Game Review: Shadowgate

[suicide mention tw]

It’s a day for things that begin with “shadow” apparently.

I actually beat this game a month ago but I thought it would be a good game to review in October, so here’s my review of Shadowgate.

The one thing that seems to be fueling a lot of new releases these days is nostalgia, particularly on Kickstarter. A particular niche of gamers seems nostalgic for really difficult games that punish you for so much as stepping on a small area of tile in the right place at the wrong time. They’re the type that wants no tutorials and for easy mode to make fun of any “casual” who dares to play it, and modern triple A games just won’t do for this type of masochist.

Shadowgate is one of those sadistic games that runs almost entirely on nostalgia. Have a look at the Steam page and you’ll see review after review of gamers talking about how they played this game when they were in diapers and it was fantastic and the remake is equally as fantastic, but simply waxing poetic about the game isn’t going to help newcomers who might be interested in an enhanced remake of a piece of gaming history.

For the uninitiated, Shadowgate is the story of Lord Jair. Lord Jair is the Seed of Prophecy, and his task is to head to the titular Shadowgate, navigate it’s many rooms filled with traps, and defeat the evil Warlock Lord. It’s not the most original premise but I’ve explored plenty of castles in video games with little justification and this is a remake of an 80s game so the setup is very appropriate for the time and the genre.

Shadowgate may look and sound like a fantasy RPG but it’s actually a point-and-click adventure game. As Lord Jair, you’ll navigate the castle room by room picking up everything in sight and stuffing it all in your satchel. You will then use those items to solve puzzles, which will grant you access to more areas of the castle. The interface is very different from what you might be used to if you’ve only played more recent point and click adventure games. You have a series of commands (Look, Eat, Hit, Use, Go, etc.) and you use those commands to navigate instead of mindlessly clicking on everything. It may seem clunky at first to have to HIT a switch (or USE Thyself, that is, click Use and then your portrait) when every other game lets you interact with single clicks, but it’s nothing you won’t get used to with time. Everything you do, from moving around to using objects, takes up turns. It’s very important to keep track of turns, and not just for achievements. Not doing certain actions in a certain amount of terms can kill you. You will also need to keep an eye on your torch, which will go out after so many turns. Let’s just say that the game warns you that bad things happen when your torch goes out and leave it at that.

Speaking of dying, reviewers aren’t kidding when they say that Shadowgate is the Dark Souls of point-and-click adventure games, because no other game relishes killing you in interesting ways. TAKE the wrong item, step into a room when you aren’t wearing certain items, or click on the wrong window when you’re inside a high tower and you will die, and yes, you can USE your dirk on yourself. There’s even an achievement for finding all the different ways you can die in the game. I heard a rumour that the old Shadowgate having so many ways to kill the player character resulted in the “no deaths” trend in adventure games that has persisted to this day. Fortunately, the game has an autosave feature that saves frequently, but saving before you enter a room is a good practice to adopt while playing this game.

The meat and potatoes of any adventure game is puzzles of some sort, and Shadowgate takes a more subtle approach to puzzling. You might be wandering around when you come across a list of books, might they have something to do with the books on that one shelf in the library? The puzzles are also different depending on what difficulty level you’re on. I was, for once, playing on the lowest difficulty setting, Apprentice, and the puzzles were often very simple, I was actually over-thinking them! If you get stuck, Yorick, your talking skull companion, will drop hints like candy from a pinata.

That said, my soon-after-release version of Shadowgate was not without its issues (it’s been updated since then). There’s a general lack of direction or hints to tell you where to go next (a problem with many games, let’s be honest) and at times I felt as if I had missed some piece of information that I needed in order to solve a puzzle. The Archive (where you keep all notes and other written things you pick up) is also very disorganized, and often I would remember something I’d read that I thought would be useful for solving a puzzle, but couldn’t find the relevant passage anywhere. Other times I felt that the game didn’t indicate when something major had happened to your character. After going through a certain event in the game, for instance, you can take certain objects from the environment, which you need for a puzzle. However, the game’s only indication that you are now able to take these objects is some text saying something like “You feel power course through your veins” or something, and the only way anyone would know differently is by backtracking and trying to remove the objects in question, something that the player has probably tried to do already and wouldn’t think to do for a fifth time.

Graphically, have you ever looked at concept art for am RPG like, say, Pillars of Eternity, and thought “wow that is so pretty”? Comparing Shadowgate‘s graphics to concept art may sound harsh but I’ve seen some gorgeous concept art and Shadowgate‘s art would not be out of place in a D&D manual. It’s a feast for the fantasy fan’s eyes. In terms of sound, the music is great. The theme that plays when your torch is about to go out is so tense it had me scrambling to light another even when I knew I had a few more turns before it went out. The only voice acting is in the game’s few cutscenes, so there’s a good amount of reading involved.

These scenes may be static but they sure are pretty.

Shadowgate isn’t a game to play if you don’t like dying, especially if you don’t like dying a lot, and yes that includes USE-ing any weapon on yourself. If you’re the type of person who thinks they would have difficulty with Shadowgate’s more subtle approach to puzzling, I recommend using a walkthrough so you aren’t stuck in a lose-lose situation with some of the turn-based events. However, if you have played the original Shadowgate or you just like great point-and-click adventure games, this remake has plenty of added content and surprises for the veteran and poses a good challenge to the newcomer.

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