The ARPG genre is an extremely competitive one for developers. In a field dominated by giants like Diablo and Path of Exile, being merely a decent game isn't enough. Many similar games have come and gone through the years but very few could compete with Blizzard’s legendary series. Shadows: Awakening is the latest release by Games Farm, and although it might not scratch the same addictive loot grind itch of ARPG stalwarts, it does provide enough to make it a worthwhile single player experience thanks in large part to a unique dimension shifting mechanic.
Shadows: Awakening is single player only and continues the saga first introduced in Kult: Heretic Kingdoms, which released back in 2004. The story is standard apocalypse hindering fantasy but is well told and engaging. You play as the Devourer, a demon summoned from the Shadow Realm by a mysterious figure, with the ability to revive and control dead heroes by consuming their souls. Quickly, you come into conflict with revived leaders of a cult known as the Penta Nera, who above everything yearn for power. However, the Penta Nera are being used as puppets by other Devourers who want to bring about the destruction of the world. There are a several twists in the plot, side quests, and multiple endings to see due to player choice, which ensures a ton of replayability, even beyond the roughly 20 hours it takes to beat the game once.
Of course, a well told story in a game isn't much without strong gameplay, and here Games Farm continues to shine. A quick glance and many may just dismiss Shadows as another Diablo clone. Although they share the same point and click style, Shadows really sets itself apart thanks to a dual world system and the ability to swap between characters instantly. Through the game, you'll swap between four characters at a time (the Devourer in the Shadow Realm and up to three others in the normal world being influenced by the Devourer).
You can change on the fly as well, which opens up a ton of different gameplay options. For example, parts in the normal world might be blocked off by a door, but is accessible to the Devourer in the Shadow Realm. Most of the game’s puzzles are also unique because they require players to influence one realm by switching to the other and vice versa.
The dual world mechanic and instant swapping also plays a significant role in combat, adding a neat blend of strategy and on the fly thinking. Some enemies, and especially bosses, will have a protective bubble around them. To defeat them, the Devourer must destroy other spirits in the Shadow Realm before swapping to a hero in order to deal damage.
Heroes also all have unique abilities, with a lot of room to experiment to come up with combinations. One of my go-tos was tying enemies up with Jaskar’s rope arrow and quickly swapping to Urshak to detonate a bomb. Certain characters will also be better at close range while others from afar, which encourages you to switch between them to deal with different situations and enemies.
There are a dozen or so playable characters and, even though they only cover three classes, they're mostly unique. You’ll meet more traditional party members that are consistent with fantasy tropes such as knights and archers, but there are also some that truly stand out. For instance, the Devourer will capture the soul of an iron clad zombie, a behemoth who can break down certain walls for secrets. Even a wasp joins your party during the game and it attacks quickly but is more vulnerable to damage.
Depth in the gameplay is somewhat hindered because each character can only enable three skills at any given time. Games Farm wants to encourage players to switch between characters in order to use different skills but three feels a bit too limited. If you wanted to, you could pull up the menu and swap out skills, but this significantly slows down the action.
It also doesn't help that the menus are a bit unintuitive, particularly with a gamepad. In a game with over a dozen characters, many of whom have their own weapon and armour types, managing it all is a bit of a chore. You can hide all the equipment that a certain character isn’t eligible to use but you need to disable this if you want to sell those weapons at stores.
The cumbersome menu is compounded by the fact that although the party levels as a whole, you need to upgrade skills and attributes individually. When a new character joins the party, you have dozens of attributes and skill points to use before they become viable. These issues became so annoying that I actually delayed upgrading my characters until I felt I needed to rather than at every level.
Like other ARPGs, Shadows’ gameplay is at its best when it's fast, frantic, and make players feel powerful by letting them dispatch countless enemies at once. Usually Games Farm succeeds here as there is a lot going on - especially considering the dual realm system - and although it may not be as chaotic as Diablo III, it still provides a lot of satisfaction. There are also moments when a more tactical approach is required as well. Some boss encounters will need you to perform other tasks rather than just killing them. You end up having to lure one into a magic trap, for instance, while another has you trying to open a draw bridge while dodging powerful attacks.
The gameplay in Shadows is supported by surprisingly strong presentation. The graphics are good and there is a lot of variation to the environments. You’ll visit a Middle Eastern inspired city in Thole, with mosque-like domes and bazaar markets. You’ll also visit a very oriental-like city in Kyallisar. The Shadow Realm is particularly well done, being filled with eerie fog and menacing shadows. All of this while maintaining very respectable performance levels.
The real star of the presentation is found in the audio design, though. All of the dialogue is fully voiced, with actors turning in strong performances that really help bring the unique characters to life. The cast is headed by the fourth doctor in the long-running Doctor Who series, Tom Baker. It's refreshing to see an RPG game, particularly an indie one, that manages to not make voices sound too similar to one another.
Even though Shadows: Awakening may not fully satisfy those looking for another Diablo, it more than justifies itself by offering a unique and competent ARPG. The dual-world mechanic encourages tactical experimentation and is a refreshing jolt of innovation in a genre that sorely needs it. Characters also come alive and stand out thanks to sharp voice acting and good graphics. A clumsy menu and level up system aside, Shadows: Awakening is sure to offer ARPG fans something meaty to chew on between Diablo III seasons and Path of Exile leagues.
This review is based on a digital copy of Shadows: Awakening for the PC, provided by the publisher.
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