The difference between clever and cunning.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Shadow Warrior Review

The original 1997 Shadow Warrior was one of the lesser but still lively spawn of the Build engine. The game was explosive and colorful fun but (like many Build engine games) crude, full of heavily pixilated gore and near nudity. It also featured a generous dollop of the kind of racist stereotypes and jokes that are only really funny when you’re twelve, and even then not very. A modern reboot of the franchise can be understandably met with skepticism. The recent Duke Nukem Forever did not establish a good precedent for bringing the old Build engine magic into the twenty-first century. 

The developer might also give pause. Flying Wild Hog has only one previous offering, the frantic old-school shooter Hard Reset. Hard Reset offered solid explosive action but suffered from a punishing difficulty curve and a story that veered off into incoherent around level two and never looked back. 

Retro secret areas pay homage to the original game.
Given the nature of the source material and the mixed success of the developer’s previous work the Shadow Warrior reboot had all the ingredients on hand for an agonizingly bad game. Mercifully, amazingly, gloriously, it is not. Shadow Warrior is far better, far smarter game than it has any right to be. 

No Ordinary Wang


This is a complete reboot of the franchise. Gone are the unfortunate racial caricatures. Still to be found is the playful humor and sense of fun. Improved and polished to a Hanzo steel edge is the explosive combat. New and unexpected but more than welcome is an entertaining story with coherently written characters. Shadow Warrior has grown up.

Lo Wang is back, but strong voice work and a wry personality with ever so slightly geeky sensibilities grow the character beyond a dick joke. A prolog combining a gorgeous Japanese estate, a Katana brawl out of Kill Bill, and 80’s theme song “The Touch” (AKA the music from the Transformers movie. No, not that one. The real one.) sets the tone beautifully.

Sometimes rude but always funny fortune cookies remain worth tracking down.
Wang’s mission to buy an ancient sword for certainly not evil megacorp CEO Orochi Zilla rapidly escalates into violence, and then gets interrupted entirely by rampaging demons. Wang is quickly driven by necessity to cut a deal with rogue demon Hoji to survive. Now wielding potent Ki powers in addition to his own martial prowess the assassin sets off to recover the sword, discover the reason behind the invasion, and dismember a few hundred demons along the way.

Hoji, masked demon trickster, mandatory voice in your head, and source of your Ki powers, is an excellent character in his own right. At first I expected his slightly nasal voice to grate but less than a level later his wit and barbed but never quite ghoulish humor had won me over. Despite being trapped in an expressionless magic mask Hoji is an incredibly emotive creature, courtesy of sharp writing and well choreographed animation. He’s one of the best support characters in memory and steals nearly every scene he’s in. 

Hoji's motion capture is a treat. With an immobile mask for a face he talks with his hands.
It would have been all too easy to make Wang a gruff and serious straight man to Hojo’s snark, but the writers took a different and surprisingly effective direction. Wang and Hoji are both snarky, sarcastic dudes, and they play off one another beautifully. The back and forth between the two makes for an entertaining dynamic and is Shadow Warrior’s chief way of building both character and world. 

A Storm of Limbs


Combat is a frantic affair, very much in the vein of Serious Sam, and Painkiller. You saunter into an area, enemies appear, and you get to leave when they’re all dead. Battlefields are packed with things that explode, burn, and electrocute when shot, proving the Flying Wild Hog learned all the right lessons from their previous Hard Reset.  Battles quickly escalate into lethal Rube-Goldberg machines as one detonation triggers another and then another, sending primed explosives hurtling in all directions.

Never a dull moment.
The action is relentless so long as enemies are left standing. Waves of demons boil towards you, lead by lumbering behemoths that empower their minions or summon skeletal reinforcements. Foes left alive too long enter a berserk state, burning with power as their speed and damage increase. Attacks can and should be evaded with proper use of the handy directional dodge. In the best old school style standing still for a moment is to court brutal death.

The level of carnage is intense, visceral, and eminently satisfying. Demons shred apart under the onslaught of bullets or fall in neat halves from Katana strokes. Maimed monsters stumble across the battlefield, clutching at stumps before acknowledging your supremacy and dashing themselves to death against the ground. Each skirmish leaves the ground littered with blood, limbs, and still twitching viscera. 

Even minor skirmishes leave a mess.


Instant Karma


Of course survival is not quite the same thing as winning with style. Each major battle rates your performance between one to five stars. Rating seems to be based on a combination of speed, variety of weapons and powers used, and not getting the tar kicked out of you. The higher the rating the more Karma points you earn and the more skills you can buy.

The flamethrower is pretty, but at this range you're better off with the Katana.
Shadow Warrior features a robust set of upgrade systems and trees, enough to almost make it a FPS/RPG hybrid. Cash, looted from the environment, is spent to unlock alternate fire modes and upgrade specific weapons. (Get the explosive bolts for the crossbow ASAP) Dark crystals, doled out at a deliberate pace but usually hard to miss, improve core Ki powers. Finally Karma points, eared (as described above) through killing demons and looking good while doing so, are spent on skills that encompass a grab bag of miscellaneous upgrades. New Katana moves are probably the most immediately useful, but don’t neglect passive perks like more health or stamina and the ability to wield severed demon heads as improvised laser cannons. 

Katana Enthusiast


First person melee combat takes a lot of work to get just right, which is why so many FPS games relegate melee weapons to stealth kills or a last resort. Not so Shadow Warrior. The Katana is central to the story but also a fun and powerful weapon in its own right. While you do eventually get a suitably destructive rocket launcher this reboot trades the explosives spam of the original Shadow Warrior for an altogether more personal weapon. If anything many of the guns feel a bit anemic compared to the limb-severing, head-lopping, torso cleaving power the blade offers. 

Bigger demons stay dangerous even as they lose bits and pieces.
Simply slashing wildly will only deal with the weakest demons. The combo system, once unlocked, grants access to special strikes like a piercing lunge and 360 degree whirlwind attack. Sword strikes and Ki powers are charged by double tapping a directional key, then holding down the left or right mouse button. The system proves elegant and surprisingly easy to remember even amid a mass of screaming demons.

While there aren’t a lot of special sword moves each is powerful and fills a clear tactical role.  They also combine well with Ki powers. A Shockwave knocks a hulking Troll warrior to the ground long enough to line up a piercing strike that severs the prone beast’s head. Powers and sword moves don’t consume any sort of resource but the seconds needed to charge them are as precious as anything else in the heat of battle. 

“All in the Reflexes”


Shadow Warrior doesn’t try to simulate true swordplay. There are no blocks, clashes, or parries. Most of your foes are too bestial to use weapons or too mighty to make meeting them blade to blade practical. Wang is not a defensive fighter. Mobility, speed, and aggression are your best chance at surviving the Demonic onslaught.

With the right skill upgrades demon body parts make potent weapons.

The core combat loop also neatly avoids the trap of leaving you stuck too low on health to survive the next encounter without throwing up its hands and giving you Call of Duty style regeneration. You can always channel Ki power to heal, but the effect is slow and only good up to a certain percentage. More interestingly the right upgrades add a vampiric effect to special sword strikes and boost the frequency of healing powerups left by slain demons. Once you get to grips with the ebb and flow of combat the best way to stay healed is to hurl yourself into the thick of the fray and stay on the offensive. 

Rising Sun


While Shadow Warrior lacks any sort of multiplayer component the lengthy and challenging campaign more than holds up on its own. The opening act is atmospheric and gorgeous, full of somber temples, meditation gardens, and swaying bamboo forests. These areas are so pretty it’s almost a shame to litter them with burning demon giblets. The engine and level designers work together to do amazing things with colored lighting once the sun goes down.

The graveyard temple at night might be the most striking are in the game.
The environments suffer an unfortunate slump in the second act, taking place in the same sort of industrial haze of docks and warehouses any gamer will have already seen a hundred times. Fortunately the combat only gets better as the game progresses and the story holds up well. Shadow Warrior never quite rises back to the sheer beauty of the opening brace of levels, but the final act in Zilla’s snow-bound mountain fortress still manages some impressive visuals.

Bosses this big take time to wear down. Keep your own health up.
Each act is punctuated by a massive boss; building-sized juggernauts fought one on one in arenas set aside for the purpose. These encounters are epic but can become time consuming and even a slog. Remember to quick save periodically because these guys can easily 1-shot you. Boss fights also stand out as one of the few points where guns are more useful than the Katana. The blade can’t reach their conveniently glowing weak points.

Make it Right


All this builds to a strong ending with memorable tragic elements. Too many games putter to a stop or tack on a “to be continued” sign at the end. Shadow Warrior ends on conclusive and surprisingly stark note. While I certainly wouldn’t object to a sequel it is refreshing to see a self contained story that can stand on its own.

Attractive cut-scenes reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints break up the acts.
The story they tell isn't destined for a happy ending.
If the campaign leaves you still hungry you can take all your karma upgrades and weapons with you and run through it again in the New Game + mode. You can even crank up the difficulty and keep all your stuff, which wasn’t allowed in Hard Reset. A run through on normal is a good way to build yourself up if you’re planning on hunting some of the tougher achievements, many of which are locked at lower difficulty levels. Flying Wild Hog also just recently added a survival mode, a welcome addition that distills the game down to bracing combat with no distractions. 

In conclusion Shadow Warrior is the game Duke Nukem Forever should have been. It’s full of affectionate references to the source material while growing past the immature mentality. The charm and humor are real, but there is a serious story and real character work holding up the demon dismemberment and laughs. It’s one of the best and certainly the most under-rated shooter of 2013.

Reasons to Play: Frantic limb-hewing combat. Sword is a joy to use. Surprisingly strong character work and story. Emulates all the best parts of the source material while still growing up.

Reasons to pass: Later acts have visually weaker environments. Boss fights can become a slog. No multiplayer component, if you crave the classic version’s deathmatch.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.