Developer: Flying Wild Hog | Publisher: Devolver Digital | Played On: PC | Price: $39.99 | ESRB: Not Yet Rated
Shadow Warrior opens with mercenary Lo Wang tearing down a bamboo-skirted road in his sweet muscle car, smoking a cig and shrieking along to The Touch on the radio. That is this game, all wrapped up into one scene. If that sounds awesome to you (and it should) stop reading and play Shadow Warrior right away.
You need more convincing? OK fine.
Shadow Warrior is a goofy action-arcade shooter, which is fitting given its lineage. The original Shadow Warrior released in 1997, mixing Duke Nukem 3D-style level interactivity with Asian trappings, swords, and even more explosions. Initially I was concerned about the property’s resurrection because just like Duke Nukem, Shadow Warrior came from an era when all you needed was guns and a 13-year-old sense of humor; trying to bring that back didn’t work so well for Duke Nukem Forever.
The situation here couldn’t be more different. Shadow Warrior (2013) is as much of a gaming surprise as 2004’s Escape from Butcher Bay was. Don’t take that to mean the game’s about stealth though. Oh man, is it ever not about stealth. Shadow Warrior is pure action: just guns, swords, and lots of demons to murder.
Lo Wang has been hired by a clandestine organization to locate a particular sword, the Nobitsura Kage. As luck would have it, the sword is linked to some mystical Asian business and before long you’re partnered with a mischievous disembodied spirit named Hoji traveling around the world to prevent a massive demonic invasion. It’s as good a setup for some demon killing you’ll ever find. And with demon killing like this, you don’t need much of a setup.
Combat in Shadow Warrior is incredible, finding depth beyond what you typically find in arcade shooters of its ilk thanks to its swordplay. Your trusty katana is far more than a simple melee slash. You can use a variety of special moves that each have their particular uses and situational benefits. For instance, there’s a strong frontal attack that’s great for busting shielded enemies, while a 360 spin is ideal for clearing out swarms of lesser grunts.
Lo Wang’s movement abilities work perfectly with these attacks as well. Rather than sprint, Lo Wang can dash forward, backward, or to the side; this burst of movement is invaluable for jumping in and out of enemy’s attacks. Shadow Warrior’s swordplay and dashing combine to make the game feel more like a first-person Ninja Gaiden than a traditional arcade shooter, and that’s just awesome. Fitting for a beat ‘em up, Shadow Warrior’s boss battles are incredible. I don’t want to say anything about them other than you should experience them at least once. If you played 2004’s Painkiller you’ll have some idea of what to expect.
Really the only damper on the game’s combat is its rendering engine. Don’t misunderstand; Shadow Warrior looks incredible and it’s astounding what Flying Wild Hog has accomplished with their in-house engine, but it doesn’t run as smoothly and efficiently as other modern games. I admit it’s not fair to compare this game to the massive engineering staff of, say, Frostbite, but the stutters and minor input lag did affect my enjoyment of the game. Really, games like Quake set a high bar, and Shadow Warrior simply isn’t as crisp and snappy.
There are a few other small disappointments. Shadow Warrior gives you a ranking after every enemy encounter, but never defines how it arrives at that rating. Since the rating determines a bonus you get towards skill points, it’d be nice to understand the game’s calculations. Plus, there’s a pride factor involved; it’s a testament to Shadow Warrior’s mechanics that I genuinely wanted to get better at the game, but I never knew what to focus on. Should I take less damage? Be more accurate?
This extends to other elements of the combat system. For instance, enemies will “rage” after they’ve been alive for a while making them move and attack faster, but the game never really explains why this is triggered. Is it because they’ve stayed alive for too long? Will doing some damage to them reset that timer? Granted, this is getting nitpicky, and at least Shadow Warrior has the gameplay complexity to even warrant such questions.
Additionally, the periphery in Shadow Warrior is excellently filled with map exploration and colorful banter. As far as the former is concerned, this game is definitely harkening back to the Doom days when shooter maps were more than a series of hallways to the exit. Some of the maps in Shadow Warrior are big and complex, to the point that a map would’ve helped me get my bearings. Personally, I enjoyed wandering around the map probing nooks for collectibles, but the occasionally-directionless design may rub you the wrong way if you prefer games that are more of a straight shot.
As far as the banter is concerned, I couldn’t be more surprised and impressed with Flying Wild Hog’s reinvention of Lo Wang. Rather than a collection of tired Asian references and weak double entendres, the 2013 Lo Wang is a genuinely entertaining protagonist. He’s a loveable douchebag; the guy built himself a “Wangcave” under his house to protect his most valuable comic books. Hoji, his demonic partner by force, is a perfect foil for Wang’s wisecracks. They have that combative friendship that makes for the best buddy movies.
Wrap it all up and you’ve got a goofy, light-hearted adventure with lots of action and smirk-inducing character chemistry. This is as close as we’ll ever get to a video game version of Big Trouble in Little China, which you should understand is a huge compliment. There’s a gritty, punk spirit here that I haven’t seen since No More Heroes. As such, Shadow Warrior is more than a victory for fans of the original, but a spiritual rebirth of what made games of that era so fun in the first place.
Are you convinced yet?