Ancient Frontier: Steel Shadows is a turn based, strategy RPG by developer Fair Weather Studios, developed using Unity and released for Steam on December 2018. The game is set in the same universe as Fair Weather Studios’ previous title Bladestar (2016). The story follows a band of outlaws as they evade the galactic government while looking for opportunities to make some money or score some resources along the way.
X-Com meets Battlestar Galactica
It’s almost impossible to talk about strategy RPGs without comparing them to X-Com and Steel Shadows is no exception here. The gameplay consists of managing your fleet by purchasing new ships, equipment and crew members as well as upgrading your fleet through new technology and items then selecting a mission and carrying out the objectives. Each mission has an optional challenge that can reward you with resources or xp to help you purchase and upgrade your fleet further as you progress. Similar to X-Com, each unit has a set amount of moves and actions that they can take each turn. These range from boosts to stats to special attacks or map advantages such as sonar to remove the fog of war. Unfortunately, unlike X-Com where positioning was vital to your success or failure in a mission, the ship based nature of the combat in Steel Shadows means that maps feel a lot emptier and as a result not as meaningful as they could be. Missions usually devolve into cat and mouse like encounters of manoeuvring close to enemy ships, firing pot shots at them then trying to place enough distance between you and the enemy to avoid retaliation.
Obstacles are scattered around the map that can be used to improve your chances of evasion but only seem to effect accuracy rather than work as a means of substantial cover since enemy fire passes through regardless. Further adding to the frustration of encounters is a staple trait of the genre, RNG. Watching as your ships miss three barrages of shots in a row is just as soul destroying as you imagine it to be.
Space the…ancient frontier?
I feel bad for being critical of this game since a look at the credits indicates that the majority of the game was made by just two people, which is no easy thing to accomplish. That said, it’s hard to ignore just how limited Ancient Frontier is in a lot of ways. The user interface is a busy mess of details and tabs that can take a while to understand and decipher. The game just left Beta on Thursday 6th of December just a few days shy of it’s actual release date of December 11th so changes from feedback may be implemented in patches and updates but as of it’s release the tutorial seems to be disabled meaning there really isn’t any explanation of how the game’s systems work. It took me over 7 missions to realise how to assign crew members or upgrades to a ship and even then it was because I didn’t know if they were allocated automatically and I actively went looking through the menus to find out. The combat itself is pretty straight forward if you have any experience with SRPGs but the resource management side of the game isn’t as intuitive as it could be. There is a real potential to mess your save up beyond any ability to advance through the game due to limited ability to play non story missions to increase your fleet and get the currencies needed to level up before being forced into more difficult encounters you may not be ready for.
Is it worth a shot?
All in all there aren’t really any surprises with Ancient Frontier: Steel Shadows. You can tell at a glance what type of game it is and whether or not you’ll enjoy it. The writing of the story isn’t particularly stand out but it serves the game well as a means of linking pretty simple missions together. The music, ship designs and sound effects are similarly familiar and fit the game well but ultimately leave it being a game to pick up for a few missions every now and then rather than something substantial that will keep you glued to your screen for hours at a time. If you;re looking for something to scratch that X-Com itch then this might just fit the bill.