“Old Wang, New Scars” – Shadow Warrior (2013) Review

Posted in Kulturecade by - January 09, 2018
“Old Wang, New Scars” – Shadow Warrior (2013) Review

I don’t think I’m the only one who still feels like we’re in the infancy of the PS4/XBone generation, which is why it often feels like a slap in the face to hear that each of those consoles is nearly five years old at this point, and a succeeding generation probably isn’t all that far off. Even though I still think of my PS4 as a shiny new toy (which probably comes more by proxy from the rest of my collection than anything else), the realization that I’ve come to is that whether or not this generation is nearing its end, we are in fact reaching a point where we can consider some games “hidden gems,” which is a term often reserved for consoles in the rearview mirror, since we have to go back to them in order to “dig up” those oddball titles that got buried in the sand when we didn’t pick them up the first time we passed by.

Those of you familiar with my articles highlighting budget titles and other unique pieces of retail software that don’t see much press coverage know that these are some of my favorite games anyway, and would be right to assume that I spend more time than I should researching these exact types of games instead of playing the ones in front of me. But games like Among The Sleep and Aragami that I’ve covered in the past are sort of a different type of hidden gem that this generation has brought us — the type of game that isn’t forgotten over time because it was never in the public’s view in the first place. Those games are hidden gems almost immediately after their release, whereas the more “traditional” type of gem is something we arrive at over time, and Shadow Warrior is the game that is leading the pack on this generation’s true gems.

The first thing that has to be brought up about Shadow Warrior, especially for my experience playing it, is that it is, in fact, a remake (yes, another remake, oh lordy when will game developers ever make something new). The original Shadow Warrior was released on PC in 1997 by 3D Realms and was based on the Duke Nukem 3D engine. It’s important to know this not only for background on the game (and possibly to explain some of the crudeness of the banter between some of the characters), but because while I am familiar with the type of game Flying Wild Hog is remaking in this new title, I’m not intricately familiar with the original version of the game, and am not sure exactly what is or isn’t a holdover from the original game’s design choices. That, of course, doesn’t excuse anything in the game that doesn’t work, of course, as it is solely the developer’s decision as far as what should or shouldn’t be left intact in a game like this, which is more of a reimagining rather than a “shot-for-shot” style of remake.

There is a “cool factor” that is incredibly prevalent throughout Shadow Warrior, much as it has been for a long time in FPSs of its style, and that coolness begins and ends with main character Lo Wang. Essentially the combination of classic kung-fu heroes such as Bruce Lee and Tarantino-esque mercenaries like Jules Winnfield, Lo Wang is a professional with both firearms and, more importantly, a katana, the latter of which is a major ingredient in Shadow Warrior’s recipe for badassery, as well as one of the things that sets its combat apart from other games. Lo Wang is an assassin who works for a big wig named Zilla and is tasked with retrieving a legendary sword called the Nobitsura Kage. An initial attempt to simply purchase the sword sets off the demonic invasion that Wang must spend the rest of the game slicing and shooting his way through, as well as setting up the buddy-cop partnership between Lo Wang and the silver-tongued demon, Hoji, who guides you between Earth and the Shadow Realm and back numerous times before game’s end.

Although this sounds really cool and very much like a classic action flick, it’s not really all that important. It’s not bad by any stretch since it’s the type of thing that would almost get better if it got worse, like a cheesy movie, but the pacing of the story is kind of odd. After the first chapter sets it up, not a lot happens to move the plot forward for about four or five chapters, by which point the gameplay is rightfully in the spotlight until the last few chapters. I’d call the game “bottom-heavy” but really it just doesn’t matter that much. The banter between Lo Wang as well as characters like Hoji, Zilla, and the sexy pair of assassins known as Kyokagami is enough to tide players over for the majority of the game, while ass-kicking is of much greater importance. As much as I love good stories in games, Shadow Warrior is a great example of why story can be mediocre or, more accurately, badly paced, and not matter all that much, because while flashy, bloody, and sometimes crude attitude can help a game like Shadow Warrior establish a cult-friendly identity, the refreshing take on late-’90s shooting is the true star of the game and the reason why any shooter fan should give it a look.

Combat is an exciting mix of old and new FPS tropes that games rarely achieve with such clear and enjoyable balance. Lo Wang comes to the party with your standard arsenal of guns, including a machine gun, shotgun, rocket launcher, etc., which may not sound exciting, but which all come into their own with the game’s upgrade system, allowing for serious and noticeable improvements that can be purchased by finding money lying around — for example, the double-barrelled shotgun can be turned into a devastating boomstick by adding two extra barrels to it, plus a firing mode that allows you to unload everything at once, including the two extra barrels you’ve modded. Separate skill trees and upgrade currency also exist for passive skills and for your vicious katana, which definitely seems a bit complicated for the type of game Shadow Warrior is at first, but eventually starts to feel right by about halfway through the game — being able to constantly upgrade each facet of your abilities constantly and independent of each other feels both rewarding and necessary as the game gets more difficult.

One area where Shadow Warrior definitely retains its old-school identity is in the diversity and design of its enemies, as well as the way in which difficulty curve that sees it throw them at you time and again in different and more absurd combinations. You’ll quickly learn to despise demons such as the footsoldier-spawning shaman-type enemies that sponge up bullets while casting protection spells on themselves and creating wave after wave of annoyances to get caught in your crossfire. Similarly, the massive, charging demons that are only vulnerable on their backs are presented as stage bosses around the halfway point of the game, only to be thrown at you in pairs towards the end, a classic trope out of old FPSs that makes you feel great knowing you’re more than prepared to take them down in the later stages. The feeling of power and intensity that pervades Shadow Warrior’s countless firefights is nothing short of fantastic and outshines the majority of modern FPSs I’ve played in recent years, with perhaps the only shortcoming of that aspect being in the controls, at least in the console versions — the PS4 forces many special abilities to be initiated awkwardly by either a double-input on the left analog stick, or a swipe of the center touchpad, which I assume is much more natural when it can be mapped to keys on a keyboard.

Shadow Warrior’s gameplay, however, is not perfect, although its largest component quite nearly is, as far as those of us who enjoy classic shooters are concerned. The weakest aspect of Shadow Warrior, in contrast to what I have repeatedly stated about what may or may not be a relic of the original game, is that its pacing is way off, in a manner all too reminiscent of the Hexens and Dooms of the world that padded their length with scavenger hunts sprinkled in between their landmark fights. Far too often I found myself emerging from an intense firefight only to try and get my bearings and proceed to spend the next 10 minutes looking for the way to the next area. This is an issue that could have been righted with the simple addition of a waypoint or map-like even early 2000s first-person shooters use to keep players on track (and often get accused of hand-holding, but come on). The game even gets it half-right by making the next objective such as the right door or a set of keys shine to highlight its importance, but a single door in a labyrinthine set of buildings or a six-inch card reader beside an automatic gate is missed far too easily in an otherwise adrenaline-laced game. The fact that the game was unexpectedly long for a modern FPS at around 15-18 hours only reinforces the argument that this could have been far more streamlined, as it certainly packs enough action and presentation otherwise to justify being cut down to 12 hours without being forced to run all over the damn place between shootouts.

Although Shadow Warrior both looks and feels like a “modernized” version of the type of shooter it once was, this is not the same as it being a “modern FPS” in the same vein as Halo, Titanfall, or Call of Duty. Stick this game in the hands of the Destiny player who spends his hours grinding away on raids and the differences will make themselves prevalent before too long. Forget cover, forget tactics, forget fancy gadgets or perks. This is old school FPS action with all the ups and downs of that style, brought up to a new standard with visuals and other production values taken far above what might be expected from a lesser-known developer like Flying Wild Hog or from publishers Devolver Digital (on PC) and Majesco (on consoles). Impressive and often exceeding expectations in so many areas, yet being robbed of true greatness by a handful of bad decisions and inherent limitations, Shadow Warrior is a must-buy when it comes up on Steam sales and a great bargain bin find on consoles if you come across it at this point, and I wish so dearly that I’ll get the chance to buy the 2016 sequel on PS4 as well without putting up big money for its Limited Run printing.

This post was written by
He is a video game staff writer and dreamed of being a video game as a young boy. Then somebody told him that you can't really do that, so he compromised by doing a bunch of stuff related to that, playing video games, reading about video games, writing about video games, working at a video game store, and all those good nerdy things. Aside from video games, he's also a dork of all trades, with an interest in heavy metal music, wrestling, sports, and Magic the Gathering.
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