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Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms Review
Platform: Windows PC
Developer: Games Farm
Publisher: Bitcomposer Games
Release Date: 20/11/2014
Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms is a game that boldly steps out from under the shadow of Blizzard’s resurrected dungeon crawler to bring some fresh ideas to the table – unfortunately, the potential of these ideas is constantly stifled by the game’s poor execution and lack of polish in regards to its core mechanics.
Following on a number of years after the events of the previous game (Kult: Heretic Kingdoms) . Shadows sees you take on the role of The Devourer – a demon summoned by an enigmatic hooded-man and enlisted to combat the sinister forces threatening to throw the fantasy setting of Thole into chaos.
If the above description hasn’t already made it evident, the lore surrounding the plot of Shadows is DENSE – and I say that as a diehard fantasy reader currently halfway through Steven Erikson’s Malazan: Book of the Fallen series.
Though the introduction to each of the game’s three chapters is narrated with great gravitas by Tom Baker of Doctor Who-fame, the bulk of exposition comes courtesy of countless cliche-ridden dialogue boxes. While admittedly a newcomer to the series, I was constantly confused as to who or what my actions were motivated by and the shameless exposition dump that opens the game’s second chapter only served to worsen this problem.
As you fight your way across Thole, the Devourer will consume the souls of his enemies – unlocking them as playable character classes. Each new soul has their own skill trees, spells and item types and they range from classic fantasy archetypes (Warrior, Wizard, Ranger) to more obscure characters (Zombie-Hulk, Wasp, Tree Elemental). The character designs themselves are pretty good for the most part – though some of the later soul unlocks do feel more like gimmicky reskins of enemies. That said, I generally found myself sticking with my first character – the spirit of a dead ranger named Jasker – in spite of this variety.
Additionally, as the Devourer you can also jump between the physical and shadow realms with the press of a button. This mechanic opens up numerous tactical possibilities – as certain enemies only exist within either realm – and helps round out the game’s setting with cool secret passages and side quests exclusive to either realm.
The combat of Shadows is one of it’s first major stumbling blocks. Characters are often unresponsive (leading to many unfair deaths), enemy variety is staggeringly low and controlled by a brain dead AI. Even your abilities don’t land with any real punch – or in some cases, fail to land where you click at all. It’s all wrapped together by a frustrating difficulty curve that saw me succeed through attrition and exploiting the AI more than powerful abilities and fun combat.
The game’s adoption of a MOBA-inspired control scheme works well but the lack of any ‘smartcast’ functionality cripples the more timing-dependent encounters. Alongside the typical potion-chugging associated with the genre, slain enemies also drop souls which can then be spent to resurrect dead party members or heal living ones. This is one of Shadows more successful innovations and it helped keep things moving and discouraged me from relying too much on potions – as I often do with these kinds of games.
The looting of Shadows is also another aspect that falls short. Environments are delightfully detailed and littered with breakable objects but neither these objects nor slain enemies ever seemed to drop any items worth taking. What’s more, many of the different item types are specific to certain characters and I spent the first act of the game finding almost no loot that I could use. Even the scarce loot showered upon me at the conclusion of the game’s boss fights was only marginally better than my vendor-bought equipment and after a few hours of this, I practically stopped picking up loot at all.
On the technical side of things, Shadows also fails to hold up. My time with the game was punctuated with irritatingly long loading times and constant crashes. The game’s day-night cycle added a nice visual touch to things but I found it came at the cost of frame-rate once I started jumping between realms.
The lack of multiplayer co-op here also really hurts replayability with the released version currently including only three chapters – with another three on the way early next year. Depending on how much side-questing and grinding you pursue, you’re looking at getting between 10-14 hours out of Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms. Which isn’t awful – but it’s a little disappointing for a game with the potential to be a sprawling epic that really adds something new to the ARPG genre.