Shadowhand is a solitaire game. Let’s get that out of the way first. It has RPG trappings but at its core it’s the same game I learned from my grandma at the kitchen table. It bends that core to a remarkable degree to try and give you a full experience. But if you hate the simple mechanics of looking at cards and trying to find sequential matches you won’t have fun.
If you do reside in that strange venn space of RPG fans who like solitaire then this is a masterpiece. You play the role of an aristocratic lady who for reasons takes up a life of crime. The story and writing are average, neither irritating nor engaging. It does the job of giving flavor to the 22 chapters that make up the campaign and injects variety into the 150 solitaire missions you’ll play through.
Shadowhand really does as much as humanly possible to wring traditional gaming fun out of solitaire. There’s a full loot system, special abilities, skills, stat progression and consumables. It has everything you expect from a simple but well developed RPG is integrated with the card game.
Weapons for example do varying damage and you can only fire after a certain number of card matches. This effectively models the difference between a quick dagger and a slow firing pistol. Special abilities let you reshuffle the board or get a glimpse at hidden cards so you can better plan your attacks. Stringing longer chains of consecutive matches increases damage, in effect letting you perform criticals if you’re skillful. It’s all clever and in sync.
There’s a layer of strategy around the missions as well. Each chapter has certain objectives to achieve before culminating in a boss duel and the individual missions are often difficult. You can make them easier by using consumables but then you won’t have them for the final fight. Despite not particularly loving solitaire the variety, ever changing objectives and constant stream of new loot kept me clicking on “one more missions” past my allotted play-time.
I’m not entirely sure I was having fun while I was obsessively ploughing through the missions. Solitaire is not a particularly active game, even when you have meters to fill and an opponent to outsmart. The cards are arranged in patterns that only reveal a few at a time, so there’s usually only one or two legal moves and not a great deal of thought required. It’s sort of the appeal of the game – time passes in an automatic, meditative way. I play games to get the opposite feeling but Shadowhand is perfectly honest about what it is.
There’s also a great deal of RNG built into the core game, decks of cards being primitive RNG engines themselves. This proves frustrating on certain levels with tight timing objectives when the cards just don’t cooperate. Or when dueling powerful foes who put out more damage than you do with fewer card matches. To help, the game cheats in your favor. The AI skipps turns when there’s an obvious match visible. I still got stuck and required a dozen retries on certain missions.
When I play a game for review I try to think not just of what’s wrong with it but what could have been done better given the resources available. I can pick apart Rimworld’s visual style but if I was in charge of the developers I wouldn’t waste another minute of their time improving the looks. I’d keep them doing exactly what they’re doing – creating intricate systems that make the game better.
Judged in this way there’s really very little Shadowhand can improve. The art is largely static but big, colorful and pleasant to look at. Backgrounds change with the chapters, abilities trigger with attractive animated swooshes. Each piece of loot is visible on your character, each mission has its own solitaire card pattern.
The interface is functional and intuitive. There’s nothing to struggle with and going on long consecutive chains of card matches is fast and satisfying. The designers handle even small things like watching the AI take its turn with a deft hand. It speeds up when there’s a long chain but always in a natural, easy to follow way, moving like a competent player. Items all have tooltips, you can be undo mistake, it’s all as friendly as it looks.
Period appropriate instrumental music accompanies your endless solitaire journey. At one point I grew very frustrated with a final boss fight. I didn’t realize I should save my powers in the proceeding missions and this boss has two extremely damaging attacks that trigger quickly. Getting several long, lucky chains in a row seemed like the only way to beat him without any consumables and I wanted to get through to the rest of the game. Then the lovely music and scene appropriate ambient sounds calmed me down and I finished the mission.
Assuming you like the core game there’s a great deal of content and value. You get a constant stream of RPG progress and as much variety as solitaire allows through the 150 missions. I don’t claim a deep knowledge of the solitaire gaming scene but this seems generous by any measure.
Solitaire is such a specific game (actually genre of games – there is no actual solitaire) that I can’t imagine someone who hates it buying Shadowhand. It’s not my cup of tea at all but despite that I enjoyed my time with Shadowhand. Even if that pleasure came more from seeing how they work the RPG mechanics into the game from a design point of view. So even as just a straight game it’s adequate for passing the time. For a solitaire fan I’m guessing this is Witcher 3; the pinnacle of the artform.
Disclaimer: PC Aficionado was provided with a code for the purpose of this review. All thought and opinions expressed in the review are the writers own and are not influenced by the developer and/or publisher in anyway.
- huge number of missions
- nice RPG progression and loot
- pleasant art, music and interface
- as much variety as one can expect
- no real replayability beyond the joy of solitaire
- too much gold and not enough to spend it on
- repetitive despite best efforts because it's solitaire