Review: Shadowgate (PC)

Shadowgate
Developer: Zojoi
Publisher: Zojoi
Genre: Adventure
Release Date: 08/21/2014

I remember this game from the NES days. This is despite me being a home computer gamer during, and after, the great video game crash of 1983. I had never encountered Shadowgate prior to its re-release on the NES. I didn’t even know there was another port/remake for the PC until… I saw it available on Steam one day. My pal Alex asked if I wanted to review Shadowgate. I said yes. I only had a vague idea of what I was in for, to be quite honest.

It’s taken me weeks to write this review this game. I haven’t gotten all that far, though. Why? Shadowgate (the original) was notoriously difficult. Shadowgate (an actual re-imagining as opposed to a straight re-make) is also difficult. Sure, there are three difficulty settings (Apprentice, Journeyman, Master) and the game gives you a few helping hands on Journeyman (an extra item in your inventory and slightly easier routes) and is somewhat forgiving on Apprentice. Master, on the other hand, is a true portal back to the difficulty is the reason for the season game-play of the 1980s and 1990s. I always play on medium difficulty – but trust me, this game, it is a throwback.

Your goal in Shadowgate is to defeat the Warlock Lord who resides in Castle Shadowgate. You are the hero of the realm, charged with preventing the Warlock Lord from summoning a demon from Hell. You need to gather three relics, as foretold by prophecy, to prevent this from happening. That is your start – the entire reason for risking life and limb in a spooky castle.

The graphics for Shadowgate were upgraded – the painted backdrops and locals a world’s difference from the ancient Apple release or more recent NES iteration. Pretty to look at and with the look of a foreboding. The backdrops add to the atmosphere and do a great job in setting the tone. The music is… well, I rarely play with music. Nothing to write home about, but nothing terrible. It should be noted the option to play with music from the NES version is available, as are transitions from that version. Using those two options, when juxtaposed with the current visuals, creates a bit of a jarring experience. I can see nostalgia being a factor, but, in all honesty, that just was not for me.

As far as playing the game, the mechanics are retro – you have a menu you need to click on for commands. After doing that, you hunt for items on the screen to interact with – some being easily spotted, others being pixel hunts of the finest vintage. In one room, there are a set of mirrors. You can interact with them, but cannot advance until you know exactly what to use with the mirrors. Meanwhile, you can click on some rocks in that room… and be told you are a weakling. Hey, do not judge my doughy frame and slouching posture. You would be like this too if you did not care one whit about leaving your apartment or human interaction.

Don’t think you can explore dauntlessly through the castle, oh no. You must keep your torch alive, good adventurer. Your illumination has limitations and your torches can burn out. Should this happen, death awaits. There are a limited supply of unlit torches you can scavenge from the castle, however you must manage your torches well. Take too long on too many puzzles and your light will be snuffed out – double meaning very much intended. The harder the game, the fewer you find and the shorter their lives. Fitting, no?

I digress. The game itself has a menu of nine commands: Look, Take, Open, Close, Go, Use, Hut, Eat and Speak. Every interaction with the game world is done through these commands. One of the things about this sort of interaction is the possibility of a command/item combination being less than intuitive. That is an issue systemic of adventure games, though. The genre itself is reliant on puzzles. Some puzzles, for what ever reason, must be obtuse. This is both a strength and a weakness. A very difficult puzzle can push a player to start thinking beyond links – spurring them on to make leaps in logic. Conversely, this may also cause a player some consternation and frustration. Being stuck on a certain part (the earliest low level stumbling block comes in the form of a dragon; quite the burning question on how to unlock that little puzzle) can end up draining patience and lead to not wanting to go further.

How can you combat this fate? You can’t – that’s just the nature of the game. However, the further you go and the more puzzles you solve, the more immersed you become in the game. This can urge you on, despite having hammered your head into a wall countless times. Some puzzles may be daunting, with little-to-no context clues being decipherable. Yet, therein lies the appeal and the appall, The folks who gave money for the Kickstarter to bring the Shadowgate franchise back to life received what they desired. The game’s difficulty is not a trifle, not a whim, not a lightly regarded happenstance. The beauty of Kickstarter is that those raising funds receive a majority from those who believe in the central premise. This can lead to games that are quite niche, exhaustively exclusive to the greater game playing public and more in-tune with small audience desires.

Shadowgate is one of these games. The hunting for areas to interact, the death (oh the deaths) from trying to make leaps in logic or exploring, the mind draining consideration given to how path a leads to path b, and the interface are all products of fulfilling a specific vision. Whether or not you subscribe to this vision will affect if this game is right for you.

Let me put this question to you: are you comfortable with obtuse obfuscation, logical leaps, punishing outcomes and atmosphere in your realm? Then you may very well find a home in Shadowgate.

Should you not have patience or time for discovery, overcoming deadly setbacks and performing nimble mental acrobatics to get by – well, there are other games worth your money. Shadowgate is meant for a very specific audience. That audience is the one who helped get this game to fruition and we are invited to taste the fruit of their investment. I, for one, enjoyed my time in Shadowgate Castle.

Short Attention Span Summary:

Buy the game if you like challenging puzzle games, not for nostalgia. Your entertainment dollar needn’t go to something you may very well become frustrated with over time.