No, this isn’t the cyberpunk RPG (that’s Shadowrun). Nor is it that ARPG with Tom Baker (that’s Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms), the goblin stealth game (Styx: Master of Shadows), that Tolkien game (Middle-Earth: Shadows of Mordor), or one of the millions of other games with “shadow” in the title. Here’s a stunner though: this one predates them all. Shadowgate is actually a remake of a fondly-remembered game from 1987, so let’s hope developer Zojoi lives up to nostalgia and doesn’t just do a straight nicer-looking remake of a 27-year-old game but doesn’t iron out the faults like Leisure Suit Larry did!
The remake of Shadowgate
was Kickstarted successfully two years ago and is now ready for the public at last. Story-wise things are kept deliberately simple and ambiguous - a basic but striking opening cutscene introduces your character as Jair Cuthegar, a traveller plagued by dreams of the wizard Lakmir that finally sees him set out in search of him at the living castle of Shadowgate. But all is not right with the castle, as the warlock Talimar the Black has taken over the dungeons and plots to conquer the lands. With only a dirk, a torch, and courage by your side you must solve the puzzles of the keep and survive its many dangers in order to defeat Talimar. Oh, and you have a talking skull called Yorick to keep you company too.
|Solve this one, smarty-pants
It's all quite straightforward fantasy stuff, but Zojoi neatly build up a world beyond (and inside) Shadowgate Castle by hinting at things you'll never see and doling out information as you progress. While it never really threatens to become an epic engrossing tale the story does at least push you onwards and keeps your attention when it deigns to show itself. Basically though it's the British 1980s kids TV show Knightmare
in game form, which incidentally launched the same year as the original Shadowgate
and got a similar videogame at the time. Importantly though it's not an RPG, and despite initial appearances plays nothing like Eye of the Beholder, Ultima Underworld
or Legends of Grimrock
. It's actually a point-n-click adventure... and it's balls-hard.
Expect to fail and die in Shadowgate
a lot. Unlike something like Dark Souls
however you'll never die because of skill, you'll die because you clicked the wrong thing at the wrong time. This is a game where "trying things" is punished. This is the type of adventure that drove Ron Gilbert and LucasArts to say "f*** this" and create their famous "no death" rule that made their adventures so popular. At least this new Shadowgate
saves often... but that doesn't protect you from the torches. There are a limited supply of torches in the game and they burn out, and when you use them all up it's game over, and you'll probably have to start the whole thing again. This is one area of the original I wish had been exorcised, and it's not the last.
Give developer Zojoi its credit, they've done exactly what they promised to do: re-imagine the original Shadowgate
. They've basically done exactly what Replay Games did with Leisure Suit Larry
, taking the first game in the series, graphically updating it and rejigging the puzzles. Unfortunately they also discarded any improvements made in subsequent games in the series (or the genre), which Zojoi has totally done too. Played Shadowgate 64
and are expecting a free-roaming adventure? Played Beyond Shadowgate
and are expecting a platform/classic point 'n' click adventure? You're out of luck. For anyone seeking to replay the very original though you'll be in for a treat... everyone else though will have to get past the interface before they even get to the Fire Drake.
|What I wouldn't give for a magic ring about now...
The interface is completely faithful to the 1987 original, which means it's an unintuitive mess. You know how adventure games stopped presenting players with walls of verbs taking up half the screen somewhere around the mid-90s, since they unnecessarily complicated the puzzle solving fun parts? Zojoi have clearly been asleep since the late 80s since there are nine
verb icons on screen at all times. Why are “Open” and “Close” separate buttons? Why is “Eat” as important as “Use”, especially as half of the icons could fall under “Use” anyway? Even more ridiculous is the way levers are pulled or switches are pressed. Press “use lever” and you're prompted “Use lever on what?”, at which point I go “well, I… wait, what?”. You have to use the lever on yourself
to pull it. Every time
. Even simple things are complicated in this game - like why is the save/load button on screen and not on the Esc menu? And why can't I "use paper on torch", and instead have to "use torch on paper"?
I was frankly fed up of Shadowgate
the moment I discovered how tedious it was to get around and interact with things, which in terms of that pulling levers thing was the second screen. Having to worry about whether you forgot to "Open" a skeleton and clicking "Eat" on everything just because you know it'll come up at the stupidest moment just distracts from the adventure and makes everything far more fiddly than it needs to be. I don't care if it's faithful to the original, the Secret of Monkey Island
Special Edition axed half the verb buttons and it was both faithful and
much more playable. Zojoi could've done the same and everyone would be happier, instead they've kept them in and turned an engaging adventure into a tedious slog. Every time I opened up the inventory and needed to use something I groaned. At least they added the ability to hot-key a few items and spells.
The hallmark of Shadowgate
is in really tough obscure puzzles, and by golly do Zojoi deliver. If you like trial-and-error-with-plenty-of-death-and-restarts this is the game for you, with cryptic clues aplenty and a keen eye and a large amount of patience required. If this doesn't sound appealing then don't buy the game, and frankly I hate it. I like puzzles that I have some chance of actually solving, not dying an hour in because I forgot to pick up the skull wearing comedy glasses while a dragon was attacking me. I mean, at one point you're given a mysterious Silver Orb, the one gift from the dead wizard Lakmir to aid you in your vital quest, which you use to capture a powerful Water Elemental, a creature of pure water who has evaded your every action to this point. And you use this captured otherworldly being engaged in this all-powerful magical gift... to put out a small fire so you can hack the brazier to bits with a hammer and recover its legs. Pathetic. Nothing has any importance, you're just doing things in the hope of moving at least one screen forward. Just don't take too long thinking or exploring or your torches will burn out and you'll have to start again. Finally the in-game hint system, which is speaking to comedy skull Yorick, consists entirely of blatantly obvious advice like "these levers probably do something elsewhere" which is less than helpful. These are the days where a walkthrough is an Alt-Tab away guys, you need a better hint system for the frustrated now.
|Expect to be seeing this screen a lot
mostly consists of nice hand-drawn backgrounds with the occasional bit of animation like a cool imposing monster, which are all neat enough. This game needs a simpler interface and a hint system badly, but it doesn't need a fancy graphics engine as Zojoi creates its oppressive atmosphere just as well as From Software does with Dark Souls
on a fraction of the budget. I have no complaints about the sound design either, utilising the occasional voice actor for certain scenes, awesome orchestrated versions of the original game's music, and some excellent effects to all add to that atmosphere.
If all the Shadowgate Kickstarter’s 3,468 backers just want a better-looking version of the 1987 game with nice audio and rejigged puzzles then I’m sure they’ll all be happy because it’s exactly that. Unfortunately having an interface cluttered with Verb Icons combined with such unintuitive nonsense as having to use a lever on yourself to push it wouldn’t be acceptable in 1996, let alone 2014. Several antiquated mechanics like the limited supply of torches and the unhelpful hint system also serve to make exploring Shadowgate Castle more frustrating than it should be, and that’s even before we debate whether baffling cryptic trial-and-error puzzles are a good thing or not. Shadowgate is a faithful update then, but Zojoi have squandered the opportunity to actually update the gameplay too.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Coming face to face with a dragon in its lair. Back away carefully now… ooh, that hammer might be useful…