Shadowgrounds Survivor is a “spin-off/sequel” to 2006’s Shadowgrounds, which Meridian4, the game’s publisher, describes as “one big, nasty alien-battling carnage festival.” I didn’t play Shadowgrounds, but that description sounds about right for Survivor. You play as a single character and have to battle hundreds of aliens, and the emphasis is more on frenetic action than slow and steady strategy. Survivor plays sort of like a minimalist action role-playing game, with experience and skills and weapons upgrades, and where your character is way more powerful than any of the enemies, but it is also extremely short and doesn’t offer multiplayer support, and so it might have only limited appeal.
Shadowgrounds Survivor takes place on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede in the year 2096. Aliens launch a surprise attack on the human forces there, and, after a rough start, the survivors band together and try to reverse the alien momentum and protect the colony at New Atlantis. You get to control one of three characters: Luke “Marine” Giffords, Bruno “Napalm” Lastmann, or Isabel “Sniper” Larose. The characters are pretty much defined by their nicknames; each one gets a handful of different skills, but it’s their weapons that make them unique. Giffords gets an automatic rifle and a rocket launcher, making him pretty versatile; Lastmann gets a minigun and a flamethrower, making him good at crowd control; and Larose gets a railgun and a plasma rifle, making her good against individual enemies.
The game’s campaign consists of 24 missions. The missions are generally short, taking maybe 15 minutes each, and they almost all involve you guiding your character from the starting point to the ending point, and killing anything that gets in your way. That is, there isn’t much in the way of objectives. You just have to be content to shoot, burn, and blow up stuff, but that part of the game works out pretty well. The locations are atmospheric (especially when you have to use a flashlight to see what’s going on), making them fun to explore, and the aliens have just enough variety to them to keep things interesting.
Besides simply shooting stuff, there is also some strategy to the game. One alien can only be damaged from behind, and so you have to figure out a way to circle around behind it. Other aliens have powerful ranged attacks, and so you have to draw them into locations where you can damage them without getting splattered in return. But most of the strategy revolves around your guns, which require ammunition. You find ammunition during the course of the missions, and it’s even plentiful, but there are also a ton of aliens, and so you have to try and conserve your bullets, and you have to save some weapons for special occasions. For example, Giffords’ rocket launcher is the most powerful weapon in the game, but rockets are in reasonably short supply, and so you can’t use it all the time. You have to save it for when the biggest and nastiest aliens arrive. Other weapons (pistols) don’t require any ammunition, and so you can use them if you get desperate.
If the campaign has a problem, it’s that it is rather short. You can complete the entire thing in about six hours, and unlike some similar games (I’m thinking of action role-playing games here), there isn’t a whole lot of replayability. For most of the missions the game chooses your character for you, and so it’s not like you might play the campaign once as Giffords and then again as Lastmann. You only get to choose the difficulty setting and the character for the final four missions. And while there are “secrets” hidden in the campaign, which can unlock special features, the features are a little underwhelming. For example, one bonus feature allows you to play the game in black and white, and another doubles the speed of everything (including the dialogue, which is sort of funny). I could see playing the campaign once just to see how it goes, and then maybe once more at a higher difficulty setting or to try and track down all of the secrets, but even so that would be less than 15 hours total, which isn’t great even for a budget title.
The interface for Shadowgrounds Survivor also has some problems, which is odd because the game isn’t very complicated. You get an overhead view of your surroundings, and you use the WASD keys to move your character and the mouse to aim and shoot. That all works fine, except the camera is a mess. In the “free” camera mode, you can move your targeting cursor anywhere, but the only way to rotate the camera is to move the cursor to the right or left edges of the screen, which is annoying. In the “locked” mode, the camera always faces the same direction as your character, but your targeting cursor is fixed in the center of the screen, which is also annoying. Just about every game that allows you to control the camera uses the middle mouse button for this, but this is the second game in a row I’ve played from Meridian4 where the developer has tried something much more awkward instead, and it’s puzzling. Do developers do things like this just to be different, even if it makes their game worse, or do they not play other games to see what other developers are doing?
Overall, despite its quirks, I enjoyed the time I spent with Shadowgrounds Survivor. It’s good, simple fun. It’s just that it’s tough to be too upbeat about a game that you might finish in a single sitting. If you like the idea of shooting aliens, and you don’t mind spending $20 on a 6-hour game, then by all means try it out. If you want a little more bang for your buck, then you’re probably better off trying something like Hellgate: London, which has a similar theme, but which is more polished and has much more in the way of lasting value (even without the subscription service).