Slay hordes of demons on your quest to recover an ancient sword.
PC Release: September 26, 2013
By Ian Coppock
Video games are like any other medium; specific genres will come and go with the times. Open-world collect-athons began disappearing in the early 2000’s, but look to be making a roaring comeback with next year’s Yooka-Laylee. By the same token, a large number of gamers are tired of sci-fi first-person shooters, as evidenced by the negative reaction to Call of Duty: Infinite Wafares trailer. Though these genres rise and fall, the genre of first-person arcade shooter doesn’t seem to have skipped a beat since its inception. From before the original Doom until now, the idea of shooting endless waves of monsters in the face remains one of gaming’s most popular opportunities. Shadow Warrior, the subject of today’s review, offers a similar opportunity, but it also adds a great deal of twists and tweaks that few would expect of an arcade shooter.
Shadow Warrior was originally released in 1997, but the focus of today’s review is the 2013 reboot developed by Flying Wild Hog, a Polish indie studio. Like the 1997 original, Shadow Warrior espouses visceral first-person combat in a spectacular Japanese setting. The 2013 version of Shadow Warrior is the rarest of reboots, in that it preserves the soul of the original game without losing it in shallow special effects. Indeed, it can be argued that Shadow Warrior not only preserves the essence of the 1997 game, but improves upon it in more ways than merely the graphics.
Shadow Warrior is set in modern-day Japan and follows the life and times of Lo Wang, a potty-mouthed, self-absorbed mercenary who is an admittedly highly skilled ninja. Wang is in the employ of Orochi Zilla, a cutthroat industrialist and the most powerful man in Japan. The game begins as Zilla orders Wang to drive to a remote Japanese temple to purchase an ancient sword from a reclusive collector named Mizayaki. Wang, assuming this to be like any other recovery job, sets out to collect the sword on his boss’s behalf.
Wang finds the ancient temple easily enough, but Mizayaki refuses to sell the sword and instead orders his bodyguards to kill him. Wang wins the ensuing sword battle and manages to retrieve the sword, but not before a legion of demons teleports in and begins ravaging the ancient compound. As the hellish horde lays waste to the temple, Wang picks up his sword and his gun to fight his way out.
On the way out of the compound, Wang meets up with a demon named Hoji, a masked creature who deals out magic and sarcasm in equal measure. Hoji informs Wang that the sword he’d been sent to collect is actually the Nobitsura Kage, an ancient blade with the ability to kill the immortal rulers of the afterlife. Hoji also tells Wang that the Nobitsura Kage was split into three separate swords centuries ago to weaken its power, and that it can only be restored by reuniting the blades. As demons begin pouring forth all over Japan, Wang and Hoji form an uneasy alliance and set out to complete the sword. Wang’s happy enough to try to complete his job for Zilla, but what does Hoji stand to gain from finding a sword that kills his own kind?
As previously stated, Shadow Warrior is a first-person arcade shooter. In the grand style of Doom, Serious Sam and other games, Shadow Warrior pits the player alone against hundreds, if not thousands, of enemies. Most levels are quite a slog, requiring players to shrug through literal legions of enemies to reach the end. Unlike its upcoming sequel, Shadow Warrior is an entirely linear game, with Lo Wang fighting through sequential formations of demons before reaching the gates out and going to the next level.
Even though the levels in Shadow Warrior are linear, they’re quite expansive and beautifully designed. Lo Wang can find many paths through the same area by exploring the buildings and wilderness around him. There’s not one set way to reach the gate at the end of the level; sure, players will have to traverse one or two areas to get to the next one, but Shadow Warrior is surprisingly open for an arcade shooter. Even the constricting streets of Japanese villages contain a lot of secrets for the aspiring private eye. There’s decent variety in level size, elevation and terrain, as Wang travels through burning cities, huge forests, and the underworld itself to find the Nobitsura Kage.
Even though Shadow Warrior‘s levels are beautiful, they can get a bit repetitive. Most of them have an unfortunate tendency to copy/paste the same arrangement of buildings and wilderness over and over. Lo Wang’s tourney through the compound at the beginning of the game is a shining example, because while the buildings on the temple grounds are beautiful, they’re all almost identical inside and out. Similarly, a mountain temple sequence toward the end of the game contains a seemingly endless series of rooms that all look identical. This also makes it easy for players to get turned around and waste time backtracking.
The repetition wouldn’t be much of an issue by itself, but some of Shadow Warrior‘s levels are quite long. There’s one level aboard a Zilla ship that lasts the better part of three hours. Hardcore arcade enthusiasts will find little to complain about with this arrangement, but it can be tiresome to endure a three-hour slog when the levels repeat their terrain. Further complicating matters is that while some levels are overly long, others are overly short. It’s most likely an attempt to shake up Shadow Warrior‘s pacing, but all it really does is make the game feel a bit uneven.
If some of Shadow Warrior‘s levels are repetitive, at least they’re pretty to look at. The Road Hog engine used to build the game produces some of the prettiest visuals in recent years. Every environment is overflowing with detail, from cherry blossom leaves in a pond to artwork strewn about a temple. Each of these locales is hand-decorated to provide an immersive Japanese environment, which reinforces the game’s atmosphere. The visuals and textures in every level are quite sharp. Some of the environments can look a little too clean, which is a tendency best-known in Call of Duty games, but it’s hardly a deal-breaker. If anything, it helps Shadow Warrior‘s impressive lighting and atmospheric effects.
Despite its high-end graphics, Shadow Warrior runs exceptionally smoothly on PC. The options menu is in-depth and provides a great deal of customizations for the ideal experience. Sans a single desktop crash experienced at the very beginning of the game, Shadow Warrior is refreshingly bug-free, and will continue to provide a decent framerate even when dozens of demons are crowding the screen. Make no mistake, Shadow Warrior was built for PC.
The actual gameplay that this level design facilitates is not hard to understand. Lo Wang starts at one end of the level, the gate out is at the other end, and players have to brutally murder every living thing between them and the aforementioned gate. Lo Wang’s signature weapon is the katana, which allows him to dispatch demons with style and provides some of the funnest hack’n’slash gameplay in years. It’s ridiculously entertaining to hack one’s way through a conga line of demons, with gore and dismemberment whose level of spectacle went unmatched until the release of Doom earlier this year. Wang can also wield a more conventional arsenal of pistols, submachine guns and the like to fight the demons from further away.
Shadow Warrior‘s upgrade system is about as simple as its gameplay, with two branches of upgrades reserved for Wang’s weapons and ninja powers, respectively. Wang can upgrade his guns and katana with money found throughout the levels, purchasing things like laser sights and alternate fire modes for each weapon. Because of his alliance with Hoji, Wang is also provided superpowers like health regeneration and special sword moves. These powers can be purchased with karma, which is gained by skillfully defeating foes. The more elaborate the combo, the more karma gained. Both upgrade trees are easy to use and accessible at any time.
Shadow Warrior‘s gameplay is a lot of fun, but not even swinging at things with a magic sword is without a few issues. The most pressing concern for gamers seeking a challenge is Lo Wang’s ability to heal himself. He can use magical demon powers to restore lost health pretty quickly. He can’t get it back up to 100%, but even 45-50% can make all the difference in a close-quarters swordfight. While the mechanic is great for keeping the action moving, it also causes Shadow Warrior to inadvertently neuter its own challenge factor. A horde of demons doesn’t scare for crap if Lo Wang can get in, slash, heal himself, and keep slashing.
Similarly, Lo Wang will go up against some of the immortal demons ruling the Shadow Realm, but these boss fights are way too easy even without Lo Wang’s healing skill. The monsters themselves are gargantuan and fun to look at, but there’s little to no challenge in beating them even on higher difficulties. Easy bosses are not consistent with traditional arcade design.
Another, more positive inconsistency that Shadow Warrior has with arcade games is its writing and narrative. With a name like Lo Wang, our resident ninja hero has no shortage of dick jokes and crude humor. Things only get funnier when Hoji joins the mercenary. The sarcastic, casually antagonistic banter between ninja and demon is some of the funniest video game dialogue ever written. Even in the thickest of firefights, the two find time to crack brutal jokes at each other’s expense. Hoji in particular has some hilarious theories about the human world, like that anyone who enjoys comic books and video games must also have a crippling pornography addiction. This buddy-comedy humor is a natural fit for an arcade shooter.
At the same time, Shadow Warrior‘s narrative has some unexpected emotional brevity. The game’s core story has plenty of humor, but it also offers up a few threads of tragedy that tug the heartstrings more than expected. Hoji’s presence on earth is revealed to not be a coincidence, and his reasons for wanting the Nobitsura Kage are tied up in a heartbreaking forbidden love. Lo Wang realizes that there’s no way his boss couldn’t know what the sword really is, and begins to have second thoughts about turning it in to Zilla. Shadow Warrior is apt at weaving neatly arranged lore into the foreground, and the game concludes on a note much more poignant than these screenshots of disemboweled demons would imply. This focus on a deep narrative is rare in the world of arcade shooters, then and now. It gives story seekers something to munch on while mowing down hordes of demons, and deepens the game’s murky, intoxicating atmosphere.
In short, Shadow Warrior is an outstanding arcade shooter. Its fast-paced, gory gameplay is some of the best that the genre has to offer. Its writing is deeply touching in some areas and laugh-out-loud hilarious in others. Shadow Warrior is apt at weaving heart, humor and hellfire into a journey through the motions of Japanese mythology, making this game a must-own for shooter and story fans alike. Get the game and experience the visceral blood and humor firsthand, before Shadow Warrior 2 drops on October 13th. As for Shadow Warrior, this game is one of the greatest shooter adventures produced so far this decade.
You can buy Shadow Warrior here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.