Turn-based strategy has long had a reputation for being deep. Games like Jagged Alliance, XCOM or even Battletech pair detailed strategy layers with their tactical combat, making success in the games feel somewhat akin to earning a university degree.
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Showgunners, the latest turn-based strategy from strategy wizards Artificer, is – let’s be frank – not so complex, sharping that tactical combat into a fine point and then stabbing into a goons eye, gibbing them.
Artificer is an old hand when it comes to tactics, previously creating both Hard West and Phantom Doctrine. This makes it the best studio to nip in with the scalpel, paring away the fat of a turn-based strategy until something much more relaxed remains. Showgunners still feels like a pulse-pounding tactical experience, it’s just also faster and requires less of a mental overhead than its turn-based-tactic stablemates.
Showgunners is all about close-quarters firefights, filled with brutality. The setting exemplifies this perfectly, dropping players into the role of Scarlett, a competitor in the Running Man-esque gameshow Homicidal All-Stars. It’s near-future, it’s dystopian, it’s a ratings hit.
There’s a misstep here: while out of combat you control Scarlett as a third-person character, roaming around the arena and trying to dodge or disarm traps, solve puzzles and occasionally sign autographs for eager fans. It totally sells the dystopian fantasy, but it is the weakest part of Showgunners by a distance.
However, it also proves that the ultra-competitive reality TV slay-’em-up is perfect fodder for the genre. Get fame and you’ll be rewarded with a variety of different sponsorships, while weapons and tactical items are found in loot boxes, rewarded for solving tricky traps. While in combat encounters the in-game director messes with you deliberately to try and make a better show, surrounding you with exploding barrels or even just locking doors to trap you in a bottleneck. Perform well however — get melee kills, kill multiple enemies at once or perform a variety of audience-pleasing feats — and you’ll get additional fame, so the pendulum of audience satisfaction can truly swing both ways.
The gameshow setting also offers up some OTT mooks to beat around the place too. The Ronin has a sword and will try to gut your heroes with it, the Fume is surrounded in impenetrable smoke. To fight them, you’ll have to take advantage of your contender’s strengths, whether that’s Scarlet’s penchant for beating people to death with the butt of her gun or more considered strategies like Tybalt’s ability to disguise himself as an enemy unit, making him less likely to be attacked even as they get attacked by everyone in eyeline.
Combat is as subtle as the in-game satire: Artificer dropped their scalpel as soon as they’d carved the extraneous faff from the turn-based tactics game and picked up a giant hammer ot design everything else. This means that the game plays like ultraviolent chess: twin submachine guns cut off enemies at the knees, while explosive barrels and gouts of acid do grievous damage to anyone caught in their path. In exchange, your characters will equip better weapons, learn new abilities and equip different mods to boost their powers.
The best part of it is when you learn to bend the game’s rules to serve you. Every character starts with just two action points (AP), which are useful for moving, shooting, melee attacks or anything else you might want to do. Early on, Scarlett can unlock the ability to regenerate one AP whenever she kills someone with a melee attack. Get a few enemies at low HP and suddenly you’re able to tear through a group of them, racking up fame and clearing the field. Learning how the characters you control can work together and how those powers might interact to help you turn the odds on the bad dudes that often have you completely outnumbered, if not necessarily outgunned.
Arenas are all custom-made, part of Showgunners being a tightly scripted campaign rather than something open-ended. This means there are ups and downs and – even thought the story is the sort of B-Movie schlock you might have seen Arnie or Dolph Lundgren gurning through. This isn’t a jab at all – much like the rest of the game, the developers have played smart with the setting and the game to deliver a high-tempo tactics game that you can blast through in just a few hours.
All in all, Showgunners is fun and entertaining, making the most of its world to deliver a one-and-done campaign that you won’t begrudge spending your time with. It can’t claim the turn-based throne but it’s not trying to: the target audience here are the legions of people that just want something quick and thinky without having to expend too much brain power thinking about the bigger picture.
Showgunners is out now for PC.
Quick and dirty, Showgunners is a turn-based strategy for people with short attention spans and a need for instant gratification. Shrinking the experience down robs you of the majesty of something like XCOM’s strategic brilliance, but you won’t regret the time you spend here.
- Brutal turn-based combat
- Fun use of the setting
- Meaningful character progression
- Third-person sections don’t gel with the rest of the game
- Limited replay-ability