I love detective mysteries. From identifying the crew’s names and cause of death in Obra Dinn to finally making the arrest in Disco Elysium, piecing together clues to solve cases is an ever-gratifying process. Even so, I find these mysteries challenging to enjoy on a second playthrough; unless we forget the killer or all the clues, we’ll just go through the motions again without much challenge.
Enter Shadows of Doubt, a procedurally generated detective sim set in a futuristic dystopian 1980s. Armed with a fingerprint scanner, a noir trenchcoat, and a host of cybernetic implants, we’re tasked with solving murders in this Blade Runner-inspired, polluted future. Boasting a fully realized corporatist dystopia with detailed backgrounds for each character and wholly unique murders, the featured game in this Shadows of Doubt review offers an eternally replayable detective sim.
Unfortunately, while Shadows of Doubt houses an impressively simulated world with brutally despairing immersion, I was frustrated by the sheer challenge posed by deducing citizens with limited information. The clues used for identifying the murderers and the lack of story failed to keep me interested after hours of questioning civilians, reviewing security footage, and scanning for fingerprints. Still, if we’re willing to push past the challenging learning curve, we’ll find ourselves with an immersive, albeit highly challenging, detective sim.
Long Ago, In Dystopian City Far, Far Away
I was thoroughly impressed with the setup for Shadows of Doubt’s narrative. Set in an alternate 1980s where the Stark Cola Corporation reigns as president of the North Atlantic States and most people live in overpopulated, over-polluted cities, we play as a homeless detective solving cases to make ends meet. Tasked with earning Social Credit to escape to the “Fields,” the promised worker’s paradise, I was enthralled by our grim quest for freedom in this morally decadent dystopia.
Still, after the initial setup, I soon became increasingly disgruntled with Shadows of Doubt’s lack of narrative. The emails, interrogation, and telephone calls amounted to copy-pasted flavor text I had to sift through to find relevant details. Worse yet, there was little narrative reward for our efforts, and the lack of an ending left me dumbfounded as I stared at a broken title screen.
All-in-all, while I walked away from Shadows of Doubt disappointed with the story’s lack of interaction, I admired the grim world-building put into our setting. While I can appreciate the depressing feeling of existing as a powerless machine in a world that cares nothing for you, I would have liked to have some impact on the city or enjoyed a depressing revelation to cap off our dreary adventure. Overall, though I felt the story could benefit from a gripping narrative or fleshed-out characters to reward our detective efforts, the narrative felt shallow and nonexistent across my three playthroughs.
Where’s Waldo: Extreme Edition
Despite Shadows of Doubt’s superficial narrative, I had some fun experiences engaging with its detective gameplay. Essentially our interactions boil down to deducing and locating culprits through a few critical indicators like hair color, name initials, and their workplace, then scouring contact lists, employee databases, and apartment clues for the right suspect. Even if our motives are pure, we’ll regularly have to sabotage security systems, break into people’s houses, and commit fraud to find our suspects.
While I enjoyed the intellectual catharsis of putting together our clues to find the killer, the incredible lack of information on some descriptions was frustratingly sparse. Though the gradual collection of implants makes it easier to identify people with less information (i.e. determining their names from mugshots alone), the repetitive, often fruitless, grind of scouring the city for information was overwhelming. In the end, while I accepted dozens of cases to arrest, photograph, and humiliate my targets, I abandoned most of them until I found cases with sufficient information.
Overall, while I enjoyed performing master heists and solving nearly impossible tasks, I was continually frustrated and unable to finish many cases. While I went as far as lowering the difficulty settings, this only increased our health, and I was still stumped to piece together clues and forced to give up out of frustration. If detective sims strike your fancy, I recommend going in, not expecting to solve every case, and focusing on enjoying the systematic process of putting together clues rather than beating the game.
A Pixilated Dystopia
Shadows of Doubt boasts some impressive, decadent visuals. From realizing the antiquated computers and dated apartment style of the 1980s to the decaying city streets, I was continually captivated and appalled at the nostalgic technologies and moral decay on display. Even if the props, people, and setting were blocky and pixelated, every inch of the decaying city felt believable and real.
The only area where the visuals came into question was discerning characters from their written descriptions. I struggled to distinguish characters from their ID when their long blonde hair looked brown and short in the dim light and cut-off pixels. While this was only a minor detail, it was rather crucial when that was all I had to work with when looking for a character.
Despite my grievances with identifying people, I found Shadows of Doubt’s visuals impressively realized. Each aspect of the world felt delightfully corrupt and desperate. I soon found myself carelessly tossing chicken sandwiches and coffee on the street to embrace the neglect and decadence for which the city had earned its reputation.
Quirky Synths and Terrifying Commercials
Playing with 80s music synths and distorted commercials, Shadows of Doubt’s audio was superb for its Bladerunner-esk dystopian setting. From the all-powerful advertisements for Starch Kola that emanated from the city’s heart and the grisly tv audio dramas playing in audible from the apartment next door, I was enthralled listening to the sounds of the city while I walked the streets.
Even the background sounds like listening to the harsh city winds, smashing window glass, and security alerts as cameras spotted me had a satisfying crunch and beep. Overall, Shadows of Doubt leveraged impressive audio quality that drew me into its dreadful land of environmental disaster, urbane oppression, and human despair.
Revenge of the Endless Loading Screen
Unfortunately, I ran into more than a few errors while running Shadows of Doubt. Save files would randomly corrupt, and I’d be stuck on infinite loading screens. Also, while I eventually figured out the complex detective menu, the system sometimes neglected to add info about our target’s profile, like when I printed out their description in the employee database or found cards in pertinent data.
While I eventually got past the learning curve and figured that I could search for anyone or anything in my detective search bar, some features still frustrated me. For example, I couldn’t wait in ambush for a suspect inside their apartment as standing still for more than 15 seconds threw me to the detective menu and paused time.
All-in-all, none of these bugs ruined the game for me, and learning my way around the UI allowed me to enjoy the world, but it took some time. If we don’t mind floundering through an alien environment, we’ll eventually master the game’s somewhat clunky UI and efficiently use the game’s detective menu.
Becoming Robocop: Detective Edition
Luckily Shadows of Doubt has some fantastic progression, increasing our competence and detective ability as the game went on. Though we can measure our progress with money and social credit, Shadows of Doubt’s progression shines with its powerful cybernetic impacts.
While the first few implants we’ll find will likely boil down to increasing our inventory space or making people more likely to share confidential information, later implants allow us to make money from photographing bathrooms and identifying people by face alone. My favorite implant eliminated fall damage, allowing us to break into someone’s house, rob the place of diamonds and synth codes, then bail out of a window and survive what would have been a terminally high fall.
Frankly, while I loved these implants, most were random finds I found or got from performing humiliation missions and heists. While I enjoyed becoming a cyber detective by the game’s end, I would have appreciated an opportunity to purchase more implants with the excessive money I had made through robbery and crime.
A Return to the Detective Slums
Despite boasting wholly replayable murders to solve, I found most of Shadows of Doubts missions repetitive and boring. Besides the murders, most side missions consisted of tasks with an identical start and finish. While we’ll sometimes have to perform different tasks with our target (i.e. arrest them or vandalize their place), most of our work consists of information gathering information from copy-pasted apartments, unhelpful pedestrians, and lengthy security footage that feels excessively fruitless without implants.
Overall, despite the ability to procedurally generate our cities, I didn’t find Shadows of Doubt worth replaying after the massive grind spent improving our detective with cybernetic implants and familiarizing ourselves with the city. Unless we’re interested in playing in a larger area with a new layout, the thought of playing through the game again from scratch without my implants and tools fills me with dread.
The Alternative Cases on the Menu
To be frank, Shadows of Doubt isn’t for everyone. While I enjoyed the feeling of success, the sheer mental acuity and patience required to solve investigations can crush most of us unwilling to put up with the game’s information grind.
Luckily, there are various alternative detective games with a more cohesive story or optimistic setting for us to enjoy. If Shadows of Doubt doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, I recommend checking out the games below
Overall Pros and Cons
- Enthralling Dystopian City
- Amazing Sound Design
- Darkly Humorous Missions
- Exceptional Player Freedom
- Absence of Narrative
- Challenging, Repetitive Gameplay
- Unbalanced economy
- Disappointing Ending
JT spent 13+ hours across three playthroughs solving murders and fighting crime! He arrested murderers, robbed half the city, and threw chicken sandwiches in his targets’ faces (don’t worry, he was well paid!). Using his earnings, JT purchased an expensive apartment in Gomez House that he renovated into a noir detective lab and gained enough social credit to leave the city for the promised Fields. While JT has had enough of his detective adventures for now, he might return if the game adds a narrative or an explosive ending.
Question: Where does Shadows of Doubt Take Place?
Answer: Shadows of Doubt takes place in an alternate 1980s corporatist dystopia in a dissolute urbane nightmare. While the technology and setting are primarily reminiscent of antiquated computers from the 1980s, it’s punctuated by futuristic themes and environmental crises.
Question: How Long Does Shadows of Doubt Take to Finish?
Answer: While completing the game on regular settings can take up to 15 plus hours, we can alter the gameplay in the settings, reducing the maximum social credits and gameplay to 1-2 hours. I advise adjusting the length of the game in the setting if you want to experience the ending without enduring the enormous grind.
Question: Who Do We Play as in Shadows of Doubt?
Answer: We play as a newly homeless detective trying to earn enough social credit to escape to a better life in the fields. While our name and identity are up to us, we share a background as a newly fired and evicted detective resulting to any work available to keep ourselves alive.
Overall, I feel Shadows of Doubt’s decadent world has great potential, even if it suffers from challenging gameplay and an absent narrative. Though the game aspires to be a procedurally generated Detective Sim, I found the lack of mission variety and the repetitive grind dull and frustrating.
Even so, I still enjoyed Shadows of Doubt’s absorbing morally dissolute world and loved walking the polluted city streets while unraveling the cesspit of apathy and antiquated machinery. I expect adding several story elements or making the game more accessible would offer a fantastic experience to enhance our detective missions.
All-in-all, while I eventually left Shadows of Doubt with a negative impression, I still had fond memorable events between locating my suspect on a security cam and completing self-planned master heists. I sincerely hope to return to the city streets of Shadows of Doubt and enjoy a gripping grisly narrative to cap off my detective adventure.