by Ewan Wilson
previewed on PC
Switching between two worlds is a game mechanic that goes back further than I can think. I’m not exactly sure when it began, but it’s been with us for a while, twisting the familiar into something new and fresh. It seems a fairly natural design process – thing’s usually work like *this*, let’s change that. You can see a recent example of this in Divinity: Original Sin. Historically, most RPGs have you play a single character – in Divinity you’re given two. Games Farm’s action RPG Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, sequel to 2005’s Kult, approaches things in a similar fashion. You play the Devourer, an ancient demon summoned by the “Hooded Man”.
Once summoned, you fight your way through a burial chamber in the spirit world until you come across three tombs. This is the “character selection” screen. Here you choose to resurrect one of three characters; Kalig “don’t call me a Barbarian!”, Jasker the hunter, and daughter of fire, Evia. Whoever’s soul you choose to raise will be absorbed by the Devourer and become a “puppet”. In truth, it’s more of a symbiotic relationship, as despite the Devourer’s immense power, whichever character you choose will retain their ambitions and personality. Kalig is resolute on avenging himself and confronting the son who betrayed him in a power struggle to become Bandit King of the desert-town Thole.
A one-man party
One of the most interesting elements of the game is how fractured your characters relationships will be. Each will believe they’ve the superior will, and it’s often ambiguous who is really in control. The Devourer will believe he is on a quest for power to feed on more living souls, but Kalig remains steadfast in his own objectives, whilst constantly bickering with the beast-like Zaar whose soul was absorbed after besting him in the arena. Even more characters will be absorbed as the game progresses, and it should be interesting to see how the relationships between each play out, and whether or not lesser characters will have a strong enough input and a will of their own. The concept has great potential, fructuous relationships between party members in RPGs often make for the most enjoyable drama, yet here characters won’t be able to just up and leave after a fall-out. Their souls are tied to one another, so they’ll be forced into cooperation and reliance.
You can switch between the Devourer and your characters at any point. Phasing between the spirit and material world is sometimes necessary to open up paths in the level that would be untraversable otherwise. A lot of the time Shadows is just a standard dungeon-crawler that’ll give your clicking-finger a workout. Of course as well as hacking through spiders and giant scorpions, there are traps and puzzles that make use of switching between worlds.
More often than not you’ll want to dimension swap tactically, in order to balance your character’s health. Each time you defeat an enemy you’ll absorb its soul, which fills up the blue meter below your health. You can use these souls to resurrect one of your fleshy puppets if they’ve died, or, by pressing the space bar, regenerate your character’s life points. It is an interesting economy, where unlike most ARPGs, health potions are low in supply, so having no health will force you to switch characters in order to build up the souls necessary to heal. It’s an interesting system that pushes you towards playing multiple characters.
How well the character and world swapping works during combat will be made or broken on how diverse the enemy types and obstacles will be in the final build. Currently, the hack and slash combat isn’t as refined as many other ARPGs, with the spirit world appearing particularly barren and under-populated. The choice of skills for each character is limited at this stage, but there have been updates that improve things in this area. As Games Farm add content, switching between the material and spirit world will hopefully begin to offer more options than simply clearing rooms of generic enemies.
The combat has potential. Switching between ranged and melee fighters can prove to be effective against large hordes of enemies – laying poisonous snare traps on the ground with the goblin character, and then whirl-winding into their midst with Kalig can be hugely satisfying. Other characters include the canine brawler Zaar who can swipe at monsters at a blistering, feral pace, and even a gigantic golem who can knock back foes and soak up punishment.
Whilst Shadows’ plot and setting looks to be a little dry and forgettable, the Devourer and his possessive abilities make for a unique premise. So far, all of the dialogue is voiced to a very decent standard – it has one of the least cringe worthy Scottish accents in a game, although that isn’t saying much.
Shadows has plenty of character at this early stage, and whilst the fantasy plot involving an “evil” Theocracy and an Inquisition looks to be delivered without much self-awareness, there are quirks mixed in amongst the deathly dark tone that make it stand out. If Shadows can implement enough content and have its numerous characters bounce off one other in interesting ways through both the dialogue and during combat, it could become one of the fresher action RPGs in recent memory.
Despite doing very little in the form of loot or skill trees – which, let’s be honest, isn’t what a roleplaying game should be all about – Shadows has the potential to inject some life and energy into an extremely conservative genre. ARPG’s are as common as chipped gems these days, but from the shadows the “two worlds” mechanic has struck once more. Diablo worked like *this*, what if we changed that?