While 3D Realm’s other first-person shooter Duke Nukem 3D cemented it into cult status – for better or worse – Shadow Warrior didn’t quite the same level of notoriety. Both however were made in a time where heroes could be offensive, drawing up controversy wherever they went, but also in the dawn of the first-person shooter genre. What set Shadow Warrior apart from the likes of Duke Nukem 3D or even Doom was that your best tool of destruction was your katana. The licence for the remake may have gone to publisher Devolver Digital and the development responsibilities may have moved to Hard Reset developer Flying Wild Hog, but the similarities between the 1997 version and this 2013 reboot are remarkable.
A lot of the PR surrounding this title involved puns on the main character – Lo Wang – the source for perhaps the most tired part of the game. Essentially our stereotypical Yakuza-like protagonist meets a collector on behalf of a collector to buy a sword. The deal goes a bit wrong, with Wang captured in the process, before all hell breaks loose and a golem steals the sword. Now free, Wang must journey with reluctant demonic companion Hoji to get back the sword. If this is rather vague a description, it’s because the narrative was treated as a long-running gag, designed for you to switch off and just enjoy the visceral display on-screen. Some funny lines do creep through, but generally the humour does come across a little juvenile overall. Voice acting is purposefully hammed, so take that as you will!
It’s in this visceral display that Shadow Warrior taps into territory that is refreshingly old-school. You’re equipped with a katana and a variety of death-dealing weaponry, assaulting enemies that either swarm you or shoot fireballs from a distance, and even occasionally deal with larger foes with interesting methods of attack such as the necromancers who can protect themselves while their undead brethren claw at you. All of this is fast paced, with no weapon limits and a health meter taking things back to the good old days, while the ability to dodge and run very fast by using up stamina keeps things frantic. It’s a blast to play if you miss old-fashioned shooters, but may be seen as mindless for those used to taking cover.
Also worth noting is that Wang has some pretty interesting powers/upgrades. At any time you can bring up the upgrade menu to buy add-ons or ammunition for your weapons, Ki powers that rely on you finding scattered Ki Crystals, and Skills that are obtained via Karma points found either in secret areas or from the blood of your foes. These are mostly performed by pressing a direction twice before attacking with the left or right mouse click, reconfirming its retro roots by including old input methods. It’s a highly customisable system, empowering the gamer by letting them evolve their character the way they want; but some powers make the game feel slightly too easy at times – case in point: The Healing upgrades. While using it is completely optional, the game feels like it’s designed to be played with just health kits for healing purposes.
Spanning 17 chapters, each taking at least half an hour to complete, Shadow Warrior does provide good value in its campaign. There are plenty of secrets hidden throughout and a rudimentary ranking system is introduced that increases the amount of Karma obtained through every fight with foes. Once you’ve completed the game, EX mode will be unlocked, before the even more crazy Heroic mode is revealed after completing that. But if the game has one big problem, is that not even the level design can disguise that the game is harnessing the spirit of its 1997 predecessor. Interest soon wanes as the combat soon becomes part of the territory, rather than the spectacle it should be.
The presentation does suffer from repeated textures on occasion, but thanks to the level design changing locales on a regular basis – only the trained eye or informed will realise. Oriental towns, hideouts, and even the Shadow World are diverse enough to warrant exploration, one of Shadow Warrior‘s greatest assets. There’s something thrilling about finding all the secrets in one level that not even modern FPS titles can replicate. Easter eggs are also hidden everywhere that are either there purely on cosmetic grounds or are interactive. You’ll never forget what happens if you cross too many of the humping rabbits for example.
Shadow Warrior is the epitome of a flawed gem: It’s by no means perfect, yet somehow it reminds you of just how genres became as popular as they did. While Duke Nukem Forever showed us what happens when the old kid on the block tried to be hip and modern, Shadow Warrior is absolutely fine being in its own retro skin. What modern touches there are complement the old-school nature of the game and while it may out stay its welcome all too soon, it does ooze the energy of old-school gaming while it lasts. Hard to recommend at full price, but will be worth a look for those looking for a more frantic FPS experience.