When I began the Backloggery Beatdown series almost three years ago, I would play Spec Ops: The Line a short three months later, and it would sour me on the FPS genre. In fact, it would not be until December 2014 that I would play another FPS, Crysis 2, and my experience with it unfortunately reified my conviction in the vapidity of modern setpiece-laden, melodramatic FPS games, further souring shooters in my gaming tastes. I would then abstain from the genre until DOOM released year.
The 2016 resurrection of DOOM as the outstanding run-and-gun franchise that it was created to be, divorced itself from the uber-serious, narrative-driven FPS games that Spec Ops: The Line abases, and rejuvenated my interest in shooters just in time for Overwatch. With such momentum, I decided to storm through a list of FPS games that I had purchased for the past two years, including Crysis 3, Bioshock Infinite, and Shadow Warrior…2013 was apparently a heavy year for shootan games.
For those unfamiliar with Backloggery Beatdown, these are not reviews, but apotheoses of gaming. SPOILERS INCOMING!
I am one of those 90’s “kids” who grew up discovering every secret that Duke Nukem 3D had to offer without the aid of guides, FAQs. YouTube Let’s Plays, and the like. I did not have the disposable income that I have now, so I could not enjoy the onslaught of the “Doom clones” using the Build engine: Redneck Rampage, Blood, and Shadow Warrior. I own the Redux version of the latter in my Steam library, but after upgrading from a GTX 970 to a 1070, I wanted to stick to games that would push my system. Supposedly.
I began playing Shadow Warrior (2013) with my expectations set low; the game could not possibly disappoint that way. Its penis jokes—frequent because the protagonist’s name is Lo Wang—are straight from a high schooler’s repertoire. The violence is reminiscent of Soldier of Fortune, a game built on an engine specifically designed for players to take pleasure in dismembering foes with firearms. The gunplay in Shadow Warrior similarly facilitates and encourages enemy maiming. Played “correctly” with frequent swordplay, the screen becomes lousy with gore, and my speakers invaded my ears with sounds similar to exploding watermelons. Lastly, Wang’s accent is horrible, sounding more Chinese than Japanese—I feel that the developers were aiming for (old) Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China. The number of customization options in the upgrade system provides the variety necessary to keep things interesting, especially Wang’s Jedi-like ki abilities.
Despite these complaints, I was completely disarmed by the complexity of the story. Shadow Warrior begins with Japanese tycoon Orochi Zilla sending Lo Wang to purchase a specific katana for 2 million dollars from a collector named Mizayaki. The latter refuses, and Wang resolves to take it forcefully, cutting down his men. However, Mizayaki is able to subdue Wang by using a mysterious power provided by a demon named Hoji. Wang is imprisoned in an outdoor cage on Mizayaki’s complex; ironically, his confinement spares from an ensuing demon attack. Wang escapes, and proceeds to search for Mizayaki. He eventually ends up falling through the roof of a burning building, finding Hoji hovering over Mizayaki’s broiled carcass. Trapped, Wang has no choice but to make a deal with the demon to collaborate in the mutual search for the Nobitsura Kage—the mythical katana in question—in order to gain the (ki) power to save himself.
Hoji, now spiritually fused with Wang, functions as a sidekick like Rob Schneider’s Fergee to Stallone’s Judge Dredd, equally fetid with sarcasm flat jokes. After killing an unnecessary number of humans and demons, they discover where Mizayaki keeps his portion of the Nobitsura Kage, with Hoji revealing that there are actually three swords that possess such a name; each one hosts a component of the true version of the weapon known to the Ancients of the Shadow Realm as the Shadow Eater. Wang finds this first sword not sitting on any traditional stand, but instead in the hands of a puppet-like golem called a Whisperer. For reasons Shadow Warrior fails to explain—or perhaps because cutting everything down is his modus operandi—Wang stabs this woman-like creature, and it eerily looks up, staring into Wang’s (the player’s) eyes as the game segues into a cutscene, all of which have been gathered into a compilation here:
Shadow Warrior is a game that lasts seventeen chapters, with an average of about forty-five minutes each because Flying Wild Hog is needlessly heavy-handed with the enemy encounters. An appropriate length might have been closer to ten to thirteen chapters; the intervals between story exposition are so lengthy that it was not until the finale that I began to understand the presentation of the story as synchronously nonlinear: though the events revealed take place in the past, they are recalled out of sequence, taking place nearly at the same time from different perspectives.
The Shadow Realm, a place not unlike Hades, is ruled by brothers Enra, Mezu, Gozu, Xing, Hoji, and their sister Ameonna. Hoji, apparently an apothecary and all-around engineer, periodically delivers an elixir to the sister’s doorstep that she consumes behind a closed door to suppress her flow of tears which would otherwise flood the Shadow Realm if left untreated. Hoji is unable to conclude if his scientist’s curiosity or a more tender impulse triggers him to leave a toy at her doorstep…and she reciprocates his interest. The result is a relationship that no one would have discovered had she not unpredictably became happy and ceased to cry, leaving the Shadow Realm in a disastrous drought. Enra comes to investigate why Ameonna’s tears have ceased and discovers the incestuous affair.
Hoji hopes that Ameonna would vouch for him, returning his love, but she instead resolves herself to duty. Bitterness consumes Hoji so much that when Gozu flays his face with a knife as a punishment for his transgressions, the pain hardly registers compared to that he experiences when he and his sister are separated. The rain resumes in Ameonna’s sadness, but Hoji cares not, and carries out two actions that would result in profound events that take place in the game. First, Hoji creates a special elixir on behalf of Xing, the brother chosen to take his place as courier for Ameonna’s tonics. He delivers an aperitif that does not simply relax their sister, but binds her into a magical coma. Xing later laments, believing that Ameonna would only sleep longer, not forever. His role in this was to be the elimination of Enra, who again comes to investigate the cessation of tears, but he is thwarted by Mezu’s interference. Xing pays the price for this transgression with his head.
Second, the pain of heartbreak is more than Hoji can bear, and he creates an adult-sized puppet called a Whisperer that lacks a life or soul, yet is animated by the memories of an Ancient. Hoji, enchants his Whisperer by “storing” his memories of Ameonna within, allowing him to forget about her completely—amnesia by spellcraft. Enra, scrutinizing Hoji’s schemes after Xing’s failed attempt at a coup discovers that his brother has “defiled” the Ancients by creating an abomination in Ameonna’s likeness and exiles him from the Shadow Realm.
Enra then begins searching for the Nobitsura Kage, for it is the only weapon that can kill an Ancient, a necessity required to break the enchantment and awaken Ameonna. This plan is revealed in Mezu’s memory of her, which is hardly any memory at all because Enra forbade him to look upon her after the battle with Xing. Ironically, Enra replicates Hoji’s creation, the Wisperers, and requires that each brother Mezu, Gozu, and Xing, sacrifice their memories of Ameonna to animate them. Apparently their sister is to remain “unknown” to them lest another affair take place. Enra then enlists the help of Zilla, Lo Wang’s boss, to find the Nobitsura Kage on Earth. Thus, it is here that the one end of the temporal line touches the other to form a loop: Zilla commands Lo Wang to purchase one of the swords from Mizayaki.
After striking down the first Wisperer, experiencing the his first memory from Gozu and then defeating him, Hoji saps his brother of energy (what happens to each Ancient after their defeat I cannot say, but they disappear for the remainder of the game, as this stands by the concept that an Ancient can only be killed with the Shadow Eater) and creates a portal that takes Lo Wang and him to the next closest Whisperer, which ends up being one of Zilla’s shipyards. It is at this point that Lo Wang begins to ponder the connection between his (former) employer the demonic invasion.
Many many hours of gameplay later, Lo Wang confronts Zilla, but Enra intervenes by blessing the wheelchair-bound tycoon with Ameonna’s tears, granting him supernatural power—a strange move considering the fact that Zilla is not interested in uniting the Nobitsura Kage for Enra, but for himself so that he may rule both Earth and the Shadow Realm. His holding the Whisperers for ransom, according to Mezu upon his defeat, is the reason why the other others are unable to return to the Shadow Realm even after they found one of the Shadow Eater swords. Zilla functions as the game’s penultimate boss, with the body of Xing serving as the game’s final boss—penance for his coup attempt, with this showdown having been foreshadowed after an earlier, somewhat comical encounter with Xing (‘s head), when he tells Lo Wang to destroy his body as his slavery to Enra is dishonorable.
Lo Wang defeats Zilla and unites the three parts of the Nobitsura Kage (which is now able to cut through enemies in a single slice with a Legend of Zelda-style projectile wave that does not require a ki technique) before entering the Shadow Realm to confront Enra…but he is not the final boss. In fact, he does not fight at all! The “big reveal” in Shadow Warrior is that Enra was never the villain; he is only spurned into action because of Hoji’s choices. Flying Wild Hog’s manipulation of player interaction with Hoji through the game’s synchronously nonlinear depiction is a marvelous feat of misdirection, and superior storytelling.
If there ever was a competition for the King of Pettiness, Hoji would rank no less than the royal court. Flying Wild Hog does include a scene where Hoji expresses regret and doubt, but Lo Wang admonishes him, agreeing that poisoning Ameonna and dooming the Shadow Realm to ruin was [bad], yet also reminding his expelled friend that both Zilla and Enra needed to be dealt with. Hoji comes to his senses, realizing that Enra would have likely punished him for all eternity. He determines to continue his quest with Lo Wang to defeat both of their (former) masters.
After Lo Wang is disarmed of the Nobitsura Kage by mischance during the climax, the sole remaining Whisperer picks up the sword to deliver it to Enra, who then commands it to cut down Hoji at Ameonna’s altar. Hoji dodges the deathblow and disarms the as it moves with all the alacrity of a marionette. He takes hold of the sword that immediately begins to immolate his soul, yet manages to give it back to Lo Wang, who is a feeble bystander in the Shadow Realm without the sword’s power. Hoji expires, and as a result, his Whisperer is no longer able to be powered by the memories of the dead; it reveals the game’s haymaker of a plot device that I have already discussed throughout this piece: the entire narrative in Shadow Warrior (2013) is a revenge plot whose only appropriate conclusion is that of a Shakespearean tragedy.
Mezu states in his own memory segment, “Sleep well, sister. And save your precious tears. Heaven knows you’ll need them,” implying (because it is never explicitly revealed) Enra’s plan to retrieve the Nobitsura Kage and slay Hoji as the sacrifice for Ameonna’s revival, and her resulting mourning. Indeed, it is revealed that she is far more compassionate than Hoji believes despite his feelings of abandonment. In his memory, he says that he will never forgive her for “making [him] believe that he could be something else,” such as a lover and not just an armorer, inventor, or apothecary. As a result, he capitalizes on Xing, who also opposes Enra’s rule “of obedience and slavery.” Ameonna’s slumber is a cruel joke of solitude much to Hoji’s satisfaction.
Hoji is quite the mastermind considering he acts essentially unconsciously, knowing that he hates Enra and wants to acquire the Nobitsura Kage to “destroy the ones who banished me,” yet he does not at first remember why he was banished, because as he says, he brilliantly hid that memory in a Whisperer, and he has been wandering Earth (purgatory for him) for 200 years. In contrast, Lo Wang is not a hero in his own video game. He is a means to an end, and as much a tool to Hoji as Zilla is to Enra. Even when Lo Wang must encourage Hoji to finish he started, he functions like an indoctrinated contingency in case his patron Ancient ever faltered. Technically, Hoji decides to resume his quest out of benevolence, perceiving Enra as an oppressor, and desiring to save Ameonna. He would not live to recover the memory of how he would never forgive her, dare I say hate her. This knowledge renders the ending profoundly more tragic as Ameonna weeps over Hoji’s dead body, not knowing how her lover is the root cause of all the chaos, from her deep slumber to the necessity of Enra’s sacrifice. As he says in the opening sequence:
Our debts are laid upon us at birth.
Rulers or subjects…we are all prisoners of the great wheel.
Escape is the fancy of a child.
Freedom is the cruelest illusion
Still, there are some that would try.
Those who would burn the world to rule it.
But I will defend you to the last.
This, I promise you sister.
For we are the ancients.
We may not prosper…but we will prevail.