I don’t get it. Shadow Warrior 2 is as far removed from the 1997 FPS original as it could possibly be without turning into a different genre entirely. Stylistically, story-wise, and even in terms of gameplay, it has next to nothing in common with the original and only shares a passing resemblance to the 2013 remake. The game itself is kind of alright, but the few ties it still shares with its predecessors put in a bad light.
After the events of the Shadow Warrior remake, the world of the Ancients and the regular old human world have become intertwined. Demons have overrun Earth, pushing survivors to a handful of militarized societies like Zilla City, operated by series villain Orochi Zilla and his megacorporation.
Though Lo Wang completed a world-saving journey, slew literal Gods, and prevented Zilla’s nefarious plans, he has now returned to being an errand boy for a morally-dubious Yakuza. This leads him into renewed conflict with his old employer when the Yakuza boss’ granddaughter, Kamiko, is captured after infiltrating Zilla City. Lo Wang rescues the girl, but not before she is injected with a serum that mutates her body. To save Kamiko, a Chi master transfers her soul to Lo Wang while he works on a cure for the rest of her.
Everything immediately feels off. Lo Wang’s character arc has been rolled back, so he is once again a belligerent, selfish jerk who laughs his way from one massacre to the next. This would have been the perfect opportunity to transition from the brash, immature Lo Wang of the last game to the honorable, yet perverted adult he was in 3D Realms’ original, so why dial back instead? The once-proud Ancients have also received a rework and have now integrated with modern Human society. The tragic, submissive Ameonna has been hit the hardest, as she is now a flamboyant beauty queen with non-stop sassy dialogue.
Heck, the entire world is different. Flying Wild Hog’s previous entry clearly took place in the modern day, yet favored imposing locales that used traditional, Japanese architecture; forming a nice contrast. This game is suddenly all sci-fi, with neon-lit, space-age cities that contain giant robots, gravity-based elevators, and security guards with cloaking and teleportation technology. Different doesn’t necessarily equate to bad; Flying Wild Hog was clearly passionate about this setting and even has collectible lore records, some of which feature more than 20 individual volumes. The problem is that the effort feels wasted on this particular series.
I’ll also say that the game has improved a lot in the visual department. Shadow Warrior was an ugly game to me and this sequel fixes a lot of the issues I had with it. Areas are more diverse and sprawling, so you don’t find the same fancy cabinets in a ruined house out in the swamp that you’d also find in Zilla City. Texture quality is also improved and I had less graphical issues overall, just the occasional freeze-up that lasted a few seconds.
Gameplay has also being radically overhauled. It’s clear that the Flying Wild Hogs were inspired by Borderlands, as the game now uses a quest-system and the same few maps are frequently revisited to complete different missions in. These maps are also non-linear and very speedrun-friendly, barring some nonsensical invisible walls where they absolutely wanted to you do a keyhunt puzzle.
With a quest-system comes a minimap with GPS features, all of which helps solves the biggest problem of Shadow Warrior, which was that levels were overlong and convoluted. I always knew where to go in Shadow Warriors 2 and could complete missions in 15-30 minutes. This excludes all the optional exploration you can do to find resources, equipment, and secrets. It is, however, very weird that you can only accept 1 quest at a time. I wish I could accept a few in the same map and just do them all at once, rather than returning to the HUB area just to accept the next quest and head back.
The game’s controls are an improvement over the last game, with swordplay (once again) getting the most attention. Special moves are now easier to pull off and magic skills are mapped to buttons for easier access as well. Enemies can once again be dismembered and this gels well with the new rage system. You can build up a meter to power-up Lo Wang for a while, during which enemies move slower and receive much more damage. A shame that fleshy humanoid enemies are rarer now, as you mostly end up fighting robotic foes and corrupted wildlife.
The problem is that, as a Borderlands game, Shadow Warriors 2 is kind of bad. While it doesn’t feature a randomized loot system, it does have way more weapons than the previous game that all come with a bunch of RPG statistics and all have their own little quirks. It beats having a thousand shotguns that all play the same with different DPS, but Shadow Warriors 2 is still primarily a first person shooter. It takes less than an hour before all 10 of your weapon slots are filled up with different weapons, all of which need constant maintenance in the form of 3 upgrade slots apiece.
These upgrades drop from monsters, are bought in stores, or awarded to you for doing (side-)quests. Your inventory will rapidly fill up with hundreds of these, all of which provide different boosts and downsides. You can also sell these for cash or throw them in the melting pot for a rudimentary crafting mechanic.
It’s a fun toll you gotta pay. Every time you made some progress you gotta sit down, inspect all your weapons, exchange the upgrades that are too weak, sell or reforge them, see if the shops sell anything better, or even replace your weapons entirely and start from scratch. This process sometimes takes longer than an actual mission and it made finding a new weapon a bother, as I then had to slot in gems and see if the DPS would go higher than a comparable weapon I already had.
This comes on top of a level-up mechanic where you spent talent points on various passive upgrades, of which you can also unlock more by buying them in the store or through questing.
Like Borderlands, enemies are now scaled to be RPG enemies instead of FPS enemies. I.e. they have become bullet sponges. If you don’t pay the fun toll and keep your weapons up to date, you are going to find yourself falling behind on damage output and running out of ammo during prolonged fights with enemies that just won’t go down. I ended up setting the game to the easiest difficulty after some hours of play, just to make fights not last as long. Even then individual encounters could still go on for minutes. Towards the end of the game, I started abusing the open-ended level design by bunny-hopping past every encounter and skipping huge chunks of the levels.
The game is also overly fond of these Diablo-style mini-bosses where you find an elite or superior archetype of a regular enemy that has all kinds of perks and elemental-qualities. These would be some of the most prolonged battles of all, as I had to scroll through my inventory looking for whatever weapon happened to have the right elemental type. Especially fun towards the end of the game when I’d sometimes get 3 of these at once that all have different immunities.
To compare, the actual boss-fights are very good and don’t rely on such cheap tactics. The battles are well-paced and the bosses have the right abilities to feel challenging despite your mobility and power. The last game’s problem with funky hitboxes has also been largely solved. Heck, even the regular enemies are much-improved, offering more variety in their designs and having better behavior to counter you in a fight. I just wish I could cut & shoot my way through them as I always did. It feels anti-climactic to run up to a guy and blast him in the face with a shotgun, only for the man to fall over and get back up because he’s immune to fire damage.
As I played Shadow Warrior 2, I really just wanted to get it over with. I set the game to the lowest difficulty and rushed to mission objectives, I avoided side-quests, and never heeded the game’s warning that I might be underleveled for the next bit of content. I really didn’t want to do this relentless RPG maintenance every other hour and spec out a build for a game whose story mode is about 7-8 hours long and whose gameplay still feels like it should be a visceral action shooter instead of a number-crunching RPG.
A good story would have helped and I admire the team’s attempt at expanding the series’ universe, but the way they have rewritten parts of the story takes away a lot of the mystique of their previous title and even retro-actively sours its more tragic moments and characters. Kamiko is a blatant attempt at getting another shot at the dynamic duo relationship between Hoji and Wang in the last game, but she is such a boring character and there isn’t much chemistry between the two. There isn’t even that much dialogue between them, especially with how often the optional dialogue moments wouldn’t trigger or suddenly cut-off.
I like the idea of a budget Borderlands game and I like the new art-style on its own, but neither of them fit the Shadow Warriors brand. Why wasn’t this spun off into its own new thing? Heck, why wasn’t this Hard Reset 2?