The Consuming Shadow is a horror adventure game by popular games critic and book writer Ben "Yahtzee" Crowshaw. It has some heavy emphasis on a particular FTL-ish roguelike system, emphasizing travelling between different locations, collecting resources, and preparing yourself for that last final battle with the big bad - if you even get that far. Usually you won't.
No doubt the astute of my readers may have already seen this, it's been around since the other side of winter (-Australian summer!-) but it was being fairly regularly updated for a while, so I refrained from writing on it for a bit. Seeing that it's not seen an update for a bit, however, I thought I would write on it now. It's an interesting and engaging title that when I picked it up again, broke me from my obsessive and unhealthy love/hate affair with Warframe, so it's notable for that at least. What could make the game so compelling? Well, let us examine it closer to see why.
Steeped in a Lovecraftian lore, the game doesn't pay service to the likes of the traditional Cthulu mythos, but it is obviously thusly inspired. The premise of the game is that one of five Ancient Ones is set to invade into our dimension within 72 hours, and it lies upon yourself, with occasional behind-the-scenes help from family, other investigators, and the Ministry. Knowing your final objective, the world is left more or less open - though you are under a constant timer. The Ancient One isn't going to wait for you to figure things out if you're lagging.
Gameplay essentially switches between two - possibly you could say three - modes.
First of all, you have an overland mode, transversing between the towns, buying items, getting medical attention as needed, and finding jobs. Items consist of three types of ammunition, and occasional special items you can get which essentially offer passive benefits, such as reducing the negative effects of spellcasting, increasing sight radius, and such things. The three types of ammunition are basically: standard, an armor-piercing round that essentially goes through multiple enemies, or hollowpoint rounds that only affect one enemy for increased damage. Medical attention is as you expect, though it also includes buying illicit drugs, which are the game's way to (temporarily) reduce sanity loss, a chief mechanic in the game as one may expect. There are also a series of status ailments you can get - which affect aim, running, or cause you to bleed. The bleeding one is especially problematic, since you will continually lose health until you get to town to be treated. you don't have any means of treating those status ailments on the field, though the aforementioned special items to offer ways to make them less likely to occur.
On the overland map you will have towns marked either in green, red, black, or grey. Green towns are still safe, and you can transact, get healed, or find jobs normally. Red towns are under the influence of the shadow of the Ancient One. You will not be able to interact with them normally, but if you feel like taking a risk, you will be able to launch investigations in those shadow-afflicted towns, which may bear clues, pieces of the incantation you will need to banish the Ancient One, or eldritch spells which offer great powers, at the cost of sanity, such as full heals, the ability to see in the dark, or killing all the nearby enemies. All useful - but leaning too heavily on those crutches will see your sanity descend rapidly. Successful investigations see either one of two effects, dependent on the nature of your investigation - sometimes you can rarely take a town back from the brink, fighting off the shadow and returning it as a safe haven you can once again buy supplies from and the like. Much more likely it will become an abandoned ghost town - one of the black markers - no longer hostile, but not a place where you can find treatment or supplies either. Grey towns may be safe or under the influence of the shadow, representing places you have not yet been near. You can discern their location by travelling nearby, and you will also occasionally find tips through text messages you receive on your phone while travelling, through hints in investigations, or the like.
Travelling between the towns is one of the main mechanics of the game. Pathing your route, given the limited time, is important. The 'world' - or the Britain if you prefer, since as you can see, it is is set in Britain - is randomly generated, save for Stonehenge, and you won't have time to do everything, even in an ideal generation. Choosing your routes carefully is important, and one of the more effective upgrades you can get are those to vehicle speed and one special item you can get which decreases the chance of random encounters on the road, which are more often than not trouble. Occasionally on the road you have random encounters, usually which are negative - such a monsters striking your vehicle, and the like - though occasionally you'll come across friendly places - survivor holdouts, stores, and the like. You may also receive texts while on the road through your phone, which you can either choose to ignore or view. These are more of a coin flip, sometimes having your family sending money or support, sometimes them begging you to come home, or occasional messages from the Ministry of Occultism your character is implied to belong to, which are essentially game tips. The effects of these messages are sanity gains or losses, monetary games, or occasionally, tips on goings-ons on nearby towns, usually an indication you should check them out.
Before we go any further, I want to address one thing you've no doubt noticed from the screenshots along the way. The graphics in this game are servicable, but that's the best I could say for them. They are very, very basic. They have a certain style to them no doubt, but I personally found them pretty lacking. And no doubt you've noticed the black bars - the game doesn't handle my 16:9 aspect ratio very well at all, just adding black bars to fill out the screen. I can't say I know for sure and I'm sure you will all correct me very vociferously if I'm wrong, but I suspect the game is programmed in Game Maker, because you essentially have to add special programming to GameMaker, to make it handle different aspect ratios with any grace whatsoever.
The graphics in the driving and city parts are old looking but serviceable, but the one big problem I have is with the investigation sections. They are essentially platforming sections where you explore a procedurally generated 'dungeon' (though they're usually actually buildings or forests), rummaging through bins for clues and fighting the deformed minions of the shadow. I suppose the actual platform section graphics are alright, but the actual UI takes up more than half of the screen real estate.
The interface .. works, but it's kind of clunky to say the best. One of my biggest pet peeves is that there is one particular enemy type that likes to cling to the ceiling of the room, and looking at the screenshot, I suspect you can tell what the problem with that could be, since you have to click within the game window to shoot at enemies. Oh yes, I was changing ammunition types quite frequently and inadvertently in those fights. I would usually just melee those enemies, to be honest, which was less than ideal. I was left wondering if Yahtzee intended an iOS release for this game, given the size of the GUI. If not, some SCUMMVM or Sierra-adventure-game-esque title bar with a minimap in a corner probably would have been much more effective, though I suppose this would necessitate bigger and redone platform tileset graphics.
One of the other problems I have with the interface I deem the Ultima Underworld problem, for it was similar in that game as well. Both games involve mechanics where you discover spells where you arrange runes to cast the spell, but neither game game allows you to prepare them ahead of time. While I suppose you could say it was intended to create a frantic atmosphere if you were trying to cast in the middle of combat, for someone like myself who was struggling with the interface to begin with, I just found it another frustration. I would ideally say, give us one or two preset ones, and then if we want additional ones THEN we have to cast. One would probably be sufficient. It would be reasonable, I suppose, for this to be the function of an special item you could pick up, like a wand that you could somehow assign a spell to, to cast, or some such contrivance. The perhaps easier and more elegant solution, however, would be just allowing one to press the runes on the topbar without the extra screen, though that would require some memorisation on the part of the player.
The character animation for the player in these segments is also stilted and doesn't feel right. Something like the rotoscoped character animation of Flashback or Out of this World would be the ideal, of course, but perhaps much to expect. Nonetheless, the character animation can feel rough, particularly when walking normally.
In the interests of being somewhat helpful and not just a Debbie Downer about things, I spent about an hour in Photoshop just playing around with how I thought things would work best, and came with this little mockup of a potential GUI:
The platforming screenshot obviously suffers from some resizing problems. There'd be come considerations to how to handle the change in size of the UI, more in terms of the platforming mechanic than the UI, but I just feel the current one is inelegant and pretty clunky in both form and function.
Those UI problems aside, the platforming segments are when the writing of the game really comes into its own. Between the atmosphere created by some really cunning use of sound, the hints you find rummaging through bins and lockers, and the 'miniboss' creatures you have to eliminate, the game is challenging, tense, and just oozes atmosphere out of every pore. I would make a colourful analogy there, but I'll leave that to your rampant imagination, much like the many baddies your character will start imagining, themselves, if their sanity declines past a certain safe point. To say nothing to say nothing of the moments where suddenly, you just need to GET OUT. The game is very unforgiving about you messing up investigations, whether by choosing the wrong item or whatnot, and it will punish you for it. Sometimes you can fight, but you are usually much better served by running. Very fast. Towards the exit. The last part is critical. And oh, some of the really challenging enemies will make that last part deviously difficult, coming from just about every angle.
As an aside, I have to admit given his recent book Jam, I was surprised that there wasn't some sort of event where run through a room with carnivorous jam seeping through the walls. Such a lost opportunity for cross-promotion.
That investigation element really is what makes the game so compelling, and for me at least, it succeeds in spades. You're left wanting to push that little bit further, to find that next clue, learn that little bit more about that threat. And with the new game plus mechanic, there never is that frustration that other games like FTL will give you when some random event just dicks you. You're always progressing, a little closer with each investigation, each tip, each new orifice you put in those monstrosities with a bullet. There's a remarkable amount of detail taken in that atmosphere and the writing in particular, and it shows.
Given that it's free, you have absolutely nothing to lose by giving it a bash, and I would certainly recommend you do so.
You can pick it up from Fullyramblomatic, Yahtzee's blog, here: http://www.fullyramblomatic.com/conshadow/