Shadow Warrior is a gleefully silly game that delights in both its own whimsical irreverence, and in the utter bloody carnage it displays every five seconds. That, really, is all you need to know. Scamper off now. Details? Pah, fine.
I confess to some worry about this Shadow Warrior reboot. I didn’t love Hard Reset as much as everybody else on the internet, and the original Shadow Warrior wasn’t exactly the finest of Build engine games. (It does, however, have the absolute best example of BBFC idiocy I’ve ever seen, with the UK censors demanding that 3D Realms remove shuriken – which, obviously, are freely available and might encourage children to acts of real-world violence – with darts. Which are totally unavailable in the UK. Yes.)
I am pleased to announce that I was wrong, and I have really enjoyed playing with Flying Wild Hog’s Wang.
This reboot casts you as corporate ninja Lo Wang, sent out by his boss to retrieve a fabled demon-slaying katana – the Nobitsura Kage. The owner of said sword refuses to sell it, and from there it’s not long before all hell literally breaks loose; a demonic invasion heralds the Shadow World’s attempts to capture the sword, and it’s up to Wang (and his slightly camp Loki-alike demonic companion) to get a hold of it first. While slicing and shooting his way through thousands of enemies, obviously.
None of this matters. The plot isn’t bad and it even manages a fairly successful shift into melodrama towards the end, and the characters themselves are fairly likeable (particularly the nerdy, naïve, catchphrase-spouting Wang, right from the moment the game opens with him singing along to The Touch) but this is not a game that you play for the plot. It is a game that you play for the blood. There is a lot of blood.
What else was I worried about? Oh yes: I was worried that the sword would be crap, and that there would be no point in using it. I was wrong about that, too, to the extent that I used the sword for about 90% of the game’s combat. Good melee combat? In a game that, really, is a first-person shooter? Be still, my beating Wang.
At the beginning of the game you can swing your sword vertically or horizontally (which you can set to manual control, if you’re a total masochist) and you can hold a button down for a charged attack. Buy a few upgrades, though, and you suddenly get access to a whole swathe of extra abilities, spells, and buffs, triggered by double-tapping a direction and then pressing a fire button. All of a sudden, your sword is a more versatile tool than any other weapon in the game.
With the sword equipped, for instance, you can double-tap left or right to charge up a circular swing, decapitating everything around you. You can double-tap forward to charge up a powerful piercing strike. You can double-tap backward to charge up a blast of ranged energy that slices through enemies. And then, by itself, your sword has a ranged attack, an area-of-effect attack that cleaves through weaker enemies, and a powerful attack for tougher types.
That’s not even remotely it, either, as you can use magic with any weapon. Of most use is a healing spell that restores up to a certain percentage of your maximum health, but you’ve also got a protection spell, and a spell that knocks enemies down, and one that suspends them in mid-air. And all of your guns can be upgraded. And you can upgrade your innate abilities, so that you find more money or have a bigger health total or whatever.
You cannot, however, block or parry – this isn’t Dark Souls and it’s not about slow, methodical combat. Sure, you have to time your strikes and your dodges, but it’s really about charging through hordes of enemies, cutting a bloody swathe through the lot of them as quickly as possible. Charge forward and impale the biggest with your piercing strike. Leap backwards to avoid his counter-attack, then swing your sword 360 degrees to tear through the weaker enemies that have closed in. Spin around and let loose your ranged blast to slash up those still approaching, or use one of your spells to hang them in midair or knock them away. Dodge, slash, leap, cut, hack, dodge.
Pretty much every one of those slashes/cuts/hacks is rewarded with a splash of over-the-top gore. A swing of the sword sends limbs and heads flying, seemingly propelled by the jets of thick red blood spurting out of them, while bodies – bisected in two – slump to the floor, and the game cheerily gives you bonus points while words like BEHEADED or TRANQUILIZER float up the screen. More points are awarded for mixing up your attacks and weapons in each battle. Like I said: it delights in carnage, and offers plenty of opportunities for you to share in that delight.
The environments themselves, too, are so hopelessly destructive that it’s a wonder an errant bit of cigarette ash hasn’t reduced the levels to cinders already. The early levels are stocked with firework carts, which later give way to gaming’s ubiquitous explosive barrels. There are a few rooms towards the end that are presumably explosive barrel storage areas, with a single stray shot turning the entire area into a cross between a pyromaniac’s wet dream and an amateur reproduction of The Towering Inferno.
So yeah. If you’re after a shooter that is more than happy to let you avoid shooting for 90% of the game, which demands expert precision and timing on higher difficulty levels but lets you charge in, sword swinging, on the lower difficulties, then Shadow Warrior is probably for you.
It is not, however, perfect. The pacing is occasionally a bit wonky, with long stretches of nothing but combat broken up by long stretches of nothing but exposition and puzzle solving, and there are a few times when it can be a little tricky to figure out where you’re meant to be heading next. It’s also the sort of game that’s full of secrets, and while some of these are really cleverly hidden (and a genuine delight to find, for reasons I won’t go into) there are a fair few that come down to picking a random direction at a T-junction and hoping you aren’t heading towards the next bit of the level.
There’s a bit of a lack of variety in enemy types, too – there are the big ones that raise the dead, and the annoying flying ones, and the ones that shoot at you from range, and the ones that run at you in melee, and the incredibly annoying ones that explode when they get close – and a few variants on each. As such, you’ve got a pretty good idea of how most fights will proceed from the mid-game onwards. Target this one first. Shoot those guys next. Use heavy attacks on this lot. Stay away from those.
But the biggest disappointment is really the environments. The first few levels are set within utterly gorgeous “traditional” Japanese settings, with bamboo groves and koi ponds and flowing rivers, all brought to life by some utterly stunning art direction and lighting, while temples and city streets provide interesting locations for the next few maps. And then… you’re in a shipyard for about five levels. Which is grey and industrial and boring. Things improve again nearer the end, but the game rarely recaptures the visual majesty of the early sections.
All of this is a shame. All of this doesn’t even come close to being good enough reason to avoid Shadow Warrior, though, because – while it’s a one-trick pony – in short bursts, it does that trick very, very well.
This is a game that revels in battle, rather than using it as a way to break up exposition or to have you cower behind concrete walls and occasionally pop out to fire off a few rounds. It’s a game that’s full of wonderful, smart little touches, like the way Wang carefully draws his katana when you switch to it… unless there’s an enemy in melee range, in which case he slashes as he draws it. It’s a game that bombards you with jokes (most of which are knowingly, endearingly crap) and has bags of personality thanks to the continual banter between Wang and his tongue-in-cheek companion. It’s a game that knows it is very silly, and is more than happy with that designation.
It is, in short, the one word that I hate using in reviews because it’s so utterly subjective that it’s almost entirely useless: Fun. Shadow Warrior is Fun. It is not a big, clever game. It doesn’t want to be. It doesn’t need to be. Shadow Warrior is just pure, unsullied entertainment, and while it wears a bit thin from time to time, there’s nothing wrong with that.
We are giving away copies of the game courtesy of GOG if you fancy snagging a copy.