By the end of this piece, you’ll want Shadow Warrior more than you already do.
Okay, maybe not. Maybe you’re one of those people who doesn’t like first-person shooters for some reason*. Maybe you’re one of those people who has trouble disconnecting mouse and keyboard games—because Shadow Warrior is a mouse and keyboard game, no two ways about it—from concepts like “work.” There are plenty of reasons you might not actually dig Shadow Warrior.
But I do hope to get you interested.
That said, we’re going to be talking about Shadow Warrior’s story a bit later on, and it’s kind of the meat of this piece, so, y’know, if you want to avoid spoilers, then when I post the giant, bold spoiler warning, you’ll want to abandon the discussion with prejudice, buy yourself a copy of the game, and begin playing it. Because, hey, trust me: the story is great. You know how they say “the ending is the conceit?” Well, it’s true. And few games have an ending as absolutely Sublime (and I don’t mean that as a synonym for awesome; I mean that the game’s ending is actually of high spiritual, moral, or intellectual worth) as Shadow Warrior.
Don’t believe me? Yeah… no, I can see how you wouldn’t, because Shadow Warrior is gloriously violent. If you’ve played Bulletstorm, you’ll know figure out what I’m talking about pretty early on: Shadow Warrior borrows liberally from People Can Fly’s Bulletstorm, which makes sense, considering that some of the immensely talented staff working on the game come from, yeah, you guessed it: People Can Fly. They also come from CD Projekt, developers of The Witcher, which might be why the story’s so amazing.
But enough hypothesizing.
One of the reasons I like first-person shooters is because they’re some of the deepest, most thoughtful games out there. In the circles in which I travel, lot of acquaintances have this tendency to look down on them, because they think of shooters in very simplistic terms: find an enemy, point, and click on it until it dies. They all think of shooters as if the best way to play is to find the thing that takes the least average clicks to kill enemies. And certainly, in some games, this is a viable tactic.
But it’s not what shooters are about. A shooter is about controlling a space. It’s about movement. It’s about making the AI do things you want it to. It’s about picking the right gun for the right moment. It’s a ballet, an interaction. If you’re playing a shooter like “click it until it dies,” then of course you’re not going to see the potential of the genre. That’s like playing a character action game and just mashing X or Square or whatever and never doing anything else. In a first person shooter, everything is a tool: movement, skills, guns, even the enemy AI, and to have the most fun, you need to be creative.
Shadow Warrior offers a lot of tools to empower you to be wondrously creative. For instance, it offers you a sword and throwing stars.
You stab, slice, and dice your enemies because you have a sword and also you are kind of a ninja.
And you get lots of points for doing so. This system is much like Bulletstorm’s system, but with a few very, very important tweaks: you can jump, for one thing. This does not seem to factor into your skill points, but it does open Shadow Warrior up to let you discover its plethora of secrets. Seriously. Wow. This game might have more secrets than Serious Sam, which is great, because it’s got all these Serious Sam-themed arcade cabinets everywhere. I usually shoot them to get an explosive skill-kill-chain against my enemies. Who knew arcade cabinets could do so much damage?
Oh, and you can dodge. Double-tapping any movement key lets you do this. Anyone who tells you analog movement gives you more control than WSAD has no way of pulling off the kind of complicated movements that you can pull off in Shadow Warrior. Not only that, but the game’s magic system—because, let’s face it, if you’re a ninja-type dude, you’re going to have some sort of awesome magic—is cleverly implemented, allowing you quick access to a number of skills in fluid combat. No need to pause the game, open up a wheel, and pick your magical skills here. Just press the right key combo while moving around and bam. Suddenly you’re tossing enemies into the air or stabbing them with your sword or whatever.
Even cooler, though?
Location-based damage. And I’m not just talking headshots. One of the miniboss enemy types in the game has the ability to summon magical skeletons to attack you. Good for him. That’s what exploding off his arm with an explosive arrow from your awesome exploding crossbow is for. Without an arm, well, he’s kinda screwed. You can do this to the smaller guys as well, and they’ll crawl toward you to murder you.
So. To recap: Bulletstorm’s point system combined with a kinda-but-not-really Dead Space or Binary Domain-like ability to shoot off people’s limbs fused with an Unreal-styled dodge system with what seems like a wholly original magic system gives you one of the most thoughtful shooting experiences you’ll have in a long time.
Okay, look, it’s not all sunshine and lollipops over here: games with low budgets tend not to be super polished. That sounds like a justification because it is: last night, I was playing, um… a budget shooter. For Reasons involving a future essay. And the thing that struck me the most about the game is that, despite a few areas having some neat attention to detail (subtle head bobbing when you stand still, for instance), the game just does not feel like it has much polish. This game-that-isn’t-Shadow-Warrior is functional, but crude, like Soviet art aesthetic that dominates it (how’s that for a hint?). There are so many things that could have been done to make the shooting feel better, largely relating to the game’s animations and sounds, but nothing ever coalesces into this rapturous shooting experience that a good shooter has. Even games like Bioshock Infinite, which feature pretty shoddy core shooting, feel better because they’re presented better. This Game-That-Will-Yet-Be-Named is neat, interesting, has a cooler gimmick than Half-Life 2, and… just never really feels quite right, because it lacks the budget, and, hence, the polish.
At this point, I feel it would not be inappropriate to make a joke about Flying Wild Hog being a polish company, so here goes: Shadow Warrior has more Polish in it than this other game. Yes, yes, I know, I’m terrible. But seriously, it is more polished than the other game. It’s only when compared to Bulletstorm that Shadow Warrior might seem to fall a little flat; its skill point system doesn’t have any of the elemental modifiers that Bulletstorm has, nor can you kick people into walls. My single biggest complaint is that the hitboxes on one particular enemy type makes it awkward to try to cut its arms off with swords, making shooting the only viable option.
Shadow Warrior’s skill system doesn’t feel quite as rich as Bulletstorm’s, the magic not quite as focused as it could be (you have so much more time to murder people with Bulletstorm’s whip than with an equivalent skill in Shadow Warrior, and you can manipulate enemies in a space to destroy them), the guns not quite as awesome in some respects as I’d like. The SMGs, for instance, don’t feel all that useful. The flamethrower is a disappointment, especially to someone like myself, who’s been spoiled on Syndicate’s flamethrower, which makes me wear a face like this:
Of course, some of the guns are amazing. The shotgun, for instance, ranks up there with Rage’s explosive shotgun or Bulletstorm’s awesome quad-barreled beastie. It’s not quite as amazing as FEAR’s… but that’s to be expected. No shotgun is as awesome as FEAR’s. None… because FEAR’s shotgun isn’t just amazing in the way it turns people into a crimson mist, it’s amazing because of the way enemies interact with it. Shoot a guy and he might explode. Or he might collapse. There’s a lot of stuff at play that makes guns awesome: the physics system, animations, the way AI freaks out and runs away from you… yeah. FEAR has, quite possibly, the best first-person shooter combat of all time.
And Shadow Warrior? The biggest compliment I can give is that it comes close. Oh, the times when I do something that makes me giddy. The mad dash to pick up a demon’s soul for health before he resurrects. That feel as my last shotgun shell rips off a boss’s arm. The chuckle the game tugs from me when I shoot off a demon’s leg and watch it crawl towards me, determined to do its pathetic worst. The gasp when I meet my first massive boss. Shadow Warrior game may not be the most polished game in the known universe, but it has so many amazing moments that are found, not in scripted AAA events, but in things I do of my own volition.
Shadow Warrior doesn’t just let me be creative, it rewards me for being creative. It gives me a ton of tools, says “have at it,” and gives me almost exactly what I expect. From a pure gameplay perspective, Shadow Warrior is the best, most exciting FPS since… what, Rage? More polish and verticality are literally the only changes I can think of that could improve the game at this point.
So. Yeah. If you’re into deep, awesome gameplay that makes you feel awesome, you can’t really go wrong with Shadow Warrior.
But what about the story?
Bulletstorm’s advertising definitely turned off a lot of people from the game, and Shadow Warrior… kinda does the same thing. Where Bulletstorm was a surprisingly deep, clever game with a narrative about the nature of hubris and failure, its advertising was like “YEAH, YOU CAN SHOOT PEOPLE IN THE BUTT AND THEY WILL EXPLODE!” but it didn’t come across like it was: awesome, thoughtful, and an absolute joy to partake in. The characters were oddly nuanced. The references peculiarly… screw it. This is about Shadow Warrior. Bulletstorm deserves its own article.
Shadow Warrior is a bit like Bulletstorm. The protagonist’s name is Lo Wang, and the advertising made sure everyone knew this. The game itself… yes. It has some wang jokes. But that’s all side stuff. It makes for some funny jokes. And man, is the game great at jokes. It’s even better at banter.
SPOILERS. ENSUE. YOU SHOULD TOTALLY READ THIS AGAINST YOUR BETTER JUDGEMENT, THOUGH. BECAUSE SERIOUSLY, THEY ARE AWESOME, AWESOME SPOILERS.
One thing Shadow Warrior excels at is subverting expectation. Take, for instance, the attractive fellow operatives of Zilla in leather. They are wearing form-fitting outfits… just like you (though, to be fair, Wang justifies this as being prepared for the zombie apocalypse). They’re never seen as sex objects. Saving them isn’t met with them flinging themselves into your arms, as people who protest the damsel in distress trope might claim, but with derision and scorn. They were trapped because of choices they made, and throughout the story, they continue to display agency. They’re distinct people, too. Not like Duke Nukem Forever’s identical twins. And they really, really like screwing with you. Your buddy, Hoji, remarks on this. Not only does he admire them, he wants to be like them (he too likes screwing with you). Your catty remarks about this back and forth… well, suffice it to say, I laughed aloud, which I don’t often do with games.
When you blow them up, it happens because the game’s set up this wonderful competitiveness between the two of you. You don’t like them and they don’t like you. I’ve never felt anything quite like it: I don’t… hate them because they’re unlikable, I just want to be better at my job than they are. And, quite frankly, they’re mean people who totally deserved to get blown up in a giant boat (they survived; but it was awesome anyway).
The whole game is like that: it gives you something, and then slathers on a layer of witty banter and joking that conveys a bizarre sort of mutual respect… and it works. The only truly cliché level in the game is the first level. Everything else has the set up and then proceeds to demolish expectations. Pay attention, though, or you might miss the story entirely.
Shadow Warrior is also refreshingly content not to explain things. Instead of bothering with an obsession for continuity, plot holes, and explanations, it simply tells the story it wants to tell without bogging itself down with needless explanations. What is behind the giant gate that one of the bosses is guarding? Doesn’t matter. A mystery, but not a relevant one.
If it’s relevant to the story, the game will tell you. If it isn’t, it won’t.
Even better, Shadow Warrior doesn’t tell you things right away. Some story elements have meaning that isn’t fully explained until much later on in the game. Find a headless guy and talk to him, and, well, you’ll figure out what happened to his body soon enough. And then there’s an element of the main story that…
Let’s just talk about the main story.
It starts out with Lo Wang singing along Stan Bush’s legendary The Touch, because that’s awesome. Then you go ask a guy for a sword. He doesn’t want to give it to you. You fight. You get caught. Prison. Burning stuff. Meet up with Hoji, the guy’s magical demon friend. The dude dies because other demons. Hoji and you partner up, even though you’re kinda responsible. Then you go kill stuff. Your goal is to collect three swords.
Hardly innovative, right? Except… there’s a sadness, a melancholy to the golems you must kill to steal the swords. Oh, sure, they appear to be quite terrifying in the game’s reveal trailer, but they’re actually docile. Steal a sword and the golem grasps at it, as if mourning for a stolen child. It’s slow. It’s sad. It looks at you forlornly.
And then… the story builds. The Immortals have a sister, in their realm: when she cries, it becomes rain, and their world thrives. Someone poisoned her, rendering her unconscious, and you, with Hoji, destroy the ones responsible. He tells you he doesn’t remember why he was banished from the realm, which seems silly, until you start to realize that the golems are created with stolen memories, and Hoji can’t remember because he was one of the people who gave his memories up to make a golem. Then you learn that he made the golems.
Then you learn why.
And… when he’s taken from you, you go to find him. You want him back. The banter, the jokes, his friendship. It’s all gone and you want it back. And you get him. But he’s sad. He thinks maybe he deserves what he got. It’s… oddly heavy for a game that likes making wang jokes.
Then comes the end. Suddenly, it all fits together.
The bad guy isn’t even that bad: sure, he doesn’t care about humanity, so letting demons loose on the world isn’t really something that bothersr him, and he really wants those swords that you want, but he wants them to rescue his sister. To bring her, and her tears back. To save his world. He was also the one responsible for her being poisoned in the first place, because, see… Hoji and she fell in love. And Hoji, maker of things, brought her toys and made her happy. And when she was happy, she didn’t cry. And when she didn’t cry, the world died. Hoji, in a rage, poisoned her when the two could no longer meet. He was selfish and furious. Immature, even.
Hoji dies to save you, redeeming himself. He does something wholly unselfish and pays for his mistakes in the same go. It’s not awkward, like Red Dead Redemption’s fatalistic “oh well he did bad things so he should probably die,” it’s perfect. Hoji had to die at that moment because there was no other way to save you. In doing so, you’re able to bring her back and fight the brother who banished Hoji in the first place.
You win, of course—this is a video game, and winning is what you do**—but when you return, she’s there, cradling Hoji in her arms.
And… she looks at you. She looks as sad as the golems, which, it’s been explained, were modeled after you. Her characteristics, her mannerisms, you’ve seen them all before, but this time, it’s so much deeper.
And she cries.
The world is saved.
ALRIGHT THE SPOILERS ARE ENDED BUT HOLY CRAP THAT WAS AMAZING, RIGHT? TOTALLY AMAZING AND YOU SHOULD NOW PLAY THIS GAME.
It’s a tragedy.
It’s a complex, nuanced, emotional narrative wrapped up in crazy-fun combat that gives you the kind of moments that other games simply don’t provide. This game is… intelligent. It gives you an ending that’s neither good or bad, positive or negative, but merely is. Bittersweet. Human.
Shadow Warrior is the best-written game I’ve played in a long time. It’s a smart, cool, fun game, but it’s one that can hit pretty close to home when it wants to. I’d highly, highly recommend you give it a go, because believe you me, it’s a blast. Shadow Warrior deserves to be one of the most talked about, one of the best-selling games this year. And I know, I know, it might not be your thing, but please—it’s a really thoughtful, clever experience. If you value good games, you owe it to yourself to play it; I can guarantee you few other games released this year come close.
As usual, I am your host, DocSeuss, taking you on a joyride through video games and what makes them interesting to me. I am doing much better than I was last week, thank you, in part to an email exchange with one of the Kotaku staffers, as well as some amaaaaazing TAYfriends (and enemies) who bought me food. You can, of course, find me on Tumblr, Twitter, and in TAY's DocTalk tag. If you want to talk indie game development, let's do it. Oh, and feel free to make requests for things you'd like to read. I love writing about games you want to talk about. If I've got it, I'll write about it.
* I’ve heard two good reasons for not liking FPSes: motion sickness (usually solved with an FOV tweak, larger monitor, or disabling of motion blur) or “it’s just not my thing.” I’ve heard plenty of bad ones, like: “it’s not realistic for me to unnecessarily look down at my legs and not see them in some games in the genre, so the entire genre is bad and that’s why I choose even less unrealistic games where I’m distanced from my physical body,” or “it’s only just pointing and clicking at things,” or “violence is immature so I’ma go play this game about sword fighting,” or “FPSes are too frequent…” or yeah. Lots of misinformation out there.
** What if winning isn’t all that important? What if we made games where winning was in doubt?