Video games have taught us wrong. To wit: there is no such thing as a suicide mission. Impossible odds are actually calculated to leave a significant margin for possibility. Leonidas wins. John Henry lives. Your first-person shooter hero can single-handedly take down an army and the RPG quest-giver doesn’t really mean it when she tells you that time is of the essence.
The beauty of Shifts is how handily it takes those conventions and throws them right out the airlock. In Shifts, the clock is always ticking, and doom really is impending. You’re not Superman – you’re Slim Pickens, riding the bomb all the way down. If you manage to do some good before the inevitable end, you win.
Shifts is an iPad-only game, but its closest cousin is Elder Sign: Omens, a game that wears its tabletop origins proudly. It’s very board game-like: there are clear rules and consequences to your every action (or inaction), but there is a degree of randomness that makes Shifts wonderfully replayable.
In the universe of Shifts, mankind has been killed offscreen and the Earth destroyed before the game even begins. You are the captain of ISA-001, an arkship loaded to the gills with seeds that can transform habitable worlds into new Earths. And as far as you know, you are all that remains of mankind. Succeed, and you will be the hero that gave humanity a second chance. Fail, and there will be no one to sell the movie rights to.
Your task is to explore the galaxy and find four worlds to terraform. You’re aided in this task by five genetically engineered bridge officers, any three of which can be on shift at any time. As the vessel upon which the fate of mankind rests, ISA-001 couldn’t be a worse choice. Crises erupt every turn: damaging the hull, draining the ship’s energy reserves, spoiling your precious genetic cargo, or corrupting the the helper droids that you rely upon.
You can allocate your bridge officers to combat these crises, but doing so comes at the opportunity cost of using their special abilities. Putting navigator Jesper Iversen on shift allows him to babysit the navigational systems, reducing energy wastage – if you do so you won’t get his bonus to movement, which doubles the ship’s range. Additionally, the more shifts Jesper does, the more fatigued he gets, cutting into his efficiency.
Shifts is designed in a way to give you just a little more than you can handle every turn. Like Elder Sign, this is a game that you will frequently lose – something that may put off some players. It can be frustrating for a crisis you’ve just resolved to rear its head again one turn later, or to coax your dying ship into a star cluster only to find a string of dead planets with no habitable worlds or exploration bonuses for your trouble. But Shifts usually gets the balance just right – being constantly on the knife edge of failure might be agonizing but it’s also absolutely white-knuckle thrilling. The first time I beat Shifts I actually whooped like I’d just hit a home run.
This is the first title from Threadbare Games, and that shows. Shifts sports beautiful hand-painted art and interesting, attractive characters – but the game’s look is flat and doesn’t have the little tactile notes that denote more accomplished apps like Letterpress or Lost Cities. Random events and discoveries are disappointingly accompanied by a dull paragraph of text instead of an image in the game’s distinctive art style. The UI doesn’t always do a great job of communicating the game’s rules, either: what is the exact effect that fatigue is having on my science officer? Kosoko just gained a rank, what precisely does that do? You are left with the impression that Threadbare had decided that they had a minimum viable product and shipped it to get some positive cash flow.
But those concerns are peripheral to the game itself, which is excellent. Shifts is the perfect subway commute or coffee break game: a challenging, self-contained strategy experience that plays out over fifteen or twenty minutes. That also feels like the perfect length of time for a game of long odds that you’ll lose rather frequently – it makes losing feel instructive, rather than punitive.
If Shifts is a indicator of things to come from Threadbare, then we’ll do well to keep our eyes on them. With a little more spit and polish they could be making mobile strategy games that are competitive with the best of the best. Maybe a spot on the 2013 best-of lists isn’t such an impossible mission for them.