Perhaps one of the most frustrating things to encounter as an enthusiast of any entertainment medium is the term “potential,” because of what it signifies towards the overall opinion of the product. I can’t even begin to list the number of things I’ve watched, played or read that fell short of the mark, but could have been so much better with a little tweaking, some alterations, or re-direction. With reboots becoming an increasingly popular concept in today’s day and age, I was excited to see what Shadow of the Beast had to offer since its initial release on the Amiga in 1989.
The thing that irked me most about Shadow of the Beast was undoubtedly the narrative. Firstly, you play as Aarbron, who was kidnapped as a child and turned into a horrendous warrior servant to the Mage overlords. Interesting enough, sure, and I admit that it was very refreshing to be playing the game from the perspective of a character who wouldn’t usually be seen as a franchise protagonist. However, while the story seemed to have some substance and an honest effort went into fleshing it out via collectable memories, character galleries and more – it was also very constricted by the design system that was set in place. For example, if you didn’t know where to collect the memories from on each level, you would begin to piece together a somewhat spotty story with locked elements that you’re unable to access. It’s also disappointing that this is an issue for a game that doesn’t give you a lot of time to work with, clocking in at around 4 hours to complete a partial play through (unless you want to unlock the multiple endings).
From a design standpoint, the game either forces you to replay levels to try and find all the memories, or, do what I did, and simply forge on with a smidge of frustration. These issues with the narrative via design continue further, though, where if you want to be able to access English subtitles for any of the game’s cutscenes, you have to spend an in-game currency called “Mana” to unlock them. In addition, each cost about 2 million Mana, which is tough to come across when trying to focus on upgrading your character abilities. While you can see what the developers were attempting to do with their approach to the design, I personally felt it hurt the game and mostly detracted away from what could have been a fascinating science-fantasy universe.
Regarding the more systemic approach towards Shadow of the Beast’s design, the primary way to upgrade Aarbron is by collecting talismans throughout the levels or improving his abilities from a relatively straightforward skill tree. Much of what is on offer is fairly standard to games these days, with upgrades available towards health, special attacks and consumption abilities that you learn throughout the course of the game. While it certainly isn’t pushing any boundaries, given the game’s short play time, it ends up being beneficial that you don’t need to spend too much time thinking about how best to build your character.
As an action/platformer title, I think it’s fair, like with any genre, to have a set of reasonable expectations for how a game should control. So with a title such as Shadow of the Beast, I expected the controls to be a fair bit smoother. At times, controlling Aarbron is plain clunky – to the point where he would almost feel like a lead balloon as I died over and over trying to platform with the unwieldy beast. The combat design itself is well structured, although it does feel as if the blocking ability can be a little hit and miss sometimes when it comes to timing (even when I’m 100% certain I’m defending). Despite these issues, the side-scrolling elements are quite enjoyable. It’s a style of game I haven’t played for a long time, and I thought it did well to stay true to the original as an excellent homage to the design of yesteryear.
What got me excited about Shadow of the Beast, most of all, is the hyper-violent nature of the game, as it is pretty brutal. In this vein, it started to remind me somewhat of God of War, just based on the level of decapitation and disembowelment that was going on as you journeyed the land trying to hunt down your master. If this is your sort of thing, and you’re highly considering picking up this game, then I can assure you won’t be disappointed in this regard. While not being a graphically impressive title, I do feel like the style worked for this game and that they more than made up for it with a lot of detail and conceptual nuances being woven into each of the levels. Unfortunately, due to my issues with the narrative through design, I’m not able to say much about the voice acting due to not unlocking any of it for the cutscenes. However, I do have to commend the composer of this soundtrack who did a great job on creating an unyielding atmosphere and bringing a bold tone to the forefront of the game without it being overbearing.
While being interesting enough to warrant a look perhaps, I don’t think Shadow of the Beast is worth shelling out full price for when there is a multitude of better games coming in at the same price elsewhere. It has positive qualities, but what frustrates me the most is that despite glimmers of hope manifesting throughout this reboot, Shadow of the Beast is ultimately crippled due to poor gameplay and design features. Enough to shut me out from enjoying the experience.