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Review: Shadow Warrior

October 8, 2013

2013-10-06_00002Cast your mind back to 1997 (if you weren’t alive back then, get off my lawn you pesky kids); Quake was ushering a new dawn of graphics (the much vaunted “origami in brown” look), and the last generation of 2.5D games were being released – one of which you may have heard of: Duke Nukem 3D. While Duke was a great game (which went on a sordid journey of its own), in the year that followed its release, 3D Realms didn’t sit on its laurels; they reskinned and rebalanced the game into a pastiche of Asian kung-fu movie stylings. They, in fact, made Shadow Warrior, essentially a Duke 3D Total Conversion with vastly more casual racism and a wafer thin plot. It was also a great game (and is now available for free on Steam!).

Now, 16 years later, Shadow Warrior is back – re-imagined, re-charged and… uh… re-updated by independent polish studio Flying Wild Hog (who previously brought us Hard Reset). Is this another cash in on nostalgia, or something more?

2013-10-05_00030Like Rush Hour, but…

Shadow warrior is kind of like a buddy cop movie – only one of the cops is an immortal, banished demon, and the other is a sword master, closet nerd, and henchmen for an evil mob boss. Actually I suppose that’s not really a buddy cop movie at all, but I’m too committed to give up on the comparison now. You play “Lo Wang” (seriously), a reboot of the character from the original game, voiced by some guy who I suspect is in fact not from Asia. You start your day of henching and extortion by trying to retrieve a sacred sword – the Nobitsura Kage. Naturally, this goes horribly wrong when a demonic transdimensional invasion happens at the same time. From there, you begin to unlock powers, and piece together what is going on with the help of an amnesiac, wisecracking demon, Hoji. I got the impression that I would somehow also save the world, but the game was never particularly clear about irrelevant details like that.

2013-10-06_00013Surprisingly, the story – told through the oh-so-popular animated illustration manner (CGI turned out to be too expensive once people expected it to look good, that’s why cutscenes are always done like this these days) – has enough behind it to drive the rest of the game. Wang is brought into a tale that feels like it was taken out of an ancient proverb, and while it’s not a very personal story for the protagonist, it’s involved enough to make me want to see it through. The Polish developers also managed to capture what seems (at least to my very un-Asian perspective) to be a convincing stab at vague orientalism, making Shadow Warrior more like a wuxia film than Die Hard with swords. The characters are mostly throwaway or not developed enough to matter, but I found myself developing an attachment to Wang, who – while being a ruthless killer – has a secret lair under his house with his mint edition comic collection and “sweet” battle armour, which he dons after shaving his head (“haven’t you seen the films?”). The constant banter between Wang and Hoji also manages to work well, and it doesn’t stray beyond its welcome, despite being clearly self aware of what the game is. Not that it matters, Shadow Warrior does a good job of being light hearted enough to pull the parody card whenever it wavers.

2013-10-05_00027Violence and Variations

Wang is a pretty tough nut to crack, his basic weapon is a katana (the game is set in “asia” after all), but he picks up a wide array of additional tools for disposing of enemies, and my god there are a lot of guys to kill. The encounter design is reminiscent of Serious Sam – arena like, often with multiple waves of enemies you have to cleave through before the door to the next area unlocks. A game with this much combat absolutely relies on it being perfect, and it really is well done – Wang’s array of weapons, from submachine guns, flamethrowers and a quad barrelled shotgun are uniformly fun to use. The demonic horde is a little soft, but that just adds to the experience – by stripping down combat to just you, lots of guns and a huge sword, you want to make sure the player can feel powerful when they face off against 30 yammering, jumping demons. There are no chest high walls here; and I only realized that you could actually crouch due to a loading screen tip telling me. It’s got a deliciously retro feel to it, but modernized with all the eye candy we expect now. It’s also incredibly violent. That’s not a bad thing, mind, but expect to be slicing dudes into pieces while Wang makes glib remarks which are just this side of the “too cheesy” divide.

2013-10-05_00012Since we’re in the 21st century, no self-respecting FPS can live without a few RPG elements, and Shadow Warrior is no exception. Wang has three sets of upgrades; money buys weapon modifications, karma (which you get for killing your enemies with style) grants you katana mastery and numerous endurance skills, while Ki (received in the form of crystals) is used to learn the dark arts – such as stunning enemies and shielding yourself with magic. The weapon upgrades were well thought out and fun; and I wish I had enough money to get all of them by the time I finished the game (you can also buy them at any time – the game doesn’t try to be ~*realistic*~). The Ki powers were more of a let down, generally only useful against weak enemies, except for the healing spell, which is your ticket to survival. However, the Karma skill tree, which mostly contains nondescript (but useful) powers also houses the katana skills, which you should absolutely get first, since they are fantastic and let you play the game in what I must conclude is the correct way.

Enemy design is also well conceived and executed – set pieces introduce each new type (as a mini-boss), although by now – as all enemies tend to fall into a few typical categories – if you’ve played Serious Sam, nothing is going to surprise you. Difficulty wise, the game does well – since you can heal yourself at any time, it’s a matter of balancing dodging, shooting, reloading and healing while being swarmed by 100 dudes. I liked it, and found it challenging enough without being a total arse – although I got slightly stuck for a bit and had to play one fight maybe 8 times or so, because the level designers thought it would be hilarious to put two fast, charging enemies who can kill you very quickly into an enclosed space with lots of dead ends.

2013-10-06_00023Talking about level design, it’s pretty good. The areas are varied and split into encounter arenas, and they have some… adventurous use of colour going on (magenta, in my shipyard?), but it works well overall. It’s a little samey towards the end (especially in the “traditional” themed parts), but that’s to be expected – I also suspect the prop artists have been playing Oblivion, as they went for the “covered in jam” look to represent the unlucky humans caught in the demonic invasion. It seems that the designers and artists have been given pretty much a free reign; from temples and a mountain fortress, to toxic waste pools (they were really channelling 90s level design with that one) as well as a shipyard during a storm (all filled with conveniently placed barrels of TNT and LPG). I should also mention at this point the eerie shadow realm, where the demons are from – you visit it multiple times throughout the story – which looks incredible; majestic, sad and eerie at the same time.

2013-10-05_00023Who Wants Some Wang?

The game isn’t perfect by any means – it, like many things, sags in the middle a bit, and has a rather melancholy pay off (not a bad thing, but it’s a little out of place for such a bombastic adventure – the story catches up to the game). The engine also was annoying me rather a lot, as I’m pretty sure they haven’t got a proper HDR renderer (lots of blowouts, some seriously weird colouring from lights), and the default post effects were a bit like being at a disco while having a seizure (pro tip: turn them to medium). Also I saw quite a lot of slowdowns and a few rendering bugs (water reflections are slow and sometimes broken) – the engine can do some massive spaces without loading screens, but being inside a house is apparently enough to make it choke (my guess is they don’t cull the “outside” region very well / at all). I also encountered two showstopper bugs – one where a combat wouldn’t end (so I couldn’t advance beyond the “arena” I was in), and one which caused a whole slew of rendering issues that persisted even after I restarted the game. I didn’t lose much progress either way – the game has regular save points and also allows you to save whenever you want (amazing, if only we had this technology in other games!!!).

2013-10-06_00040I also note that there seem to be a few cut parts – at some point I was convinced that a particular character is set up for a future showdown, which never materializes. Also, one of the main antagonists is only fought in cutscene mode, which is also a shame, but I can see that it wouldn’t have fit with the combat mechanics. Actually, all the proper boss fights – which are against massive, lumbering suits of armour in huge arenas – are slightly too easy and too long for my liking. They also happen at long range (because the bastards are about a million feet tall), which makes only one weapon, the SMG, a viable option (the rest of the game is basically close quarters combat, or the katana wouldn’t be fun to use at all). I understand the spectacle, and it was pretty awesome, but probably one of the weakest parts of the game overall, especially after doing it several times.

Shadow Warrior is vastly better than it probably has any right to be – it’s not a cash in of an old property, it’s not even a modern day remake of the old game (a la Rise of the Triad). It’s a game that absolutely stands in its own right, but harks back to an earlier era. It’s a game that is unashamed to have you pick up medikits that instantly heal you, kill literally thousands of enemies with preposterous sounding sword techniques (I’ll have three “Wing of Crane” and one “Tiger’s Roar”, thanks), and shoot rockets at exploding barrels in a toxic waste facility. And yet, it manages to be anachronistic without being arcane or retro just for the sake of it, and I thoroughly enjoyed playing it.

Simplistic, old-fashioned and fun. This is retro FPS gaming done correctly. 8/10
Art Direction
The level art is consistently good and sometimes great, although the character art is quite uneven in quality. 7/10
Story and Writing
To my complete surprise: not bad. It’s not going to spawn a series of novels, but it feels right. 6/10
Sound and Music
Another unexpected bonus – the soundtrack is also very good. Done by the same people who did the music for The Witcher series. 7/10
I finished it in about 9 hours and probably won’t touch it until I dust it off in a few years and get to be pleasantly surprised all over again. 7/10
As a technical programmer, I got a bit annoyed at the lighting issues and framerate drops, but the Hard Reset engine seems pretty solid and capable enough to drive the crazy look the art team was going for. 7/10

This game completely defies expectations by being a good game that doesn’t rely on nostalgia to get you through. It’s often mindless, it’s always violent, and it’s very silly, but that’s all intentional. If you liked Serious Sam (or the original Shadow Warrior, for that matter), you’ll enjoy this.

Links: Shadow Warrior is available on Steam

From → Game Reviews, Reviews

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