Platform: PC (via Steam)
Developer: Zojoi Studios
Publisher: Reverb Triple XP
# of Players: 1
ESRB Rating: N/A
Score: A- 90%
A few years back, I was at a media event talking to a PR person who told me that some sites let her know that they didn’t like covering adventure games and that too me aback because that attitude is pure biased lunacy. The adventure genre didn’t necessarily “die” a while back, folks – it was just neglected and left by the side of the road by jaded critics who didn’t bother giving too many great games the time of day. Anyway, those days of dreary dread have turned around in recent years and thankfully, one of the more influential and important games of the late 80’s is back and better than ever. Zojoi Studios’ brilliantly re-imagined Shadowgate takes the old story out for a stroll in a new coat of absolutely lovely visuals, a superb new soundtrack and even options to change that and a few other things (save the visuals) back to the classic NES game many of us oldsters spent too much time trying to beat and eventually beating but good a few times.
What this reboot doesn’t do is simply template that original game into a more casual form or make it an action-heavy experience that would cater to the more caffeinated modern gamer. From the interface to the brain-bending puzzles, everything you loved about the old game is back and in full force. Granted, some of these things WILL lead to frustration for some gamers used to hand-holding or self-solving puzzles in their entertainment experiences. That said, exercising the mind with a good and highly challenging game such as this one will be the best thing some of you can do for so little money…
As in the original game, you’re a nameless adventurer who finds himself just outside Castle Shadowgate with intent to go in and put an end to the evil force intent on killing your character off in as many ways as possible. Death is cheap and comes quickly in this game, particularly if you’re an impatient sort who hates reading cryptic warnings or doesn’t pay the slightest attention to a few facts you’d run around screaming with your head aflame about in real life. Case in point: If you get poisoned by something at home or somewhere else and knew about it, would you simply lumber about doing too much other stuff or would you drop as much as you could and look for a cure for that poison? Yeah, that happens in this game and it’s a mandatory, invisibly timed test of you paying attention to the problem at hand and trying your best to find or concoct a cure. Do that and you live to resume your quest. Fail and well, it’s another trip to the Game Over screen and back to a previous save file.
Death will beckon and become you in many ways, you may (or will) fall into a deep pit, get yanked under water by a tentacled sea creature, burned alive by a pissed off dragon, bumped off by some mean goblin-like goblins and so forth and so on. The game keeps you guessing at how it will kill you at some point and if you’re not a little paranoid after about the halfway point about going into a fresh room or returning to an old area to retrieve something you’ve missed, you’re playing a wee bit too fearlessly. While it’s not a pixel hunt at all, scouring each room carefully can reveal a great deal of important things from helpful items to useless junk your inventory will fill up with, some of which ends up as puzzle solving objects once combined in the proper order. From creating tools and learning new spells to whipping up assorted potions, there’s a nice amount of stuff to do with that increasing inventory (and some often intentionally vague clues)…
Trial and error is pretty much the best way to work at this game, although you can call on Yorick, the talking skull you pick up at the castle’s front door for some cryptic hints and advice. Zojoi made him helpful to a point with his often vague clues as to what needs to be done. However, expanding your brain a bit and using the interface properly will see you live to fight (or just live to the next room’s set of tricks and traps). The game has a way of handing you tools and then forcing you to figure out how to defeat something that’s initially baffling, but somewhat simple to deal with once those light bulbs inside your head start popping. Speaking of light, those torches you’ll come across are one time only items and lighting is a premium in this game. The game maps your progress as you progress, but you may want to keep a notepad handy so you can note where those torches are when you need to backtrack. Running out of a light source is an instant death here, as you’ll just trip over something uneven or steep and break your neck (and see that beckoning Death screen one more time too many).
The game keeps count of how many turns you take and yes, there are Steam Achievements for finishing up in a certain number of turns. Granted, you can also take your time (well, save for the part where you’re poisoned and need to find an antidote quickly), but there’s a nice and constant sense of dread here that’s somewhat delicious… well, to a point. Watching a friend play who’d only heard of the NES game, I got a few laughs at his expense as he grew annoyed at Yorick for not basically babbling out direct solutions to some problems. And yes, the slow traveling also annoyed him as he was more used to 3D games with the luxury of run and jump buttons. There’s no such fanciness here at all. What you get are basic commands like LOOK, USE, GO, HIT, EAT and so forth and so on. In general, the less you HIT stuff, the better off you’ll be unless something or someone needs to be HIT. The same goes for EAT in some cases. You can actually bump yourself off in a few amusing to tragically amusing ways, but at least this time you’re asked nicely if you want to do your poor avatar in. I believe the old game just let you knock yourself off (often accidentally) and that was that.
As noted above, the game looks and sounds fantastic. Zojoi added the options to make the music, scene transition effects and text crawl similar to the NES game (a nice addition), but that gorgeous art stays exactly the same. It would have been cool to see pixel art option in the style of some of DreamForge’s old classics, but that would have added a ton of work to the game and I’m sure even if it were a Kickstarter option, it would have also added a ton of development time to the project. Your love of this optional nostalgia will depend on whether or not you loved the NES game and how much, but it’s nice to see Zojoi include these (and not force you to play through the game to unlock them!).
If I had to gripe, I’d say that the difficulty selection takes away content if you play on the easiest mode, but this is also a fun and funky way of encouraging replay. Sure, you’ll still have tricky puzzles to solve no matter which level you choose, but you’ll actually see some locations expand into “A-ha! That what felt missing!” territory once you bump of the challenge. Granted, this is a game made to tick off anyone looking for a breezy one day experience or a game that’s going to hand out puzzle solutions like free samples in a mega-mall. I say take it slow and “easy” the first time through and if you survive with less than a fifth of your hair yanked out, play this one again and on a harder difficulty level. I won’t stop you from scouring the internet for hints, but as noted, going for the NES walkthrough and trying to use it here will spell doom for your character. Just use your wits and maybe bring a sharp-eyed friend along for the ride. There’s nothing worse that a forced backtracking when you thought you were all done with an area.
Then again, going in cold and not paying attention will get you more than anything in this game. Step up to those gates and venture forth, sir or madam. Your fate awaits and I’d bet you’ll see that Reaper more often than you see the seasons change if you’re under-prepared for what lurks in the depths of that dilapidated dungeon…