To say that I’m particularly fond of niche RPGs would be a huge understatement. Over the years I’ve played tonnes of obscure CRPGs and still continue to do so. For every blockbuster AAA RPG, there are dozens of excellent indie RPGs out there that are quickly forgotten in the annals of time. Although technically flawed, these underrated gems bring innovation to the senile RPG formula one way or another. That is why I had fallen in love with Kult: Heretic Kingdoms back in the day. I had been looking forward to playing the sequel Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms. But somehow that didn’t happen. Fast forward to 2018, and here I am, playing Shadows: Awakening, a reimagining which bundles the 1st and the unreleased 2nd chapter from Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, 4 years down the line. Let’s see how it did, shall we?
Shadows: Awakening is an action role-playing game developed by Games Farm and published by Kalypso Media Digital for Microsoft Windows and was released on 31 August 2018 through Steam. Existing owners of Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms will get Awakening free of cost.
Story & Narrative
Shadows: Awakening continues the tragic and turmoil-filled story of the Heretic Kingdoms. It seems like the world just can’t catch a break. Although freed from the oppression of Theocracy, the land is again plunged into chaos. The very own secret society members that led the rebellion against the Theocrats are assassinated and has their souls devoured by demons aptly titled devourers. The now-demonic society continues their quest for power and immortality while the world around them burns in political conspiracies and wars. You also play as a devourer demon (surprise, surprise), summoned by the only sane fifth member of the said secret society to restore balance to the heretic lands by doing what you do best: devour souls of your enemies and occasionally make a trip to the underworld.
The story has all the right flavours needed for an epic fantasy saga and it doesn’t disappoint. The game does start very slowly and has a lot of exposition dump which makes your head hurt and feel confused. But you slowly learn of the events led to your summoning, as well as the lore of the world which makes the plot more engaging. You also get to make several choices along the way and even though they are pretty generic, it’s nice to them show up in an ARPG. Just don’t go in expecting philosophical dilemmas and nuanced moral choices and you’ll have a good time.
Gameplay & Mechanics
It’s easy to label Shadows: Awakening as a standard isometric Diablo clone, but nothing could be further from the truth. Even though it has all the makings of a hack n slash RPG, Awakening tends to mix elements from both ARPGs like Dungeon Siege and Sacred with classic CRPGs such as Baldur’s Gate and even games like the Legacy of Kain series. What you end up getting is a combat heavy, albeit a relatively slow-paced and tactical RPG with a strong focus on story, exploration, and puzzle solving. It harkens back to the days of Divine/Beyond Divinity.
The Puppet System
The selling point of Shadows: Awakening is the puppet system. Since you play as a soul hungry demon, the game lets you consume the soul and thereby resurrect fallen heroes and enemies alike in a scripted fashion. You have the power to switch between four of them (including the devourer) at any given moment. Each playable character comes with their own backstory, class, skills, equipment, and inventory. Shadows feature 14 different playable characters. Depending on your choices, you are locked out of some characters and events, while gaining access to others. A long-dead mage, an unwilling werewolf, a giant zombie golem, a frigging wasp- mere puppets in front of the Devourer. But they are hardly mindless puppets (apart from the zombie golem) as some of them have their own story bits, personalities, and banter. This take on multiple playable characters without featuring the standard party system is a really nice idea more games should make use of.
The ability to switch between characters at will also adds a strategic layer to the hack n slash combat, as you will be constantly switching back and forth to find the perfect combination. You can freeze enemies while playing as one character, switch to a shaman and buff yourself, and finally switch to a mage to summon a golem to smash foes to bits. Micromanagement is non-existent and the flow of combat is never broken, as switching between characters is a fluid and seamless process. This mechanic also ensures that the combat remains fresh even after 20+ hours of playtime.
The other highlight of Shadows: Awakening is the ability to switch between mortal and shadow realms at will, something taken directly from Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. This realm switching mechanic is not an aesthetic gimmick. You’ll often need to switch between both realms to solve puzzles, quests, combat encounters and to find secrets and hidden pathways. For example, you’ll be able to access a collapsed bridge or a closed-off pathway in the mortal realm by switching to the devourer and his home plane of shadow realm. Like the puppet mechanic, this one also does Awakening a big favour to separate itself from the countless ARPGs in the market right now.
Quests & Level Design
When it comes to quests, Shadows: Awakening is no slouch. While it may not offer complex and open-ended quest design from Original Sin, the quests do deviate from the generic fetch quests and ‘kill X amounts of X’ quests seen in Diablo clones to a certain degree. Even if some of the quests fall in line with the aforementioned type, they offer insights on character backstories and the lore. The maps are varied and beautiful to look at. Arabian themed cities and deserts, clearings, ruins, catacombs, untamed forests- you name it and chances are, Shadows: Awakening has them.
Controls & UI
Of course, not everything is kicks and giggles in the heretic kingdoms. For starters, the point and click gameplay is oddly clumsy. This has more to do with the precision of the mouse controls rather than the pathfinding. More often than not, the characters will have trouble moving to precise points in the ground and this is more apparent when you hold down the mouse to move. This can make targeting specific enemies during combat and clicking specific points in the map frustrating. Then there is the clumsy UI. Each of the four characters has their own inventory and each type of their equipment has their own menu. Organized? Yes. Convenient? No. It takes a lot of clicks just to get to where you want and it’s just not fun.
While the puppet system breathes fresh life into the tired and true point &c click combat system, there are other issues at hand. The animations are major culprits here. Some of the animations are painfully simplistic and bland. When your targeted enemy runs away, the player models will sometime float through the ground in a slow pace and chase after them. This makes the combat look awkward and clumsy. However, the major letdown of the combat system is how wimpy the feedback is. Judging by the over the top skills and abilities of characters, you’d expect the combat to have some punch. But unfortunately, Shadows: Awakening‘s combat lack just that. Combat lacks that visceral satisfaction, all thanks to the weak combat sounds. Even when you’re hitting a 500-pound fleshy beast with the sharp end of a sword, the audio feedback makes it feel like you’re whacking a wooden table with a rubber pike. It doesn’t help the fact that the enemies have sub-par AI either.
Visuals, Performance & Sound
Shadows: Awakening is a looker, especially compared to its peers. The art style strikes that perfect balance between dark fantasy and Torchlight. It feels grim and lighthearted all at the same time (something Diablo 3 utterly failed at). The atmosphere is captivating and the whole Arabian theme is something I’d like to see explored more in games.
The game runs surprisingly well in my dinosaur GTX 750. Combined with 8 gigs of ram and an i5 7500, Shadows ran high-very high at 1080p hardly dipping below 30 fps. Aside from the odd clipping and graphical glitches, I personally didn’t run into any major bugs.
When it comes to sound design, Awakening does a decent job. The only exception being the bland combat sounds as I discussed earlier. The soundtrack is pleasant, atmospheric and fitting. Pretty much all the characters and cutscenes are fully voice acted. Even though some of the accents come off as cringy and awkward, it is a much-appreciated addition.
Shadows: Awakening belongs to the group of RPGs that has its share of flaws but ultimately wins you over with its charm. Kudos goes to the developers who didn’t back down on their word and fulfilled the promise to complete Shadows. With the excellent puppet system, realm shifting, beautiful graphics and a cheap price of 899 INR, you just can’t go wrong with this one. Just don’t go in expecting Diablo or Path of Exile style gameplay and end-game content.