Tuesday, 25 September 2018 05:00

Shadows: Awakening Review

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Send You to the Shadow Realm

The isometric ARPG is a dying breed. The last one that’s really stuck out in recent memory is Grim Dawn, released two years ago. Path of Exile is still going strong some eight years later, but there’s not been a new entry in the genre for a while now. Shadows: Awakening seeks to remedy this. Unlike its siblings in the genre, Shadows: Awakening gives you up to four characters at a time to swap between while bashing monsters to reveal the sweet, sweet loot they apparently had for breakfast. One of these characters, the Devourer, allows you to access a Shadow Realm that is useful for solving puzzles and bypassing obstacles.

Let’s slow down a bit first. Shadows: Awakening is the latest game published by Kalypso Games and developed by Games Farm. It’s also the third game in the Heretic Kingdoms series, started way back in 2004 with Kult: Heretic Kingdoms, or Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition if you’re in the USA. When I first booted up Shadows: Awakening, I was unaware of this fact. At its start, Shadows: Awakening throws a lot of story terms at you all at once, which can be very intimidating for anyone not familiar with the setting already. Your main character, the Devourer, is summoned without much of an explanation as a “demon without a pact,” which the game doesn’t really bother to clarify why this might be a dangerous thing. You’re then asked to pick from one of three other characters that you can then use in your travelers.

Gang’s All Here

This is the crux of the game: Once you’ve acquired two other souls, you can swap between any one of four characters. Two of them are mandatory (the aforementioned Devourer and whoever you chose at the beginning of the game) but the other two slots can be inhabited by any combination of the many characters you’ll come across. However, much like your initial choice of character, some of these characters are mutually exclusive with each other. Some can also be missed entirely. Each character is classified as Warrior, Hunter, or Mage. Mixing and matching between classes is key to victory across the Heretic Kingdoms. Mages tend to have a variety of hard-hitting AOE skills, Hunters are mobile and usually ranged, and Warriors are bulky tanks that can take a lot of punishment. Each character can equip a total of three skills at a time and has their own requirements or restrictions for equipment.

Each of the characters, regardless of class, plays very differently. While my playthrough didn't see the acquisition of many mages beyond Evia, the Warriors and Hunters all have distinctive play styles that can be swapped in and out by making adjustments to what skills they currently have equipped. Among the Warriors, the two-weapon fighter acts more like a berserker, flying into the middle of a battle and becoming a huge ball of death rolling through enemies. The sword-and-board Warrior has a more sedentary fighting style with a smattering of gap-closers and character-focused effects and buffs. Hunters are no less varied, ranging from trapping and grenading archers to quick-teleporting dual-wielders, and even a giant hornet. While each of these archetypes has general themes, Mages are squishy and hard-hitting, Hunters are fast single-target attackers, and Warriors soak damage. There's someone in each class for any play style.

Light and Darkness

Shadows: Awakening is a very pretty game, at least when you’re walking around in the real world. Your characters are all distinctive enough to stand out in the crowd of enemies, aided by the fact that your camera is focused on them throughout the whole game. Skills fire off with bright visual effects that tend to come quickly and auto-target to your mouse cursor for easy deployment. It also seems to adhere to the old Diablo II adage of presenting a new environment for about every thirty minutes of gameplay, ranging from deserts to cities to highlands and mountain ranges. The only thing that really breaks immersion is the lackluster sound design. While each skill has a distinctive sound and combat sounds crunchy and impactful, I more often identified enemies by sight rather than by sound. I can still recall the iconic cries of “Rakanishu!” from the imps in Diablo II or the groans of zombies from Grim Dawn. I still remember the iconic Tristram theme of the original Diablo and the town music from Torchlight. I couldn’t hum you any of the themes from Shadows: Awakening or the enemy’s attack grunts.

This sort of lackluster design also extends to the Shadow Realm that is so integral to the game. The only character that can interact with this realm is the Devourer, and all their skills are dark-based. (Perhaps you can already see where this is going.) The Shadow Realm is very dark, taking the usually vibrant backgrounds of the rest of the game and draping them in a dark turquoise filter while also illuminating hidden secrets within the world and opening up new paths. This is great for highlighting things in the world, like puzzle solutions and new pathways and enemies, but poor for conveying the living world that the other three characters in your party experience. This also muddles the animations for a lot of the Devourer’s skills. This isn’t so much a problem given how skills are fired off, but it would have been nice to see the same flair added to the Devourer that the other characters have.

A Tangled Web

In these sorts of games, the story is oftentimes just pretense for shepherding the player through areas of enemies. Shadows: Awakening attempts to emphasize story but is by no means a jumping-on point for newcomers to the Heretic Kingdoms series. Near as I can tell, Krenze, a rogue Mage from a group called the Penta Nera, summons the Devourer to prevent the world from ending. Krenze, however, is always on the run from his former group, necessitating chasing him all across the place just to squeeze a smattering of new information from him before things go to pot again and you have to relocate. Many important questions surrounding the plot aren't answered until almost the end of the game. I hesitate to call the plot incomprehensible, but it seems that the developers added in a lot of extraneous details that obfuscate the main point. For example, it's mentioned that the Inquisition, the group that the Penta Nera is in charge of, have striven to eradicate all religion, but doesn't bother to explain why.

This sort of paper-thin reasoning carries on through most of the game. It's implied that all of your characters inhabit the same body that changes to take the form of whoever is actively controlling said body at the time. This comes to the fore mostly in the several major cities in the Heretic Kingdoms where you're limited to controlling only one of your characters to interact with the world. You can also swap into the Devourer at this point. What happens to the body when the Devourer is in control and you're running through the Shadow Realm? No one else in the physical world moves while the Devourer is active, so does the body just disappear and reappear in the world? Why does no one react to this? If the whole point is to keep a low profile, why is this even possible? It's a great mechanic, with many interesting applications within the game, yet it just seems like the developers didn't play it to the hilt like they could have.


The Verdict: Great

If you can get by the seemingly nonsensical plot and predictable third act twist, there’s a lot to like about Shadows: Awakening. The controls are tight and responsive with interesting characters and creative mechanics. While I would have preferred more attention to detail with some of these mechanics, they don’t interfere with the enjoyment of the game that much.

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John Gerritzen

John Gerritzen is a programmer by education, author by hobby, and game critic by occupation. While he usually favors RPGs, he will play anything that engages him narratively or mechanically. When he's not playing games for fun or profit, he's usually reading or watching anime.