by Sergio Brinkhuis
previewed on PC
I remember seeing Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms at publisher bitComposer’s booth a few years ago thinking “Wow, this realm switching stuff is really neat”. The game had some issues at launch, likely due to its publisher going defunct at the time. A shame because it looked gorgeous and it brought some really innovative gameplay to the Action-RPG genre. I was happily surprised seeing Shadows: Awakening, also known as “Book 2”, pop up at Kalypso’s Gamescom booth and boy does it look promising.
Let me backtrack a little to that realm switching. As the game’s most standout feature there is a bit of background here that needs explanation. You play as the Devourer, a demon summoned from the shadow world. Your claim to fame is that you like to suck the souls from dead heroes and enslave them as puppets to your cause. You can use the puppets to manifest yourself in either of the game’s two realms, but not every puppet can access - and fight - in both realms and the Devourer can only exist in the shadows. They are called realms, but it might help thinking of them as “two planes of existence within the same world”. You see, the “normal” realm and the shadow realm exist in the same world but their overall layout and composition can vary wildly. Objects and creatures that exist in one may not be present in the other. This is especially important for bridges, levers, gates and the like. Players must use both realms to progress through the game.
The map I was playing on alternated between action packed scenes and more thoughtful ones. Switching between various puppets happens in the blink of an eye. It almost feels like switching to a different weapon, like switching between a ranged and a melee weapon would. Once engaged in battle, combat feels smooth and fluid with satisfying thunks, booms and swooshes when weapons or magical attacks reach their targets.
On the thoughtful side the game features wonderfully interactive puzzles that often involved switching between the realms. My way out turned out to be five pillars and an Indiana Jones type boulder that could only be found in the other realm. Similarly, a non-passable door revealed itself as a fake door entirely when I switched realms and saw a bridge form over the crevice not far to its right. But switching means more than just a change in scenery, it also means the other realm’s previously unseen creatures can finally harm you so thread carefully. Fortunately you can use a switch to escape as well.
One of my favourite puppets was the Ironclad Zombie, a giant-fists wielding skeleton that pounds the ground around him to disrupt and damage nearby enemies. When they are too far, he can real them in range to do maximum damage. The zombie was a bit quiet though, quite unlike some of the other puppets. Their souls may have been absorbed into you but that does not stop them from bantering. Sometimes they pick on a single character en masse, with the Werewolf puppet being an easy target – he gets quite angry when the others call him “doggy”.
Shadows: Awakening looked incredibly polished and its smooth, varied gameplay had me excited to play more. And there is plenty more to be had. The developers are aiming for 40 hours of gameplay featuring 70 maps and over 100 quests. And the best thing is, owners of Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms on Steam and GOG will get the game for free as an update to their original game. A promise made by the previous publisher and a very gentlemanly thing to do.