Nostalgia is big right now. Between crowd-funded revivals like Shadowrun Returns and publisher rebooted franchises like Rise of the Triad, there’s no shortage of games being released that look to recapture the spirit of videogames’ past. Some of these titles stumble by sticking too closely to outdated design elements — let’s never navigate floating platforms from a first-person perspective ever again. Others manage to cherry pick the kind of mechanics that still hold up today and incorporate them into otherwise modern gameplay. The newly released Shadow Warrior, a fresh take on 3D Realms’ 1997 shooter, belongs to the latter category.
Developer Flying Wild Hog, a Polish indie composed of industry veterans, proved that it understands how to bring lessons from modern game development into otherwise nostalgic experiences with its only previous release, Hard Reset. Shadow Warrior continues this trend, blending fast-paced run ‘n’ gun gameplay with contemporary mainstays like automated save systems and progression-encouraging upgrade systems.
The result of this combination is one of the best first-person combat systems to date. At the beginning of the game, the protagonist, Lo Wang (more on this unfortunate name in a bit), is armed with a sword and a pistol. The player is able to switch between ranged and melee combat at will, dealing with enemies from a distance or charging in with the katana. Each of the guns — a lineup that includes rocket launchers, flamethrowers, and crossbows — can be upgraded with the money Wang collects throughout the levels, while new sword moves and combat spells are unlocked as he earns experience points. This arsenal makes each encounter with Shadow Warrior‘s menagerie of bloodthirsty demons an opportunity for experimentation. The player gets to decide whether to concentrate on wielding the wonderfully precise sword to slash through opponents, circle around a concentrated group of foes while firing off shotgun blasts, or use a combination of weapons to mix up the fight. Since every gun is fun to use and the sword fighting is better than any previous attempt to bring melee to a first-person shooter, Shadow Warrior‘s combat remains enjoyable throughout the game.
The segments between fights, where players must search sprawling environments for keys and supplies, are far less exciting. It’s far too easy to get lost in levels where each area looks very much like one the player has just travelled through. While the game’s audiovisual design is fantastic and discovering secret caches of experience points or money is momentarily rewarding, Shadow Warrior features too much downtime in a game that is at its best when combat is involved.
The writing presents another problem. Flying Wild Hog’s version of Shadow Warrior tries to skirt the racist overtones that plagued the original game by employing half measures like replacing protagonist Lo Wang’s uncomfortably stereotypical Chinese accent with a . . . slightly less stereotypical Chinese accent. Painfully unfunny, repetitive jokes hidden in fortune cookie messages or exclaimed in awkward one liners (nearly always involving a pun on the name Wang) consistently drag the game down. The humour never lands, but dances constantly on the line between outright offense and groan-worthingly lame. This is made worse by the sudden shift from comedy to drama that the game takes in its final act. The entire plot ends up feeling tonally confused. It would be less of an issue if the game didn’t insist on stretching its length to accommodate the twists and turns of an underwhelming plot. But since so much emphasis is placed on the characters and dialogue, it’s difficult to ignore just how poorly they’re presented.
Better writing and tighter pacing could have elevated Shadow Warrior from a good game to a great one. As it is, the excellent combat mechanics are too frequently bogged down by unfunny jokes and repetitive exploration for the experience to truly shine.