Shadow Warrior's frenetic pace and fantastically gory melee combat is refreshing, though it still eventually loses steam
Shadow Warrior is the type of game that gates level progression behind colour coded pairs. Destroy the green shrine to break the green seal, pick up the red keycard to open the red door, and so on and so forth. It’s a homage to both its namesake and 90s shooters, adopting old-school game design and imbuing it with a modern flavour that strikes a balance between two eras. It’s bound to polarise audiences but the mesh of old and new mostly works, carried by rewarding melee combat and a reimagining of 3D Realm’s 1997 original that achieves a much more enjoyable tone than its off-putting forebear.
This all begins with Lo Wang, the wise-cracking corporate ninja and returning protagonist. His reverence for comic books, 80s movies and his naivety make him instantly likeable, a far cry from the original game’s racist caricature. Of course, he still loves bad jokes and his name provides the basis for many of them, but this puerility is a lot easier to get behind when it’s so keenly self-aware and playful.
Wang has a partner in crime this time, too. After being sent by Zilla Enterprises to broker a deal for an ancient sword of mystical power, it doesn’t take long before things go predictably awry. One demonic invasion later and Wang finds himself teaming up with one of the friendlier demons in a mutually beneficial deal to put a stop to this pernicious threat. This relationship quickly forms the crux of a surprisingly sombre narrative, the sarcastic and crude banter between the pair creating a buddy-movie vibe that’s sometimes funny, oftentimes not, but never offensively so. It revels in bad jokes, one-liners and cheesy crass, striking an enjoyable tone even when its humour falls wide of the mark. The shift in mood when it hits the meat of the story is a little odd, contrasting with the rest of the game’s juvenile nature, but it’s more narrative heft than a game like this needs so it’s hard to begrudge the effort.
Shadow Warrior is still a game about wanton death and destruction, placing a ruinous arsenal of toys in your possession and letting you go to work. Firearms are made up of the usual assortment and serve specific purposes – SMGs for the pesky flying creatures, a rocket launcher for the bigger guys – but they’re mostly rather dull, underpowered and unsatisfying to use. Fortunately, you’ll spend 90% of your time with Wang’s trusty katana, a devilish killing machine that invites superfluous blood spatter in gleeful fashion. Spend a few minutes with it and you’ll find bodies are hastily torn asunder, severed limbs and buckets of blood compiling Wang’s modus operandi. You can swing your sword like a maniac or take a more considered approach, carefully lining up both horizontal and vertical strikes to target specific body parts. Either way works with aplomb.
This simple melee combat carries the early parts of the game. It’s incredibly satisfying to rip your enemies to pieces as they swarm around you in considerable numbers, the combat’s frenetic pace stimulating with its rapid slaughter and quintessentially old-school run-and-gun nature. The AI is predictable and facile but works as intended, charging at you Serious Sam-style, just waiting to be killed. There’s no block or parry for this onslaught, only a nifty dodge that’s rarely needed, the sharp end of your katana preserving your health more than any defensive tactics. As you move deeper into the game more nefarious enemies are introduced, though their variety is still disappointingly meagre throughout – not to mention lacking in the design department. Some will shoot from afar, others from above. Luminous green ones explode when near and those with shields offer a unique nuisance.
To counter these increasing numbers you eventually gain access to a contemporary slew of powers, skills and upgrades that opens up the combat. Money you loot from crates and lockers can purchase weapon upgrades and ammo, while killing enemies yields karma points to be spent on passive skills, such as increasing your damage or stamina.
Search each level and you’ll also discover valuable Ki that can be used to unlock a plethora of powers. Some take the shape of effective sword attacks, like a circular swing that decimates all around you, or a deadly swipe that creates a decapitating projectile. Others are more elemental. A handy healing spell regenerates a percentage of your health, while more offensive powers can knock enemies off their feet or lift them into the air. Performing these powers is a tad unwieldy (you have to tap a movement direction twice and then hit the fire button), but they add an extra dynamism to combat, combining with the katana’s basic attacks to form Shadow Warrior’s greatest strength.
At an overlong eight to ten hours repetition was always going to be a factor, however. Combat remains enjoyable throughout, even if a lack of progression beyond the midway point does sap some of its expeditious momentum, but it’s the other elements that invite tedium. Predictably samey boss fights are mundane, and aimless exploration reminds us of how far shooters have come over the past fifteen years. As per its 90s inspiration, environments are large and are often rather empty. When not killing hordes of demons you’re left to wander its levels, searching for the way forward with little to no guidance. This kills the pacing and bogs too much of the game down in mindless meandering and item hunting as you search for the next combat arena.
This isn’t such a bad thing in the early stages of the game as Shadow Warriorsurprises with its breathtaking beauty, deploying a range of vibrant colours to showcase alluring oriental gardens, cherry blossoms and majestic temples. But it doesn’t take long before it’s spending far too much time in bland dockyards and underground labs, transitioning from beauty to lifeless greys and industrial grunge in a matter of moments. Things improve towards the end of the game but it never manages to recapture the grandeur of its earlier levels.
Shadow Warrior is best played in short bursts, then; to stave off repetition and bask in the breakneck speed of its combat and the gloriously over-the-top violence on show. It’s a game full of hits and misses, whether it’s the boorish comedy, uneven pacing or erratic level design, but its combat hits more often than not, simple as it may be. Even when the limited enemy types begin to grate and the environments descend into vapidity, it’s hard not to smile when that katana goes to work, capturing the transparent essence of the 90s shooter with gory glee. It might not be for everyone, despite its litany of contemporary skill trees and powers, but those with a fondness and nostalgia for the era will find something to enjoy here.