From The War of the Worlds on through to Alien, people have been enamored with the idea of an alien invasion. The concept has become pretty routine; unsuspecting people trip into conflict with extraterrestrial invaders, insert fights for mankind ad nauseam. The idea has become no less ingrained into video game culture, though like books and films, it’s executed with varying degrees of competence. The XCOM series is what most gamers probably think of when presented with the phrase “alien invasion” but Shadowgrounds sought to add its own concepts to the mix when it released over a decade ago. It’s time to see if those concepts have withstood the test of time, as well as the game’s overall quality.
Shadowgrounds was released in 2005 by Frozenbyte, a studio better-known today for the excellent games Trine and Trine 2, and the markedly less excellent Trine 3: Artifacts of Power. Unlike those medieval fantasy games, Shadowgrounds is a top-down shooter created with a sci-fi setting in mind. Shadowgrounds is one of a slew of spooky top-down shooters released in the 2000’s, that emulates core concepts of the genre while also trying out new mechanics.
Shadowgrounds takes place far in the future, when mankind has expanded beyond Earth to colonize the rest of the solar system. The game takes place on Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter, and follows a senior space mechanic named Wesley Tyler. The game starts out conventionally enough, with Wesley minding his own business in the garage, when a power outage suddenly drowns most of the base in shadow.
Wesley immediately receives a transmission from his boss, who not so politely orders him to go to the other side of the base and fix the generators. It’s during this introduction that the player learns of Wesley’s past, including that he was once a soldier until being discharged due to a mysterious incident. He was reassigned to mechanical work as punishment, and the aforementioned rude boss was stuck cleaning up much of the mess.
Anyhoo, Wesley finds the other side of the base readily enough, but also realizes that none of the power plant staff are anywhere to be found. Upon hitting the lights, he finds the base infested with small, insect-like creatures, which begin to get bigger and bigger the closer he gets to the base’s laboratory. It’s up to Wesley to pick up a gun, investigate the source of the alien infestation, and wipe it out before the whole base is destroyed.
A Sci-fi Tale as Old as Time
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of science fiction tropes will notice that Shadowgrounds hits almost all of them, almost right away. The protagonist of the game is a low-level dude with a shady past. Something’s gone wrong on the base that’s assumed to be a routine problem. Finally, whatever’s happening seems to be stemming from the heart of the base, which is in no way suspicious. Shadowgrounds breaks little new ground with the premise of its narrative, relying on cliches that are as endemic to sci-fi films and games as laser guns or spaceships.
Despite the fact that Wesley’s a mechanic, he has uncanny skills with a gun. Once again, much like many horror and sci-fi media, the protagonist is an everyman who learns how to survive through sheer adrenaline and luck. It’s a great way to make the audience feel some sort of connection to the character, but that connection is lost when said character seems innately talented with all manner of overpowered weaponry. Wesley falls into this category hook, line and sinker.
As Wesley moves deeper into the base, the creatures that he’s fighting against seem to be growing larger. He moves through mazes of body-filled rooms and past corridors slicked with blood, all on a quest to discover what the aliens are and why they’re attacking. Along the way, Wesley’s guided by a sequential lineup of gruff military officers, who boss him around as he moves through the base kicking alien hiney and turning essential systems back on. The character is given little opportunity to voice his own opinions and no one seems to feature any sort of development.
Predictable and Forced
It’s a shame that there’s no character development to be had in Shadowgrounds, because there’s little else in the game to save the cast for the player. For starters, the voice acting in this game is awful. Everyone delivers their dialogue with either the faintest hint of interest or the most painfully forced of fake terror. There is no middle ground in Shadowgrounds; everyone either sounds too bored or too crazed. Wesley himself is voiced with no enthusiasm and is fazed by nothing. Wesley is voiced by Chad, the chief dude at the computer support center, who responds to every request with “No problem man. I got this, bro.”
Some video games’ stories are worth suffering through bad voice acting to experience, but Shadowgrounds plays it too safe with its core story as well as its premise. When Wesley finally reaches the core of the base and the climax of the narrative, he discovers that humanity has been experimenting on the aliens and now they’re really mad. That plot point is one of the most timeless cliches of sci-fi films and movies. The plot twist of humans secretly messing around with things they shouldn’t, culminating in an alien rebellion, that can only be put down by a hero inexplicably invincible to everything. To be fair, it’s true that many video games borrow this premise in one form or another, but Shadowgrounds’ naked disinterest in an ambitious storyline is not only disappointing, it’s boring.
Possible Redeeming Elements: Gameplay and Visuals
So there’s little to be said for narrative or character development; what of gameplay? Shadowgrounds is a competent enough top-down shooter. The controls are quick and responsive, and it’s easy to move Wesley through various sections of the base to turn the lights on. Gunplay is a simple enough affair; move through the game, collecting bigger weapons as you go, point said weapons at the aliens, and repeat the procedure until the things are dead. There are weapons and health packs scattered around Ganymede, and upgrades can be salvaged from the bodies of Wesley’s dead enemies. Occasionally, an NPC will show up to help Wesley, but most of Shadowgrounds is spent in linear, gory seclusion.
Although Shadowgrounds‘ narrative treads no new paths, and its gunplay is effective but rote, its visuals have aged surprisingly well in the 11 years since its release. The environments sport a lot of good textures and attention to detail for a game this old. The game experimented with dynamic lighting and shadows, back when that was a big deal, and it does help lend the game some semblance of a horror atmosphere. Granted, with all the weapons Wesley carries, he has no reason to fear anything, but the artwork of Shadowgrounds does deserve some credit. It’s not enough to carry the game, unfortunately, but it does make the base at least look interesting and give some variety that the other design facets omit.
Ultimately, though, what Shadowgrounds does poorly is done spectacularly by other top-down games, and what it does well is done even better, usually by those same games. The world of Shadowgrounds certainly looks interesting, and its experiments with light and shadow were novel a decade ago, but the game’s lockstep adherence to every orthodox top-down shooter ever makes the game quite bland. Its story is a soup-thin affair, and what little narrative the game does provide is nothing that a thousand other games haven’t done a thousand times better. The narrative’s tropes and cliches are buried further by the voice acting, which, even by video game standards, is pretty bad. If Shadowgrounds failed to make that big of a splash when it was released in 2005, it certainly won’t make much of a splash now. Give it a miss.