Shadowhand (Grey Alien)

Shadowhand is a casual game based around the mechanics of solitaire, with a frame story about a noblewoman who dresses up as a highwayman and gets involved in piracy and smuggling and various other shenanigans in 18th century England. If that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s a prequel to Regency Solitaire, which I covered here previously, and I also posted excitedly when the premise was announced.

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 10.46.12 PM.pngThe frame story is pretty light. I have yet to finish this, but the plot doesn’t feel either very convincing or very important. The protagonist decides to take up highway robbery on the spur of the moment during a traumatic event, and is soon killing local ruffians, coachmen, prisoners, etc with little soul-searching or transition. Notionally, she’s trying to protect a friend, but the friend doesn’t turn out to need all that much protecting, and our protagonist goes on about her highwayman business more because, well, she enjoys it. There’s a bit of business about discovering a conspiracy in the neighborhood, but given the number of people she’s killing in order to uncover said conspiracy, it’s not immediately obvious who would be on the side of Good, if we stopped and did the math.

There’s also an RPG element, whereby we can buy equipment and level up skills. Skills grant bonuses like a higher likelihood of drawing jokers during play, or being to start a level with more of the cards face-up, as well as advantages when fighting — and, of course, let us dress up our protagonist with a range of highwayperson outfits, knives, swords, and guns. This, again, is there because it’s fun, not because it’s an accurate representation of a time or a character or a style of fighting, or because it tells a coherent story.

But that’s okay with me. (No, really, it is.) This game is unabashedly about taking a bath in entertaining swashbuckling tropes. Making sense isn’t the point. And — odd as this might sound — it does a really good job at capturing aspects of the swashbuckling genre through the medium of solitaire.

The actual gameplay takes two forms:

  • regular solitaire, where you’re trying to clear the board before your deck runs out (often narratively framed as a task like searching for something); and
  • solitaire duels, where you use solitaire play to recharge your weapons, and your opponent’s AI gets to play from the same board you do.

This is really fun — way more fun than solitaire usually is — because there are more tactical possibilities, ways to predict or unlock cards, or think ahead about what parts of the board you’re opening up to your opponent.

It’s also a surprisingly good fit to represent a swashbuckling fight. The frame story and the gameplay might be rather loosely and metaphorically connected, but the gameplay and the narrative texture work out beautifully. Swashbuckling fight scenes aren’t about realism or plausibility. They’re about pauses, positioning, ratcheting tension — or trivial skirmishing where no one gets anywhere — followed by extraordinary, over-the-top stunts that feel both rapid and inventive, taking advantage of the scenery. (Bonus points for incorporating pirate ship rigging, medieval candelabras, and/or the furniture of a chateau inherited by your evil twin.)

The solitaire board layout gives you that. Every board arrangement is an intentionally designed level, with different locks, layering, and hidden bonus objects. For instance, sometimes you can uncover a health potion or other useful powerup in the middle of the board. If your opponent gets it first… well, your job just got that much harder:

Screen Shot 2017-12-08 at 2.32.54 PM.png

When things go really well, I hit several successful streaks of cards and also deploy some special abilities to keep the run going (e.g. by getting rid of individual cards that were in my way, or deploying a joker to start a new streak). Doing that feels fast and clever: I scan the board, I see possible sequences, click through them at speed. Make a judgement call about whether to spend extra resources for the chance of maybe continuing the run. Maybe opt to uncover an unknown card rather than a known one, because the known one definitely won’t continue my current streak, and with the unknown, there’s just a chance…

That gives some of the spatial reasoning pleasures of a platformer, but without the timed, reflex-dependent element that makes most platformers such a purgatory for me to play.

Here, for instance, I’ve had a good run and cleared all but one card off the board — it would have been stylish if I could’ve gotten that last one too, but alas, it’s impossible:

Screen Shot 2017-12-08 at 2.52.27 PM.png

But things aren’t bad at all. My run of cards has taken me to a combo of 35, radically increasing the attack value of my weapons. It’s not going to be enough to kill my opponent, but I’m about to knock him down from 41 hitpoints to 20.

This reminded me of the “exploding dice” in the swash RPG 7th Sea — if you rolled a 10, it “exploded”, meaning you got another roll of that die to add on top of that baseline 10. In the rare event your die exploded multiple times, this could get really spectacular. The solitaire mechanic in Shadowhand does a similar job of creating a probability landscape that allows for rare extreme outcomes — and a better job of making you feel like you’ve been clever when it occurs. The rest of the time, when you’re doing small moves, the gameplay still moves fast enough, and with enough planning potential, to feel fun, and like you’re building to something.

It’s the kind of gameplay that looks smooth and simple and natural, too. That is how you can tell Jake Birkett polished and balanced the hell out of it.

*

Elsewhere: see Orion Trail for another narratively-suitable way of presenting randomness to the player.

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