by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
A hooded stranger
I’ve been following the development of Shadows: Awakening for a while and it is good to see it finally out. From the very beginning the game impressed with its fast paced combat that revolves around instantaneous switching between not only characters but realms as well. The release version has retained all of the promise of the earlier builds and over the last few days I have lost myself in a beautifully crafted gameworld brought to life by an intricate story and fully voiced dialogue.
The game starts with a hooded stranger conjuring up a demon from the shadow realm. The demon, called The Devourer, is less than pleased, but agrees to listen to what the hooded man has to say before eating his soul. The man convinces him that their fates, their very survival, are tied together and that the demon is best served doing his bidding. For the next while, the hooded man is nowhere to be found, but an uncomfortable alliance is struck between The Devourer and the real world nonetheless.
Do the switcheroo
I’ll refrain from explaining Shadows: Awakening’s gameplay style in too much detail. We’re dealing with a true-to-its-core Action RPG here and, as such, it holds few surprises. You are in control of a party of adventurers, characters level up, weapons, armour and trinkets make you stronger... you’ve seen it all before. All of these are interesting, but they’re not what Shadows: Awakening is all about.
So I’ll cut to the chase and get straight to Shadow’s most eye catching feature: the ability to switch between the Devourer and his puppets. When you do, you’re not switching between characters but also between worlds. The Devourer roams in the shadow realm while his puppets traverse the normal realm - though which realm is “normal” is in the eye of the beholder, of course. This is not just a cheap gimmick to make the world darker or lighter. The two worlds are similar and recognizable, but definitely not the same. Passages or bridges that have collapsed in the real world may be open in the shadow world and vice versa. It’s a near certainty that, should you get stuck, the way to progress can be found in the other world.
Early on, players are taken by the hand and guided through a variety of situations where a switch is required to move forward. There’s just enough hand holding to get the idea, and it did not take me long to figure out when it would be opportune to switch. An early side quest, for instance, involved a drunken, shady sounding man whose wife had been dabbling in the magic arts and got him in trouble with the local law as a result. He wanted me to dispose of the body that he had stashed in a salty barrel just around the corner. I decided to check if the lady in question would not be available for a chat in the shadow world, which she was. She spun a different tale and I had to make a decision on whom to believe. Believing her the quest took an entirely different turn than the man had hoped for, much to my satisfaction.
Your first puppet can be hand-picked from a roster of three. I selected Evia, a Fire Mage, and almost immediately it was clear that my pick would have an effect on how the game would play out. Evia had been dead for 300 years and, as the rebellious daughter of the empress of a now ancient and almost forgotten empire, her view on what is happening to the lands her mother once ruled is unique. I can easily see myself starting over once I do so that I can play with one of the other two characters and learn more about their backstories.
Additional puppets will be found and absorbed along the way and there are more of them than you can have active in your party. Did I say absorbed? It’s more like devoured, as that is the demon’s secondary role next to being your (only) vessel in the shadow realm. You’ll find specific characters whose souls can be devoured, after which they become new characters in the normal world. Dead puppets can always be resurrected but the Devourer’s death means game over.
This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but after a while I realised just how much of an impact this had on how I played the game, in particular when it involved combat. In the normal world, I would switch and experiment with my characters at an almost leisurely pace. The lack of permadeath made me want to try out how my fire mage would fare against certain enemies, and then compare against my sniper or warrior. Health bars would routinely reach near zero, or even zero, and I even started mixing and matching abilities. In difficult battles, I would have my mage conjure up her golem and then I had my sniper run circles around unengaged enemies, dropping and blowing up mines to chip away at enemies that would otherwise be far too strong for him. Things couldn’t be more different In the shadow realm. Here, the Devourer is the only game in town for combating the numerous spirit-like adversaries, and only reloading a saved game would remedy his death. With the stakes much higher, I often found myself switching to the real world to avoid death. More often than not, I would only return to the shadow world near a known sanctuary. Most maps have one or more of sanctuaries where you can resurrect dead puppets, heal your party and change who is on active duty.
While the game has a lot going for it, I simply could not get used to its inventory system. The idea is solid: select a character’s inventory, click on an item slot such as the primary weapon or perhaps a set of armor, and see all items that can be placed in that slot and nothing else. Nothing? Well, this is where things start to go wrong. You’ll see all of the weapons and all of the armor that you have in your possession, even when they cannot be applied to the character that you selected. You see a good weapon for another character and want to equip it? You’ll do the whole thing all over with him, as well as shift through all the weapons that that character cannot use. This system becomes a bit painful when you want to buy or sell items from merchants and it asks you to jump through the same hoops. After a while, I stopped buying and selling altogether. Awkward.
While the inventory system is problematic, it’s not damning, especially considering that it is my only complaint about an otherwise great game. Every other aspect of Shadows: Awakening plays great. I’ve had more fun than I have had with similar titles in years, simply because most Action RPGs have started to look alike. Shadows: Awakening, on the other hand, is a truly unique title that scratches an itch that hasn’t been scratched in ages.
Unique realm switching aspect, fully voiced, good story
Inventory management made me cry