Demons, katanas and plenty of Wang.
It must be one hell of a job to reboot a classic franchise. What do you keep? What do you throw away? How about the core elements – have they aged well? Is the basic concept even relevant anymore? Flying Wild Hog have taken on the challenge with Shadow Warrior, and the result is a slightly flawed but intriguing re-imagining.
We’re thrown directly into the thick of the plot from the get-go. Our Chinese-Japanese protagonist Lo Wang (yes, really) has been hired by Zilla Enterprise to retrieve the Nobitsura Kage, a mystical katana said to hold unrivaled power. As you can probably imagine, things go pear-shaped; every ugly critter in the hellish underworld spills over into ours and Wang finds himself with a wise-cracking ghostly companion named Hoji. The only thing that can save the day is the retrieval of the Nobitsura Kage with the pestering and guidance of Hoji – and so begins a journey littered with demon limbs and bloody viscera.
Combat, of course, is the main draw for Shadow Warrior, as you’d probably expect from a first-person shooter. While most games of this variety offer melee weapons as an alternative for when you run out of ammunition, Wang’s katana is your primary tool of destruction and quite possibly one of the best weapons in recent FPS history. The blade slices and dices enemies in ridiculously gory fashion; cleaving them in two, taking off heads and limbs and spraying blood and guts with each swing. Special moves activated with short combinations of the movement keys and mouse buttons will charge up explosive attacks, a 360° spin and much more. It’s an incredibly satisfying weapon which is not only highly effective against the masses of demons you’ll encounter, but also bloody good fun. It needs to be seen to be fully appreciated.
Weapons aren’t your only option in the field, though – there’s plenty of magic to wield, allowing you to heal small amounts of health, knock enemies into the air, raise a reflective shield and much, much more. These, too, are activated with the simple button combinations, and this system works incredibly well. It doesn’t require switching of weapons or scrolling, and once you’ve got them memorized, it rarely interrupts the flow of combat.
It plays very much like the classic 90s shooter it’s reviving, with no regenerating health (aside from the limited magic healing powers) requiring you to find medkits, a lack of cover shooting mechanics and fairly open level design. Most chapters will need you to destroy colored stone obelisks in order to progress to the next section, which is a pretty clever spin on the classic colored keycard system. There’s also no map or guidance systems, so you’ll need to use your memory and wits to figure out where to go. This, for the most part, works very well and there’s plenty of secret areas to find in each level.
As previously mentioned, the gore is plentiful and totally ridiculous in full Kill Bill style. While you’ve got plenty of choice in firepower – revolver, machine guns, shotgun, crossbow and more – chances are you’ll keep coming back to the katana just for how insane the results are. Blood and guts pours out of enemies, heads go flying like a Happy Gilmore golf swing, torso are chopped in two, legs and arms separated from the rest. Here we have a crazy level of gratuitous violence rarely seen since Soldier of Fortune 2 back in 2002, and shamefully, it’s incredibly satisfying.
The katana and guns can all be upgraded in various ways, and it’s up to you to figure out the best weapon for each encounter. Shadow Warrior offers all sorts of horrid hell-spawn to cut and blast through, starting off with Japanese mafia thugs, basic ugly demons and eventually pitting you against minotaurs, flying freaks, exploding blob-creatures and much more.
It’s a good-looking game for sure, with nice detailed textures and a wide variety of well-designed locations. The game’s early outdoor sections are beautiful, with bamboo thickets and cherry blossoms that look absolutely gorgeous, especially with the post-processing effects turned right up. It seemed to run fairly well on all settings, and there’s plenty of graphical options to tweak.
Shadow Warrior does a lot right. It’s managed to pull of a mixture of old-school and new-school quite competently, offers plenty of challenge and some of the most satisfying combat in the genre in recent years. There are a few areas where it’s not so solid, though.
Tonally, the game is a little bit muddled. The game is at its most interesting, surprisingly, when it’s not trying to make you laugh. The animated cut-scenes which give some insight into the mythology of the game’s world and characters look fantastic and are compelling to watch. It’s a stark contrast to the fairly juvenile one-liners spouted by Wang and Hoji. This isn’t to say the game should have gone fully serious – this is Shadow Warrior we’re talking about. It seems like an attempt to keep the tongue-in-cheek nature of the original without resorting to the racial humour, while still forging an interesting narrative. Dedicated fans of the original may be disappointed by the overall more serious and politically correct tone, while players who are new to the adventures of Lo Wang might find the humour to almost be a distraction from the storytelling, especially as the plot takes a much more serious turn in the last third of the game. This certainly isn’t a game-breaker, though. It’s simply a matter of experience with the series and taste.
The boss fights are certainly impressive in terms of scale, towering above with enormous attacks requiring you to be quick on your feet. Disappointingly, though, there’s few of them and they’re virtually identical in structure. Once you’ve beaten the first boss, you’ve got a very good idea of how the rest are going to play out. Some more variation in boss design as well as tactics required to beat them would have made for much more interesting encounters. The average fight with normal enemies in later chapters actually offer more interesting challenges, and that’s a shame.
Despite a strange tonal balance and unimaginative boss fights, there’s plenty to like about Shadow Warrior. Hardcore fans of the original might find themselves disappointed by the shift of tone and humour and stronger focus on storytelling, but the combat mechanics should offer a real blast for fans and new players alike.