In a gaming world where budget priced top-down shooters are a dime a dozen, it really takes something special to catch your eye. Enter Shadowgrounds, a new sci-fi shooter in which creepy lighting and hoards of enemies are the name of the game. Then add in fantastic sound and music, a wide variety of weaponry, plus non-stop action and you have surprisingly good game that all fans of the genre should have on their list.
Shadowgrounds starts out pretty much how you think it would. Ganymede, the largest of Jupiter's moons, has been terraformed and colonized by man. Now in the year 2096, the frosty moon is home to 8000 citizens, including senior mechanic Wesley Tyler. This is where things go south. When the power goes out and Tyler is sent to get things running again, it's time to say hello to lots and lots of aliens.
While the story may be rather standard, the graphics are, for the most part, solid. Lighting is the obvious star of the show here. I never thought a top-down shooter could be the slightest bit creepy, but Shadowgrounds proved me wrong. To my surprise and delight, every once in a while the dimly lit environments and great shadow effects would get to me and I would get a nice scare from a well hidden alien. But while the core graphics are well done, cutscenes suffer from stiff animation and objects start to look chunky when the camera is focused on them.
The audio in Shadowgrounds is also fantastic and goes hand in hand with the creepy lighting. The ambient sounds are great and, again, will get you frantically turning around to find out where that last growl or snap came from. The original music also serves its purpose well. Think of orchestrated music with a dose of action and you'll get a pretty good idea of what the background music is like. I'm also not only a fan of the music, but how it was implemented. Unless you consciously listen for it, you will rarely hear the music pronounce itself; yet it is always playing in the background, giving the game a more dramatic and cinematic feel.
Of course, great visuals and music can only take a game so far, and what really counts is the pure playability. Shadowgrounds uses your standard "wasd" movement keys and moving your mouse left or right will make Tyler spin in the likewise direction. The fixed overhead camera position made things a little difficult to get a grip on at first, but after blowing away a few dozen alien spiders I started getting used to it.
One thing that I have always found to be a problem in shooting games is keeping the action from getting stale and repetitive. One way Shadowgrounds tries to tackle this is with a wide variety of weapons, along with a weapon upgrade feature. Weapons range from your standard pistol, to the multi-barreled minigun, to the gas-guzzling flamethrower. Best of all is that all of the weapons you pick up are useful. Good weapon balance is also evident and you will find that you can't just run around using one gun to blast everything. One obvious reason is that you aren't given enough ammo to do so, but also because every situation has a weapon that will work best.
The upgrade system is also a nice touch and adds a small bit of strategy to the mix. As you mow through enemies they will randomly drop upgrade parts which can be spent to add extra features to your guns. Each gun has three upgrade steps. The first two are usually "extra damage", bigger clips, better accuracy, or faster reloading. The third is commonly a secondary feature such as tranquilizer darts to slow monster movement speed.
Shadowgrounds may not be the most original kid on the budget-block, but it is definitely one of the better looking ones. The fantastic lighting and audio combine to create a fun and occasionally tense atmosphere. Fans of top down shooters and bargain hunters alike should keep an eye out and look for Shadowgrounds to make its full appearance later this month.