Remember how last year Adam and I got VERY into romance novel card game Regency Solitaire? Well, the developers, Grey Alien Games have been working on Shadowhand [official site] – a twist on the solitaire format which lets you duel enemies as an adventurous highwaywoman by playing cards.
I took the current demo build for a spin a month or two back but sat down for a proper chat with the studio's owner Jake Birkett at GDC so we could talk about the game in more depth. Let's start with the highwaywoman herself – who is the mysterious Shadowhand?
"Not a lot of people know that it's actually a prequel to Regency Solitaire," says Birkett of the game. "In Regency Solitaire Lady Fleetwood [the godmother of the main character] hints at having an interesting past. We've rolled this game back 40 years from 1812 to 1770 – Shadowhand is Lady Fleetwood as a young lady. In fact the first level was set in Fleetwood's Lane and she meets Lord Fleetwood."
She's not an evil bandit, but more of a Robin Hood-type which is in-keeping with her pleasantness in Regency Solitaire. That is all pleasing to fans of the previous game like me, but if you're coming to the series fresh, what can you expect from the game?
Shadowhand is a swashbuckling RPG built around the form of solitaire which has you removing playing cards from a play area one by one. You're only allowed to remove them if they're one number higher or lower than the last one you removed or one higher or lower than the latest one you've dealt yourself.
On some levels the objective is to clear the play area by removing all the cards and thus progress the story. You might also be tasked with other side-objectives like uncovering objects which are hidden underneath some of the cards and so on. So far so Regency. But the big change from Regency Solitaire is the dueling. Some levels will involve encounters with foes and on these you're focused on getting those runs of cards rather than clearing the board because you use those runs to charge your weapons and attack your foes.
To explain, when it's your turn you start removing cards as normal. The more you remove the more your weapon charges. At a certain point it will be fully charged and you can use it against your opponent to deal damage and end your turn. But if you think you can get a long enough run to score a combo (it's the point at which a score multiplier might ordinarily kick in) you can keep going and the weapon will be overcharged. That means you can score a critical hit when you use it. You could also keep the run going as a tactic, trying to remove cards in such a way that when play passes to the computer player they can't get as impressive a run because of how you've left the board. If you do manage to clear the board the card layout is replenished and the fight continues until someone is defeated.
That's the core of Shadowhand but Birkett and game designer Helen Carmichael are adding variety on top of that core.
There will be costumes and items with which you can customise your highwaywoman, or alter her skills to take on certain enemies. In terms of items, Birkett shows me soap which makes the enemy drop their weapon when you use it. There's also a snuff bomb which makes them sneeze and lose their ability to fight, and wig powder which causes them to miss a turn – so fairly standard effects but executed with a touch of humour. They're styled as cards which you collect and then drag onto the character to change her loadout.
Birkett tells me there are also 46 items of clothing – I saw an executioner's mask, a dandy outfit, studded gloves, a "luxuriant beard" and more – in the game. Each will add a basic amount of defence to Shadowhand but they will also offer boosts to particular abilities or statistics. They're mostly still in the process of being coded though so I only got to do some basic outfit and item alterations in the demo.
At the moment the plan with regards to an XP system is to give the player a point to spend on upgrading particular stats at the end of each stage (stages are split into levels). For example, you could upgrade the insight stat and more cards will be face up at the start of a round so you can plan ahead a bit better. Or, usually you have a 50/50 chance of going first in a duel but you can boost certain stats to shift those odds into your favour. You could also build Shadowhand so she gets wildcard drops far more frequently.
These XP power-ups will be relatively subtle, though. They're small percentage changes to an attribute which build up over time rather than big changes to play.
When I was playing I didn't notice at first but the regular playing card suits have been tweaked. Instead of spades, diamonds, hearts and clubs you'll find swords, guns, masks, gems, chalices and oaks. You can thus give yourself little boosts within a level by removing cards of a particular suit. Swords and guns help with weapon recharging, masks are for defence, gems increase your earnings, chalices are for healing and the oak boosts strength.
That side of things wasn't active in the demo, hence I didn't notice it til Birkett pointed it out. I had, however, noticed the lack of face cards. Where were all the courtly folk and aces?
Birkett tells me that during player testing younger players had sometimes not realised that a jack counted as an 11 or didn't know what an ace was so decks were tweaked for clarity. Wildcards have been changed to "spares" for similar reasons.
[Sidenote: This is one of those observations where I feel like I'm on the far side of a generation gap. I used to play whist with my grandfather when I was really little and clock patience when I was on my own. During lunch breaks at secondary school we had pontoon and the delightfully named "shithead". I suppose that's not really the thing anymore. You're probably all too busy playing Minecraft and listening to tunes from the Hit Parade.]
The scenarios I play involve Lady Fleetwood (well, her maiden name incarnation – Lady Cornelia Darkmoor) in highwaywoman garb after a coach crash as well as in combat with a smuggler. The demo strips out the story context so I'm actually pretty spoiler-free in terms of how the narrative plays out. Birkett does show me a few scenes from elsewhere in the game, though.
One takes place in Lady Cornelia's non-highwaywoman world. There are ballgowns, a vapid partygoing couple, a pompous magistrate, and Lady Fleetwood's governor who is apparently filtering her money off and spending it on nothing good. A ne'erdowell! I wonder if he will be the villain of the piece or whether this is a feint?
Another scene is more typical of the game, taking place as it does in the countryside.
"This artwork," says Birkett, indicating a landscape with a building, "we had a bit of a thing with the artist where we sent them this idea and they sent back something that looked like a Disney slaughterhouse - a big building that was pink but... not what we were looking for. So we had to send them lots of Turner paintings until we ended up with this one that turned out to be really good."
There is a battle with a washerwoman who is wielding a bat at some point in that area. Birkett tells me that they took pictures of Carmichael wielding a cricket bat in the kitchen and sent them to the artist as a reference for that part.
Right now the game is undergoing player testing and Birkett and Carmichael will be fine-tuning the experience. When I spoke to Birkett he was toying with various ideas for creating a difficulty curve such as tweaking their AI to make mistakes when it's an easier enemy, or perhaps using armour and weaponry to make them easier or harder to defeat. They're also looking at the variety of the dueling sections, working out whether to switch up the battle rules for some of the fights, or make it so you can't use both weapons or even face off against multiple attackers.
Some of the feedback on Regency Solitaire was actually related to difficulty levels and has been in Birkett's mind while working on Shadowhand. He tells me about one player who explained that they never wanted to upgrade the ballroom (which is how you get particular advantages and abilities when you play) thus creating a super hard mode for themselves. "Somebody told me they played the entire game with the character without her dress on," says Birkett.
As a result he's thinking about ways to create that extra layer of difficulty in Shadowhand for those who want it. One idea is to include items which actually disadvantage or penalise the player somehow.
The dueling sections instantly made me wonder about a multiplayer mode. One where I could take on and defeat Adam, finally finding the competitive multiplayer game in which I truly excel. Luckily for Adam, though, the game is strictly single-player right now.
"It is strictly single player but it makes sense to do multiplayer if this does well," says Birkett. "My original pitch to Cliff [Harris of Shadowhand's publisher, Positech] said if this does well we could add a kind of Street Fighter mode where you go through against players online or even local. It's just that multiplayer is a lot of work, especially for a small indie and it's beyond the scope of this project."
Steam is a focus this time around. Regency Solitaire made about 85% of its sales off Steam, he tells me, so part of Shadowhand's origin story as a game was about making a game that was slightly more appealing to what the team thought Steam users might go for.
"We were aiming at the casual market [with Regency] and we knew that it wasn't a good sell on Steam. We didn't think it would do that well. It's done better than we thought but selling a romantic card game to your average Counter-Strike player or whatever is a bit of a hard sell!
"We wanted to move away from casual and into a more "Steam" realm. We thought we were going to have to change the theme to one that would appeal to a wider audience. Helen had already been thinking about this highwaywoman idea. We had to come up with something else that made it unique and that's when I got the thinking cap on and came up with the dueling idea. That's the unique thing no-one's ever done before – we were going to call it Duelitaire but I don't know if people would get the pun."
Shadowhand's release is still a few months away. The game will likely be out in the summer – Birkett tentatively mentions June as a possibility – but there's no release date set right now. However, if you want to see the game earlier, it'll be at Rezzed this week, Thursday to Saturday, where the developers will also be giving a talk at 12.30 on the Friday.