This era of remakes and nostalgia for retro games has brought us a lot of interesting projects, but I feel that, in many ways, Shadow Warrior is one of the bad examples despite making bold steps forward as well.
The game stars a much younger Lo Wang, who feels inspired by No More Heroes‘ Travis Touchdown. He is a cocky nerd whose fascination with action movies and video games did not stop him from becoming an actual master swordsman. Wang has become filthy rich through his work as an assassin and is now on a job for the powerful businessman Zilla; who wants to buy a collector’s famed katana. Wang has to either purchase the sword or tear it from the collector’s cold, dead hands.
When the deal goes wrong, Wang witnesses the beginning of a demon invasion from the confines of his cell. Not long after it turns out that the collector is dead and the sword is gone. Wang is then left bleeding out in a burning building, where he is approached by the mysterious spirit Hoji. This Hoji offers to save Wang’s life… if only he’d agree to a tiny, little contract with him.
This turns the story in a bit of duo-cop movie, as Wang and Hoji investigate where the sword has disappeared to and constantly bicker over their conflicting goals and approaches. It certainly has its moments and Hoji can be entertainingly snide in his banter, but I feel it doesn’t quite nail the atmosphere that would be ideal for this kind of game.
Fans of the original Shadow Warrior will certainly miss the tongue-in-cheek, comical atmosphere of that game. Lo Wang used to be this elderly pervert who’d laugh his way through combat encounters with funny one-liners and an endless supply of dick jokes. Now he’s a cool anti-hero; a young, handsome dude who casually flirts with women and shouts generic action game taunts as he blasts and cuts his way through hordes of enemies. There is no joke or levity to his character, and the edgy arc he works through feels painfully out-of-place.
I admire that they tried to modernize a character that was already perceived as racially insensitive back in the day, but the modern Lo Wang lacks any kind of punch. Hoji ends up stealing the show because Wang has nothing going for him. His geeky hobbies are rarely brought up and don’t affect his dialogue much, outside of Hoji calling him a nerd from time to time. The same goes for his samurai lifestyle and supposed code of honor, which are also only incidentally addressed. This leaves him as little more than a corporate lackey stumbling about the plot, murdering anybody and anything that happens on his path. I was desperately trying to find some aspect of him I could latch unto, yet found nothing. It would have been cool if they went the Deadly Premonition route and made constant references to movies Wang likes or stuff that inspired him, but instead the highlights of the game end up being references to Wang’s elderly self.
He doesn’t even have any funny dialogue with the naked anime girls
The rest of the story is a bit of a slow boil. Shadow Warrior has some big ambitions and tells a complicated fantasy story that draws from real-world elements without copying anything 1-to-1. It took a while for me to get interested in it and it felt boring in places, but it was ultimately the characters involved and how personal the storyline was to them that won me over. The ending was also very nice and did a lot to make up for the frustrations I felt throughout the rest of the game.
So, story is a mixed bag, but I held out hope that we could at least have an old school run & gun experience here. While the gameplay generally lives up to this, the level-design and art certainly do not.
Levels in Shadow Warrior are painfully generic and ugly. The realistic visuals are an eyesore, with especially the gore looking plastic-y and areas suffering from being underlit; of course made worse by a flashlight so pointlessly small you might as well navigate by muzzle flashes. The game mixes generic areas like sewers and a dockyard with a lot of Japanese locales. While visually impressive from afar, the texture quality is pretty bad up close and you see the same decorations literally everywhere. You go into a partially sunk freight ship and a waterlogged, metallic side-room has the exact same shiny furniture as a billionaire’s bedroom. Most awkward of all are the times when a bit of the level misses collision detection or physics entirely, allowing you to pass through objects; this was especially bad in a level that is just a straight corridor leading to a boss-fight.
These levels are also severely overlong, taking between 45-70 minutes to finish each with a decent bit of exploration. It’s room after room after room of combat encounters and simple puzzles, with each area doing a poor job of signaling what direction to go in. It’s incredibly easy to get turned around and go back the way you came, especially when both paths lead to nearly identical rooms. I was close to dropping the game in a level that featured an extensive system of copy & pasted tunnels.
You are still expected to explore around for secrets, which is not as fun as it used to be in these underlit areas that are arbitrarily blocked off with invisible walls. Level 1 has this portion where you jump in the water to go behind a waterfall and find a secret, but when you find a waterfall in level 3, hopping in the water instantly kills you and forces you to replay an entire area. Secrets are also no longer cool things like opening up a hidden door in the toilet or making a tricky jump to reach a suspicious wall. Most of them are just out in the open, slightly off the main path. Heck, some of them I found thinking they were the main path.
Excessive curiosity can also be your downfall, as I ended up in situations where levels became impossible to finish. Levels love to loop around themselves and those invisible walls may be plenty, yet still manage to miss a few vital spots. I’d end up back in an older area with no way to return to where I was supposed to be. Likewise, experimenting a bit in combat would sometimes leave me with an enemy incapacitated somewhere I couldn’t reach, which meant combat would never end and the doors to the next area would never unlock. This problem vanished later in the game when explosive weapons become more commonplace.
All of the above paints a picture of yet another failed remake of a classic video game. While a fair conclusion, I would say that the combat system that the Flying Wild Hogs came up with excuses a lot of these shortcomings.
As you make your way through the levels, portals from the shadow realm open up and demons pour out to try and kill you. Demons are plentiful and varied, plus they tend to spawn in all around you, which encouraged a playstyle where I found myself constantly moving and swapping weapons to adapt. Many would argue the game is a bit too easy because you start with a healing power that doesn’t consume energy, but I found myself frequently teetering below 20% on a decent difficulty setting.
The enemy designs are a tad generic, but they all have different abilities that I found fun to work around. Your arsenal is also impressive, offering a host of familiar weapons alongside some exotic outliers like the crossbow and flamethrower. Weapons can all be upgraded with money found in the levels, allowing you to give your favorites a boost of your choosing. For the crossbow, I went for firepower and got the upgrade that let me alt-fire explosive arrows, whereas the shotgun I felt was perfectly fine on its own, so I only invested in the faster reload.
And, I can’t believe I am saying this: the swordfighting actually works now. Your sword is a great tool; powerful and satisfying, not to mention actually quite safe to use now that most base enemies have a tendency to charge you. It felt like a gimmicky bastard child in the original game and now it’s a core feature I found myself falling back to all the time. You can even press Q while using the guns to perform a quick sword slash, so it feels much more central to the game. By comparison, in the original Shadow Warrior your sword was quickly outclassed by almost any other weapon and entirely useless against certain types of enemies.
Getting to cut enemies into little bits and seeing them still try to pose a threat with both their arms and a leg missing is also just a fantastic effect. Despite all the mediocre visuals, this is definitely a part where proper time & effort was allocated.
Supplementing the basic sword slashes and charged attacks are unlockable special skills and magic. By double-tapping directions and pressing a mouse button, you either use a special attack with the sword or cast a spell. This adds new possibilities to the combat and allows you to employ some style while tearing enemies to shreds. I was particularly fond of the spell that briefly lifted enemies into the air, allowing for some quick & easy headshots.
The problem lies in how you acquire these abilities. The game differs between powers and skills, even though their inputs feel the same and they tend to accomplish similar results. The magic stuff is bought with Ki; a currency gained by finding hidden Ki crystals that also frequently appear at the end of levels to make sure players who don’t explore aren’t left behind. The other powers (or was it skills?) are bought with karma, which is awarded for combat performance and finding some other secrets.
Now, I like these abilities themselves and I appreciate that people who don’t want the added complexity can just invest them in some okay passive abilities instead, but finding Ki isn’t that interesting of a process and farming karma is basically RNG. The rating system for Shadow Warrior doesn’t abide by any kind of logic. I literally repeated a turret section twice, the first time taking quite some time and resulting in a lot of damage taken, the second time finishing quickly and taking basically no damage. That first run awarded me 4 stars and the second run 2 stars. Just play the game and take whatever it gives you, there’s no sense trying to control it any.
All in all Shadow Warrior is a troubled game, but a remarkable shooter for this day and age. It offers stylish and intense combat—the likes of which Doom and Wolfenstein went back to as well—in a budget form. There is a lot of room for improvement and I wish it took more inspiration from the old game, particularly in regards to the tone of the story and the flow of its levels.