Shadow Warrior is of a different time and a different age. Yet it comes to us with the sheen and veneer of a new game. But it’s not just the license that makes this game ancient. Released last year on PC and given the next-generation port treatment, the now barely acceptable racial tropes of the mid 90s 3D Realms shooter/slasher got a modernization and is all the better for it.
Unlike the last attempt for a 3D Realms reboot, the ill received Duke Nukem Forever, Devolver Digital and Flying Wild Hog games have struck a fairly good chord, one that ultimately suits Devolver quite well given their back catalogue. The efforts that have been made to separate this game from the more unsavoury parts of its past are excellent, but somehow its past has still dictated how the game works in some areas and sadly spoils at times an incredible effort.
The story of this game wouldn’t be out of place in the plays of Sophocles and Euripides. It’s a Greek tragedy in so much that whilst the playing end revolves around you, the mortal in flesh but immortal in ego Lo Wang, and your demon compatriot Hoji, the story behind it – the Shadow Realm’s immortals specifically – has all the hallmarks of a family encountering tragedy through lust and power with a resolution that can only be revenge. It’s story telling is so ancient that it cannot help but be entertaining and gripping as it goes on. Not that it’s anywhere near original or that the parts of the story that unfold while you are playing are anywhere near as entertaining. But the back story and the animations that accompany them are excellently produced and let on enough of the truth behind Hoji’s words and the memories that the Whisperers are tied to. It does this at the right times and drop feeds you enough to make sure you get the right amount of emotional connection at the correct point in the story. It’s very cleverly done.
The voice acting isn’t too shabby either, especially with the potential of Kung-Fu lampooning that is at every turn. Where Wolfenstein: The New Order (which came out after Shadow Warrior’s original release) didn’t shy from its roots and managed to provide occasionally humorous turns in its dialogue and sound bytes, Shadow Warrior does the same, although it cannot escape its puerile past at times. Wang’s ego is so astonishingly adolescent at points that it kind of gets old quite quickly. Thankfully the game realizes this and tones him down as it goes on. But you can still find the mid 90s humour you’re looking for in the fortune cookies scattered around the levels, if you’re that way inclined. My personal favourite being the “404: Fortune not found”, but there are some of them which keep reverting the game back to its roots and sadly, its out-of-date humour. The sound design is also slightly weak at times, occasionally dropping out dialogue and having too many weapons and explosion noises going on at once to make sense of the cacophony you’re presented with. The music is great but after several hours playing the same three tracks it gets a bit old (although kudos on the death bunny heavy metal music). At one point I was going up a bamboo scaffolding with heavy cloth underfoot and I was getting the sound of walking on metal.
For everything this game does excellently, there’s a hangover to the original game that keeps it firmly locked in the past. The game looks beautiful. At times the scenery is stunning. We said in the preview that the bright colours and high resolution make for an excellent experience and they certainly do. This is definitely a visual treat at times, especially as you head towards the lighting and the scenery in the end of the game, although incredibly graphic in battle. This has been at the cost of performance though as the more enemies approach and the more effects/explosions/gore happens, the bigger the frame rate drop is. In fact at times it feels incredibly last generation due to the lag you get in the game from the loss of frames and as the difficulty goes up, so does your frustration. It’s the only thing that really makes you realise you’re playing a port of the game rather than something designed for the next generation console. The enemies themselves are quite well designed and have some interesting dynamics to them but the game again holds too close to its roots in its design. As the game goes on, instead of upping the difficulty or the challenge, the game makes progression more difficult by throwing more and more enemies at you at once, in more and more extremes. The levels themselves and the game becomes slightly too long because the enemy gameplay becomes a bit repetitive due to this and the sense that you are trapped in an endless cycle of the same corridors and doors can lead to very aggravating déjà vu. I’ve been to Japan and I’m pretty sure that everywhere I went wasn’t decked out in the Ikea-esque black painted wood cabinets that seem to be everywhere in Shadow Warrior, whether you’re at the docks, underground, in a oil tanker or traversing through a cemetery. Another hangover from the older styles of level design maybe?
I did sometimes wonder whether this was just laziness on the part of the games development as the guns in the game and the leveling system is excellent. You unlock more guns as you go and the money you find on the way will help you upgrade them into quite the potent and enjoyable arsenal, much like Wolfenstein does. The ammo is readily found and the many options that you can use to take on a battle does give you some more freedom than most shooters would in how tackle a situation. The level design in that regard is very good as it gives you, for the most part, spaces to hide, things to blow up, and many secrets to be found that will aid your upgrading of skills. There are two skill upgrades, one that requires a Ki crystal which most levels have one or two, and karma which upgrades your usable skills like healing, special katana moves and protection buffs. This is all accessed via the controller and yet again the game handles this transition to console very well. The controls are for the most part intuitive and where you’d expect them to be with easy weapon selection and easy combos in order to access the more magic based skills like healing. Annoying though, this is at the cost of the more traditional “L2 aim R2 shoot” button layout, and as your upgrades demand more of the controller, using the skill combos becomes harder. Which is another pain when your faced with an enormous amount of enemies in a frame rate dropping space and the controller thinks that you’re wanting to dual wield Uzi’s instead of healing.
For every thing the game does right there’s something that, compared to Wolfenstein’s success, holds it firmly in the past. Whether or not it’s the level designs, black Ikea-esque cabinets and the throw-all-the-enemies-at-you style of difficulty increments or occasionally borderline racist humour, the game suffers from it. Which is a shame because the ease of the gunplay the nice graphics (despite the frame rates at times) and story behind the game is actually very enjoyable and if we’re honest, is what perks this game up. Along with its lower retail price it’s probably a good game to fall on if your looking for something nostalgic and with a change of pace to the heavy hitters that are coming out this Christmas. It has no multiplayer but does include a survival mode and a New Game+ option that will allow you to unlock everything and get all the secrets. If that’s enough for you then fair enough. I was pleased enough with the story that I enjoyed the game, despite its faults, and for a quick pick up and play shooter with big game style graphics, this is a pretty good option.
Shadow Warrior does its best to bring a tired, old and slightly politically incorrect game out of retirement without falling to the errors of former sister title Duke Nukem Forever. But the hangovers from 3D Realms inspired level design and the “throw everything at you” difficulty make the game a bit too long and repetitive, although the story does rescue it. Definitely fun to play though with excellent visuals, great guns and ease of upgrades and use.
[tab title=Good Points”]
– Visually great and engaging environment
– Quite a cool Greek Tragedy storyline
– Guns are awesome and easy to use/upgrade
[tab title=”Bad Points”]
– Suffers from frame rate drops in busier levels
– Gets a bit too long and repetitive in levels
– Humour still a bit politically incorrect at times
[tab title=”Why a 7?”]
Actually, I’ve agonised about this. I went from a 7, to a 6, to a 6.5 and back to a 7. Because even though the game has its faults, I’m still drawn back to the enjoyable story and fun, easy gameplay that made me want to give it the 7 score in the first place. There are issues, yes and it’s a game you’ll probably only play through once but it’s fun, it’s something you can switch your brain off from and play and just be entertained. Which is something that’s quite hard to pull off successfully.
This review was based on the PS4 version of the game.