Grey Alien Games is the definition of an outsider game developer. A husband-and-wife team based in rural Dorset, Jake Birkett and Helen Carmichael work alone with support from tiny publishers and overseas contractors. Jake isn't a refugee from AAA development, but a veteran of the unfashionable PC casual gaming scene of the last decade, when he churned out cheerful puzzle games for sites like Big Fish. They are also history nuts. Helen, who writes the scenarios, is a historian, while Jake collects coins. When making a game set in historical times, Jake likes to keep a coin from the period on his desk to turn over in his hand while he works. If you had to place them as characters in a contemporary sitcom, it would be The Detectorists, not Silicon Valley.
We should treasure developers like this, who work out of the loop and follow their own passions, because their games are like nothing else. Grey Alien had a minor hit a couple of years ago with Regency Solitaire, a relaxing, immaculate puzzle game that danced elegantly around a light-hearted pastiche of the novels of Jane Austen. I loved it. When they ported it from Big Fish to Steam, it found an unexpected audience there, and Grey Alien were persuaded to make something along the same lines but aimed more squarely at Steam's core gaming crowd.
The result is Shadowhand, which aims to blend the noble pastime of solitaire with the structure and systems of a role-playing game - rather like Puzzle Quest did for match-three puzzle games. It's definitely a more sophisticated game than Regency Solitaire, adding loot, equipment, character attributes and consumable items to the earlier game's arcade-style combos and recharging skills. It also introduces the wonderfully paradoxical concept of turn-based combat solitaire, which is where its RPG systems find purchase and it offers some tactical depth.
Shadowhand is, however - praise be - very much still a Grey Alien game. Instead of building it around a generic fantasy quest, Birkett and Carmichael have swapped Pride & Prejudice for Jamaica Inn, sticking with their native south-west England and winding the clock back a few decades to a more lawless and swashbuckling time of highwaymen, smugglers, corrupt magistrates, hangmen, mysterious ladies and rowdy inns where the grog flows free.
It's even a prequel, of sorts, to Regency Solitaire. Our hero is a young aristocrat called Lady Cornelia Darkmoor, and when she comes across a dashing gentleman by the name of Lord Fleetwood, you realise you are witnessing the meetcute of Regency Solitaire's kindly aunt and uncle. It turns out this elderly pair had quite an adventurous past. When a coach bearing Cornelia and her companion Mariah to a secret assignation is held up by a highwayman and Mariah disappears, Cornelia implausibly but delightfully begins a career as a masked highwaywoman herself, skirmishing with the vagabonds and ne'er-do-wells that infest the countryside as she seeks to find Mariah and expose a corrupt plot at the heart of decadent high society. As with Regency Solitaire, this storyline isn't much more than frothy pastiche - but it's told briskly, has an arch sense of humour and a good sense of its own silliness, and is steeped in a rich understanding of this ribald period. It's very entertaining.
There's a campaign of 22 chapters to play through, each set in a new location and running through several hands of solitaire. As in Regency Solitaire, these are layouts that you clear by running up or down the order from the card at the top of the waste pile, regardless of suit. (Solitaire aficionados will recognise it as an evolution of the TriPeaks variant.) The layouts themselves are preset, but the deal is randomised. You can only clear fully exposed cards, and the complex fans and curlicues of overlapping cards add a level of strategy and forward thinking to clearing each layout. Aces, Jacks, Queens and Kings have been abandoned - alarmingly, Grey Alien found a significant proportion of players didn't understand them - and replaced with suits that run from zero to nine, which also helps tighten the game balance and make long, wraparound combos a little easier to achieve. New suits have also been invented to replace traditional playing card suits, including 'sword' and 'gun' suits that charge weapons faster for use in combat.
There are plenty of relaxing solo hands to play through, which play very similarly to Regency Solitaire and only lightly interact with the game's RPG side - but each chapter also includes a few duels, in which the solitaire hand is the field of play for turn-based combat. Clearing cards charges your weapons for use, while combos add an attack bonus, instead of adding a gold multiplier as they do in solo hands; you're permitted one attack or item use per turn, and if you can't clear any cards, your turn ends. Weapons are collected as loot, along with consumables and outfit items. Combat takes a while to reveal its true depth, but it is there. There's a detailed layer of combat-specific systems to get into - armour values, chance to pierce, bleed and poison, chance to deflect damage from certain weapon types and so on - and once you get a certain way into the game you'll need to adjust your equipment loadout before each duel to suit your opponent's strengths and weaknesses.
Attributes, meanwhile, are valuable in both solo hands and duels: for example, Insight starts the hand with more cards face up, Finesse draws more useful stock cards, and Luck occasionally clears cards at random. (These points are awarded on level-up, but it seems an XP system was a bridge too far for Grey Alien; you level up automatically at the end of each chapter.) There are passive and active abilities to collect and equip too.
In other words, Shadowhand offers no shortage of tactical nuance and good old RPG optimisation to sink your teeth into. It's not a tough game on normal (the opponent AI is half-blind and misses an awful lot of chances to clear cards), but you'll need to think and plan if you want to get a three-star rating on every encounter. It is also - crucially - still a game of luck. You can draw terrible stock cards and find yourself steamrollered in duels quite easily. The layouts sometimes offer gloriously long combo runs, sometimes measly scraps. Using the very many tools the game places at your disposal to mitigate your luck is a core part of the fun, but many of these tools - for example, the active skill that allows you to reshuffle the whole layout - are themselves dependent on luck, and can still leave you wanting.
Some modern RPG players, weaned on predictable outcomes, might baulk at this, but I love how Shadowhand uses a solitaire hand to fill in for the cruelty and caprice of the dice roll in old-school role-playing. Sometimes things just don't go your way. Besides, the hands are quick to run through and can always be replayed. Shadowhand is never frustrating and always a joy to play; like Regency Solitaire, it has been polished to a sumptuous, walnut glow. The hand-painted artwork is a bit gauche, perhaps, but has a certain Hogarthian charm, and the audio is simply fabulous. Atmospheric ambient sound does as much as the backdrops to bring the scene to life, there's a rollicking score, and crisp arcade-style sound effects - pushed right to the front of the mix, where they belong - make the action of clicking on playing cards almost viscerally thrilling.
Perhaps the best thing about Shadowhand is that it doesn't come from the same place as other video games. Literally so, because who else is making games amid the rolling dales of Dorset? Who else is looking to bodice-ripping historical novels for inspiration? And who else is salvaging the design and aesthetic values of an unloved branch of the video game family tree - the already archaic, almost forgotten world of pre-smartphone casual gaming - and grafting them onto other genres to create something strange and new? This is a great game and a true original. Savour the work of the outsider, because it's rarer than you think.
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