Review: Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms (PC)

boxartShadows: Heretic Kingdoms
Publisher: bitComposer Games
Developer: Games Farm
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: 11/20/2014

A sequel to Kult: Heretic Kingdoms, the story has moved on 20 years after the events in that game. When I first got into the Early Access for this it looked ambitious. He title ended up being so ambitious that the development team has broken it into two books, each containing three chapters. If you buy the game you get both books, just that you have to wait for the conclusion in 2015 when they finish up the second book. They’ve done something unique with the gameplay here which at first felt a little like Trine with the way the protagonist could change between characters but the idea behind it and actual impact on the game is very different. Let’s take a look.

Set well after the events of Kult, the world has been plunged into disarray. Four of the members of Penta Nera, a secret cult have been murdered, but their souls have been put to use. A pack of Devourers have swallowed their souls and have been putting them to their own use allowing the Devourers access to the mortal realm where they can look for the essence of souls. The last member of Penta Nera is looking for a bit of revenge and resorts to the only means available, summoning another Devourer. This Devourer is different from the others though. It hasn’t been bound properly or with a clear direction. A mysterious hooded figure explains the predicament to the Devourer and presents the summoned demon with three choices to give him actual access to the mortal realm. From there the over-arching story remains the same, but there’s another story going on tied directly to the character you’ve chosen from here as each one has a very different history, different contacts, and a very different set of skills to help navigate the world.

06As you move through the world, you swallow the souls of the living you’ve killed to keep yourself alive as well as bolster your ranks. The Devourer can swallow more than one soul which means that you get access to even more characters as you progress through the game, all of which you can flip to on the fly even in combat. Your three main characters are a mage named Evia who is known as the daughter of fire and hasn’t been alive for centuries, Kalig, a native barbarian of the area you start in who’s looking for revenge, and finally Jasker, a rogue-like hunter who sees more eye to eye with the Devourer on things. The person you choose greatly affects your dialogue and choices moving forward and while it’s the same areas the events can and often do play out very differently as each of the three characters have differing goals and can often be at odds with what the Devourer wants. The big difference here is there’s no leaving if there’s a problem with each other as they are very much tied together which makes it all the more interesting.

Visually the game has a lot going for it. The lighting looks great, the character models and designs are well done, the creatures have a neat aesthetic and the level design allows for some of the more unique abilities of your characters to come into play. This is an isometric action RPG so the camera could be an issue, but the level design seems to account for that in most respects so you can always see what’s going on. The biggest issue I had was that the framerate seems to chug on the actual game release when it didn’t in Early Access. I’ve toyed a bit with the settings and I honestly can’t tell if it’s a driver or the game itself. It’s not make or break and it usually sits well above what’s generally considered acceptable, but as I haven’t really been able to figure out what the cause is I thought I’d mention it. Audibly the game also makes great use of their voice cast. With the likes of cast members from Doctor Who with Tom Baker, Blake’s 7 with Sally Knyvette and Stephen Greif, Dark Souls II’s Nicolette McKenzie, Gary Martin from Star Wars the Old Republic, and Dragon Age: Inquisition’s Dorian voiced by Damon Tikarum, the game has a lot of great voices to pull from and they use them well. The dialogue never really feels wasted and even when the souls are bickering it’s usually going somewhere. The performances are great and really add to the dialogue prompts on screen when you get them. On top of that the music is pretty epic to go along with what you’re doing and combat sounds pretty satisfying for what’s going on screen as well.

04The game relies almost exclusively on the mouse for control and a few select keyboard buttons for different abilities each character will have unlocked through leveling. Movement and basic attacks as well as interactions are all done through mouse clicks. Any of the abilities you unlock can be triggered by either hitting their corresponding button on the keyboard or simply clicking on their icon on the user interface. It’s much faster to use the keyboard to set it off as many of the abilities have an extra targeting component to them that’s not easy to do if you’re using the mouse to click the button and then target. That can be pretty unwieldy through just the mouse alone.

Gameplay is actually fairly straight-forward. You play as the Devourer to start who exists only in the Realm of Shadow so cannot actually interact with anything in the real world. However when that bridge is out ahead of you, popping over into the Realm of Shadow can reveal the bridge still exists there so you can get across it. Traps are very similar but many of them have components to turn them off as some times they will exist in the Realm of Shadow as well. There are monsters in both realms, and popping from one to another won’t save you from being attacked. Actually that can hamper you as you’ll more than likely get jumped the second you pop over from the realm of the living to the Realm of Shadow and have to fight off a bunch of monsters. Be prepared for that as it happens more often than it doesn’t.

07Depending on who you pick at the start your other lead character can change up gameplay dramatically. The barbarian is more melee, the mage long distance fire bombing, the rogue a mix. You can also change up the Devourer a bit by equipping a different set of weapons. As you add more characters to your party you open up more options. The world feels fairly open and if you really want to wander around lost you can even go in and turn off the quest markers entirely. The quests and how you complete them can change based on dialogue options as well making the game fairly dynamic in that regard and a lot less linear than you’d first think after that first starting area.

As you level you can put points into different abilities to flesh out your character more. The souls and Devourer don’t all level at the same rate so you may end up going back through a dungeon to level up one of your poor unfortunates if you don’t flip back and forth very often in a particular area. I found it’s much easier to clear a room and then simply flip to the Devourer and clear it again that way than trying to go back through a level overall. Equipment can and will drop for different characters so don’t be surprised if you get something you can’t use right away. On top of that merchants can assist you in outfitting your characters a bit better. Now I mentioned earlier that the Devourer eats souls. This leads to the way you replenish your health. If you don’t consume a soul and add it to your character roster, that little ball of light pops into a soul bar that if you hit the spacebar will replenish your health and drain your soul gauge. If it’s full that’s too bad, but it’s for all your characters so if you’re getting whomped on and don’t have much left there you can flip characters and let them handle it for a bit to build that gauge back up and then flip back to heal later. All of this makes for some very interesting moments as you play through the games different areas and leads to lots of different strategies to employ.

05Right from the start in the way the game is structured replaying the game comes into play. The game’s story and interactions as well as how you play through it change greatly just by who you pick to join with the Devourer at the start of the game. Playing through as Kalig is a much different experience than entering it as Evia or Jasker. Right there I’d recommend playing through with at least each of them to get the full story. This is also the best way to get the most bang for your buck as the play time for each runs about ten to fifteen hours meaning that it’s a bit shorter for an RPG, but if you like running through again and making more choices it’s right on the money for play time at least until Book II gets a release.

If you pick this up as is right now you’ll get Book II for free on release. No idea if they’ll raise the price or not or if it’ll be a separate deal entirely for this, but right now, especially with the options for running through the game again, it’s a great deal for the price. As far as the game’s balancing goes, it could use a little work. Getting jumped by hordes of enemies can happen way too often even on easier difficulties which can be a pain to work through. Getting jumped nearly every time you visit the Realm of Shadow is also a blessing and a pain especially if you were just hoping for a brief respite from the butt-kicking you were getting in the living world. It can be a bit much but once you get used to how it flows you can work with it a bit better.

03While at first blush this may seem like that game that Blizzard put out with the three classes and the demon and such, but this is very different and beyond that. Yes it’s an isometric action rpg, but so is Torchlight and its sequel and its nothing like them either except for the action elements. The Devourer and the character swapping mechanic have kind of been tried before in Trine but that was a side-scrolling fantasy platformer. That and the magical mechanics behind the RPG here are different than that. So we’ve seen something similar before but this one turns all that on its head a bit and goes very much in its own direction.

The game does a great job of immersing you in it and pushing you to explore or move forward along a quest. It never gets to the point where it feels like too much has hit you all at once and is definitely something you can tackle. This leads to playing pretty big chunks of gameplay at a time and definitely goes a long way to keeping things going for you. Once I sit down to play this one I usually play it until something else comes up. It’s a lot of fun and I rarely get bored or frustrated with it. At points where I end up dead I usually end up popping back in pretty quick and rethink how I did things instead of turning it off which is always a good sign.

02Now I understand where getting half of the game now and the other half in 2015 will be a turn off for some people. This is actually a good thing. Right now you’re getting what will amount to a twenty to thirty hour affair when its finished for half the price of one of those AAA games that can be played through in under ten. Yes you have to wait, but what they’ve got here is definitely worth the price of admission, looks great, has some really unique RPG elements to go with the standard action fare and has some amazing voice talent behind it. This is definitely a game to get in on if you like action RPGs or if you’re looking for something a bit different from your standard fantasy RPG setting and characters.

I haven’t really experienced any big game-crashing bugs. For the most part the game has played smooth. I did mention earlier about the framerate issues and that’s pretty much been the extent of it. There is partial controller support for this but I haven’t actually played this with a controller yet to give it a try to see how much you can actually do with a 360 controller. Overall though throughout the early access portion of my experience with the game and into release its been positive and fun and I love how fast this seemed to come together over the months as they added more and more features to it. I love what they have so far and am looking forward to picking this up again a few times before Book II hits in 2015.

Short Attention Span Summary
Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms right now is just the first of two books, the second coming in 2015, but it’s definitely a unique and engaging storyline that does a lot with the gameplay and story they’ve devised for the system. By having each of the main characters occupy the same body and letting the player determine how best to use them, it ends up creating a very unique party dynamic without the party. The visuals look great, the gameplay is varied despite having some repetition as you play through levels and many of the issues you’d get out of an action rpg are avoided simply by changing out whoever you have in play at the time. While the story isn’t finished, what’s here is engaging enough to play through with each of the main characters you can pick from and definitely worth a look if you liked Kult or if you’re looking for something different from your action RPGs right now.

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