With titles like Serious Sam and Hard Reset under their belts, Devolver Digital and Flying Wild Hog have both cultivated a reputation for releasing modern games that play like something from the 90s. Now they've teamed up to bring a game from the 90s kicking and screaming into the 21st century. 1997's Shadow Warrior was essentially Duke Nukem with terrible Asian stereotyping, so with the disappointment of Duke Nukem Forever still fresh in people's minds is this even a wise move on their parts? The answer, it turns out, is a resounding yes.
As with the original Shadow Warrior, this story stars Lo Wang, a name that should tell you everything you need to know about the level of humour in this game. Here, Wang is involved in a deal that first goes bad as he finds himself regaining consciousness in a cage, and then gets worse as a Demon apocalypse is unleashed on the world. Wang must team up with a banished spirit named Hoji to get the sword and save the world. To say more would spoil a surprisingly deep plot with storytelling that’s as happy to involve apocalyptic events and demonic politics as it is wang jokes and sarcastic banter.
Actually the relationship between the two main characters is one of the high points in the game, and certainly motivation enough to move on to the next level. This time around Wang isn’t skilled at kicking ass just because he’s Asian, but rather because he’s a comic geek with enough money to build his own Bat Cave and stock it for a zombie apocalypse. Hoji, on the other hand, is a wonderfully sarcastic character who seems to have spent his time wandering the earth sneaking into movie theatres and honing a razor sharp edge on his wit. In a game that plays out so many action movie tropes straight, seeing Hoji play on Wang’s genre expectations will never get old. It’s the voice acting that truly sells it though, and the performances from the lead actors are perfect. Even outside the scripted sequences Wang’s one-liners always seem to fit the situation and never feel overtly repetitive.
The same can mostly be said for the gameplay, which attempts to mix retro and modern gaming elements into something that resembles a coherent whole. Things like the head-bobbing movement to the enemies who explode gloriously into gibs at a moment’s notice are touches of old school gaming nirvana in a time when the term ‘retro’ is often used to camouflage lazy design. You even start with no regenerating health, with the all important medpacs seemingly few and far between, but this is undone early on with the first power you learn allowing you to restore part of your health and enemies themselves will occasionally drop health-restoring goodness. While the former seems to encourage taking a break from fights to restore your health, the latter serves to encourage keeping up the barrage where at times leaping into a group of demons to pick up health works to your benefit. The seemingly abundant sources of health never unbalance proceedings either since Wang bleeds almost as enthusiastically as his enemies.
This old-meets-new mentality is persistent throughout all aspects of this game. By the end of the game Wang will be carrying around a sizable arsenal of swords, guns and demon body parts that would make Master Chief look at both of his weapons with envious dismay, but these weapons have a nice modern upgrade system which changes how they look and feel. There are actually three main upgrade systems in the game, each with their respective pickups. Powers use the surprisingly rare Ki Crystals which can be found in the maps and are usually pretty well hidden. Skills use Karma points which are easier to accrue since they’re awarded for dispatching enemies, with more points given if you kill with style and variety. The skills and powers cover a huge range of offensive and defensive abilities which are either passive, or activated through simple button combos. Cash is spent on upgrading your weapons with options ranging from simple touches like aim-stabilisation, to the more extreme examples such as twin SMGs or firebombs. It is worth saving some cash to get later upgrades though, since it can be frustrating to see options like the quad-barrelled shotgun or sticky-bomb crossbow bolts only to find them too expensive to buy. Fortunately the people in this world love to keep piles of cash in every box and cabinet that can open, so with a little exploration saving isn’t too much of a chore.
Of course, even with all those upgrades available there is always reason to return to the sword you start the game with. Initially swordplay felt like little more than button mashing, which is understandable since it’s hard to get right from a first person perspective. But with a little practice, and a couple of skills, it’s possible to experience some of the finest fantasy swordplay this genre can present. Throw guns into the party mix and the player can choreograph some dynamic combos and sequences that can quickly despatch wave after wave of demonic troops. When these moments happen it feels more like a personal achievement rather than an event planned by the designers.
There are, however, a couple of things brought from the 90s that may frustrate the modern gamer. The checkpoints are far apart but they’re there to save the game from having to load a different map rather than saving you from repeating a wave of enemies that you only barely survived the first time. This game is all about the quicksave and the sooner the player makes friends with their F5 button the better their experience will be. Then there’s the design of those maps themselves. The level progression is linear enough, but gamers expecting the narrow corridor approach of modern shooters’ level design may become disoriented in the maze-like levels found here. Even the smaller areas can become annoying, not just in finding secrets but also in finding exactly which patch of bamboo is hiding the exit.
While the level design screams retro, the actual look of Shadow Warrior is decidedly modern. While it’s not technically the most accomplished of games the player is in for a visual treat, though it has to be said that some of the visual elements become over-familiar before you finish a level. The enemies aren’t particularly varied either which initially seems disappointing but ultimately becomes a handy feature for the more tactical player; for every job there is a tool, and you’ll soon find yourself with a prefered weapon for specific enemy types. Even worse, the load times are annoyingly long on initially loading the game (though thankfully not as bad when moving between maps). The machine used for this review is probably due an upgrade (3.4GHz i7-2600K, 6GB RAM and NVIDIA GeForce GTX590) but the experience doesn’t feel particularly fluid regardless of graphical settings. That said the frame rate was at least consistent no matter how many creatures were on screen (either intact or dismembered) so it’s not a game-breaking situation.
Shadow Warrior is an unrepentant love poem for all things 90s and plays out as a greatest hits album of the video games and buddy cop movies from that time. Play time seems to vary depending on the player but if you enjoy hunting down the many amusing easter eggs and hidden loot then there’s easily eighteen hours of play time here for a single playthrough, and enough incentive to go back for more. There's no multiplayer shoehorned in here either with the team choosing to focus on the single player experience. Above all else, though, the very fact that this is not a military, cover-based, co-op tactical shooter is enough to justify the investment alone.