Shadow Warrior has everything a AA title needs: it’s an FPS with textures reflective enough to signal an aircraft, it’s a reboot of a game almost nobody played, and it’s got an obligatory different-but-not-necessarily-original mechanic. And yet, despite the AAA looks and feel, almost nobody knows of it. It’s filling the same void as Syndicate — a perfect storm for costing forty dollars. I’ve only seen about ten or so people talking about this game at all, and all of them lauded it with praise. TotalBiscuit put it on his best games of 2013 list, NeoGAF curated it, and, if Steam is to be believed, it’s gotten “Overwhelmingly Positive” reviews. Of almost 6000 reviews, only about 250 are negative. That’s pretty damn good, and I was looking forward to really enjoying the game. The gameplay looked fun as hell, and, as a 2niche4you PC elitist, Devolver Digital is one of my preferred publishers. I bought it when it was on sale for four dollars, and for that kind of money, what can go wrong?
You have no idea.
Part 1: The Characters
While you might not have heard of Shadow Warrior, you’ve probably heard of its twin brother, Duke Nukem. Both started as 1995-ish 3D Realms shooters that more or less looked the same, starred over-the-top characters, and had you violently slaughtering waves of monstrous enemies. In the original Shadow Warrior, you play as Lo Wang, who runs around gutting things with a katana and spouting catchphrases. The most notable innovation it makes is the sword. It’s your strongest weapon and has infinite ammo; you can also use throwing stars when holding it, which are a ton of fun to use. It’s solid, for an early FPS, though, in those days, no two shooters were very different from one another. There’s one key difference that explains why you’ve herd of Duke Nukem and not Lo Wang, though: Shadow Warrior came out second. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that Duke Nukem was an attempt to instill the mid-nineties’ referential humor into DOOM, and I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say Shadow Warrior tried to do the same with overplayed machoness, a sword, and racial stereotyping. In effect, they’re all just about the same game, and DOOM is still the best by a long shot.
If there’s one good thing you can say about Shadow Warrior, it’s that it keeps its precursors’ arrogance, sword, and prejudice while still moving into the present century. Duke Nukem has essentially become a complete Y2Kasualty. He himself didn’t change, but the world around him did, and his shout-outs and innuendos have lost any punch they once had. Duke sort of iterated this style of humor in games, and now that we’re at the butt end of Gex and James Pond, he’s sort of seeing it out the door as well. It’s almost like Duke and Wang switched places. Duke started as a campy, exaggerated action hero. You see a lot of his inspiration in Travis Touchdown and Raiden. Lo Wang, on the other hand, was a one-beat joke. His accent was kind of funny, I guess, but not endearing enough to be extraordinarily likable through an entire game. Now, though, Lo Wang is the stupidly over-confident action hero you’ll come to love, complete with punny one-lines and lame taunts. I really like this method of personification. It reminds you that you are, in fact, playing as a personality, without having to distract with a cutscene. It is important to have your characters have funny dialogue if you’re going to do this, so don’t think I’m letting Forever off the hook, but I think Shadow Warrior has some funny writing, and I see Lo Wang joining the ranks of the lovable loser pantheon. My only real gripe is that it makes fun of Lo Wang for having an interest in Comic Books. We Collectors are a noble bunch, and seeing such trite parody in a video game is as insulting as, for example, picketing soldiers’ funerals.
Unfortunately, the rest of this game’s story and characters are a travesty. I especially hate your sidekick, Hoji, whose name I’m very prone to forgetting. I prefer to call him Midna 2, and I’ll do the same here. If I can be blunt, I must say I think Midna is as infuriating as Fi and Navi. She might not incessantly nag you or have as much unwelcome screentime, but what little presence she has is draining and frustrating. Twilight Princess was a downer to begin with, and having a character who’s basically in the game to nag and pester Link and, by extension, you, with unfunny quips didn’t exactly give its atmosphere any levity. Midna 2 is as bad as Midna 1, except his voice is somehow more annoying, his presence is somehow more overbearing, and his witticisms are somehow even more bitter. He’s not even funny, he’s just mean. The only reason this character is here is so Lo Wang has someone to banter off of, but I think Lo Wang is a strong enough character to stand on his own without need of a hilarious sidekick. He did it in the last game, didn’t he?
Part 2: The Presentation
The visuals in Shadow Warrior are as unpleasant as a Jackson Pollock water drip maded with different shades of scarlet. Picture Gears of War, except if it was trying to sear your retinas with a much more aggressive color. Say what you will about Gears, but at least it decided to stop at “ugly.” Shadow Warrior continues far past merely looking bad and steers straight into “assaultive to the eyes” territory.
It doesn’t help that the art in this game is vile as well. Everything is composed of grotesque pink flesh or spindly claw-like structures. Every enemy looks gross. Not scary, not unsettling, just gross. You’ll also see a lot of the same assets littering the game’s levels. I swear there are about twenty altar things per level. Even if you wanted to stick to the “morbid, violent crimson” aesthetic, couldn’t you make something a little more… good ? I’ve seen people go for this same sort of thing, and they prove that it’s possible to make something that doesn’t require me to lose my 20/20 vision afterwards.
And wait until you get a load of this interface. To be fair, most of this isn’t so bad. In a still image. The HUD looks fine, though I must question the decision to hire a bad tattoo artist to design the health and ammo readouts. But everything falls apart when you press the “play” button. It’s immediately jarring how shaky your character’s vision appears to be. I swear he nods every time he walks. It’s very distracting, especially when the entire point of the game is to accurately direct your vision to attack. It’s especially bad whenever you have to dodge incoming attacks. The entire screen blurs, and you leap about twenty feet in whatever direction you wanted to move in. It’s incredibly disorienting, and it’s especially bad because the dodge button is the same as the run button! The worst part of the interface, though, is what happens when your health is low. The entire screen degrades into black and white, and blood splatters all over the screen. You can probably list a dozen reasons why this is a stupid idea yourself, but to save you the trouble, I’ve compiled some of my own.
- If I’m at risk of death, how is this going to help me?
- Even if it did this when I was at full health, why would you want to make your game less pretty and harder to see?
- Is this really necessary to tell me that I’m on low health? I can bear mind to the health meter, and if I can’t, I deserve to die. This is the same form of condescension as making a bleeping noise when you’re low on health.
- Isn’t doing this sort of lazy? Does your game have so little tension that the only way to make the player exhilarated is by scaring them into panic with jarring effects? I don’t think your game is particularly boring, but do you, the developer, think that I’m going to get bored?
- OK, seriously, this felt old when Gears of War did it. Everyone thinks they’re clever for including a blood splatter or a greyscale filter. I see programming students’ first indie games doing this kind of thing, not major releases. This is a 2013 release, people.
- This doesn’t even come up consistently. I swear, this thing has cropped up when I’m at two-thirds of my health and hasn’t until I have five health left. What the devil?
Part 3: The Gunplay
Using a majority of the weapons feels pretty good, admittedly. Firing the revolver feels like detonating a miniature bazooka. The crossbow is rewarding because it demands so much precision, and the bomb arrows are incredibly fun to use. And if you can’t manage to make a shotgun satisfying to use, you shouldn’t be in game design. The problem is that you hardly use any of these weapons. The only ones with any practicality are your sword and machine gun.
The katana is pretty nifty to use at first, and I’m glad the game was smart enough to emphasize using it over other weapons, since that’s the only true selling point this game and its precursor have. There are several neato combos to pull off, and using them feels surprisingly natural. The problem is that you’ll quickly discover that only one of those combos is of any true use, and your standard katana attack, which can stun and then kill almost every foe before they make contact, is as easy and as boring to execute as mashing left click. There’s nothing enjoyable about butchering a foe by facing him and pressing a button fifteen times.
By clicking alternate fire with your katana, you can throw a throwing star. This could have made for an interesting mechanic. Stars can be used to explode basically everything in the map, from cars to vending machines to air conditioners to unfunny jokes (shown below). This would’ve been brilliant if it gave you an unrealiable but very strong long-ranged attack against tougher clusters of enemies while you were using your blade. Except, you have to throw two stars at something before it explodes, which makes it hard to anticipate where to throw the star. The stars actually home in on enemies, so you can be aiming for something explode-y right next to a demon only to have it hit him and stun him for less than half a second. Even worse, explosives are everywhere, and being on the same plane of reality as them is enough to cost you a quarter of your health. This entire system is ruined because you have to land two wavering shots at the same object, and by that time, your target’s probably moved anyway.
The real problem with this game, though, is that the assault rifle totally derails any strategy the game might otherwise have had. It’s amazingly standard. Its somewhat small damage output is countered by the fact that it fires so quickly, it has minimal recoil, and its ammo is more abundant than it is for any other weapon. It has no weaknesses. I had to deliberately tell myself to use the rifle only as a last resort in the hopes that I’d actually be presented with a challenge, and that was on the “Hard” difficulty. We’ve been using machine guns in video games for almost twenty years. Why did you think offering more of it would entice people into actually talking about your game?
What’s worse is that the weapons that are actually fun to use are useless. The revolver has too little ammo and not enough power to see any use. The crossbow, though fun, takes way too long to aim up a single shot, and doesn’t even do that much more damage than your other weapons. The shotgun isn’t even powerful. You can only really use it in close-range scenarios. Question: what core appeal of the game can you think of that might be seen as more practical in close quarters?
The weapons are dragged down even further by a horrendous upgrade system. There are, in reality, three upgrade systems. One is dependent on crystals you find strewn about the land. One is dependent on dishes you find strewn about the land. The third one, used for weapons, has cold, hard cash as its currency, which you find strewn about the land. “Bogged-down” doesn’t even begin to describe it, and you don’t even need to explore the upgrades that thoroughly. I forgot about them entirely for long stretches of my playthrough. They’re all tacked-on. It’s almost like they only included these systems so that they had room for as many collectibles as possible.
Part 4: Loot to the Head
Which brings me to what is possible the worst facet of Shadow Warrior: the looting. See, Shadow Warrior is a frenetic, hyper-styled shooter that wants to seem relentless and nonstop. Why, then, do I have to stop after every room I clear of enemies to look for all the goodies a room might contain? I’m a compulsive kleptomaniacal hoarder in video games, and so when a game includes a ton of objects for me to collect, I can’t help but search them out. It ruins Donkey Kong Country, it ruins Psychonauts, and golly gosh Garfield, it ruins Shadow Warrior.
How many things do you have to search for in a room? Health packs, body armor, ammo, money, karma altars, ki crystals, fortune cookies, secret statues, keys, banana coins, arrowheads, mother of Oedipus, how many systems do you need to squeeze into your game? It’s bad enough that I have to run around for three minutes every time I clear a room opening chests and opening lockers and checking upstairs and checking side rooms and going back downstairs and double-checking upstairs and double-checking side rooms to make sure that I got everything. Then the developers had the audacity to just leave them lazily in the most obvious locations. At least Donkey Kong Country and Psychonauts had the grace to ingeniously hide their collectibles throughout their levels, mostly. I mean, figments can go right to Hell, but for the most part, the games are pretty good about attempting to conceal things. These are just… lazy. Is it that hard for me to notice the glint of a locker, walk up to it, and press “E?” You know what would’ve been a much better system and ultimately would’ve saved me about three hours of playtime? Having money as a random enemy drop, giving me karma based on my ranking for a level, and hiding one ki crystal in each level. WITH EFFORT PUT INTO THE HIDING. And don’t give me shit for doing something “optional.” This is the way the game is intended to be played — otherwise, it would’ve have three upgrade systems!
Oh, but you know what the developers took great care to hide? Easter eggs, the quickest route to amuse simpletons. The original Shadow Warrior didn’t use its secrets expertly itself. They were all way too hard to find, and most of them were just hidden behind walls you weren’t told you could pass through. Here, the inverse is true. They’re way too easy to find. Every egg is hidden behind a corner or behind an explosive barrel you were going to accidentally hit anyway. It’s not very clever, to say the least. More games need to take the DOOM approach to secret-keeping. These weren’t secrets that were hard to find. Anyone could find these, if they were persistent and explorative enough. But they were usually presented in the form of a puzzle. They were never just handed to you. You’d come across a maze or a chest-high wall you couldn’t get across and would need to either navigate it or find a switch to access the secret. This way, the secret wasn’t stupidly cryptic, but you still had to put the time in to earn the reward of learning what was at the end of the maze or behind the wall. It’s also important to note that, in DOOM, the secrets you uncovered weren’t stupid. They were rewards, mostly. You found insane health upgrades, weapons that were fun to use and crazy powerful, or, rarely, legitimately funny. [*John Romero head*] In Shadow Warrior, it’s only ever naked anime girls or pixelated rooms. That’s not clever. That’s just an easy way to appease people who think they’re clever for knowing when something looks pixelated. This is the laziest way to have gotten a buzz out of players. I didn’t find one of these eggs clever. Oh, and since they’re in the game for largely the same reason, I’ll ask: exactly how many Devolver arcade cabinets did you need to include in the game before you were satisfied with the quantity? Just curious.
The level design in this game is atrocious. It’s remarkably linear, so you’re constantly on the hunt for the next glowy yellow door. It’s too bad that that door can be completely impossible to find for minutes at a time. This somehow leaves the game feeling like one long corridor while simultaneously being confusing to progress through. Normally, I hate them in games, but I’m actually finding myself longing for a mini-map or an objective marker. The levels are labyrinthine, except not in a way that’s endearing like DOOM. It’s more baffling and infuriating, like, say, the new Strider remake. Every level in the game is a shallow theme you’ve seen a trillion times before. There’s an oriental level which doubles as a forest level, a city level, a cave level, a cemetery level, another cave level, another cemetery level, a Hell level, a docks level, a sewers level, a shipping container level, yadda yadda yadda, I’m surprised there isn’t a music level or a level made entirely out of pastries. In general, Shadow Warrior represents the end result of a very long tradition of outright bad level design in the modern first person shooter. I’d take “average” at this point, if we can just get away from daisy chaining together mini-maze to mini-maze.
Part 5: How Not to Increase Difficulty The thing that totally annihilated my patience with this game is its incessant enemy design and placement. For one thing, ninety-five percent of the enemies you face are the same, dead-in-three-hit fast dudes that come at you and slash a few times before you accidentally breathe too hard on them and they die.
The rest, though, all take way too many hits. Most things still go down with enough katana slicing, but some enemies, like these minotaur dudes, will essentially cost you all of your ammo. There’s a part in the game where you have to fight three of them in a row. You want to know how long it took me to get through that bit? THIRTY MINUTES. And I didn’t die once, they were just that tedious to fight.
The same can just about be said of these shaman dudes, except they’re even MORE annoying for summoning lesser mooks. These are nothing more than pestilences that go down in ONE hit rather than the typical THREE, but the game still thinks that it’s some unstoppable force. They’re not, they’re just a time-waster.
But the absolute worst thing in this entire game are the bosses. In my original draft for this review, the part about the first boss alone went on for, like, a page and a half, so I’ll try to downsize it a fair bit, but know this: this is one of the worst boss fights I’ve ever seen in a video game. Most shooters don’t have any need for bosses anyway; they just feel the need to include them to give catharsis or an emotional high point or some idiocy. Human Revolution did this. Half-Life did this. Goldeneye did this. And you know what my least favorite parts in all of those games are?
Exactly. So you can imagine my thoughts on the bosses to begin with. Take the first boss. What makes him so bad? Well, for one thing, it took me an entire HOUR to kill him when I played this game. His health bar is inanely huge, for one. The boss itself is gigantic, which, conveniently, means that you can’t use your sword on him. Break out that assault rifle, because it’s time to start firing at his conveniently labelled weak points. Don’t go so fast, though; you’ll run out of ammo that way. Oh, what’s that? It’s impossible to beat the boss without running out of ammo? Lovely. Well, enjoy running around the outside of the arena while having a one-in-five chance of getting the kind of ammo you need. And, just to make the boss more fun, both of his attacks require your stamina bar to be at full capacity to avoid, so here’s hoping you’ve mastered that healing spell. Who made this arena this gigantic? Who made this health bar this gigantic? Who made this level so ugly?Who made this game developer this gigantic…ally stupid? I promise, I tried there. It’s not even a hard boss, it’s just a boss of attrition. Can you manage to finish the boss without getting bored and quitting out of the game… forever? Take my advice: answer “no.” This game isn’t worth it.
If these inflated health bars are the result of me playing on Hard difficulty, that’s depressing. Playing on a harder mode shouldn’t be a punishment. I didn’t really have any trouble killing anything, so from what I can tell the only change made was a tripled play time. As overused as the phrase “artificial difficulty” is, I’m going to drop it here, since this is about as accurate as the term gets.
Part 6: Conclusions I feel like these game designers just didn’t understand their game. For instance, there’s a part where you get the crossbow. What do you expect would be right after that? Probably an opportunity to test your new toy, yes? Well, not exactly. You can spend three hours fighting the flying enemies off with the crossbow… or you can just use the turret that’s right in front of you. As if bland machine guns weren’t enough. This is giving me horrible Blood Dragon flashbacks. Did anyone even tell these guys the point of the game was to use your sword to kill things quickly? Why is there a lever puzzle halfway through a level? Why are there twelve-hour load times? Why do enemies randomly spawn that go unnoticed until you get damaged by them? Why are there bottomless pit everywhere? Why isn’t the sword the best weapon? Why are so many enemies only killable through firearms? Why is it that we are twenty years more advanced than the original Shadow Warrior and yet have somehow regressed backwards in terms of understanding how to make an FPS?
There’s a special brand of hype you get when you play a game by Platinum or Suda51 that I think Shadow Warrior is trying to emulate. It’s a hyper-stylized, hyper-violent, hyper-speed game that is definitely trying to appeal to that same spot whether it looked up to No More Heroes or God Hand for inspiration knowingly. The problem is that it just doesn’t get “it.” God Hand and No More Heroes, they get it. But Shadow Warrior? I’m not convinced it even knows what “it” is. The style isn’t as earnest, the violence isn’t as fun to watch, and the hyper-speediness doesn’t earn the game any points when the gameplay doesn’t feel good at any speed. Do I recommend the game? Not a chance. There are much better ways to spend forty dollars.
But… are there better ways to spend five dollars?
Yes, actually, quite a few.
You could certainly do worse than this game, but that’s really not an excuse for something this mediocre at best and unplayable at frequent. I wanted to like this game. I didn’t think it’d be as good a DOOM or a Metroid Prime, but… is it O. K. if I at least expect a Red Faction Guerilla or a Time Splitters? No? Then piss off.
FINAL SCORE: 3/10
If the new DOOM reboot is anything like this or Duke Nukem Forever or RAGE, than color me a Shadow W-o-rrier.