Back in the 90s I was more of a PC kid than a console kid, so that meant I had a lot of experience with the PC’s premier genre: shooters. Duke Nukem 3D, Dark Forces, Quake, Wolfenstein, Doom (of course) and even Blood were a few of the FPS classics I grew up on. Strangely enough, though, I never got around to playing the original Shadow Warrior, a 3D Realms-developed pastiche of Hong Kong exploitation martial arts flicks from the 70s and 80s. The game was full of heavy weapons, gratuitous violence and over-the-top monsters; check, check and check for shooters of that era. However the game’s rather embarrassing Asian stereotypes allowed for some unusual enemy and weapon design, particularly in that it was one of the few FPS games that let you wield a sword.
I’m sorry to say that’s the extent of my knowledge of Shadow Warrior, which meant I was going into the remake more or less fresh. I may have been new to Shadow Warrior, but I was at least familiar with the developer. Flying Wild Hog, the Warsaw, Poland-based studio tasked with remaking Shadow Warrior, broke onto the scene in 2011 with their stunningly beautiful (and difficult!) retro-FPS, Hard Reset. I really enjoyed Hard Reset—the developers managed to mix brutal, fast-paced gameplay with some of the most gorgeous cyberpunk visuals I’ve ever seen in a videogame, and all at a rock-solid framerate. If anyone was up to the task of remaking an old school classic like Shadow Warrior, it was Flying Wild Hog. It’s also great that Devolver Digital is publishing, as they’ve shown that they know and love the retro action genre.
The re-imagined game is still a retro-style shooter and still stars the smarmily-named protagonist Lo Wang, but the story has been completely updated, and the borderline racist Asian stereotyping has been toned down quite a bit. Lo Wang is still a Chinese-Japanese born mercenary in the hire of the egotistical billionaire Zilla, but the story is a bit more complex than the revenge plot of the original game. Zilla tasks Lo Wang with retrieving the Nobitsura Kage, a legendary demon-infused katana, but Lo Wang quickly discovers his mission has a lot more going on. The Kage is linked to a demonic invasion that Lo lands right in the middle of. Lo must team up with a snarky, amnesiac demon named Hoji in order to battle the encroaching demon hordes, get hold of the three pieces of the Kage and find out just what Zilla wants with the sword.
Lo Wang might still be essentially a walking dick joke, but Flying Wild Hog smartly plays the name for ironic laughs throughout the game, instead of just making it a tired, one-note gag. Lo is still a badass but he’s also kind of an otaku shut-in too; he’s obsessed with 80s action flicks and videogames (Lo has arcade cabinets of Devolver’s other properties, including Serious Sam and Hotline Miami) and even has a massive underground lair dubbed “the Wangcave.” Lo comments that he stocked his lair to prepare for the zombie apocalypse, but a demon apocalypse will have to suffice. Hoji snarkily remarks that out of all the badass warriors in Japan, he had to get stuck with the nerd.
The interplay between Lo and Hoji was one of my favorite parts of the story. The writing is really good here, and while the plot delves into some pretty heavy mythology, Hoji grounds the whole story by taking a sarcastic, cavalier attitude to the ancient struggle between gods and warriors that he and Lo get caught up in. The cutscenes are told in gorgeous moving woodblock paintings, resplendent with some very cool graphical effects, similar to Hard Reset’s rough, sketchy comic panel cinematics but with their own distinct Asian style. That said, like Hard Reset the larger story can be a little hard to follow at times.
The themes at play here are quite refreshing. After dozens of shooters populated by zombies, terrorists, and even Western depictions of demons (usually sourced from the Bible) it was great to see enemies inspired by Eastern mythology. I’m no expert in Shinto or Taoist legends, but I got the sense that the game borrows its demons from both Japanese and Chinese myth, mirroring Lo Wang’s mixed ancestry. This means you get to fight some very cool demons—minions wearing masks or carrying poison sake barrels on their backs, old hags wielding katanas, deranged Samurai-like monsters with ornate shields, and giant, mystical shamans that spawn endless waves of skeleton warriors. Each enemy has the ability to become enraged as well, transforming into creatures that are even fiercer and more grotesque.
Of course with such a healthy roster of monsters just itching to get slashed to pieces, blasted apart and thoroughly ventilated by 9mm slugs, Lo Wang better have an arsenal that is varied and fun to use. This is where Flying Wild Hog excels—Hard Reset had essentially two guns that had multiple modes and attachments—and the developers bring that experience to Shadow Warrior, full bore. Lo’s conventional tools of the trade include a revolver, SMG, crossbow, shotgun, flamethrower and rocket launcher. Pretty basic stuff for an FPS, but the developers included an upgrade tree very similar to the one in Hard Reset.
Once you have collected enough cash you can give the shotgun four barrels instead of just two, and enable the ability to fire all four at the same time. The crossbow can be upgraded with remotely detonated explosive-tipped bolts. Just like in the original game, Lo can dual-wield SMGs and attach a laser sight for accurate shooting. Napalm bombs for the flamethrower, wide blast radius “Nuke Dukem” rockets, and a cowboy-style fanable hammer for the revolver are a few of the other goodies you can bolt onto your guns. In the best of FPS traditions, Shadow Warrior encourages you to swap between weapons during a battle.
The upgrade system isn’t limited to the guns, though. With the help of Hoji, Lo can develop several powers and skills by gaining XP (chi points) and collecting rare ki crystals. With the right skill unlocks you can levitate whole groups of enemies into the air, recover health mid-battle, increase your critical hit chance, go into a damage-boosted desperation frenzy when you’re close to death, and even increase your spatial awareness so that you find more money and ammo. This makes for a frenetic, rich combat style far beyond anything else I’ve seen in a recent shooter. That said, it’s the Nobitsura Kage—the sword—that really makes Shadow Warrior stand out.
Ironically, having a sword play a central role in the arsenal set Shadow Warrior apart back in 1997 and it does so again in 2013. Sadly few FPS games even try to approximate swordplay, probably because it’s damn hard to do. I still consider Red Steel 2 on the Wii to be the best swordfighting game ever made, mostly because its smart use of motion controls actually made me feel just a little bit like I was learning the katas of some obscure, wild west martial art. The new Shadow Warrior comes in at a close second. I’m as surprised as anyone, but Flying Wild Hog has taken that same “muscle memory” feeling of learning a fighting art and imparted it to a keyboard and mouse.
Using the arrow keys, you can slash the katana in different directions. Pretty simple stuff, but a big difference from games that just lets you spam random melee attacks and call it a day. Once you start upgrading the sword with magical powers, combat becomes a lot more fun. By double-tapping different directional keys and clicking the mouse, Lo can eventually perform several suitably badass moves. These include a circular crowd-clearing move that’s great for mutilating a mob of smaller enemies, a backwards swipe that launches a slicing disc of energy from the sword, and a quick thrusting stab that saps enemy health and replenishes your own. I really wish you could use the katana during the massive, Metroid Prime-esque boss encounters.
It’s tempting to just use the sword exclusively, but Shadow Warrior gives you an incentive to fight stylishly by awarding bonus XP for comboing swordplay and gunplay. Switching between blasting and slicing enemies doesn’t just get you a higher rating on the “x throwing stars out of 5” scale, but makes the combat flow better. If you use too many sword powers or demonic abilities in a row, the enemies get really riled up and go into a rage much faster. That said, on normal difficulty Shadow Warrior isn’t quite as unforgiving as the punitive Hard Reset. Lo Wang’s adventure has a more gradual difficulty curve, working you up to the really crazy battles toward the end of the game, instead of abruptly dropping you off a difficulty cliff the way Hard Reset was fond of doing.
As you can imagine, with all this swordplay Shadow Warrior is a pretty violent game. The gore begins with the ability to cut enemies into tiny pieces and keeps going from there. It’s not unusual to end a hectic fight and notice the room is completely splattered with blood, the floor littered with limbs, heads, dismembered torsos and the odd spleen, kidney or spine. Certain upgrades even allow you to collect demon hearts (crushing one in hand will cause nearby enemies to spontaneously detonate), and retrieve the severed heads of the really big demon lords to use as a laser-firing weapon. None of this is excessive, though. Like Mortal Kombat, the violence is supposed to be literally ridiculous, to the point where you shake your head and laugh at it. In a way, Shadow Warrior has a twisted kind of absurdist tastefulness to it.
Like Hard Reset, Shadow Warrior is a superbly beautiful game, and remarkably stable for it. The individual textures or models might not be the best looking—the occasional human enemies are a bit rough—but taken together, Shadow Warrior is at times utterly breathtaking. From feudal Japanese mansions filled with elegant tatami mats and Samurai relics in glass cases, to tea gardens fluttering with cherry blossoms, Shadow Warrior takes the staple imagery of Asian action films and makes it absolutely jaw-dropping. There are steamy factories, rain-soaked dockyards, claustrophobic bamboo forests, a burning suburb bathed in a stunning golden sunset, and a half-built castle in the mountains, wreathed in snowstorm gales. On many occasions I found myself gaping at some picturesque scene, or marveling at how the developers got the movement of snow in a violent wind just right. It’s the art on display here that matters, and as I learned from Hard Reset and its DLC chapter, Flying Wild Hog has some of the best artists in the industry today.
It’s not just the eye-popping visuals that make Shadow Warrior stand out, it’s the sense of style the developers have given the game. Lo will perform various flourishes with each weapon if you press the reload key while the gun is full, and amusingly he’ll wipe the blood off of his katana. Unsheathing the powered-up Kage results in an electric crackle, and the demonic blade spatters the nearby environment with molten steel, almost as if it were a literal bleeding edge. Lo has snarky commentary about things he encounters, maintaining a detached sarcasm about the gorgeous, and often horrific, scenes he comes upon in his quest. The humor and one-liners are back, but they’re much dryer and better written than the tiresomely obvious innuendo and toiler humor of the original game. Thankfully, Shadow Warrior’s writers realize that it isn’t the 90s anymore.
Each chapter is subtitled with a witty piece of spoken dialogue, as in Hoji quipping that a hero losing his elaborate lair is like a “spiritual laxative.” Like the original game, Shadow Warrior is filled with secret areas. Some of them are ripped right from the 90s game, complete with pixilated textures, blocky geometry, and sprites of the hidden, bathing anime girls that gained the original game some notoriety in its day. My favorite secrets were the fortune cookies hidden throughout the levels, which not only grant a tiny health boost but also contain punny quips and sayings, often about Lo Wang’s name. Shadow Warrior gets in the sophomoric humor of the original game, but does so subtly so it’s not annoying and in your face all the time.
This game is not without its flaws. The meat-and-potatoes gameplay can get a little repetitive, especially toward the end of the game. You’ll usually have to destroy a number of statues in each area to bring down forcefields that block your progress. This feature started out tolerable in an old-school sort of way, but in the final chapter it got annoying how many times I had to do it. This basic pattern repeats too much, but the combat is so satisfying and the level design so tight, it was an easy chore to bear. The game never leads you by the hand—there is no floating arrow pointing where to go next—and the levels are just non-linear enough to hide some secrets off the beaten path while also being straightforward enough that you rarely get lost.
Shadow Warrior is budget-priced at $39.99 on Steam, which is a pretty sweet price for a new game these days. It looks like a triple-A frontrunner but plays and feels like a finely blended hybrid of old and new, mixing classic FPS conventions like a colorful arsenal, demonic enemies and nonstop action with an upgrade system, complex story and memorable characters. Flying Wild Hog said straight out that Shadow Warrior is better than Hard Reset. I was hesitant to believe that, considering just how good Flying Wild Hog’s freshman effort was, but they’re right. This is the way you do a modern reboot right, and no FPS fan worth their double-barreled shotgun should miss it.
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