So you know those puzzle games where the basic mechanics are encased in a framework which links each challenge into a central, persistent story? Puzzle Quest is perhaps the most famous example, but many other games have attempted to embellish their basic gameplay to give the gamer something more to care about than just matching three colors again and again.
Ok, and…you know the card game Solitaire? That most quintessential of time killers, popularized by lonely people, burley inmates cooling their heels behind bars in the movies, and, well, Microsoft Windows? Well, developers Grey Alien Games have taken this classic card game, spliced it with some robust RPG systems, and thrown in a dollop of trashy historical fiction for good measure.
It’s a surprisingly potent mixture.
Begin the game, and you’re thrown headlong into a wonderfully twee story that feels lifted right out of a historical romance paperback. You play Lady Cornelia Darkmoor, a beguilingly beautiful aristocrat with a sharp wit and a taste for adventure. Out late one night traveling with her companion, Mariah, Lady Cornelia’s stagecoach is held up by a dastardly highwayman who murders the driver and steals the ladies’ belongings. Mariah flees, leaving Cornelia imperiled, and with no other choice than to pilfer the departed driver’s clothes, disguise herself as a night-haunting ne’er-do-well, and attempt to track down her missing companion. Later, a mysterious (and mysteriously helpful) fortune teller suggests Cornelia takes on the moniker ‘Shadowhand,’ to protect her identity. So that’s where that comes from, in case you were wondering.
It’s all fluff of the highest quality, and in its delightfully quaint way, succeeds in contextualizing your puzzling travails within the story of Cornelia’s impromptu quest. You’re never too far from a contrived plot development or a shocking twist. The story is further enhanced by the presentation and the art, which uses a realistic hand-drawn style to represent the characters and setting. It comes across a little naïve, and something of a relic in an age when most indies are clamoring to carve out a unique and memorable art style to set them apart from the crowd. Despite that, I found it genuinely endearing. It feels like it comes from a place of honesty, of choosing the approach which best suits the story and game, rather than cynically stylizing the look for the sake of standing out.
But if the story is pleasant padding, the puzzle mechanics are the real meat of the game, and luckily, this is where Grey Alien have got things spot on. Transplanting the heart from their previous title, Regency Solitaire, Shadowhand’s campaign is split into 22 individual chapters, each with a different setting. These are in turn segmented some hands of Solitaire, which you must win to progress. Each hand has a preset layout — that is, the cards are placed in the same arrangement at the beginning of each hand — but the cards are always dealt randomly, meaning a considerable amount of chance is involved. Cards are numbered zero to nine, and you clear them from the board by running up or down. Cards are only turned over once they are fully exposed, and this is where the strategy comes in. Rather than clicking fast and loose at the first consecutive card you see, it pays to take your time and plan your moves, so that more are exposed, and the board is cleared more swiftly. The quicker you finish, the greater the quality of your clear, and the more stars you’re awarded. Combos also accrue with each successive card you clear from the board, earning gold you can spend during the course of the quest (more on that later).
Hands come in two flavors. The type that gives Solitaire its name has you playing against yourself, attempting to rack up combos and improve on your times. Here, your only enemy is complacency, leading to a chilled-out, relaxing vibe. Then there are the duels. These crop up in each chapter and have you facing off with an enemy over the card-covered field of battle, trading slashes and gunshots, all in the name of honor and bodices. You and your opponent take turns to try to clear the field, while, your weapons simultaneously accumulate charge with every card you clear. Grab lengthy combos, and you’ll also gain a damage multiplier for your attacks. One attack is permitted each turn, and if you can’t clear a card, your turn is over. You win by taking the opponent’s health down to zero over the course of a number of hands.
As fun as Solitaire is, initially, it does all feel a little basic. That’s where the game’s RPG leanings come in to jazz things up a little. Winning duels gets you loot, which comes in the form of costumes, weapons, and single-use items, which can all have a bearing on the game (and can also be bought from the shop). A well-placed health consumable can turn a duel, for example, while a pistol with a particular characteristic might be strong against certain enemies (you get a chance before each duel to tool-up Lady Darkmoor according to your opponent’s stats, so scoping out their vulnerabilities is key, especially in the trickier later encounters). There’s a surprisingly deep collection of interacting systems here, such as bleed chance and armor piercing value, with each affecting the course of a battle.
And the depth doesn’t stop there. Attributes are character elements that, once leveled-up at the end of each chapter, play an increasing part in your effectiveness both in solo play and duels. For instance, Guile gives you a greater chance of finding Jokers and Spares (the game’s wild cards), while Prosperity increases the amount of gold you earn with each cleared card. Add to this the active and passive abilities you can also equip, and you have no small amount of nuance for a game that initially seems like a regular ol’ card turner.
You’ll need those abilities and attributes when the game suddenly decides to give you a bad run, and the random nature of each hand means that this happens pretty often. This can feel cheap, especially when you’ve done everything right, but still can’t win because the cards don’t fall in your favor. But it’s important to remember that being at the mercy of the dice has long been an element of traditional RPGs. It’s just here the dice are, well, cards.
And, because it’s so quick to re-start once you’ve failed a hand (the game runs slickly, in that tradition of all the best puzzle games) you forgive those times when it feels like the game won’t let you win. It’s just so damn addictive, and once it gets its hooks into you, you’ll just want to keep going back for more. Speaking of which, I’ve got some rich fops to fleece. Toodle-oo.