In 2014, Kalypso Media Digital published Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, with the game’s subtitle serving as a direct reference to the Heretic Kingdoms saga. The first game, Kult: Heretic Kingdoms, was published in 2004, so I imagine that this was not necessarily a “saga” at conception, but would later become one after Games Farm had raised enough money for a sequel. Many fans were surprised, to put things mildly, to discover that the ten-years follow-up was merely a “book” rather than a full game. Shadows: Awakening, as much as the developers loathe the word, “remake,” is indeed that plus more; it includes an engine revision, updated graphics, and the missing book 2 to compliment book 1.
Violence: The violence in Shadows: Awakening is mild. Given the medieval-themed combat, one should expect an expansive array of axes, maces, swords, clubs, and bows. Small, barely noticeable blood splatters appear when humanoids are struck. Magic spells are elemental-based, but their effects are tame; there are no immolations, decapitations, or dismemberments to my knowledge.
Language and Crude Humor: While I do not recall any vulgarities during my gameplay, ESRB warns that b***h will appear.
Alcohol and Drug Use: ESRB cites usage of alcohol, but I also did not see this.
Spirituality: Though the story is conveyed through several playable characters, they are called “puppets” because they are possessed by a demon called a Devourer. Possessing additional souls to expand the party is a core game mechanic. A cult called the Penta Nera seeks to destroy all religion in the world and plays a major part in the plot. No religion in particular is targeted, but combined with this organization’s affinity for magic, it is most certainly pagan. To explore the story more, the dominant governing body is a theocracy and is looked upon as oppressive. A “dead god” is consumed into the bodies of cult members so that they can be empowered to carry out this mission. The artifact required to defeat them is called the Crucible of Souls, and it can pierce the dimensions between the living and the dead.
Sexuality: As RPG tradition dictates, fully-clothed female spellcasters are frowned upon. Not to disappoint, Evia’s design resembles that of a female sorceress in Diablo III. Those midriffs should be trademarked!
Shadows: Awakening begins in a dour underground crypt where a mysterious hooded man is negotiating with a demon called a Devourer. The hooded man directs the Devourer’s attention toward three tombs, each containing a once-renowned champion: a warrior, an archer, and a mage. I chose the mage, because I prefer playing with finesse characters. This fire mage, Evia, is of royal lineage, though that matters little considering that her death is over 300 years removed from the reign of her dynasty. The hooded man instructs the now-possessed Evia that once she emerges from the tomb, she must somehow escape the city, after which, he will explain why he summoned the devourer in the first place.
The impetus for Evia’s quest is to discover the circumstances under which she died the first time. I did not play long enough to find out, but before I get into the reasons why, I first want to give Games Farm credit where it is due. Shadows: Awakening is impressive in terms of presentation, and is on par with games whose budgets far exceed this indie fabrication. The lighting, shadows, animations, and spell effects are all great. I would go as far as to say that Diablo III should have looked this good.
I grit my teeth, expecting a cringe-worthy line of dialog, a cheesy narration, or apathetic voice actor, but I encountered none of these. I grew fond of the Devourer speaking in Early Modern English, Evia’s trash talking foes while eviscerating them with “Tremble before the princess of the Gaurelian throne,” and Zaar’s wisecracks. I suppose my affinity for them could be attributed to the fact that the other active characters in my party were animals or golems who do not speak. I only wonder how much better I would have enjoyed this production had I heard a single song worth remembering.
I failed in highlighting the best features of this game without criticism, which is unfortunate; I have many grievances against this game. Without beating around the bush, I did not see the end of Evia’s quest because the base gameplay of Shadows: Awakening is boring. Believe me when I say that I tried to get through. Longer sessions were reduced to the maximum of an hour sitting at a time to make things easier. As gorgeous as this game is, there are too many fundamental problems for me to keep interest.
For one, Shadows: Awakening only allows for up to four active abilities (per character) without combat-scumming by pausing the game and switching them around to avoid long cooldowns—and they are long cooldowns! The first spell Evia knows, firebreath, has a cooldown of ten seconds; sand golem and curse of the desert can be learned shortly thereafter, but their cooldowns are 40 seconds and 25 respectively, making for a lot of downtime as I kite enemies while using my basic attack, waiting for my spells to become available again. Not even the mysticism perk that reduces these cooldowns could alleviate the downtime. Diablo III was released in 2012—six years and it allowed for players to wield six abilities at a time; Torchlight, a Diablo clone, allowed for even more. Therefore, I look at Shadows: Awakening and it offers less features and gameplay than games that are a full generation old.
Secondly, the itemization is chaotic, and leveling up feels impotent. RPG fans who mourn the Mass Effect series streamlining its inventory for future games can find all kinds of mostly useless pickups here. One will gain about one level per hour in Shadows: Awakening. During that time, it was not until level 6 that I found a staff that was more powerful than the one I had started with, nor could I afford level-appropriate items from all the merchants in the starting city of Thole. Speaking of level appropriateness, note that when a puppet gains a level, the entire party does as well. When this happens, one may feel obligated to reshuffle items and skills among all four party members. This amount of customization boggs down the speed of what is supposed to be an action RPG.
I most certainly did stop my gameplay for five to ten minutes deciding what to upgrade, because I desperately wanted to feel powerful, yet that feeling never came. I have made references to Diablo, which some might perceive as unfair, because that is a mob-based game, where one should expect to blow up some mobs, and struggle against others. It might be more appropriate here to compare Shadows: Awakening to a game like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, a streamlined game designed for console play, and a massive reduction from the complexity of the mainline Baldur’s Gate series. Well, I thought Dark Alliance to be mediocre, and the resemblance here is accurate.
Thirdly, it is clear that Game Farm intended to encourage character switching during combat. This is initially introduced through mini-bosses who are shielded in the land of the living, and one must switch over to the underworld dimension where the Devourer resides and do enough damage with him to remove those protections in the land of the living. In this way, players may also be encouraged to switch to additional characters to avoid the “kiting while cooldown” that I have complained about. Still, I do not like being passively forced to play a certain way. I selected Evia because I wanted to play a mage, and I was determined to use her almost exclusively. As Shadows: Awakening expanded my roster with characters lacking personality such as a giant hornet or archer that reminds me of a fetish from Diablo II, I became more resolute in my posture. By the time I found Zaar, I had long become disinterested in building a party of puppets, of which only two in addition to the main character and Devourer can be active at a time, and can be revived if killed or exchanged at underworld sanctuaries.
If I had spent the majority of my fifteen hours with this game among interesting humanoid characters who built chemistry together rather than the creatures I was given, I might have endured beyond my quitting point. Shadows: Awakening reveals to me who the hooded man is, and why he summons the Devourer, so that through its puppets may become powerful enough to thwart the Penta Nera’s plans, and this centers around Evia. When the game reveals this, it promptly sends me on a quest for Zaar to redeem himself among his wolf clan. Sigh, what a momentum killer!
No one should play an ARPG expecting little combat, but I often wish that there was less here. Shadows: Awakening never allowed me to feel strong, and this caused the game to drag, rather than encourage me to look forward to the next enemy encounter to beat down. There might be an interesting story underneath the veneer but the substance is lacking.
Review code generously provided by Kalypso Media Digital.
The Bottom Line
Painstakingly average, there are too many other games that one could play that can do what Shadows: Awakening does, and better.