ESRB RATING: Unrated
DEVELOPER: Flying Wild Hog
PUBLISHER: Devolver Digital
For those of you who missed the original Shadow Warrior back in 1997, here’s a brief-recap: it’s Duke Nukem 3D, with Duke replaced by Mickey Rooney from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Equal parts frenzied and innovative action, cribbed one-liners and master class in cultural sensitivity, Shadow Warrior and its protagonist Lo Wang (yep) never reached the popular heights of their steroid-popping predecessor, and probably would have been relegated to the dustbins of gaming curios had it not been for indie-darling publisher Devolver Digital (of Hotline Miami and Serious Sam fame) who along with developer Flying Wild Hog decided to bring Shadow Warrior into the 21st century with this simple but effective mandate: “yo, it’s gonna be like that old one, but you know, less racist.”
And you know what? They managed to pull it off (albeit with a few hiccups along the way). Gone is the “white guys talk like this, Asian guys talk like this” comedy, and while there’s still a lot of fortune-cookie and Wang based humor, it’s thankfully made the transition from laughing at to laughing with. A lot of this comes down to Flying Wild Hog’s reinvention of protagonist Lo Wang. Rather than making him a walking Asian cliché, they instead went with a far less controversial approach and just made him Travis Touchdown from No More Heroes (not that anyone would notice). Yes, Lo Wang has been geeked, though in a way that lets him retain his sword-wielding, babe wooing bad-ass status even as he curates an impeccably polyboarded comic collection. Wang’s new found nerdom is suitably hinted at during the game’s opening cinematic, as our hero sings along with Stan Bush’s hit song The Touch, proving once and for all that simply including The Touch in your game is not a free pass to nerd credibility. Saint’s Row earned that Shadow Warrior, you did not.
In fact had this review consisted solely of the game’s opening 30 minutes, things would have been fairly dire. While the game’s writing is generally hit or miss, the opening bit is simply dire, something not helped by the initially underwhelming combat mechanics. One of Shadow Warrior’s big selling points is the focus on katana-based melee combat, but early on before you power up your weapons and abilities, the effect is less slicing and dicing and more bludgeoning an enemy until pieces of them fall off. The gunplay isn’t much better, as the starting pistol definitely feels underpowered. Thankfully once Wang begins his globe-trotting quest to retrieve three parts of an ancient sword because something evil businessman something something demons the action quickly picks up, and by the time you roll around for your second playthrough as a flamethrower wielding magical ninja god, the game’s slow start will be a hazy memory.
Much like Flying Wild Hog’s previous game Hard Reset, many of Lo Wang’s abilities are gated behind three distinct upgrade trees: powers, skills and weapon upgrades. Powers are sword-based abilities that are unlocked and upgraded by gathering dark crystals (typically one per level), while skills are more general buffs unlocked via karma, which is gathered both from secret pools hidden within the levels and from a point system that assigns a score of 1-5 based on how effective and varied you are in combat. Finally there’s the weapon ugrades, which are unlocked via money, and make things go boom, arghleblargargle, and splat much more quickly and/or spectacularly. It can be a bit overwhelming at first, but all the upgrades are clearly explained, making it easy to shore up areas you may be struggling with. I maxed out my healing power early on, but you could also take a more defensive or offensive approach, in addition to tinkering with the weapons you find most effective. New upgrades and weapons come at a nice steady pace that leaves you feeling constantly rewarded without spending half the game in the (admittedly gorgeous) menu system. Seriously guys, those menus: nice.
Of course all the upgrades and sweet, sweet menus in the world don’t mean anything if they’re in service to sub-par gameplay, but thankfully killin’ stuff is the area where Shadow Warrior truly excels. While chopping up enemies with your powered up sword is a blast and a nice change of pace from your standard FPS, the ranged weapons never feel like they’re receiving short shrift. Rather it’s a constant balancing act between sword, guns and magic abilities, as you find yourself yo-yoing all over the battlefield contending with swarms of minions and larger mini-boss characters. Given that none of the sword combos are more complicated than button+button+direction, it’s a perfect mix of control and chaos. I may use a whirling blade attack to clear a little head-space (decapitation joke folks) before switching over to a rocket launcher to tag a lumbering Warlord, then switching back to my sword to power stab some teleporting witches. Upping the satisfaction is the fact that enemies tend to explode into big meaty chunks like they were made of steaks and nitroglycerin, which paired with the surprisingly gorgeous settings makes for a fun contrast between vista and viscera. At the end of the day this kind of game is going to live or die based on the action and Shadow Warrior delivers in that regard.
That’s not to say the game isn’t without some minor issues. Boss fights all fall into the same predictably boring pattern of “expose weak point, shoot weak point, repeat for 5-10 minutes,” and as gorgeous as some of the Earth levels are the trips to the ethereal Shadowrealm (where said boss fights take place) are surprisingly dull by comparison. You’ll also see a lot of the same assets repeated over and over, from the ubiquitous skinned demon victims to the arcade machines that reference Devolver and Flying Wild Hog’s other games (a cute gimmick that overstays its welcome by the 4th or 5th appearance). Overall though these are relatively minor flaws in an otherwise entertaining package. I’ll even say that while the game only managed to elicit a handful of chuckles, the story, clichéd as it is, actually touches on some fairly interesting ideas, and even manages to sneak in some solid character moments between Lo Wang and his demon buddy Hoji. Oh, and I should probably mention that Shadow Warrior never met an FPS cliché it didn’t like (key cards, lowering water puzzles and magic gates all present and accounted for) but given the deliberately retro vibe of the proceedings and straightforward nature of the gameplay I actually found it charming. Overall Shadow Warrior is an easy recommendation, a blood-drenched entry in the retro-shooter genre that smartly strips away its predecessor’s weaker elements, leaving behind a polished bundle of frenetic old-school charm.
Out of 5
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