Shadows of Doubt launched in early access on April 24th, and while that label is very evident given how its current iteration plays, the groundwork it lays out already sets it up to be one of the slickest games of the year. I’ve already poured nearly fifty hours into the game at the time of this writing, and it’s enraptured me in a way I’ll attempt to articulate in the words to come. From its robust art direction and spot-on audio design, to the little details that perfectly sell its specific branch of cyberpunk, Shadows of Doubt is a pearl. Each layer adds to the base concept until the whole thing sparkles brilliantly beneath the flickering neon signs and high rises that spike out from its surface.
Let’s back up and start with the base concept. Shadows of Doubt is a detective game where the objective is to solve murders, gain social credit, and egress to a pristine retirement district called “The Fields,” a blatant invocation of Greek mythos’ Elysium. The murders, and indeed the whole city itself right down to its citizenry, are procedurally generated, though the game does provide a pre-generated city in “Charlotte Heights,” as well as a guided murder case, “The Dead of Night,” to serve as a tutorial for new players. After using both of those to get my bearings, I opted to create my own city, eager to start with a fresh slate.
Welcome to Paradigm Refulgence.
Soak it in now, because the aesthetic design of Shadows of Doubt is the single best thing about it. I’m not normally a voxel guy, but the presentation on offer is quite the sight to behold and explore. Refuse on the streets and corners of hallways match perfectly with big blocky dumpsters, diner booths, and towering CCTV installations. Part of what charms me about Shadows of Doubt is how believable and lived-in its cityscapes feel; how its graphical design is perfectly suited for the atmosphere and mood it strives to achieve. It’s a perfect encapsulation of a hyper-industrialized late 70s/early 80s Americana dystopia. It’s cyberpunk in a crunchy, pay-phone way.
Voxels, with their cubic appearance, make excellent building blocks for similarly blocky objects and structures like dumpsters and skyscrapers, but they can prove to be quite confining when rendering the myriad funky shapes that human bodies can take. I was pleasantly surprised at how varied citizen appearances can be in Shadows of Doubt; height and body type are surprisingly more diverse than many modern games. I’m always dismayed when I learn that a game both has the foresight to implement fat models, but then stops at that first step and only implements them for one or two characters, only implements them for men, or only has one fat model per gender. You aren’t going to quite get the level of detail and nuance that would be afforded more graphically complicated systems, but Shadows of Doubt at least has the sense to untether height and weight entirely, allowing for appearances of all kinds, regardless of gender.
Speaking of gender, Shadows of Doubt surprised me with its impressively unfettered use of gender in its character generation system. Cities are populated by men, women, and non-binary people, and the game will render these characters wearing all kinds of clothing and being present in all levels of society. I can’t tell you how many times my investigations led me to the homes of gay couples, with one man wearing dress shoes and the other wearing high heels. Non-binary people are just as likely to run businesses as they are to work its cash registers.
To be clear, the game isn’t about the nuanced implications of being non-binary in its dystopian setting (though you can play as a non-binary detective yourself, this is effectively cosmetic and has no impact on how citizens interact with you.) You aren’t going to find any commentary on or dissection into gender or sexuality here. Those topics are beyond the scope of Shadows of Doubt, and it would be quite unusual to find such explorations when its core murder mysteries still have a fair amount of blank canvas in their construction, as I’ll get into later. The game effectively treats non-binary genders as a singular, third gender, wherein a citizen can just have the full gamut of names, attire, and appearances. Nonetheless, it’s worth mentioning due to the way it impacts investigations. Because men can wear high heels, finding heeled shoeprints doesn’t automatically mean the suspect is a woman. Oh, someone saw a suspicious person with a large build? Well, everyone can be fat in Shadows of Doubt, not just men of a particular height, so that only narrows down the possible suspects along one vector.
Relationships between characters are also randomized, although they are strictly monogamous couplings. Unfortunately, the dream of finding out that an entire apartment building is controlled by one complex polycule—the Megacity Megacule—will not be realized. I imagine this is largely to keep some level of consistency in NPC interactions as well as making sure the building and NPC generation systems play nice together. Currently, if characters are partners, then the game forces them to live in the same unit; if the system allowed characters to have more than one partner, it would either need to drastically change the kinds of room layouts on offer (lest we run into a clown car situation where nine people have to share one queen-sized bed) or decouple partnerships from living quarters (meaning you could have a monogamous couple who live on opposite sides of the city.)
The last thing I’ll say about citizen generation in Shadows of Doubt is that NPC names come from a wide array of cultural backgrounds. I can’t imagine every possible real-world culture is represented in the game’s name catalogue, but there are more present than you might expect. These too are disconnected from other factors like gender and skin tone, and while most are only represented through the name alone, this is a game where consumable items include cheeseburgers, churros, banana cues, nai wong bao, mango rice, and dango. There could stand to be more cultural signifiers across the game’s huge roster of bric-a-brac and consumables, but it’s not as though the game is completely devoid of diversity either.
The only times where the visuals stumble is when the procedural generation goes a little bit haywire. As with any procedurally generated digital space, cracks can show here and there, such as one of the black market shops in Paradigm Refulgence not being fully registered as a building, so citizens will walk through its walls like it’s a regular street. I’ve found office workers sitting down, typing away on computers that don’t exist. One couple’s sink was situated directly beneath a ventilation cover, and any time they would interact with the sink to wash their hands or brush their teeth, they would “activate” the cover, opening and closing it, reminiscent of a side effect of room-over-room map chicanery that DOOM WADs have been dealing with for years. It’s not so frequent as to be bothersome, but it’s worth keeping in mind.
You know a game is good when the mere act of walking down its streets is satisfying in its own right. Shadows of Doubt’s perfectly spot-on soundtrack, the sounds of rain pitter-pattering on chunky digital pavement, a distorted advertisement blasting through the thunder — all of this builds the atmosphere around you as you walk from place to place, chasing down possible leads in the murder mystery unfolding before you. It’s Blade Runner, both the 1982 film and the 1997 game by Westwood Studios. It’s Edward Hooper’s Nighthawks. It’s BioShock’s Rapture if it were built on the offshore plant that comprises Mother Base in Metal Gear Solid V, and didn’t have the whole splicer business that made everything go to shit (make no mistake; everything has gone to shit; just in a more realistic, hyper-capitalist way).
With such a bullseye in the art direction for this detective game, how do the murder mysteries that make up the bulk of it’s systems and goals fare? The term “serviceable” comes to mind. They function, but there’s a distinct lack of style and substance. I mentioned a tutorial case earlier, called “The Dead of Night.” It does a great job of introducing players to all of the options and systems they have at their disposal, but it does a bad job by leading players to expect every case will be as narratively involved as itself. In my first playthrough, I solved roughly a dozen or so murder cases, and they quickly became quite repetitive in their execution.
The most interesting case was the 2nd one, dubbed the “Valentines Reaper,” which involved a woman scorned several times on a dating service called Dove. Checking through her emails, she would match with other users, and then receive an email from Dove stating her matches no longer wished to see her. Presumably, her victims were her former matches, as she’d draw a heart in lipstick around their corpses, then write their name + her initials in blood on a nearby wall. It was a good case to solve, leading me down many avenues of inquiry, trying to figure out who the culprit was before she claimed another victim. During the investigation, I made great use of the game’s Evidence Board system; one of its most delightful gameplay components, it allows one to weave a visual tapestry of connections between evidence, suspects, witnesses, locations, and information. You can write custom sticky notes, change thread colors, append pictures, crossout dead ends, and make connections as you please. It’s a perfect addition to the game, as it makes the act of investigating and organizing information both playful and personal: each board serves as both a data storage system and a historical canvas for every case and side job you take. Look at the one for the Valentines Reaper case I made.
Beyond that one case, most of the killing sprees were fairly routine. Many of them had the killer leaving a crumpled note at the scene of the crime, with their fingerprint on it, and the note was just an anagram of their name with a lukewarm taunt of “Let’s play,” as if solving an anagram is super challenging when most buildings have an address book that lists every citizen’s names using the same “First Initial, Last Name” scheme that the crumpled notes use. The first time I encountered this scenario, I was overcomplicating things by thinking the note indicated the killer’s next victim; I went to her apartment and waited for the killer to arrive, only to discover that her fingerprints matched the ones on the note, indicating that she was the killer the whole time. It was funny in the moment, but when the fourth would-be serial killer had the exact same modus operandi, the anagram note rapidly lost its luster.
As you collect information about citizens, your detective stores it all automatically and indefinitely throughout your playthrough. Whenever you inspect someone, their dossier pulls up in the Evidence Board window, and any information you’ve gathered will be filled in. While taking a side job to arrest someone, the only concrete information I had was their fingerprint (I knew their salary and eye color too, but both of those are less straightforward to investigate, and not mutally exclusive to other citizens; lots of people can have blue eyes, turns out). My options for finding them were either going block to block, scanning every door on every floor for matching prints, or spending 45 minutes checking every citizen’s file in the government database in City Hall. By inspecting one file, almost all of that citizen’s information would be automatically recorded by my detective: hair color, salary, employer, fingerprints, you name it. This database effectively served as a way to brute-force the game’s investigation mechanics, and while it’s time-consuming and tedious to sit there printing and inspecting file after file, once I did so for almost every citizen in the city, my detective could recognize over 400 different unique fingerprints on sheer memory. If I ever encountered a case or side job that gave me even a little bit of information on a suspect, my detective could automatically fill in the blanks. It rendered most of the murder cases irrelevant, as if the suspect left even a single print (and they always left a print in my experience), I instantly knew who they were, and from there I could look up where they lived and worked. It gave the impression that the player character waisn’t some flesh-and-blood noir detective; I was playing freelancer RoboCop.
This roughly ties into the Sync Disks; DNA-altering devices that can be looted or received as rewards for completing side jobs, which you can use to modify your detective, gaining passive benefits like extra inventory slots, cold immunity, and fall damage negation. In many respects, I was playing a transhumanist detective who ran on nothing but croque monsieurs, liters of coffee, who was driven by an insatiable appetite for investigation. Shadows of Doubt’s system keeping track of all the citizens’ information I had gathered automatically was convenient and acts as an data-based method of “progression,” as prior cases and jobs would literally inform future ones. But using the government database to manually collect this information felt far too powerful for what the game is going for. I’ll grant that this is a self-inflicted problem — refraining from printing out the entire database’s worth of citizen files keeps a lot of the sleuthing gameplay intact, but I can’t help but feel that there should be some cost or disincentive to this kind of brute-forcing, as it spoils murder cases and side jobs for the rest of the game.
Setting aside the questionable use of scraping data out of City Hall’s computers, my main issue with the murder cases in Shadows of Doubt is the lack of narrative behind them. The Valentines Reaper had a clear motive, even if that’s something I just inferred on my own, but a lot of the murder cases seem to just be for the sake of it. There was one guy who murdered his neighbor. I found him working as a street vendor, and I couldn’t arrest him because you have to be behind people to initiate an arrest. He was inside a food truck with his back to one of the truck’s sides, so I couldn’t physically get behind him. I went to go progress a side job to pass the time until his shift was over, and during that time he went back home and murdered another neighbor of his. I can think up half a dozen reasons for him to murder his neighbors, but as far as the game was concerned, it didn’t have any motive or reason to give him. He was procedurally selected to procedurally murder two citizens who happened to live on the same floor of the same building he lived in. Solving murders revolves around finding the killer, the murder weapon, where they live, proof of their presence at the scene of the crime, and you can arrest them for an optional bonus reward, but the motive for murder is distinctly absent from the sleuthing process; it’s all about the Who, the What, and the How, and not the Why.
It’s not as though Shadows of Doubt is completely void of good writing, though. There’s a decent amount of backstory and set-dressing, and it’s all in service of building out the world and its history. It’s just that there’s not quite enough of it. When you hack into people’s computers (called “Micro Crunchers” in-game), you can read their vmails (vacuum mails), and everyone’s accounts are filled with the same sorts of messages. Advertising for this new product, or a sweet reminder to their partner to buy milk on their way home, or a message from Dove welcoming them to the dating app. There’s an entire rabbit hole to go down in terms of making up fake email messages in a setting like this, and some repetition is to be expected, but you’d only have to hack a few terminals to see most of the vmail variations.
All this said, I do have high hopes for Shadows of Doubt. My mind races over with the possibilities that can come to life in future updates as the game goes through early access development. There’s already a roadmap on the developer’s website, indicating three big content updates for the game scheduled to come out over the year. Over the course of my first playthrough, I could see areas all throughout the game where refinements and additions could be made.
One detail I liked is how the city’s infrastructure is classified; the underground basements are called the Fathoms, the ground-level and the lower floors of buildings are called the Myriads, and the higher-level spaces are called the Echelons. In particular, I’d like to see an expansion of the Fathoms; currently each apartment building has one or two basement floors, each with a single hallway and four or five rooms. Often, the lowest floor is flooded, with all of its rooms being doorless and unused. I’d like to see these spaces utilized more. Killers could use them as dumping grounds for victims & evidence, or as boltholes to throw you off their trail. Underground networking could be used as a means of information gathering; paying someone to watch specific doorways for suspects or getting building blueprints from a down-on-their-luck architect. I’m not sure how interwoven the buildings can be with how city generation works, but having basements connect to a larger sewer network throughout the city would open up all kinds of traversal options and avenues for case types and side jobs.
An improvement on the existing case structures would also be welcome. I thought it was fun to infer the motive of the Valentines Reaper through her vmail logs, but motive is a core aspect of murder cases, both in fiction and reality. I don’t need elaborate, grandiose murder plots where the villain is trying to become the next Moriarty; I just need a clear understanding of why the killer is doing the killing. Are they getting paid by a corporation to take out a rival corp’s C-suite? Do they need money for an upcoming, life-saving surgery, and a Fathoms crime boss is willing to cut them some dough in exchange for wetwork? Is it revenge for buying out and closing down their family store to turn it into another Sync Clinic? Having these sorts of motive-based angles can allow for greater variety in tackling each investigation. At the very least, they can serve to prevent the whole “download the city’s entire database” problem I described earlier, by allowing players to investigate the motive in addition to the physical evidence. These motives would also serve to better flesh out the citizens themselves, as you gain a better understanding of their relationships with each other and the city.
Shadows of Doubt is labeled as an immersive sim, and a common feature of those games is the ability to do arbitrary, mundane tasks for the sake of immersion. In other games you can turn on sinks and flush toilets, but in immersive sims like Shadows of Doubt your character needs to take a shower to wash off the stench of dumpster-diving. Immersive sims are often filled with ordinary items that (often but not always) serve little to no gameplay purpose to the player, but can nonetheless still be interacted with. The ding of a typewriter in Dishonored 2 can alert nearby enemies, altering their patrol and allowing the player to slip past them undetected. Shadows of Doubt is full of all kinds of objects like this, and while I don’t expect every item to have some gameplay quirk or use, there’s enough room there for some embellishment. Maybe crunchers need stacks of paper to print out information, and they’ll run out if you print too much; lighters and cigarettes can be used for casual negotiations when trying to learn someone’s name or gain entry into an establishment; perhaps you learn that a suspect’s partner really likes a specific kind of beverage, so providing that as a gift allows you to investigate their home without trespassing. There’s a newspaper item in the game that you can use to hide in plain sight, which is mostly useful for tailing targets during certain side jobs, but I can think of all kind of use cases for nearly every item in the game, and having most of them do nothing other than effectively be props is a little disappointing.
I likened Shadows of Doubt to a pearl earlier, and I still stand by that comparison. It’s a vibrant, visually impressive game, and it’s such a joy to exist in its spaces. Pinning clues and strings together on a digital board remained one of its most satisfying gameplay features, and tracking down leads in murder cases was a thrilling endeavor. It’s just that the full pearl hasn’t fully formed yet; there’s a lot of room for refinement and improvement. With more layers of nacre to build upon its already solid foundation, it’s a game I’m looking forward to revisiting as 2023 moves forward.