Tactical combat has been a staple of video games for many years, with titles like those in the XCOM series often cited as some of the best the genre offers. But these days, even titles that provide blended content, such as those like Miasma Chronicles, Jagged Alliance 3 or Sunday Gold which add in role-playing, storytelling or puzzle elements often have solid turn-based combat in the mix. Even one of the best RPGs ever created, Baldur’s Gate 3, got some of the highest ever scores for a game in no small part because it was able to turn the Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition ruleset into a solid tactical combat experience.
Tactical fighting in video games appeals to a lot of players because, assuming the system is fair and balanced, it creates a level playing field where smart tactics and careful planning can rule the day. Sure, you might be outnumbered or outgunned, but taking your time and squeezing every possible advantage out of a limited pool of action points, utilizing special abilities and even the environment, can lead to victory. And a victory made against the odds feels really good. Because of all of that, turn-based combat can ultimately offer a more enjoyable experience for many players as opposed to real-time strategy titles that often also require quick reflexes and fast thinking.
Showgunners is a title that really leans into its turn-based combat core. While it does a good job of adding in a few other elements to prevent it from becoming one long tactical slog, you can be forgiven for thinking that the thinness of those elements (a somewhat weak story for example) are simply there to add a bit of window dressing before funneling players back into the tactical battles. Thankfully, because combat is handled so well and given so much variety in Showgunners, it really can stand on its own as the main feature for the entire experience.
The plot of Showgunners is fun but not totally unique. Players take on the role of the character Scarlett, a woman who has entered a futuristic game show as a contestant where she has to fight to the death against an army of convicts for the amusement of millions of adoring fans. Yes, we have seen this plot before. Back in the arcade days, there was Smash TV, which showed us the same kind of dystopian world game show (and which was set in the then far-off future year of 1999). In movies and books, we have seen this plot in The Running Man, and in video games experienced it again in the FMV title Bloodshore. It may be a bit overused, but it’s popular for a reason and works perfectly for Showgunners.
The tactical combat and the options available to players are not too advanced, but even so Showgunners does a good job of moving players through a tutorial type level where all of the basic mechanics are explained. After that, the difficulty ramps up slowly, with new elements almost always explained so that it never gets out of hand in terms of knowing what to do or how to make the best use of your special moves and powers. In the beginning, Scarlett is also paired up with another contestant named Marty who actually won Showgunners the previous year and is back to try and do it again. Marty carefully explains things to Scarlett (and thus the players) which makes learning how to play and how to deal with the various enemy and environmental hazards fairly easy. Not that those challenges are easy, but at least players are given all of the information needed to plan effective strategies.
Both Marty and Scarlett are unique characters. Scarlett has more special abilities that deal with rapid movement and flanking attacks for her submachine guns or automatic rifles. Marty meanwhile is more of a tank type character with a solid melee punch that is about as powerful as one of his shotguns. As both characters gain more experience by getting farther and farther into the show, players can invest points in making their characters stronger or giving them even more special abilities, which are normally very powerful attacks with cooldowns to prevent overuse. Eventually you can recruit more characters onto your team, although the selection of playable characters is somewhat limited, probably as another way to help streamline Showgunners and make it more accessible to everyone – not just hardcore tactical combat veterans.
In terms of gameplay, there are two main activities that players will be participating in during Showgunners. The first is, of course, the tactical combat. And you will be doing that a lot. However, when not actually in a battle, Scarlett and the team are free to wander and explore the many levels of Showgunners in real time. Each map represents a part of a decrepit city taken over for the show and all of them feature plenty of hidden loot caches, ambush locations (which will drop you back into turn-based combat) and even puzzles to find and solve. Some of the levels even have big secrets, like optional combat arenas which supplement the main ones that you have to complete in order to pass that level. Fighting in the optional arenas can earn some big rewards, like new unique guns and equipment, so they are always worth tracking down.
In the real time mode, you also have to keep an eye out for traps. There are all kinds of traps like trip wired explosives or spikes that pop up from the ground on a regular basis. Most of the traps can be circumvented using precise timing. For the others, like trip wires that block your path, they can be disarmed by slowly walking up to them and clicking on the trap itself. If you are careful, you will likely be able to avoid most of the traps, although I did walk into a few when I got distracted looking at something else in the level instead of where I was walking. If your team gets hurt in battle or by a trap, players can use a med kit disposable inventory item or one of the mounted health stations scattered around each level to heal back up. Certain special abilities can also sometimes help.
Showgunners does a surprisingly good job of pushing its game show narrative. As you walk around in real time, an announcer will give a play by play of what is happening, like “She didn’t see that last trap in time!” That is good for color commentary, but more useful when in tactical turn-based mode. There the announcer will describe new enemies or new situations to the audience, and by extension the players. So, if the announcer is talking about how there is going to be a huge explosion if the contestants can’t fight through a bunch of enemies and disarm some explosives, then you should probably do your best to accomplish that goal before it’s a kaboom type game over.
Fame also plays a role in Showgunners. There are live fans standing and cheering in designated areas around the maps, and Scarlett can greet them and sign autographs. You have a choice to make Scarlett mean, funny or nice when interacting with the somewhat adoring public and Showgunners keeps track of how many times Scarlett goes down those different paths. It’s important because there are sponsors at every level of fame, and some of them will only be awarded to someone who has enough points in one of those attitude areas. A bank might want Scarlett to be nice while a gun maker might prefer that she was mean or cocky. Signing up with a sponsor locks out all the other sponsors for that level of fame but also grants rewards like new guns or consumable items, one time bonuses of experience or cash, or long term benefits like a permanent 10 percent increase in experience earned. Depending on your play style, it might be advantageous to plan out which sponsors you want to snag and then change your fan interactions accordingly so that you will meet the minimum requirements when you achieve that level of fame.
I had a surprisingly good time playing Showgunners. Having started playing it for this review, I became a fan almost immediately after getting hooked by the high-quality levels which are all created by hand for maximum entertainment and environmental interaction (with nothing procedurally generated). The combat is also extremely satisfying. It’s not overly complicated, but just complex enough that you can really use the special abilities as well as the environment for some impressive feats.
For example, in one early arena, a bunch of thugs were at a train station guarding one side of a series of tracks. Trains would come by from time to time and spell instant death for anyone stuck there at the end of a turn. I realized the advantages of that high ground right away and triggered every special ability I could getting my team across those tracks quickly to eliminate those defenders, even if it meant taking some damage along the way. As soon as I did that, the title started spawning more enemies from my original starting position, but now we were in the good spot, able to hold the bad guys down on the tracks and pick them off as they advanced, or even stun them so that the trains would do our job for us. That was just one example of tactical thinking that I had to employ to achieve success at Showgunners, and I really enjoyed almost every minute of it.
Those looking to maybe get into tactical combat games or players who enjoy the concept but find many of them to be too difficult should give Showgunners a try. There is enough of a challenge that veteran players will still find a lot to enjoy, but it really is also appropriate for more casual players as well, in no small part because of how Showgunners explains everything as it goes and carefully ramps up the difficulty without adding too much, too soon. That is a trick that not too many titles in any genre can master, but Showgunners makes it look almost effortless. And for less than $30 on Steam, that is a lot of bang for your buck.