Developer: Flying Wild Hog
Publisher: Devolver Digital
If you miss the thrill of classic old-school shooters, the simple joy of blasting hordes of foes with oversized weapons and ferreting around for secrets, quicksaving and circle-strafing all the while, you should buy Shadow Warrior immediately.
Flying Wild Hog, FPS veterans who previously worked on Painkiller and Hard Reset, absolutely get what the genre is all about. Shadow Warrior has never heard of objective markers or regenerating health. It scoffs at ironsights, instead offering a totally optional zoom mode. This brazenly unapologetic experience is all about the raw visceral satisfaction of taking on entire demonic armies with an arsenal of massive guns, emerging victorious over ludicrous odds, then capping things off with a zinging one-liner. Before ripping off a demon's magic-suffused head and blasting his mates with it.
That's not to say Shadow Warrior is stuck in the past. Far from it, since new-school flourishes abound. Superb melee combat mechanics allow you to take on the demonic forces with katana in hand, lopping off limbs and ripping out hearts - a weapon in and of themselves - while numerous skills and powers come with their own upgrade systems. Some of these 21st century features don't quite work in this delightfully nostalgic romp, but a romp it is; a real, slam-bang, honest-to-goodness, three-fisted humdinger.
In the metaphorical restaurant of gaming, filled with fast food, experimental haute cuisine and comfort meals, Shadow Warrior is a bloody rare steak served straight up and sizzling. Playing as corporate troubleshooter Lo Wang, a hardbitten swordsman who (unsuccessfully) hides his geeky love of comics, transformers and 80s music behind a wall of lead and tempered steel, players embark on a crusade to stop a demonic invasion by assembling an ancient artefact. We'll criticise the story in greater detail later on, but suffice to say that the plot mainly exists as a vehicle for ludicrous ultraviolence.
In fine Painkiller fashion, you'll slaughter your way through a selection of Eastern-themed arenas and corridors as the hordes of hell send in legions of troops to cut you down. Scythe-armed devils attack by the dozen, shield-bearing goons rain fireballs on your position and towering priests resurrect throngs of skeletons. The skies are thick with vulture-winged horrors and cherry blossoms, while the ground quakes as lumbering demon commanders charge you down. You'll take them on by the skin of your teeth and a ceasless volley of firepower, meted out by an arsenal of appropriately OTT weapons. Whether you're dual-wielding SMGs, sticking grenades to enemy faces with a crossbow or bathing the arena in flames, you'll be having an absolute blast, always pushing the advantage thanks to limited health and slippery-quick movement speed.
Describing Shadow Warrior as "OTT" is an understatement of epic proportions. This is a game where everything explodes, from air conditioners to arcade machines, creating massive chain fireballs that encourage you to exploit the environment mid-battle. This is a game where you can slice a demon in half, rip its heart out, then crush it in your bare hands to instantly kill all of its friends. It's supremely, wondrously, bombastically brilliant; the kind of intense action that leaves you with white knuckles and a rictus grin plastered on your face for the duration.
Once the last demon drops, Shadow Warrior doesn't just ping up an objective marker to blithely trundle towards, instead opening up into a pleasingly expansive warren of corridors, cubbyholes, streets and dead ends to explore at your own pace. Much of the time you'll need to find a key to open a door, but exploration pays dividends with a wealth of secrets to discover, not limited to entire hidden rooms textured with original Shadow Warrior environments, killer rabbits that attack if you interrupt their lovemaking (just... so, yeah) and ecchi cartoons stashed behind waterfalls. Numerous easter eggs and references are good for a few laughs, both riffing on Devolver Digital games and other classic shooters. It's refreshing to play a game that doesn't hold your hand, and instead encourages you to poke about.
Admittedly the campaign does bog down every once in a while, due to some anticlimatic battles against rifle-toting humans, an unambitious opening level or Painkiller-inspired bosses that trade interesting attacks for raw size, but it's still resolutely fun... especially when you're not even using a gun.
Shadow Warrior's most unique feature proves to be surprisingly robust first-person melee combat, aptly provided by a menacing katana. Rather than a simple bludgeon, you've got direct control over the power and direction of your slashes, and can manoeuvre in and out of melee range with a set of stamina-limited dashes. Demons fall apart into cubes of flesh and bone under the strength of your steel, splattering the scenery with viscera, making for a superbly satisfying alternative to the usual bunny hopping and circle strafing.
Shadow Warrior could have stopped there, but pushes the boat out even further on a bevy of upgrade systems. Creatively slaughtering enemies rewards you with karma to spend on sword abilities and passive buffs. Hidden Ki Crystals bolster a range of active powers that can knock back foes or throw them into the air if you double-tap an appropriate direction and press the right mouse button. By far the most interesting power proves to be a healing spell that gradually returns a portion of your health bar, but leaves you doubly vulnerable to incoming attacks: a neat middle ground between HP and regenerating life. Us modern gamers love some RPG-lite upgrades to pursue, and Shadow Warrior has them in abundance.
At best, these systems add meaningful depth and versatility to the experience, letting players approach it on their terms. But, unavoidably, they also dilute the classic purity of the old-school FPS experience somewhat. When you're surrounded by demons, the sheer amount of extra bumf can actively get in the way, overwhelming and confusing you in the heat of battle with an embarrassment of double-tap commands, or forcing us to agonise over skill allocations in menus when we should be holding down the fire button and circle-strafing like a madman.
Luckily you can absolutely just do that since there are plenty of passive skills to invest in, while the powers can be ignored beyond the helpful healing ability. However, Shadow Warrior arguably goes one upgrade system too far by implementing weapon upgrades linked to a very limited supply of in-game currency. Not only is it aggravating to have to pick and choose from secondary fire modes and other bonuses in an old-school shooter - and potentially not get all of them during a single playthrough - but it leads to a bizarre ammo economy. Ammunition is fairly limited in all but boss encounters, presumably to encourage you to ferret out secrets and rely on the katana, yet it's possible to simply buy more by pausing the game and accessing the upgrade menu, encouraging you to break the action mid-game. Even more oddly, you'll usually finish boss battles with more ammo than you started with. This doesn't feel right.
Then there's the characterisation and storyline, which also feel somewhat out of place in a shooter with old-school pretensions.
For the record, I love what Flying Wild Hog did with their Wang [PHRASING!!!- Ed]. In sharp contrast to the original protagonist, who was half low-rent Duke Nukem and all dubious racial stereotype, Lo Wang is now a well-rounded and even relatable character. He's still a one liner-toting badass, but he's played ironically, often botching his lines or realising that he's not as funny as he thinks he is halfway through a quip. This is a man who has a subterranean lair because he saw it in Batman, owns combat armour as part of his zombie survival plan, and shaves his hair because he saw all his silver screen heroes do it. He's played for laughs and often ends up as the butt of his own jokes, and is all the more likeable for it.
Sadly, when you round out a character, you've then got to give him someone to talk to and a storyline to engage in. Shadow Warrior fails on both counts, introducing a horribly unfunny and painfully-voiced support character, Hoji, who's a little like The Darkness crossed with Joe Pesci's Leo Getz from Lethal Weapon. Nether he nor Wang has the common sense to shut their pie holes, breaking up the action with some hateful banter. The plot, meanwhile, can't find a middle ground between parody and straight-laced, offering jokes one minute and lengthy heartbreaking animated backstory cutscenes the next (involving demons who, frankly, we don't really need to care about). I suspect that Flying Wild Hog wanted to play it straight, but Devolver wanted to bring teh funniez in keeping with their irreverent public face. The result is the worst of both worlds.
Let's be clear: I'm not going to mark down Shadow Warrior because its storyline and characterisation is too simplistic or bare-bones. I'm going to mark it down because there's too much of it, and it's not necessary in a game like this.
Like we said earlier, Shadow Warrior's core gameplay is like a thick juicy steak: uncomplicated and truly satisfying. Meanwhile the upgrade systems, confused storyline, stamina, skills, powers and other fripperies act as spices and herbs, all of which can be used to enhance the flavour of the main dish in moderation. However, Flying Wild Hog practically upended the entire spice rack onto their creation, meaning that you can still taste the delicious meaty slab at its centre, but it's sometimes confused in a cacophony of other flavours.
Ultimately the essential thrill of killing hordes of demons, finding secrets and putting down massive bosses is still vital and exciting enough to be well worth recommending to any nostalgic fan of the genre - while newcomers will get a taste of what we've been missing from shooters over the last few years. Shadow Warrior is the old-school shooter we've been pining for since Serious Sam 3, and does the business in Wangtastic style.
Is £30 too much to ask for a PC-only old-school shooter? Maybe. But personally, Shadow Warrior is some of the most bombastic and brilliant fun I've had this year.
- Intense and supremely satisfying old-school FPS action
- Bombastic weaponry and surprisingly excellent melee combat
- Lengthy campaign
- Too many peripheral gameplay mechanics and upgrade systems break gameplay flow
- Limited weapon upgrades and in-menu ammo purchases feel out of place
- Hateful support character and confusing unnecessary storyline
The Short Version: Shadow Warrior is an old-school blasterpiece; an unstoppable orgy of guns, swords, secrets and gore galore that sticks two fingers up at Modern Warfare and its ilk. If you're hankering for a hefty slice of classic carnage, this slam-bang humdinger has you covered (in blood and bits of demon).