Steel Shadows is the second game in a series called Ancient Frontier, an independently developed Sci-Fi strategy game by Fair Weather Studios. The game focuses more on the pirate side of space exploration and leans heavily towards fleet management as opposed to the empire management you'd usually see in games like Endless Space. It sits somewhere between Endless Space and Starpoint Gemini in terms of gameplay content, but the actual battles and progression are most similar to Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus minus the dungeon crawling.
The result of the direction taken is one I found extremely mixed, and the more of the game I played, the more I noticed a distinct lack of attention to detail. The basis of the game seemed promising, and it indeed has all the stat numbers and functionality of an interesting strategy title, but the implementation of all these ideas, as well as the general battle gameplay, really falls short of anything I could consider vaguely entertaining in an exciting way. While every game like this is usually a highly advanced version of rock, paper, scissors, it did very little to pull me in throughout my playing experience.
I also made a video review, see below:
Did it even have a storyline? I honestly couldn't tell you what it was after a week's worth of solid playing, and instead, I'd have to refer to the generic blurb the game provides. The dialogue is entirely skippable and forgettable, and what little chatter there is between missions and even during them is absolutely devoid of all emotion and usefulness. You basically play a recently released convict who sets out to find his old pirate friends to make his fame and fortune across the galaxy. Unfortunately, the nasty (and not remotely evil) Alliance doesn't take kindly to pirates and would love nothing more than to wipe you out. So yes, you actually play the bad guy with zero redeeming qualities or even likable features, and you achieve very little in terms of hard success, aside from blowing up a few important capital ships and assets and earning you and your friends freedom and a jolly old pirate romp. Very little thought went into the formulation of the storyline, and even less went into making it compelling and remotely memorable in-game.
Gameplay starts as it means to go on—poorly. The tutorial doesn't guide you in-game as it's just an animated script of cringeworthy dialogue and a bunch of screenshots of things. It's important you go through it, however, or you'll only have half a clue of how everything works, and the cover-based system is a complete mystery even after they explain it very briefly. You'll immediately get dumped into a mission with two Escort class ships and a squad of Fighter class ships. All of them have weapons that deal exclusively with fighters, so right away, your entire fleet can't really deal with anything else particularly efficiently. What's more hilarious is they remain with you throughout most of the game, at least until you sell off the fighters anyway. This game is like most strategy titles and works on a highly complex rock-paper-scissors concept. There are three classes of ships; Fighter, Escort, and Capital. Each class has different roles and statlines, as aside from your hero ships, each can feature a different but entirely unchangeable weapon system that is most effective against a particular class of ship. As you won't see a single capital ship for the first three hours of the game, speccing any of your fleet into dealing with them is entirely pointless. Then, hilariously (well, not really), your first boss fight is against a capital ship with three(!) times the HP and shields as a standard capital ship. Not to worry, it's backed up by fifteen(!!!) fighters.
Needless to say, the gritty parts of the game are equally perplexing. The first screen you come across is your fleet-management screen. Here, you can look at your fleet and its detailed stats, crew, weapons, and upgrades. You can also buy and sell things at the market, view quests and missions, as well as unlock bits on the tech tree. Now, there are three kinds of resource in this game, and one of them is entirely pointless. Why? Well, in most games of this style, you have currency you use to buy and sell things, repair stuff, etc., and in most games, you also use this currency to deploy troops. In this game, however, you have an entirely separate currency to deal with that function, which adds a layer of crippling the game only needs because it's too damned easy. The third type of currency is data, which is used to unlock things on the tech tree.
Interestingly, or rather weirdly, the tech tree and market work rather strangely. Aside from picking up random items (and crew) after battles, you can also buy them from the market. You'll only have basic Tier 1 items available though, so you have to spend data in the research tree to unlock higher Tier 2 and 3 weapons you can then buy in the market; or just pray you get superior versions from missions. The tech tree also features passive talents that improve ship stats, but because there are multiple sub-types of the three main ship types, upgrading each and every one so they're all equally capable becomes a bit of a mind-numbing chore. I frequently forgot just what ship sub-type had improved anything and quickly filed it to the back of my mind for "I'll deal with it when the game stops being easy". To be blunt, a lot of the passives are crap anyway, offering a measly 5% increase to dodge or something. It almost didn't matter anyway since I kitted out all of my ships with the same three equipment upgrades: shield points, shield regen, and weapon damage. Not once did I change any of my items unless there were higher tiers available, and I stomped through the entire game without any tactical prowess whatsoever.
The game's damage system, and indeed cover system, is both interesting and benign. You have HP (hull points) and SP (shield points). Shields in this game act as mitigating armor. So if somebody shoots you for 20 damage, 5 of it goes through to HP while 15 of it is dealt to SP. This goes on until your shield gives out, although shield regen items negate that somewhat. So if you have a stupendously powerful gun, you can in fact wipe out the shields in an instant and go straight through to HP. The cover system is fairly basic but entirely pants in its implementation. Half cover provides a decent chance for your opponent to miss, while full cover all but guarantees they'll miss. How it works in terms of angles is currently beyond my comprehension because I flew up to a ship in full cover and shot at it from point blank range (where there was no cover at its back), but still only had a 23% chance to hit. Another interesting addition is that a lot of cover is flagged as "dangerous"; however, I found it's not dangerous if you fly through it, only if you stop in it. You can also blow it up, but it doesn't do any damage or provide a debuff to the ship hiding behind it like in most games.
Quests are as generic as they come; some want you to collect resources during missions, some want you to stockpile resources—one of which was an absolute joke. I had to stockpile 1500 data, and the reward was... 50 data. Fortunately, you can cancel quests, but I just ignored them entirely because the bonuses from completing them were laughable. Once you've finished fiddling with your ships, you can choose missions. You have main missions and several optional side missions, although you're limited to how many side missions you can do before a main mission because of totally inexplicable reasons. One particular type of mission is a simulation where you earn absolutely nothing except XP, which, as best as I could tell, was a bit pointless. My pilots kept leveling up, but it didn't seem to achieve a whole lot. By the end of the week, I wasn't even sure what it did because the game never mentioned it. So, once you've learned to completely ignore simulations, you do a few side missions and then the main missions. They show the threat, 1 being low, 5 being 15 fighters and a capital ship suffering from bullet sponge syndrome, and also what they reward. Usually, a mission will award one or two of the main three resources at most.
Before a main mission, you get to read some dialogue. Thankfully, because it was so bland and uninteresting, there's a skip dialogue button. Occasionally, you have to make a choice, and as best as I could tell, it would change your mission parameters. You then get to choose your fleet assuming you have enough energy to deploy them and start shooting or exploring. Missions have many different objectives, like scouting the sector, scouting the sector, and, uh, scouting the sector. Sometimes, it asks you to kill all enemies or even collect ten of one particular resource. It's all thrilling work, only made more "challenging" by giving you a turn limit. These limits are especially frustrating when you have to scout 1000 hexes in a map and are down to your last hex, but can't see it because there's no obvious VFX showing fog of war that's been explored or not. Ships have special abilities but are all the same; some have more, some don't. Mostly, it's recharge shields, scan a sector, increase dodge, increase movement range, or special weapon abilities that strip armor or shred fighter squads.
I don't even need to say it, but yes, enemy AI is hilariously bad. The action point system is identically to Mechanicus. You have so many movement points and so many action points you can spend in any order. As I mention in the Mechanicus review, this is both excellent, but also folly because it makes the game too easy. What makes that even more exploitable is that the AI fundamentally cannot comprehend how to abuse this system. At one stage, an enemy squad flew away from my unit in cover to shoot at it, missed, then flew towards the cover but not quite close enough to hit anyway. Honestly, the only way the game found a way to make things challenging was to throw five times the amount of units I had at me, except the objective was to kill just one of those ships, so I focused it and entirely ignored the rest of the enemy fleet.