Review: Shell Shock 1864

By Phil Scuderi 05 Jul 2013 0
And possibly ours as well. One way or the other, this will be Smithfield's last stand.

“Lean back. Put your headphones on. Enjoy the experience.”

Those words flashed on the screen when I began playing Shell Shock 1864. I received them initially as a benign suggestion and a promise of good times to come. I quickly came to view them as an urgent bidding: Enjoy it, I say! Later I decided they also serve as a preemptive defense of this bewildering, flawed game. Oh, you didn’t like it? Did you lean back far enough? Maybe you need better headphones. You did decide to enjoy yourself before you played, right?

I remember thinking, “Enjoy the experience? You bet I will. This calls for a drink!” (With me, it doesn’t take much.) I mixed a Sazerac, the ancestral drink of my people, and returned with my iPad to the couch. It would be the first libation of many that night. I fear abundant drink is the only respite from this game’s perverse punishments.

Shell Shock is set in the Second Schleswig War, a half-year conflict in 1864 between Denmark and the combined forces of Prussia and Austria. You play as a young, somber Danish soldier named Jamie. At the battle of Dybbøl, Jamie realizes that his lifelong friend and superior officer Smithfield’s mind has begun to fray amidst the hellish bombardments and miserable conditions on the front lines. The war has taken its toll on Smithfield, and the entire company is now at risk under his command.

Baskin Robbins? No? I think you can sense where this is headed.

Smithfield is an enormous brute of a man. He combines the menace of Gregor Clegane with the humor of Titus Pullo. Next to him Jamie seems small indeed. It’s hard to say whether the large oaf realizes that Jamie knows the danger he poses to the men. This game is full of dark themes and graphic violence. Its bold lines and sparse animations are reminiscent of a short from Heavy Metal, and its subject matter isn’t far off either.

Suddenly the Prussians attack, and Smithfield flies into a blood rage. Despite overwhelming odds he orders his men to counterattack. Jamie faces a dilemma: does he (1) obey the foolhardy order, (2) disobey it, or (3) try to talk sense into Smithfield? This is how the game’s story proceeds, as a series of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure branches. After you choose a path you get to play a minigame, and once that’s over you get a cutscene and another CYOA sequence. It’d have been nice if different choices lead to different minigames, but alas, free will is an illusion.

About those minigames? They’re awful, clumsy, infuriating—downright abusive, I’d say. The first is a crude imitation of Missile Command, only instead of tapping to shoot, you have to drag a line from each cannon muzzle to its approaching target; then after each volley you have to tap each of four cannons to reload them. Is the resultant frenzied, chaotic sequence of swipes, taps, and curses a clever simulation of battlefield disarray? Or is it just poor design that happens to fit the game’s theme? The second minigame answers the question. It’s a lot like SkiFree, the classic Windows downhill skiing game. Except here the snow monster (or in this case a band of Prussian soldiers) is always chasing you and it’s almost impossible to dodge the dozens of fatal obstacles in your path. Each time you impale yourself on a palisade or get stabbed by the pursuing Prussians, you have to restart the chase from the beginning.

As for the presumed third minigame? Despite several hours of trying in both inebriated and sober states, I never managed to beat the second one. In despair I turned to Google, hoping for some sort of cheat or shortcut, only to learn that there is no third minigame. Huh. Small mercies, right Smithfield?

Shocking. On my fourth-gen iPad, the game often glitches and reduces to just the lower-left quadrant.

The two extant minigames seem to have been designed without consideration for how touch-based interfaces work. I’m not even sure they would succeed as crappy three-minute Flash games. Their primitive, retro mechanics belong on different hardware from an earlier time. I have proven that no number of Sazeracs can redeem them.

Decades of gaming frustration have carved me into the very form of patience, yet with Shell Shock I’m prone to bouts of Smithfieldian fury. I haven’t been this mad at a game since I rented Silver Surfer for the NES. Partly it’s that I feel so impotent for failing to beat the second minigame. But I’m also upset at what a wasted opportunity this game represents. Here we have an utterly fresh setting, an appealing premise, good characters, writing and voice acting, and excellent art, all undone by the weird need to squeeze in gameplay. I hope someday to read a Shell Shock 1864 graphic novel.

The game was played on the iPad 4 for this review.

Review: Shell Shock 1864

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