Ancient Frontier: Steel Shadows

I’ve always been a huge fan of turn-based tactical games, whether on the ground facing off against hordes of aliens, or in space growing an empire and engaging in ship-to-ship combat amongst the stars. Turn based games allow the player to more methodically plan out their moves, and manipulate their strategies based on their opponents’ reactions. It favors planning ahead, versus the click-fest that some Real Time Strategy games employ and also scratches a different itch when it comes to gaming.

Ancient Frontier: Steel Shadows is a turn-based game released by Fair Weather Studios on PC. You are in control of a group of pirates, who perform raids and attack convoys to gather critical resources to expand your fleet and allow you to strike much richer targets. You begin the game as the pirate Rogan, fresh out of prison and not looking to go back. He joins up with his old friend Rickshaw and as always when scoundrels get together, they tend to get more than they bargained for. Utilizing the various resources that you capture along the way, you upgrade your ships, expand your fleet and hire mercenary pilots to further increase your fighting power and pad your wallet at the same time.

Ancient Frontier: Steel Shadows takes place in the Ancient Frontier universe and while it borrows much from its namesake, it certainly is not a requirement to have played Ancient Frontier to get enjoyment out of Steel Shadows. The first mission acts as a tutorial, introducing you to the key game components such as movement, combat, as well as the various resources you can capture throughout the game to purchase additional ships, research upgrades, and repair damage that your fleet encounters along the way.

Resources come in three main varieties, Hydrium which allows repairs to be performed and ships to be purchased from the black market, Data which is utilized to unlock numerous traits in the research tree and Proto Energy that increases the effectiveness of your fleet. Each ship type can be upgraded separately and offer improvements such as combat effectiveness and tactics. Resources can be gathered throughout the combat map by flying over them, or act as rewards when a mission is successfully completed. It’s important to carefully balance what you spend your resources on, as they are quite limited and making poor decisions early can hurt you later on.

After each mission you will be given the opportunity to carry on with the main story line, or to complete various side missions that will provide additional resources. You will only be given an opportunity to complete so many side missions before you complete the next story mission, so choose wisely based on the difficulty of the mission, and the rewards you will gain for completing them. While additional resources are necessary to grow your fleet, you must also weigh the potential of losses you may incur the more difficult the mission you engage in.

Combat takes place on a hexagonal map where each ship takes a turn. Each ship has a set number of action points which determine what can be done in the turn. The action points can be used to engage special skills (such as recharging your shields), moving into (or away from) battle, and firing on enemies. Each ship is equipped with several offensive and defensive capabilities which can provide specific bonuses in combat. The AI will respond intelligently to their situation, if one ship has taken shield damage, it is not uncommon for that ship to utilize its movement to get out of range, recharge its shields and then rush back into battle. The AI is equally as effective at swarming lone enemy ships and blasting them to bits before you can respond, therefore it’s imperative to always keep your wits sharp while still eyeing your objective. Each mission will provide you additional bonuses based on how well you perform. You may receive additional bonuses for destroying all enemies in the sector, and most missions will end if one of your main hero ships is destroyed. It’s up to you to decide if the added rewards are worth the risks. It’s easy when you are first starting out to spend resources on things you don’t need, only for it to come back and bite you down the road. Resources are limited and making a mistake early can certainly cost you in the long run.

Steel Shadows is not a great looking game, but it gets the job done. While not a terribly deep game it is still fun for the casual player and doesn’t require you to invest a ton of time learning how to play it. With all the deep strategy games on the market, the ones that require not only an investment in the tutorial but also several videos on YouTube, its refreshing to find a game that is this accessible. While the game is easy to learn, it can also become quickly frustrating if you find yourself on a mission that you simply can’t complete with the remaining resources at your disposal. This also is one area of the game that doesn’t feel balanced quite right and can force you to restart (or at the very least restart from a few previous saves) if you simply don’t have the necessary components to complete one of the main story missions. Be prepared to restart (or at least save often) more than once when you are learning to play.

Ancient Frontier: Steel Shadows is a fun game for those looking for a casual turn-based space game that’s quick to jump into and play. Prepare to be a bit frustrated your first few times playing when you spend resources on things you really didn’t need and get to a mission that is practically impossible to complete due to lack of proper planning on your part. Playing the pirates is a nice diversion for folks who are used to playing massive organizations with an unending supply of resources. Steel Shadows makes you earn every ship, upgrade and tech you get.

3.5 out of 5 stars

What I liked: Quick to learn, Fun tactical combat

What I liked less: Poor choices can have severe impacts down the road, lacking much depth