“You got Wang.”
– The protagonist, who happens to be called Wang, perfectly showing this game’s humour.
It’s always fairly surprising when a franchise that everyone thought was already long dead comes from the brink of obscurity with a new game. It’s even more surprising when it turns out that said new game is faithful to the series it’s revitalising without feeling the need to be completely the same. Shadow Warrior is, thankfully, one such game.
Shadow Warrior is one of those extremely hard to classify run-and-gun, action and exploration shooters of the early days of gaming. If you played Duke Nukem or indeed the original Shadow Warrior games, you already know what to expect from it in the game play department. However, in addition to the new coat of paint that modern hardware can give the game, Shadow Warrior also takes this chance to expand on the story and characters unlike the old games.
For the first point, let’s talk about gameplay. Shadow Warrior’s core gameplay is an extremely frantic and bloody melee, wherein Lo Wang’s (the game’s protagonist, and yes that is his name) only option of avoiding damage is to either dodge it or kill his attacker before they get the chance. Over the course of the game, you’ll be given access to a multitude of weapons, all of which will offer you new and satisfying ways to remove ‘problems’ from your forward path. However, one of the neat aspects of the game is that you can actually get by using nothing but your starting katana, mostly because it can become the deadliest weapon in your arsenal. Which is pretty impressive, considering your arsenal includes a god damn rocket launcher. Your katana eventually gets crazy useful magical attacks and powers via the games levelling and upgrade system, resulting in melee combat being as fun and viable as shooting from range.
When you’re not slaughtering your way through the hordes of enemies that want to make a mess of your day (and face, and organs, and pretty everything else) you’ll be scouring through levels looking for secrets. Secrets come in many flavours, from straight up EXP boosts, unlocking more magic powers, to pretty funny Easter eggs. Because of this, regardless of what you’re looking for, the game really does encourage upturning every rock and checking behind every corner for its secrets. In addition to all of this, the game has some really neat boss fights, and a good variety of enemy designs.
For the second point, the game’s story and narrative is actually really good. We play as one Lo Wang (seriously), a sword/gun for hire who is employed by a man by the name of Zilla. At the very start of the game, Wang is sent out to find an oddly well guarded katana; he recognises the whole situation is pretty suspicious, but he is loyal to his boss, and does everything he can to get the job done. Before too long, however, we get to the real meat of the matter: the earth becomes over run by demons from beyond our world, and the sword he was sent to find is the key to stopping earth from turning into a hellscape. To make things even more complicated, Wang picks up a sarcastic little blighter of demon called Hoji, and the sword he is looking for is actually three swords. Now, with his boss suspiciously keeping radio silence, both Wang and Hoji must try and set things right.
There are two things I really love about this game’s writing: for one, it is just pure unadulterated fun. The banter between Hoji and Wang is fantastic, and serves as the basis for many of the jokes. The game knows that it’s completely over the top in many ways, and doesn’t shy away from making cracks about the whole thing, which becomes even more hilarious when juxtaposed to the actually pretty freaky locations you often trollop through. However, it’s the other part of the story that I really admire: for all of the jokes and gags, the narrative actually has some pretty heavy moments. As you find out more about why the demons are invading earth, and more about the key figures behind this whole situation, the more it becomes clear that this isn’t necessarily a clean and simple matter. I’ve said before (here: https://oliverculling.wordpress.com/2017/03/19/an-exploration-of-tone-in-drakengard-and-nier/) that a great way to control the tone of something was to bring your audience’s guard down with something more light hearted, before hitting them with the heavy stuff, and that’s certainly done masterfully here.
While the game is great, it’s not without its flaws. Some of the levels, particularly towards the end, start to lack the openness to make exploring them fun. Early levels have a good balance of keeping the spaces open to encourage exploration, without losing the tightness of good liner level design, but later levels lack this quality. Likewise, there are a few enemies later on in the game that are more of chore to fight, rather than challenging or engaging.
A more constant headache, for me at least, was the rating system. At the end of large and major conflicts, you’re given a score of blank/5, and are rewarded with extra EXP depending on your rank. However, the scoring system isn’t really clear enough, which makes it difficult to consistently get high scores. It’s never clear if it’s more important to use a varied set of attacks and moves, or if it’s more important to clear the horde out quickly, or without taking damage, etc.
None of these points are really deal breakers, however. The game is a fun ride, with varied and fun combat and a surprisingly engaging story. The game delivers a strong performance as a love-letter to its source material while also being fun for new and old fans alike. Jump in for a frantic sword and gun battle to the gates of hell and back, if you think you can handle the Wang.