Shadows of Doubt: Preview

2023-05-04 by George P

The Ultimate Detective Game?

Shadows of Doubt is an innovative sandbox detective simulator with a central emphasis on immersion and stealth-based gameplay that entered its Early Access phase just over a week ago, on the 24th of April 2023. Enter an intricate world suspended between a 1950s film noir and a neon-colored cyberpunk dystopia. Wear your long detective trench coat and prepare to confront a procedurally generated city defined by crime, inequality, surveillance, suspicion, hardship but also, opportunity. The kind of opportunity that is most appropriate for a vigilant and sharp-eyed sleuth. What is incredibly impressive in Shadows of Doubt is how every city you will generate will act as a fully simulated ecosystem. Every citizen has a home, a job, a daily routine, friends, partners, specific medical needs, favorite restaurants, and more. The beauty of Shadows of Doubt is that it offers a world that breathes and moves without your input. You are not the center of the world, you are not the “chosen one”, and you cannot stop the passage of time. The only thing you can do is seize the moment, not as a special protagonist but as just another part of a complex ecosystem.

Which brings us to the hot topic that I am sure everyone has been waiting to read about, the murder mystery. Solving complex and tangled murder cases is the core gameplay loop of Shadows of Doubt and every investigation begins with a body. You will take fingerprints, identify the cause and time of death, search the area for clues, evaluate potential suspects, pinpoint leads, and organize all your findings in your personal “case board”. The case board is one of the game’s best systems, it is intuitive, smooth, easy to use, has multiple helpful features, and most importantly, it makes you feel like a real detective! What makes murder solving in Shadows of Doubt exciting, dynamic, and fundamentally different compared to other titles in the genre is the sandbox nature of the simulated world. There is no script to follow which means that the progress of an investigation will be determined entirely by both your own choices and the flow of the city’s ecosystem. And the fact that the world never stops moving also means that you are racing against the clock. And if you are not quick enough, vital evidence may be destroyed, surveillance footage may be erased, the tracks of a lead may fade out, and in the worst-case scenario, the murderer may kill again.

Into the Simulation

Immersion is central to the experience that Shadows of Doubt has to offer and, for the most part, is executed with a high degree of success. For its visual presentation, the game uses a stylized voxel art style combined with more advanced lighting and particle systems and presumably raytracing. In my multiple playthroughs, there was an abundance of moments where I felt sucked into the game’s gloomy world. Entering an empty half-lit apartment to investigate a crime scene with just the muffled sounds of television in the background. Using a red London-style telephone booth to make contact with a shady client as a rainstorm is raging outside, taking a vintage elevator to the 16th floor of a skyscraper to confront a suspect while hearing only the sounds of clanking and rattling. Brainstorming about a case while sitting in a cozy old-fashioned diner to stay warm from the snowfall outside. These are some of the magical unscripted moments that Shadows of Doubt can produce through its settings, visual presentation, clever ambient sound design, as well as the thematic union between noir and futuristic cyberpunk which is an absolute highlight.

The atmosphere is defined by allure, dark mystery, and a sense of liveliness. Which makes discovering clues and chasing leads much more engaging. And leads in Shadows of Doubt can take many forms. Maybe investigating the victim’s workplace would be an ideal starting point or maybe a discarded receipt will reveal the victim’s last known location, or maybe a cryptic message left by the murderer will reveal a much more sinister plan. No matter the lead stealth will usually be your best ally. As you are not an official detective, you will usually have to break the law to resolve cases, remaining discrete and unseen will be vital ingredients to your success. Breaking in and sneaking around will be necessary as you try to chase potential leads without tripping alarms, being caught by CCTV, or being spotted by armed guards.

The Big Question

Whenever a unique, promising, and highly ambitious game enters the Early Access market, I believe there is always one question that occupies players’ minds: “Is it ready?”. Is the game in a ready-enough state that one can enjoy a smooth and polished experience with a decent amount of replayability? And my honest answer to that question would unfortunately be no. If you purchase Shadows of Doubt, you will be able to explore first-hand the game’s unique concept and clever ideas, and you will certainly enjoy many of the positive elements that I highlighted previously. However, from as early as your first playthrough, you will also encounter numerous issues that plague the game. The technical matters are the ones that you will first catch your attention. Randomly falling through buildings, broken NPC pathfinding, problematic systems, characters walking through walls, parts of the simulation not working as intended, and more.

All that is without going into the game’s wonky optimization. For a game such as Shadows of Doubt, the impact of these technical problems is twofold as they affect both the gameplay loop itself and the overall level of immersion. Beyond the technical issues, there are also numerous problems relating to the actual content of the game. While observing the complexities and intricacies of the simulated world can be fun and immersive. The ways you interact with it are still limited and lackluster. The worst offender in my opinion is the dialogue system. NPCs repeat the same handful of sentences. Interactions with characters feels bland and mechanical, with limited dialogue options and no noticeable change in attitude based on surrounding events. This also means that there is no semblance of an interrogation system, a core aspect of any kind of detective game. Shadows of Doubt instead focuses on the use of stealth to progress cases. However, the stealth-based gameplay loop is nowhere near polished, varied, and interesting enough to remain engaging after just a few hours of playtime. To conclude, if you are excited to try the game’s unique concept for yourself then there is no harm in giving Shadows of Doubt a go at its current state. There are a lot of unique ideas to appreciate and immersive elements to enjoy, and you might even be able to help steer the project in the right direction through your feedback. However, if you are looking for a fully realized concept that offers a significant level of sandbox variety, polished gameplay, in-depth interactions, and dozens of hours of refined replayability, then I would suggest waiting.