Review: Shadows: Awakening

When someone wants something done right, they usually do it themselves — or summon a powerful Demon from the depths of the void to do it for them. From developer Games Farm, Shadows: Awakening is the newest installment in the Heretic Kingdoms Saga. Serving as a sequel to the 2004 Kult: Heretic Kingdoms, this newest addition to the series offers a fresh start for first-timers with references to previous installments for veterans as well. Fully voice-acted characters and a witty script give this title unique personality. Deep world building with a variety of scenery found in detailed maps beckon players to explore each area. Use of the Unity engine provides crisp graphics and design. Fans of the isometric RPG genre can appreciate the level of detail found in Shadows, from unique gameplay to rich storytelling and ambiance. While Shadows does get a lot right, clunky technical difficulties mar this otherwise solid RPG. Yet despite its flaws, this title’s positive qualities kept me coming back for more.

Shadows: Awakening has us playing as a summoned Demon– otherwise known as a Devourer. We are pulled from our dimension by an unknown mage. He gives us little instruction other than to search for him in the nearby city of Thole. Before we depart from our summoning chamber, however, this mysterious mage asks us to choose one of three dead warriors in the crypt to reanimate. Immediately, we are introduced to the main three classes of characters found in the game. Whether players choose the warrior, the hunter, or the mage, access to other classes will become available through progression. Reanimating one of these fallen heroes as a “puppet” introduces the unique parallel system. Our Devourer is not merely inhabiting this soul, however, as puppets allow us to swap back and forth between the Shadow dimension and the living world. Herein lies Shadows’ unique gameplay mechanic. While all of the action takes place in the same world, swapping between dimensions as the Devourer or the puppet gives way to new possibilities.

Throughout the game, it’s required that we switch to the Shadow realm in order to uncover new pathways, hidden secrets and even fast travel. Not everything is as it seems as there are places only the Devourer can go and things only he can see. This mechanic highly comes into play when players encounter the numerous puzzles found throughout the world. This parallel system allows different options for traversal and combat. Using the Shadow realm to look for hints to puzzles helps further our progress, while swapping between puppets opens up combat options. Each puppet is part of one of the three aforementioned classes. As players progress through the main story, or even side-quests, more souls become available for us to “devour” and use as a puppet. In some cases, there are required puppets we may need in order to advance the plot further. One of Shadows’ shortcomings in regards to characters, however, is its very basic stat system. While there are eleven different puppets to choose from, all with their own unique backstory, skills and character design, we don’t have much choice in creating nuanced fighters.

Every time players level up, they are awarded stat points that can be used to amp up four different stat categories. The basic categories of Strength, Endurance, Willpower and Agility allow us to mold our characters how we wish, but only to a certain degree. Fans of deep skill-based customization may be disappointed to know that there are no possibilities for speech, stealth or strength (etc…) options. Having started with the hunter, Jasker, my hopes were to utilize his rogue-ish ways through interactions with other NPCs (I have always been a fan of being able to talk my way out of anything in a game). Not once do players have the options to utilize these kinds of skills through interactions with the environment or other characters. And while there are possibilities to choose different dialogue options that impact the outcome of side quests, decisions made in the main scenario barely have a ripple effect. So while Shadows has all the basic components for character building, it may not necessarily appeal to fans who crave in-depth customization like one would find in Pillars of Eternity or Torment: Tides of Numenera. Yet, each puppet does have its own set of unique skills that can aide one another through seamless swapping, thus making it imperative to form a well-rounded party.

While only four characters may be in a party at once– with the Devourer and the main reanimated puppet being permanent fixtures– we are able to swap out our party members in healing areas known as “sanctuaries”. These sanctuaries can only be seen and interacted with in the Shadow realm and provide a maintenance hub of sorts. Sanctuaries heal all party members at once and are provided thoroughly throughout the world. This comes in handy after facing a mob of enemies, or if a party member has died and needs to be resurrected. These areas don’t ward off enemies, however, as they can still attack players while healing. Should all puppets die, players will need to reload as the Devourer cannot be without a host. If the Devourer dies in combat, that is also grounds for having to reload the game.

Combat in Shadows: Awakening plays more like the dungeon-crawler Diablo, with real time events and free-roaming. Detailed maps showcase different types of scenery, from deserts to jungles. Each area is home to different monster tribes and demonic enemies. The world is rich with secrets and collectibles for the more adventurous players. With each new area also comes detailed back story that adds to the game’s lore. Similar to Diablo, there are side dungeons to explore that yield powerful weapon drops and deadly bosses. These side bosses may prove challenging, but with the right party make-up, combat can be fairly easy without too much unnecessary grinding. With all these different skills at players’ disposal, there are moments when combat still feels clunky. Unique skills have cool-down times, which leaves players just mashing the basic attack.

The only real strategies found in combat is switching back and forth between the Devourer and his puppets, as sometimes enemies will be weaker to demonic attacks. Yet players wishing to take a more tactical approach may not find combat appealing. There is no real way to kite enemies or manipulate how they attack. What’s worse is the glitchy nature that can cause attacks to go right through enemies without doing any damage (or cause the game to crash without warning). While this is not a huge deal with basic enemies, more high level encounters can leave players feeling powerless. In some cases, there’s even a huge power disparity between the player and high level bosses. This can make some encounters frustrating and unnecessarily difficult. One such encounter I found was against one of the main antagonists who was completely invulnerable to all attacks. While the main objective was not to defeat him, but to escape, his ability to one-shot all my characters took a frustrating amount of attempts to clear. Yes, this antagonist is powerful, but such a disgusting use of force felt unnecessary and unbalanced when we’re told before the encounter that we’re already no match for him.

A lack of balance in gameplay doesn’t just stop at some combat encounters, however, as other aspects of the game also lack consistency. Puzzles found throughout the world and in dungeons provide more variety to gameplay, as the title is more than just a beat-em-up. Puzzles are both challenging and interesting, but also lack consistency throughout. There are times when the same format of puzzle is used numerous times, yet the “rules” for completing the puzzle change. So maybe one type of puzzle encountered has players matching symbols, but the very same puzzle later on makes us perform a completely different mechanic without warning. It is unfortunate, but there are even some puzzles that seem completely unnecessary or disjointed from the game. One particular “puzzle” is actually a trial to test the player’s “doubt”, yet it has nothing at all to do with the concept of doubt. Instead, it ends up being a convoluted sequence that seems like a waste of time. Additionally, combat isn’t the only area affected by glitches, as puzzles can also glitch-out and become unsolvable, forcing the player to reload.

Yet despite these unbalanced flaws, Shadows’ unique gameplay, detailed storytelling and likable characters kept me engaged. The game has its own kind of flavor with an interesting gameplay concept. Numerous side quests and interesting locales will keep players engaged for a while. While the main scenario is the true focus of the game, there’s also diversity in stories as players can also play sub-scenarios related to their main reanimated puppet. These puppets had former lives and maybe even lose ends to tie up. Even though the choice system not being as robust as other similar titles, developers note that there are multiple endings to the game that provide variety and replayability. It’s apparent that Shadows has great respect for the isometric RPGs that paved the way; whether in the ambiance or through the gameplay, fans of the genre can see that this title has a lot of soul.

Closing Comments:

Shadows: Awakening provides an excellent starting point for players new to the Heretic Kingdoms saga. Rich dialogue, ambiance and lore give life to the unique parallel system. Being able to swap between the Shadow realm and the mortal world unlocks new possibilities within the game and makes for an excellent concept. A lack of gameplay balance and other technical issues keep Shadows: Awakening from reaching its full potential. It can be said that this is a case of an excellent concept suffering from a less-than-excellent execution. Fans of the isometric RPG genre may still find the title enjoyable for what it is, as it creates a streamlined RPG experience with ample content to enjoy.

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Shadows: Awakening