler must fight loads of aliens as he fights for his life while trying to find out the mystery of this invasion. Along the way you meet people that try to help you make sense of this mess.
Shadowgrounds is a top-down shooter. It reminds me of Valve’s Alien Swarm, though European readers may liken this more to Team17’s Alien Breed series of games. The game is fairly straightforward: Shoot the aliens before they attack you and kill you.
A lot of the arsenal is fairly commonplace stuff for these kind of action games: You start with a pistol, then later get an assault rifle, shotgun, rocket launcher, stuff like that. The only unique weapons on display is a laser rifle, a longer-range railgun and an electric zapper weapon towards the end of the game.
Throughout the game there’s a lot of PDAs and computers that explain the shady dealings that this military base does, which is kinda cool. While this does give some Doom 3 vibes, it at least seems more interesting especially when one of the PDAs is a small gag about a chef’s love for meatballs.
There is a neat mechanic in play. Enemies may occasionally drop upgrade points, which you can use to upgrade your weapons. While most of them are fairly simple “do more damage” and “extended magazines/no reloading,” each weapon does have a secondary fire. Some of them, such as the shotgun’s or the grenade launcher’s, can be valuable in a firefight. Nothing’s more fun than dumping 12 shotgun shells into a big enemy.
What definitely threw me off and will likely confuse first-time players is the lack of a proper “save” system. The game autosaves after completing levels, but there’s no quick or manual save. In addition, instead of restarting to the last save upon dying, you’re given “respawns,” which is similar to a lives system in a classic arcade game. Run out of respawns and you have to restart the level. You can use this to your advantage to skip past some annoying backtracking sections, or to refill your health when doing a nasty boss fight.
The rest of the game is fairly simple: Shoot aliens, clear areas, make sure people don’t die, that sort of thing. The game isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, and the top-down perspective works pretty well. Though, I did experience a game bug that almost stopped me dead in my tracks.
In the Water Treatment Facility, I caused the game to softlock before a big boss fight was to start. The only way for me to play it out originally was to use a console command to skip the level in question (setMissionSuccessCounter 1). I later figured out quickly skipping the cutscene with the Escape key caused the boss fight to load properly. It seems I’m not the only one with this problem, it might just be an issue of this game running on modern machines.
As Tyler progresses through the water plant, he meets with Corporal Jane Arwyn, and the two eventually reconvene back to a hidden military base. Eventually Tyler becomes errand boy as he helps Lt. Baxter and his men stop the alien menace through various facilities, bases, and hydroplants. There’s a bunch of levels that are basically this, and while it does drag on a bit, I figure the story is not critical to the game’s experience.
Despite the enemies being generic aliens, some of the enemies in the game looked like monsters I’d see in other games. One of the big aliens with the guns almost looked like a knockoff Baron of Hell from Doom. The spider monster here look like a cross between the Vores of Quake and the Arachnoids from Serious Sam. Hell, I fought a mech in a later chapter that I swear reminded me of Metal Gear.
Eventually Tyler and Arwen meet up with scientist Harold Weiss and Colonel Roger Smith as they go deeper into the research labs of IGTO, who were part of the reason why this whole mess started. Our gang hijack an alien pod they were researching to head into the alien mothership.
By the time you actually get to the alien mothership, you fight a bunch of aliens, get trapped in rooms to fight swaths of enemies inside hexagonal cryopods, run past some rather annoying laser puzzles, and eventually get to the final boss. It’s a tough fight, but with the lives system in play, it isn’t super difficult since the boss health doesn’t reset if you respawn, meaning it’s not a long slog.
That’s pretty much the gist of Shadowgrounds. The story isn’t amazing, the voice acting is a little stilted at times, and there isn’t any complex puzzles to solve. Despite that, I did enjoy my time with Shadowgrounds. It’s not the most amazing game, but this is pretty fun for what I played of it. Especially since this was made by a small group of people from Finland, and I’m always down for playing indie games by small developers.
One day I’ll get around to the sequel, Shadowgrounds: Survivor, which might be more of the same, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. Hell, maybe I’ll get around to playing the Trine games, I heard those are alright.
Now that I think about it, I wonder if there’s any other top-down shooters like these. I know I tend to peg myself as “the shooter person,” but I bet there’s some hidden gems I’m missing out on. Guess I’ll have to find some more, I’d probably enjoy that more than yet another budget military shooter.