We’re eyeballs deep in remakes, kids. That video game series you like is going to come back in style soon if it hasn’t already. The latest to join the trend is the 1989 Amiga classic Shadow of the Beast. The very definition of cult classic, Shadow of the Beast is one of those games remembered very fondly by a few and entirely forgotten by most others. At the time, the game was lauded for its soundtrack and for its then-advanced graphics which featured multiple layers of parallax scrolling in the back and foreground.
Shadow of the Beast tells the story of, well, the beast. We learn in the opening minutes of the game that the beast was once a boy, taken from his father and transformed. When the beast is made to kill his own father, he realizes what and who he is, breaking away from his captor and seeking revenge.
The story told here is the same one told in the original, and, like the original, the big focuses are on platforming and combat. While there are flashes of brilliance, though the overall picture is a clunky mess.
Combat and platforming are the stars of the show, just like they were in the original. The game hews close to its roots with a 2.5D look that lets it call back to the original without being beholden to it.
The flashes of brilliance come primarily with the combat. When it works, it works nicely. You’ll often find yourself trapped between a pair of force fields with enemies barreling at you from either side. Through use of timed attacks, different button combinations, and special moves, you can take these enemies down. Taking them down one after another feels good as you move fluidly from one enemy to the next.
Throughout the game, new abilities and moves are introduced at a pretty good pace that lets you get used to one before starting on another, giving you the opportunity to build your skillset up. There are a few moves that depend on a blood meter that you’re constantly building up anytime you kill a living creature letting you go into a “Blood Rage” or fill up your life bar a bit.
Outside of that is where things start to fall apart. As fluid as the combat often is, the platforming is quite the opposite. Platforming is just as much a part of the game as combat, but it’s a constantly clunky experience. Jumps seem delayed in a way that seems like it’s meant to hearken back to games like Prince of Persia, but it ends up just feeling slow and stiff. Other times, it feels floaty. I’m not great at platformers, but when compared to so many of the great platformers in the last couple years, the navigation in Shadow of the Beast feels stuck in the 16-bit era.
The biggest problem the game has, though, is one of communication. This is something that spreads throughout the game and applies to the what, where, why, and how.
Often times I found myself wondering what I was supposed to be doing in a given area. It was often not clearly communicated what could and couldn’t be climbed. The game has puzzles, but I’m not talking about any difficulty that might’ve come up solving those.
Similarly, I found myself perplexed about where to go. The game has a pretty unforgiving continue system, and a wrong jump can end your life, which discourages experimentation. I’ll go into that continue system a bit later, but it was one of the things that held me back as I tried to navigate the frustrating platforming throughout the game.
The biggest problems, though, were the why and how. The basic question of why the main character, Aarbron, is out for revenge, is pretty simple, but much of the story beyond that is hidden in collectibles. Some of those collectibles take the form of orbs that you have to break using one of your powers meant to clear all the enemies off the screen, and one that takes a while to power-up, at that. Not only am I unclear on why the power manifests the way it does, but also on why it’s required to break the orbs.
The continue system, too, inspired the same question. Rarely, you’ll pick up an elixir that will let you restart where you died, but most of the time you’re stuck choosing between “consuming an innocent soul” to resume or restarting the level from scratch. Why am I consuming an innocent soul? How does this affect the game? I was left to my own devices to figure it out. The elixirs can be obtained by playing a social minigame that has you mashing buttons to beat another player’s time, but like the rest of the game, each instance of the minigame is accompanied by exorbitant loading times that are often longer than the minigame itself.
Throughout the game I’d encounter new enemies and quite often a prompt would come up that would tell me exactly how to deal with that enemy’s specific abilities – press this button to pop around their back, press that button to stun them – but other times, a new enemy would appear and be immune to everything I threw at it with no prompt. The tutorial system seemed to come up at random.
The answer to these questions often seems to be “because it’s a video game.” For as much as Shadow of the Beast wishes to call back to its roots as an old-school platformer, it feels like the game is stuck in the era from which it hails, rather than being inspired by it.
Nostalgia seems to have fueled the genesis of this project, but the game’s long development – three years – doesn’t seem to have done anything to free it from its ties to the past. There’s a cool little game somewhere in here, but I couldn’t get past my frustration to find it.
Disclaimer: We received a copy of Shadow of the Beast for the PlayStation 4 from the publisher. We completed the campaign before writing this review.