Review: Shadow Warrior

How long has it been since a first person shooter has really captured you? Personally, I’ve been playing modern shooters long enough that I got a kind of Stockholm Syndrome- I forgot what it was to truly enjoy the genre. I convinced myself that Calls of Duty and Halos were as much fun as I was going to have with an FPS, and was satisfied that while I would enjoy one every once in a while, overall they just weren’t for me.

I have never been more glad to be wrong. Shadow Warrior showed me that it’s not that I don’t like FPSes, it’s that I don’t like the direction the industry has taken with them. Devolver Digital’s demon-slaying simulation rejects the majority of modern FPS theory, going back to the style of the 90s while using modern graphics and physics. Realism be damned, away with cover shooting and the two weapon system, we’re here for swords, rocket launchers, and arcade action.

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Shadow Warrior follows Lo Wang (which is probably the worst joke in an otherwise fairly funny game), a hitman hired to retrieve a sword for his boss. When his attempt to buy the sword is rejected, he decides to take it the hard way… but things don’t quite go as planned, and he finds himself with a demon in his head, magical powers, and a lot of monsters between him and his objective. The plot is not the game’s strongest suit- it’s hard to care too much about this magical sword you’re after, or the otherworldly Shadow Realm that is causing all the monsters- but it’s not really the point. It’s just background noise to motivate the action, and it does a decent enough job as such.

The stars of this show are the action, and the B movie dialogue. Lo Wang and the demon in his head, Hoji, banter and bicker constantly, and the writing for them is never brilliant, but is constantly amusing and enjoyable. Lo is obsessed with looking cool to the point of being something of a dork, and Hoji is a cynical smartass. Their relationship is portrayed in a surprisingly believable fashion- ultimately, both characters are pretty lonely, Hoji from centuries of exile and Lo Wang from his isolating profession. The chemistry drives the game along, adding enjoyment to the quiet moments between fights.

The fights are, of course, why you’re here. The arsenal includes the classic 90s shooter lineup- pistol, SMG, crossbow, shotgun, flamethrower, and rocket launcher. All weapons are upgradeable with performance upgrades and alternate firing modes, and the game is extremely generous with ammo. Iron sights are in the game, but are completely unnecessary- I used them once or twice, but accuracy is for when you’re feeling fancy rather than a necessity. The movement speed is fast, and moving does nothing to upset your aim, leading to very mobile gunfights.

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That is, when you’re using guns at all. After all, you also have access to a katana, and Lo Wang is no slouch with a blade. Your samurai sword cuts through demonflesh and mortal bone alike with equal ease- even enemies with armored defense will see their shields shatter after enough bladed persistence. You also get special techniques with your sword, ranging from a wave of energy that shoots from your sword to a devastating spin slash. Combine this with the demonic magics granted to you by your mental roommate, and a series of upgrades to improve your damage and abilities, and you are an absolute terror on the battlefield as the game progresses, growing notably in power.

The bladework is very simple- there is no controlling the direction of your attacks, nor any system of blocking and parrying- but it’s deeply satisfying in a chaotic, hack-and-slash kinda way. Enemies slice up nicely according to how they are slashed, leaving a battlefield littered with plenty of half-torsos and severed limbs, as well as gallons of blood. There is a scoring system that’s supposed to incentivize variety in your fighting style, but it doesn’t work very well and is ultimately forgettable. Still, you’ll want to vary your methods up simply because you have so many fun, interesting ways to kill.

The enemies vary in difficulty from cannon fodder to massively frustrating. One enemy in particular, massive quadrupedal monsters who are invulnerable to anything except a shot to the back, are particularly annoying. Any encounter with them is guaranteed to take at least five minutes as you constantly try to circle around them as they charge and spin, shrugging off rockets to the face like they were a stiff breeze. A few times in the game, I had to fight two of them at once, and each time I was guaranteed three or four game overs- and that’s playing on Normal. Other than that one enemy type, however, most of the foes are manageable and enjoyable to fight. Their AI is pretty simplistic, but it doesn’t need to be all that advanced- they’re monsters, behaving like monsters. It works.

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The environments are surprisingly attractive; ranging from classic Japanese buildings to bamboo forests to a mountain hideout, you are constantly confronted with fresh spots for bloodletting. There are a few spots where the levels drag on a bit too long, but it’s mostly just right, with fairly intuitive paths through them and fun fights to be had along the way. A few turret segments stand out as strange moments- while I appreciate the instinct to add a little variety, holding down a trigger as your minigun pours out infinite rounds without ever overheating is more boring than empowering. There are also some segments with first person platforming, but they actually work surprisingly well, feeling like tributes to old school design without requiring frustrating precision.

At the end of the day, I don’t know if Shadow Warrior will be marked in the annals of gaming history as anything special, but it’s a reminder of what the FPS genre has lost, and how great it once was. The game looks great, feels great, and is an absolute blast to play. This game rekindled my love of a genre I had given up on, and there’s perhaps no greater compliment I can give. Not every game needs to change the industry, or revolutionize the world. Sometimes it’s enough to just be goddamn fun.

Four and a Half Stars out of Five