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The procedurally generated serial killer in Shadows Of Doubt is too smart for me

Left out in the rain

An NPC holds his umbrella in the rain in open world city mystery Shadows Of Doubt.
Image credit: Fireshine Games

I honestly thought I was good at detective games until I started playing the early access build for Shadows of Doubt. I mean, I’ve riddled through The Case Of The Golden Idol’s intuitive fill-the-blanks whodunnits, wrestled with Return Of The Obra Dinn’s sixty missing persons, grappled with the mysteries of the very gods themselves in Paradise Killer, and don’t get me started on Danganronpa’s ridiculous mind-bending, patience-testing murder mysteries.

That being said, ColePowered Games' detective immersive sim has really left me stumped, forcing me to hang my deer stalker on a hat peg in shame and sling my detective's notebook out a window. Shadows Of Doubt is like no other detective game I've played, and although its murder mysteries have left me spiraling, I've had an absolute riot playing it.

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See, the cases in Shadows Of Doubt are completely procedurally generated. The evidence you gather, the witnesses you speak too, locations and murder weapons - every detail of the crime has all been randomly generated. Even the killer will change each time a new city is generated. From that element alone, you'd think it would be a mess, the cases all half-baked, nothing making sense, but, suprisingly, it works. It a little rough around the edges but it's honestly so fascinating... or it would be, if only I could solve its first case

A investigation inboard displaying clues connected by red string  in Shadows Of Doubt
Bonus points to any mystery game that gives you a pinboard with red string to muck about with. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

Here's the setup: you play as a retired-cop-turned-sleuthy-PI in a gritty noir city during the 1980s. You take on jobs to earn cash, using that to pay rent on your shitty apartment, feed your coffee habit, and stuff your pockets with cigarettes until you need more money, so take on more cases. There's an introductory mystery to help you get into the throws of detective work, but after you solve it, you're thrust into the sandbox world on your lonesome. That's if you can actually finish the tutorial investigation, which, um, yeah, I struggled with.

It all begins with something straight out of a Bogart movie. A note slipped under the door to my apartment read 'Find Omni Johnsson', and nothing else. I looked the fella up in the phonebook to find his address, then stepped out of my apartment building. After arriving at his place and breaking in with a key found under his doormat, I found poor Mr. Johnsson in the bathroom, blood everywhere, with two slugs in his back. Oh, dear.

From here the game gave me a number of different leads to follow, since Shadows Of Doubt is incredibly hands-off with how you want to approach the investigation. First I shook down the appartment - which, even though it was small had so many nooks and crannies to search. You can open every draw, every cabinet, ever closet, as well as riffle through cabinets and trash cans. The most interesting bits I found were an ID card with Omni's work address, a receipt to a diner he was at three hours before his death, and a super-suspicious note listing a time, place, and secret passcode. There's a chance I missed more, because the police suddenly burst into the appartment forcing me to jump into a bathroom vent and scramble my way to the outside. Just another day in the glamourous life of a PI.

A screenshot looking up at the tall buildings in Shadows Of Doubt
Shadow Of Doubt's voxel city is both pretty and gritty.

Shadows Of Doubt also gives you access to a cool investigation board, complete with red string, where you can pin clues you find. Looking at all the clues I snatched from the apartment, the suspicious note immediately grabbed my attention - but I decided to check out the restaurant first, an easy lead while I was still getting to grips with the sheer range of things to do.

Going out into the night, the city is visually impressive. It's rainy (because of course it is) and everything has a super-stylised voxel look. Neon lights from shop signs and windows reflect off the wet pavement and there's a hazy purple glow surrounding everything. Very cool. I headed to the resturant and, after a fruitless conversation with the cashier, lockpicked the door to the backroom and search through the CCTV footage on the computer. I know what time Omni was in the restaurant the receipt and, after some searching, I spotted him sitting with someone at a table. I printed off the image to see the mysterious person more clearly and hot-tailed it out of there before the manager suspected something was up.

I love this element of Shadows Of Doubt. Sneaking into places having a good old rummage and stealthing out again is thrilling. There's combat if you're discovered, though, as I found out while stupidly trying to lockpick my way into a closed club on a busy street. I was spotted by two passers-by who began to beat me up, one even stabbing me with a knife. The key is to be like a ghost: in and out, with no witnesses. It requires some clever thinking and, for the most part, Shadows Of Doubt lets you act out whatever plans you like.

Reading the emails on a old CRT computer monitor  in Shadows Of Doubt
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun
A woman says she knew the murder victim in Shadows Of Doubt
Switching off the power to a security door  in Shadows Of Doubt
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

For example, I had to sneak into Omni's place of work, so I waited until everyone had gone home, then messed with the fuse box so that the security cameras and lights turned off, letting me snoop with my torch in relative peace. Other ways of getting access included bribing a worker for an office tour, or using the vents to sneak in. Every person in the city has their own routine, meaning the world continues on with or without you. It can be overwhelming, as I quickly found out. I found an email on Omni's computer from a seemingly close friend of his, warning him about something dangerous heading his way. It had been sent only a couple of hours before, but upon reaching their apartment I found it completely covered in police tape. They were dead: two shots in the chest, exactly like Omni. I had a serial killer on my hands.

A list of different body augmentations you can receive in in Shadows Of Doubt
Body shop
One element in Shadows Of Doubt that I didn't explore much were the sync disks found around the city. These cyberpunk-eque disks can be 'installed' in your body and give you investigating buffs. They're pretty cool, but it's hard to get your hands on 'em. Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

At this point the secret note flashed into my mind, but when I turned up at the grotty basement the note listed, I realised I had missed the meeting time - and when I tried to sneak in I kept being chased away in a hail of bullets. With no pocket change, there was no way I could afford to get stitched up if I was hurt. With all my leads growing rapidly cold and this killer running circles around me, I decided to gather more evidence and re-trace my footsteps.

I think my issue was that in a sandbox detective game where you can speak to everyone, rifle through documents, break into any apartment you like, hack security systems, check call histories, gather fingerprints, read emails, look up addresses in the phone book, and identity people by their shoe size - that's right, their shoe size - it can all pile up quickly, leaving you buried in a mountain of receipts, profiles, cryptic notes and the rest. It's an entangled mess of information. And together with the rough edges that come with building a sandbox this impressive, Shadows Of Doubt can be frustrating.

Snow falls gently on the streets of a voxel city in Shadows Of Doubt
When you've selected your destination a big arrow will pop up at the bottom of the screen pointing you in the right direction. It's one of the only helping hands you get in Shadows Of Doubt. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

Feeling at a dead-end with my current case, I abandoned my save file and replayed the tutorial case a second time with everything I knew. Lo and behold, I actually managed to successfully catch the murderer - before they went on their killing spree, too. Despite my initial failures, I actually really appreciate the hands-off approach Shadows Of Doubt takes with its cases. There's nothing I hate more than a rail-roady detective game where there are giant exclamation marks over clues in a crime scene and a Watson-like keeps butting in to let me know where to go next.

Although its serial killer slipped past me the first time, I'm still impressed by Shadows Of Doubt. The sleuthing feels thrilling, following your own intuition from a trail of clues that you've gathered makes you feel like a smart cookie, and the fact that the killer could be anyone in the city feels gripping. It's something that other scripted detective games just can't capture and it's incredibly refreshing.

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