It’s been a long time since Lo Wang’s first outing and a lot has changed in the gaming world since then. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, such as in the way the original Shadow Warrior‘s incredibly juvenile humor just doesn’t fly any more, but the straightforward action-fest FPS almost disappeared from the scene for several years. 2013 is being very good for kick-ass high speed ultra violent shooters, though, and Shadow Warrior‘s remake does an excellent job of updating everything worth keeping from its crusty old ancestor.
Lo Wang is a man who gets things done by whatever works, whether that’s persuasion, violence, or an amiably dickish nature. Zilla Enterprises has sent him with a briefcase containing two million dollars to retrieve the Nobitsura Kage, a katana owned by an unwilling seller, and (as was bound to happen) the deal goes south at high speed. Usually this would involve being beaten up by henchmen rather than a demon attack, but some days are less successful than others. A quick deal with Hoji, a demon who’s less mindlessly psychopathic than the rest of the horde, gets Lo Wang back on his feet, and then it’s time to eviscerate anything that can be sliced into its component parts.
While Lo Wang has a small but useful selection of guns to choose from, his primary weapon is a katana. It’s fast, responsive, and deadly, and very satisfying to use. Mouse and movement control the slash direction, and while you can get fancy with the moves when necessary it’s usually more than effective enough just flailing away at the lesser demons. Cutting off arms, splitting torsos, and the ever-popular decapitation are the standard results, and the remains of a battle will have the ground littered with enemy parts and organs. Shadow Warrior is delightfully bloody, and having the katana be the star of the show keeps the brutal violence front and center.
Eventually the difficulty curve kicks in, though, and just running up and slashing everything stops being quite so effective. Lo Wang learns abilities by racking up karma from battles or hidden stashes, enabling a variety of new attacks, healing skills, and passive traits. These are enough to let the sword deal with the bulk of the first part of the game, but then the bigger enemies start showing up in larger numbers and a more careful approach is required. Why get in range of a giant axe when you’ve got exploding crossbow bolts, after all? Guns get new abilities by spending the money found throughout the levels, and turning the double-barreled shotgun into a quick-loading quad-barrel that can unload all chambers in a single bloody nightmare of heavy damage is a wonderful thing. The weapons aren’t particularly creative but they get the important part right in that they’re fun to use, and in the best traditions of the action shooter you’ll constantly be switching from one to the other in the middle of a firefight as the situation changes. Sword for the little guys, boomstick for the big’uns, twin uzis for the flying demons, and they’re not going to do you the favor of attacking in an orderly fashion.
Surprisingly, combat is only about half the game, with the rest being running around the large and gorgeous environments. The levels are maybe a bit too big for their own good, with an awful lot of walking between one confrontation and the next, but the occasional bit of plot or banter between Lo Wang and Hoji adds some personality to the world. There are only a small handful of characters aside from Lo Wang and his demon compatriot, so Shadow Warrior ends up feeling as much like a blood-soaked buddy picture as much as anything else. The non-playable cut scenes are short and far apart, but Lo Wang and Hoji’s in-game conversation happens just enough to be welcome, and while the writing sometimes goes a bit juvenile it’s usually both clever and well acted, which is always a pleasant surprise in any game that manages it.
It’s not easy to update something that had only one game to build from, but Shadow Warrior does a fantastic job transforming the ’90s action shooter into something that can stand tall in 2013. It’s not just looking amazing that does it, but also decent writing with enough of a story to push the plot while not being so much as to get in its way. The fast-paced action is timeless, of course, but new Shadow Warrior gets an advantage over its ancestor by making the sword so incredibly satisfying to wield. The huge levels are well designed and filled with secrets that range from easy to significantly less so, to the point where it’s easy to not even realize you missed half of them until the scoring tally at level’s end. Shadow Warrior has big guns, deadly blades, enemies ranging from small to enormous and enough explosions to satisfy even the most pyrotechnically enthusiastic gamer. Shadow Warrior as a franchise probably didn’t warrant a revival of this quality, but now that it’s here we’ve got no complaints.