There’s something to be said for learning by doing. Sometimes the best way to teach is just throw the pupil into the deep end and shout “Sink or swim!”.  Despite the inherent risk of drowning, at least the person now knows how to swim. Or at least, not sink.

Several games come to mind that employ this principle to a successful degree. Namely Dark Souls and EVE: Online. The tutorials in both of those games are largely centered on just throwing the player into the universe. EVE has tried and tried over the years to improve their “tutorial” but the best education has always been just to do it yourself. Want to learn how to PvP? Just go do it.

 Dark Souls is similar in nature. Giving the player minimal combat experience before thrusting them into a boss fight. Despite a scary experience, the player feels all the more rewarded for it. 

Treading Water

 Ancient Frontier: Steel Shadows appears to attempt to give a similar experience. Although, to relate back to the swimming metaphor, playing Steel Shadows you never really feel like you swim. You only ever feel like you’re just managing to stay above water.


Could You Lend Me A Hand?

With the “Tutorial” option ‘greyed’ (or in this case, ‘greened’) out in the main menu, my only option to begin playing was new game. I was dropped into the first level, given a top down view, and ships to control. As is standard for turn based top down games, the level map is divided into hexagons, and several were illuminated a blue color with the unit that was currently selected. After pressing a few random buttons on my mouse and keyboard  that came to mind, I was finally able to get my unit to move. And, that, right there, kind of describes the experience I had playing this game.

Because there is no tutorial, it would be nice to have tooltips or prompts come up until a tutorial can be fleshed out. At least tell me what keys do what in game. Steel Shadows lacks that, and I fumbled my way through buttons until I gained some degree of competency in game. At least Dark Souls and EVE are kind enough to tell me what  buttons do what. And it is difficult to tell with Steel Shadows whether or not this lack of information is intentional or not.

A Heck of an Eye Workout

My frustration was further compounded by the UI. I play at 4K resolution, something that is becoming more and more standard every passing day. I was even an early adopter of 4K for PC gaming. So, I understand the occasional hiccups in using what is still technically the none standard resolution. However, in-game, Steel Shadows employs absolutely zero scaling of the UI. So everything is nice and tiny. This issue is further heightened and quite frankly weird considering that in the main menu, going through to settings and the various option menus, things seem very over scaled.

As one can see, the in game UI is unreadable when in-game, causing me to have to lean in close the portions of my screen containing it to read the information. I was unable to find any sort of UI scaling option, so it was something I had to deal with. The problem goes away when setting the game to display in 1920×1080, the “standard” resolution. But quite frankly, this is absolutely unacceptable for a game to be released in 2018. I didn’t pay for a rig and setup that can do 4K gaming just to have to turn it down because no UI scaling implementation is in place.

Familiar Controls, Refreshing Systems

Alright, so past the UI frustrations, let’s talk about the meat of the game. And the meat, is somewhat tasty. Once I got past the initial qualms and quirks, and started really playing, Steel Shadows offers an enjoyable yet basic gameplay flow. You strategically move units, which can be either squadrons of ships that are generically named or “Heroes” which are basically the story characters on the field you have control over.

Like other turn based top down games, movement comprises of clicking the desired hex tile. Combat is much the same. You must maneuver the unit to be in attack range before clicking on the hostile to attack it. One thing to Steel Shadow’s credit is that it doesn’t have you sacrifice movement actions for combat actions, as they are separate stats. For example, say I had a unit that in one turn had the capability to attack twice and move twice (the ability to move and fight is indicated in the lower left hand corner by glowing blue and red orbs respectively, I came to find out) I could have this unit move, attack a hostile unit, move it again,  and attack another hostile unit, or any other combination allowed by its stats.

This seems like such a simple mechanic, yet I found it unlocked and allowed for many strategic opportunities, so Steel Shadows is deserving of a lot of credit for that mechanic. I found the freedom it allowed refreshing.

Customization is Key

Past the in-level gameplay, there is a degree of customization that can be had before taking on the missions, by outfitting your ships with various equipment that improve the stats, and by even buying units that you can deploy with as well. Be warned, that deploying more and more units costs more and more resources.  Cash for better equipment can be farmed by doing bounty missions, which are essentially  side quests. Each mission has a threat level which is basically a measure of difficulty, and the higher threat of the mission, the better the rewards.

And past that, there’s not much else to this game, there’s just a lot of it. Honestly Steel Shadows projects an illusion of depth and complexity only due to the clunky UI, which seemed to fight me all the way through my time playing. The customization is nice, but nothing new and innovative.

A Pretty Picture

Graphically, the game looks solid. The textures suit my 4K resolution, and look detailed especially on units. The design of the universe and props of it is fairly unique, and stands out in a good way. It is also stylistically consistent between the units and structures, they all feel like they belong and fit together into this universe.

Text Strikes Again

Oh that’s right. There’s a story. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to squint hard enough to read the unvoiced dialogue. From what I could gather in the post-game dialogue, it’s nothing absolutely groundbreaking or earth shattering. Quite frankly, most of it was embarrassingly cheesy. Past the writing, the style of the characters looks fairly dated, and is quite the departure from the style seen in the rest of the game.

Ancient Frontier: Steel Shadows Verdict

Ancient Frontier: Steel Shadows is a paradoxical game. It’s simple, yet fun gameplay is let down by its poor UI. Also, its technical implementations do not belong on a PC game in almost 2019. The worst part is, Steel Shadows had a beta. To see so many basic issues make it to what may actually be the release version is very disappointing. This game has the opportunity to be enjoyable, but is let down by basic stuff. Quite frankly, Steel Shadows would work much better on.

If you would like a game that makes you think, I would recommend while True: learn(), which I reviewed here.

A code was provided to Culture of Gaming for review purposes.

THE GOOD
Gameplay Is Enjoyable
In-Game Graphics Are Good
THE BAD
Poor UI
Cheesy Story
Art Style Clash
Zero Tutorial
4.5
Poor

Review Summary

Ancient Frontier: Steel Shadows is a mixed bag. While the gameplay is somewhat enjoyable, it is let down by a lackluster story and frustrating UI. The lack of any sort of tutorial whats so ever only compounds frustrations, and overall the UI design seems better suited to a mobile game than a full PC game.

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