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Shadowgate Review: The Living Castle Returns
To say that I’m biased in writing a review for Shadowgate may be an understatement. Originally released as part of the “MacVenture” series of adventure games for the Apple Macintosh in 1987, it was also one of the first console games I ever played when it was ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989. A brutal, puzzle-heavy adventure that killed you at every turn should’ve been massively discouraging to a young kid, but I found the intriguing dungeon crawl, writing and music to be wonderfully immersive.
Over twenty-five years later the original developers have returned with an updated remake, thanks in large part to a successful Kickstarter campaign in late 2012 (Full Disclosure: I’m a backer). The new Shadowgate is far more than a graphical facelift and UI clean-up – entire puzzles and areas have been re-worked, new areas and puzzles have been added and many new features and options allow for both newcomers and veterans to find the perfect adventure gaming experience.
While many of the more well-known classic adventure games relied heavily on their whimsical narratives, Shadowgate’s story was as bare-bones as you can get – you’re a vague hero who infiltrates an evil castle to prevent the Warlock Lord from summoning a world-destroying Behemoth. The remake goes a bit further by layering in some fanciful prose and voice-over along with the gorgeous 2D water-color artwork, and sprinkles in some nice cutscenes throughout the adventure as you learn more about the Circle of Twelve, Lakmir the Timeless and Talimar the Black.
Still, this is very much on the Myst side of adventure game design – give the player a world full of puzzles and let them explore. Shadowgate keeps the traditional point and click action along with verb usage that should be familiar to any fans of the old LucasArts games. You interact with objects by selecting a verb, then the object. It allows for some additional levels of insidious puzzle design (TAKING that shield to stop a fire-breathing dragon will do you no good unless you USE it on YOURSELF) though this can also become tedious. Thankfully Zojoi designed a myriad of shortcuts; not only key bindings that allow for quicker selections but also double clicking on objects performs a LOOK command (and on Doors it OPENS them).
The inventory screen contains helpful tabs to switch between Items, Archive (scrolls and books), Outfit (items you equip), and Spells. Even then your items fill up quickly, but in a nod to RTS management you can group an item (or spell or whatever) to the number keys, which makes using many of the more commonly re-used items (like your trusty dirk) as simple as tapping a button.
A large 20 page Help section explains all the nuances of the UI, and I recommend reading it as well as playing with the tutorial to walk you through the first few rooms to acclimate to the general sense of exploration and trial and error (trial and death?) that serve as your main tools of adventure throughout the caves, castle, towers, and catacombs.
For a longtime fan it’s pure nostalgic joy seeing familiar scenes painted up in this new handsome style. As you move through the castle a screen at a time, each area is lovingly drawn with distinctly Gothic tones. Skeletons and bones litter the ground, lightning arcs around a stormy sky in the courtyard, and numerous foul beasts are competing to kill you before the various castle’s traps can.
Death is a major part of Shadowgate; the original game was famous for it. Foolish actions will understandably result in an early demise – trying to cross that rickety bridge without magical aid is a bad idea, but many times the game will kill you simply for entering a room unprepared. The game will even kill you for standing still too long, thanks to the torch system. Torches act as a subtle timed mechanic throughout the entire game; as they slowly flutter out you must find a new one to light. Thankfully new torches are found in nearly every room, though their abundance and longevity depend entirely on your difficulty mode.
Probably my favorite overall feature of the remake are the difficulty levels. When you start a new game you can select between Apprentice, Journeyman, and Master. Now fans of the original and the puzzle-adventure genre in general may want to go Master right away, but I urge you to start small and work your way up, if only to see all the interesting changes Zojoi have made. Not only are there less torches available as you move up in difficulty, but entire puzzles are reworked and changed.
Lower difficulties may have puzzles partially or completely solved for you, or you may end up doing things in a slightly different way to get similar results. Discovering the hidden room in the library, for example, requires three similar but distinctly unique puzzles for each difficulty. A lever puzzle early on requires only one combination to complete on Apprentice, while Journeyman requires two and Master three (and the combinations are different for each one). It’s a fascinating solution to making a game both accessible to newcomers or more casual gamers while also appeasing those hardcore puzzle-masters.
I’ve seen other modern adventure games utilize difficulty modes by simply turning off hint availability and item highlights, but Shadowgate goes above and beyond what I expected, practically creating three separate game modes. Combine that with 50 achievements and we’ve finally got a point and click adventure game with a hefty amount of replayability.
If you’ve played the original to death, or have a particularly sharp memory there are several puzzles and areas that are recreated almost exactly, but for the most part I enjoyed the new puzzles and modified areas, and found nearly every change or update to be for the better. It’s fun to explore entirely new places, like the snowy keep, as well as uncover the nods to the original in many of the designs, even if the specific puzzles are no longer used (like seeing EPOR written on the wall). For the truly nostalgic, Zojoi implemented several nifty retro features available in the options menu, including replacing the orchestral soundtrack with the original chiptune tracks and the original dramatic screen transition wipes that would make George Lucas weep with joy.
The new map is a godsend, as is the limited teleportation you gain access to midway through the adventure. A helpful thumbnail depicts each room along with its adjoining pathways, and you can quickly cycle through each major area. You’ll be doing this more than once as this remake takes backtracking to an all new level. The original had a few mandatory backtracking sections (one major one than I can remember) depending on how often you got stuck and simply wandered around.
Although I enjoyed many of the new puzzle designs, they also required quite a bit of backtracking around the castle. That’s not to say you’ll be wandering between the same ten screens, you’ll be wandering around 40 or 50. It can get downright overwhelming, and again I’m thankful for lower difficulties providing a nice ramp up – on the easiest difficulty you don’t ever gain access to several of the advanced rooms and puzzles.
One new addition that I really wasn’t a fan of was the Banshee’s Curse. Early on you’re attacked by a creature that essentially starts off a timed bomb within your body. Periodically the screen gets blurry as a wave of pain spasms through you, and the game keeps track of how much time you have (each action your perform counts as a turn, which you can see on the save/load menu).
I found this additional time constraint (on top of the torches) more annoying than challenging, and the steps you need to take to cure it won’t present themselves until much later. If you’ve been getting stuck and wandering around too much you’ll simply die from the curse before curing yourself. Even with our modern day Quick Saves and Auto Saves, using multiple save slots is absolutely imperative. Shadowgate wants to kill you, repeatedly, and sometimes you may find yourself in an unwinnable situation. For those that view this as an intriguing challenge, you’ll find a lot of fun within the castle. For others, even apprentice mode may present a difficult ordeal.