How often do you see a sci-fi 4X game that’s taking place on another planet and it isn’t a warmed up clone of Alpha Centauri? And how often is it set in a post-apocalyptic setting? Because that’s what you can expect in Shadow Empire: Planetary Conquest.
There used to a be a star-spanning, technologically advanced Galactic Republic. Emphasis on “used to.” Dissolution War happened, killing billions via direct military action and the knock-on effects of dissolving interplanetary trade. On your planet, civilization is barely getting back on its feet after decades if not hundreds of years of barbarism. Enter you, the newly minted leader of your faction. Your goal is to end this space Mad Max nonsense and conquer the planet!
Dad king, what do
Oh, and Shadow Empire essentially simulates all of what I mentioned at the start of each new campaign. You begin by generating a planet, starting from a type – Earth-like, full of alien beasts, lava world, lifeless moon, etc. – then going through stuff like axial tilt, level of rainfall and so on. Then the game generates the story of the colonization of the planet – and the effects of the Dissolution War.
Compared to that, making your own faction is super easy. Choose a name, get your leader a title, set up the flag, and run through a quick test to determine your starting political leanings.
Then you’re dropped into the game. On the most basic settings of Shadow Empire, this means starting with a single city, a handful of militia units, a few stratagems, and a couple of decisions to make. Messing with the settings allows you to start with multiple cities, real standing armies, a full array of government offices, and advanced tech level – but where’s the fun in that?
Your main task Shadow Empire is to explore, expand, exploit and exterminate. You need more territory to uncover more resources and to grab whatever relics from the before-times. You need a bigger army to hold all that clay. You need to take care of the logistics network or that army will starve in the field. You need to keep your citizens either happy or in line, or else you won’t have workers and replacements. You also need to manage the members of your cabinet lest they decide to stab you in the back and start a rebellion.
Bordering on insanity
But first, lets get the most annoying aspect of Shadow Empires out of the way: borders. Unlike in Civilization, where your borders are involatile, expanding as you build cities and increase your culture (you rule all that you can cover with the song of your people), borders are fluid as hell in this game. As far as you can push afield with your troops, that’s where your borders are.
Only that applies to the other factions as well – even neutrals. So your early game may be fucked up by multiple factions just bumrushing your territory and gobbling it up. And you remember how I mentioned supply? Once the others grab a hex with a road, the supply line gets cut and your exploring troops are hung out to dry.
I assume this is a relic of Shadow Empire being essentially a very big mod for Decisive Campaigns game (you can still find the art assets for that by exploring the files). It makes sense in a World War 2 game where you don’t really respect borders or do much of politics with other factions as you battle it out and try to isolate enemy units to starve them out.
So you may be forced into a lot of early fighting against neutrals and minor powers (majors can’t go gobbling each other’s territory without declaring war) just to give yourself some breathing space. And it’s not like you can ask them nicely to fuck off and respect your borders – diplomacy doesn’t work that way in Shadow Empire.
You activated my trap card!
A great heap of things in the game – and basically the entirety of diplomacy – is controlled via stratagems. They’re randomly generated every turn and what you get depends on your government, political make up, and other stuff like that. Some stratagems depend on the skill roll of the cabinet member carrying it out, others just happen. Most cost Political Points, though powerful/useful ones may take very precious Fate Points.
What this means is that you can’t just ring up the Goebbel’s Union and tell them “yo, fuck off with this border nonsense.” No, first you need to get the “Spy” stratagem and roll well to implant a spy in the faction to get some Recon on it. Then you need the “Make Peace” stratagem to offer them peace. This doesn’t mean that they’ll automatically accept it! But if they do, you may have some breathing space when it comes to borders.
Now repeat that with every minor power you encounter. Oh, and Shadow Empire doesn’t feel that it’s necessary to inform that a faction or factions have declared war on you. Sometimes, you come out of the turn simulation to find out that basically all of your neighbors – including the one that was your client state – are at war with you.
Cunning use of flags
Actually, my only successful game thus far set me down really close to other major powers, so it was just a race to see who can grab the most neutral and minor territory. I dunno if I won that, but I certainly gave myself a lot of breathing space.
And having space is important for many reasons. For one, it’s resources. Unlike in Civ, where you can see the juicy mineral wealth outside your borders, you only spot the settlements and other structures of interest.
However, every turn, your Economic Council (probably the most important early cabinet to have) can uncover new resource deposits in your territory. Of course, there may be none left in the land that you have, so you need to grab more of it.
A Shadow Empire runs on grunts
Now, speaking of units and troops doing said grabbing. A lot of early game heavy lifting can be done by militia units, which are spontaneously generated and reinforced via their own arcane and unknowable means. They start out in combined arms formations that mix rifle infantry, artillery, trucks and so on.
Meanwhile, you start out being able to build rifle formations, MG formations, the motorized versions of both, as well as recon buggies. This is a bit infuriating, especially when verisimilitude comes into play, objecting to having a 1000 dude battalion of lads armed with nothing by rifles running around supported by a battalion of MGs. What is this, World War I?
(By the way, Shadow Empire handwaves militia having access to weapons that you don’t by saying that it’s all shoddy home-made stuff – think Bob Semple tanks and the weirder artillery pieces to come out of Syria)
Everybody was deep battle fighting
Thankfully, as you get more research and more offices, new guns, equipment and even OOBs become available. And you know what’s the fun part here? You can draft different models for basically every unit – just like in Alpha Centauri! There’s not much use for it in infantry – new types of equipment are explicitly always better if more expensive – but you can get fun with others.
For example, you can design artillery with 155mm guns and minimal crew protection for independent arty battalions that would never be involved in frontline fighting. Once you get combined arms units that can include artillery, you can design smaller (and thus lighter and faster) guns with armored crews to better withstand the battles.
A word of advice: don’t forget recon. A unit of buggies or motorcyclists (bikers) included in the attack is always a force multiplier.
As befitting a game riding on a WW2 engine, fighting in Shadow Empire is somewhat in-depth. A lot of stuff from recon to organization to supply levels and terrain are taken into account. So of course the best way is to do it is pin a unit in place, cut off the supplies and then crush it at your own leisure.
Of course, having recovered archeotech Galactic Republic-grade units is even better, but that’s not something you can really control.
Politics? IN MY VIDEO GAMES?!
But this preview is getting long as it is, so I’ll segue into one thing I want to discuss before I start talking about the technical aspects of the game. Namely, the political system. Your regime’s politics and policies are separated into three wide areas made up of three approaches each. You have your principles of governance (democracy, autocracy, meritocracy), your measures of control (enforcement, commerce, government) and guiding ideals (mind, heart, fist).
So if you want to go for Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism, you’ll go for Democracy-Government-Heart (the symbol for Government is hammer and sickle). If you’re a fascist (and in the game as well), you’ll take Autocracy- Enforcement-Fist. Of course, you can combine them however you want. You can’t, however, just run up all three contenders as each one has a has a profile it suppresses and another that it’s suppressed by.
What do they impact in Shadow Empire? Well, your scores in each of these increase the chances of unlocking new tiers of ideology and associated benefits – it’s usually new Stratagems and unit attachments. Stratagems I already mentioned; unit attachments are spontaneously generated upgrades that provide benefits to either the formation you sent them to or the unit they embed themselves with.
And how do you increase/decrease these profiles? Via decisions, of course. At the start of each turn, you may get a few decision prompts. Some are just upkeep – asking you to allot bureaucracy point budgets to offices or for your guidance on unit design – while many are generated by random events.
Invariably, the choices you make in these events will either positively or negatively impact one or more profiles. Of course, the effects are bigger than that – some choices will require skill rolls, money, expending PP and so on.
For example, a neighboring regime may want to resettle some sexual deviants (you know, the types that like to hold hands) in your lands. Accepting them is bad for Government but good for Meritocracy (or Heart, I don’t remember) – turning them away is the opposite.
Naturally, Democracy-Government-Heart is the way to go almost every time, though they may make your game harder as you can’t just use troops to suppress worker strikes.
It’s a fascinating system and I love it – I just wish Shadow Empire had a Victoria 2-like class system so I could tax the rich to hell.
Why my eyes blood
Well, with that out the way, let’s talk about the game’s one great failing: the visuals. All of the art in Shadow Empire is terrible. The characters have awful Poser portraits (and silly names, but that’s a bonus) and all the vignettes and stratagem cards are dumb PS2 era nonsense. Only the unit art that appears on the counters is any decent as it’s close to pixel art.
At least the portraits are randomly generated and the unit art reflects their equipment combo.
But here’s the deal: of the Shadow Empire’s ~570MB install size, 256MB are devoted to graphics, 160MB are for sound, and 70MB are for redistributables. All of the graphical details in the game are in PNG files. There’s literally no finesse to it – you have different files for different zoom levels and each border of the hex has its own file.
This is a shinning opportunity to do modding that requires willpower more than it does skill. With enough time and willingness to steal art, you can replace every card, report background, flag icon, etc. with something that wouldn’t have looked dated in 2004.
What’s even better is that the portraits are generated by taking a face from one .png file, eyes from the other and so on until you get a character. If you have a weeb friend that draws animes, you can have Shadow Empire: Waifu Conquest tomorrow.
Seeing how Shadow Empire stores essentially all the visual assets aside from individual letters for fonts as .pngs, I did the needful. pic.twitter.com/mf66DZXyU2
— ꙮ Martynas "JcDent" Klimas ꙮ (@Lord_Denton) May 6, 2020
But the real best thing would be for Slitherine to pat the dev on the shoulder and say “we got this” – and hire a pixel art illustrator to draw new art assets for the game. The interface can stay – its lack of refinement helps to get into the spirit of a post apocalyptic game. The rest must go.
This year alone, I played miniLAW, Huntdown and Legend of Keepers, all games that absolutely, positively slap with their pixel art approach. Slitherine should really poach a few of these talents and save their game developers from themselves.
They should also get someone to go over the stratagem texts, because some of that stuff feels clearly ESL and needs fixing.
In the end, Shadow Empire is a very enticing game. It offers a heady mix of genres and themes. It has a combat layer that 4X games can usually only dream off. And if you know the right artists, it will allow you to populate the planet with nothing but catgirls.