I hope you don’t mind if I open up a bit with you here. I have struggled with writing this piece on Shadows of Doubt for several days. Not because I don’t know what to say – I know what I did and didn’t like during my time exploring several different generated cities – but because I’m not sure what my thoughts on this game are. How to put together And I think the reason why I found it so difficult is because I’m not sure that Shadow of Doubt itself fully knows what it wants to be.
We have already written about Shadow of Doubt. Martin covered the game for Razed Digital in 2020 and I read his thoughts before I started playing. He was impressed by what he saw, and I know Martin is a good egg, which excited me to try it for myself. The various descriptors given to Shadow of Doubt have me scratching my head, though. Martin called it “a first-person detective stealth game set in a procedurally generated noirish city”, while developer Cole Jeffries also described it as sci-fi noir and an immersive sim.
This is definitely a detective game. The game doesn’t hold your hand while you solve cases. It’s up to you to collect evidence and find out who the culprit is. The in-game pinboard where all your evidence hangs will automatically make connections between linked items. This allows you to make your own notes and connections between bits and bobs, a physical location to help you understand the crime.
You have wonderful freedom of approach in solving matters. If you need to search a location, you can try and get in either by picking the lock or climbing through vents. After a series of increasingly loud knocks, you can sneak in. If someone is inside, you can try to bribe them. Most citizens are unwilling to open up that easily, so you often have to resort to one of these methods to find what you need. Frustratingly, you can only ask a specific set of questions. Unlike Ace Attorney, where you can present evidence and see what kind of response you get, I was disappointed that I couldn’t ask people about specific evidence like phone call evidence.
Outside of solving cases, I really enjoyed exploring the world. Even at the size of the smallest city, there are a lot of buildings around – after setting aside my reluctance to break the law (consequences be damned!) I really like to sneak into apartments and offices and pry- It was a lot of fun snooping around, looking in the fridge and seeing if there’s anything to eat, stealing money lying around, and hacking into computers to read emails and employee profiles.
I love this gameplay loop, but at the same time I rarely felt connected to it. Everything within the world feels formulaic, and perhaps it’s a trade-off with procedural generation. Citizens answer questions with a single answer. The homes rarely feel personal, often decorated with a TV and shelves of assorted books. Prying into email, in what should be the most personal of communications in this setting, just brings up the same messages, just addressed with different names.
The world or your actions in it are of little consequence. I was seen breaking and stealing within an apartment block, and was actually being followed by security guards, but once I ran out of the building and lost my pursuers, nothing changed. I could re-enter the building without fear and no one remembered the chaos a minute earlier.
Similarly, your approach to solving matters has no bearing on the results. As long as you get the details of the crime right, such as the name of the criminal and what evidence they found at the crime scene, you get your pay for a job well done and your social status goes up a bit. It doesn’t matter that I stole money from a criminal’s wallet, or that I repeatedly witnessed my trespassing and theft while searching my suspect’s apartment.
Perhaps this is the trade-off for the noir setting – a grim world where crime is rife and the law is only in the hands of the people. But, and it’s clear even at first glance at the game, Shadows of Doubt takes more cues from cyberpunk than noir and sci-fi. The game takes place at the turn of 1979, in an alternate universe “where hyper-industrialization has swept the planet”. Corporations struggle for power while a new state, the United Atlantic States, elects megacorporation Starch Cola as its president.
The UAS is a “loose” grouping of countries in Western Europe and North America, placing us firmly in the western half of the world. But in every spawned city the same Asian iconography persists in cyberpunk. neon lights. Random jumble of Japanese, Chinese and Korean writings together on the signs. Paper lanterns line some streets, while others have randomly placed Chinatown arches. When I walk around the different cities the game generates, all I can think is: Why? Why are they all here? Why is there nothing in the French or Italian style on the streets?
While I haven’t been able to stomach it long enough to find out about the origins of Starch Cola in-game, or even if its origins are explained, a loading screen prompts you to play Kaizen. Tells about a technology corporation called -6, which was founded. By someone named Kyra Cho. Kaizen-6, with its Japanese name, was founded by someone with a common Korean surname. The more you watch, the more you see it. The merging of East Asian countries into one “entity” as a representative of American techno-orientalism is nothing new within cyberpunk or video games, but I’m getting pretty tired of it.
Likewise, as you start to observe the finer details of the world, it all starts to make less sense. Physical characters are broadcast around the city using vacuum tubes, only to be displayed electronically on a computer (or micro cruncher, in the game’s slang). In one of my cities, a murder was committed by someone, as I found out using the local government’s citizen database, a contract killer. His capture was written in the database as a contract killer, but if the government already knew this then why was this person not arrested earlier?
On paper, I should be absolutely enamored with Shadows of Doubt. immersive sim? check. Spy? check. Noir? check. But despite the fun gameplay loop, none of the parts click well together. I’m not sure the procedural generation can capture what makes an immersive sim or a spy game good – a place where the consequences have real impact and the characters who live in it are fully fleshed out individuals. feel like I must admit, it’s an impressive piece of engineering – the sheer volume of objects and information it’s tempting for the game to generate and make connections between. But for a game with so much literal substance to it, it feels ironically short in its experience.
Manage cookie settings