Shadow Warrior – PC
Platform: PC (Steam)
Developer: Flying Wild Hog
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Release Date: September 26, 2013
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Nerd Rating: 8 out of 10
“Guns for show, sword for pros” is not often the moral championed by a first-person shooter, given the whole point of the genre is to let you shoot things. And then you realize just how liberating it is to bring a sword to a gunfight…and win. This paradox certainly offers an interesting twist on a tried and true formula, just as 2013’s Shadow Warrior presents a curious re-imagining of 3D Realms’ 1997 classic of the same name. Featuring a lot of elements borrowed from Devolver Digital’s Hard Reset and Serious Sam 3: BFE, it still pays homage to its Far Eastern-style origins and makes every effort to be a great game on its own merits, which makes it quite fun to play and experience, despite the occasional deliberately bad one-liner. So put down your calligraphy brush, pick up your sword, and get ready to exact some Bushido on some demon asses (unless you practice calligraphy with a sword while using the blood of your foes as the ink, in which case, just keep doing what you’re doing).
The story of Shadow Warrior is that a tale of drama, deception and woe has unfolded in the Shadow Realm, home of the Ancients, and the only way to resolve the matters is to retrieve the Nobitsura Kage, a magical katana with the ability to drain the life of the otherwise immortal god-beings. In the mortal realm, the protagonist Lo Wang is sent to retrieve the sword for his obscenely wealthy employer, Orochi Zilla, with instructions to retrieve it by any means necessary. However, when the deal goes bad, Lo Wang is forced to join forces with the demon Hoji in order to have any hope of surviving the onslaught and tracking down the lost blade.
Strictly speaking, Lo Wang is the third wheel the whole way through, the story pays attention to him because he can wield the sword, not just because he’s a one-man army with a thirst for revenge. One might use the term “excuse plot,” and one might be right, but I believe that Shadow Warrior tells its story well enough to count here, even if it’s not as deep as some other game stories. And besides, it’s a first-person shooter, you’ve got your excuse to shoot things and stab other things in the face, what more do you want?
The gameplay of Shadow Warrior is really where the metal meets the meat, so to speak. Like most shooters, you’re given a delicious array of distance weapons over the course of the game, from a punch-packing revolver to a crowd-clearing rocket launcher. Unlike most shooters, however, Shadow Warrior has a heavy emphasis on putting the guns away most of the time and indulging in some serious decapitation and dismemberment with your samurai sword.
This may seem to some like an unusual gimmick to use in a shooter game, but it really represents Shadow Warrior‘s bread and butter, and if you invest enough time into making the katana work for you, it’ll ascend from a questionable secondary weapon to an outstanding primary weapon, to the point where you may want to use it more often than not. After all, you don’t need to reload a blade! Don’t worry, gun nuts, the game’s ranged weapons are still very useful, the crossbow being one of my personal favorites against the greater demons and bosses, but you’re selling yourself short if you think that the sword is just for the look of the thing.
Of course, Shadow Warrior is about more than just draw-cutting helpless demons into oblivion, it offers you myriad ways to turn the melee into a massacre. One of the most important of these is the karma system, which rewards you for using the full range of the combat options you have access to, as well as fighting effectively and efficiently. The Karma Points you earn over the course of your battles can be invested into skills that make you into a more powerful combatant, be it making you faster or tougher to kill, or unlocking whole new abilities, like being able to use a demon warlord’s head as a laser beam!
The game also gives you the chance to play with magic powers by collecting ki crystals, which can be invested into the arts of healing, protection, or incapacitating and knocking down enemies. And last, but not least, money that you find lying about in the game can be spent on weapon upgrades, making your guns better to use and offering up alternate fire modes. Altogether, you have a very generous amount of freedom on how you choose to survive the demon invasion, but if you can, do it in style for extra points!
And speaking of style, let’s move onto another thing that Shadow Warrior does very well: the graphics. Oh my Morita, these graphics. Every Yakuza thug smoking a cigarette, every textured line on an oni’s carved wooden mask, every cherry blossom falling onto the surface of a gosh-darned koi pond, every little detail is so lovingly rendered as to bring me to my knees and make me want to fly across the Pacific and live in a Buddhist monastery for a few months, just to appreciate the scenery and the way the mountain snow falls on it.
The environments are especially breathtaking, as Lo Wang’s mission to retrieve the Nobitsura Kage takes him through devastated villages, deserted shipyards, abandoned construction sites, secluded temples, and many other locales besides, and each step through each area is can make you want to stop and take a picture. Devolver Digital’s shooter games tend toward visually-complex and stimulating aesthetic design as a general rule, but in Shadow Warrior, they really dig deep and pull out all the stops to make these environments pop right off the screen and flood your bubbling mind with relentless Japanophilia.
Shadow Warrior‘s soundtrack uses both ambient and battle tracks to immerse the player in both the quiet and the adrenaline-packed moments. All of the tracks have a heavy inclination toward the authentic Far Eastern style, using traditional Japanese instruments and conventions and applying modern orchestral techniques to give the music an old-meets-new classical-contemporary fusion feel. The opening theme sets the tone of the adventure, leaving you in no doubt of the epic scope of your journey, the insurmountable odds that you’re about to face, and the certainty that only your skill and cunning will carry you through this alive.
Flying Limbs throws fast and heavy drumbeats with stings of woodwind and strings to keep you on your toes and always watching out for that next enemy who honestly has too many limbs for their own good and needs a quick touch-up. Like the true samurai, Shadow Warrior finds balance in all things, including its music score, and the soundtrack fits perfectly with the aesthetic and the gameplay, allowing for perfect harmony between the three crucial aspects of this game.
Of course, almost every game has its flaws, and Shadow Warrior is no exception. For a game that banks heavily on arena fights, the arenas can be restricting and rife with environmental dangers, making it difficult to move around without endangering yourself. The game’s greater demons are mostly artificial difficulty spikes in any fight they’re in, especially when multiple kinds are in the same cramped arena, turning otherwise adrenaline-fueled and satisfying bouts into cruel and unforgiving slogs.
And the platforming sections in this game seem gratuitous and half-hearted, giving you barely enough of them to merit mentioning and the ones that do exist are merely there for a cheap kill. These might sound like nit-picks, and usually they would be, but if you plan to beat Shadow Warrior on Heroic Mode, which only saves your progress at the start of each level, then you will see for yourself how these little details add up to a lot of wasted time and many a fractured patience.
So what does the fortune cookie of this review have to say? 2013’s Shadow Warrior succeeds at giving us the good-old arcade-style demon-slaying action with that Japanese flair (and maybe a side order of rice). As a remake, it succeeds as well, revitalizing the legacy with a new style and an improved formula while keeping the heart that appealed to fans of the classic. And standing on its own, it offers an well-executed old-school twist on a predominantly gun-dominated market.
With mystic sword techniques, ancient magical powers, and modern weapons capable of causing all kinds of fantastic explosions, you can’t go wrong. I heavily recommend this title for anyone who wants some fresh blood and guts in their first-person shooter experience, whether it be from the barrel of a gun or the edge of a samurai sword. And may I say that the Far Eastern shooter market is still quite under-represented? I’d happily play another Shadow Warrior if given the chance, and given that the sequel is coming out in 2016, it’s only a matter of time…
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