It’s the classic Sci-fi story of pirates like Han Solo and Starlord that speak to the imagination of many space age fans. In Ancient Frontier Steel Shadows, YOU can play as space pirate Rogan Harker and feel what it’s like to earn fame and fortune while running from other space scum and the Federation. Unlike the two other pirates I mentioned, this game is not a multi-million dollar production, but a turn-based strategy game in the Ancient Frontier universe made by a team of only two people. We board our space ships and head out to the new frontier to find out how these guys did.
Space pirating 101
Learning how to play an extensive board game usually means spending a good half hour reading the instructions and keep checking during the first play through, to get an idea what to do. When I started reviewing, there was no tutorial available, but they now included the tutorial from Ancient Frontier to help you understand the game, which is very helpful.
You can do a lot of customizing to your crew and your fleet. You can research new abilities, buy or sell items like armor plating or tier two rockets. You can also hire new crewmembers and buy new ships. Ships come in various sizes and classes and each class is researched separate. For example: Fighter size ships have three classes: Interceptor, Raider and Gunship, each with their own specialty and tech tree. Besides vessel specific research, you can also research new tier equipment for all of your ships, which you can then buy in the market.
To the briefing room!
The story of Rogan Harker is told through a dialog screen. Through text and artwork you get updates about what’s going on before the next mission. The artwork on the portraits of the characters looks stunning and it really has a future space vibe. The dialog feels a bit like reading a play script. It’s completely understandable that a team of two people can’t budget animated cut scenes with voice overs (although the tutorial is voiced), but lines like *she walks up to the comms station and presses a button* don’t really add anything to the dialog itself. The do give you response choices from time to time, steering the conversation into a certain direction. I was given the choice to fight or flight and it affected my mission goals, so that is a neat feature and keeps people from skipping the dialog altogether. I also had pixelated and stuttering cut scenes, even on the lowest resolution setting. Luckily, the 3D models in-game are beautiful and with details, so that makes up the loss.
No risk, no reward
Story Missions have a variety of main objectives and occasional optional objectives. Completing these optional objectives gives you extra XP and finishing the main objectives ends the mission. Missions vary from destroying the enemy forces to exploring the map and collecting certain items. This gives the game a nice change of pace between missions, although the map exploring can have you chasing the entire map for the last unexplored hexagon, which takes a few turns to many to complete. The map itself is beautifully designed with 3D models of debris, space stations and other floating objects.
On beginner mode, losing a ship is not permanent and you can use it again in the next mission. Playing on a harder difficulty, you ship will be permanently destroyed and no longer available. This forces the player to think before they act and makes the game so much more enjoyable. Besides the Story Missions, there are Bounty missions to earn more XP and resources and there are Simulation Missions, where damage isn’t permanent and you can earn XP and test new parts without having to fear for the lives of your crew, but there is no resource reward. You need resources to buy new parts or ships, hire new crew or pay for research. Every time you finish a Story Mission, you can get optional deployments for taking on either a Bounty Mission or a Simulator Mission.
A pirate’s life for me?
So how does Steel Shadows compare to the big studio games of today? I’d say Fair Weather studios did a proper job. The game has solid gameplay, a rich modifying system, a fitting soundtrack and beautiful visuals. Even though the game could shave off some of the rough edges, it does a lot better than I expected. If you are looking for a turn-based strategy game for less than a quarter of a full priced game, then don’t hesitate to pick it up.