Action Role Playing Games (ARPGs) largely follow the same formula: the player selects a character or class (mage, warrior, assassin, archer and so on), and proceeds to fight their way through the game’s story (hence the ‘action’ part of ARPG). All the while levelling-up their character – making them stronger, acquiring flashy new abilities, and getting better and better equipment (in fact, it’s this cycle of character improvement and optimisation which is one of the genre’s biggest ‘hooks’). This leads to one of the major problems with the genre (or benefit, depending on your point of view): which character do you play? This is not as trivial as it sounds. Often, to get a ‘feel’ for a character, and for that character to start to shine, requires a certain investment in time and effort to level-up said character and unlock a few key skills. Starting with a new character will simply repeat the cycle, but as you’re retreading ground you’ve already covered, this can quickly become tedious, unless you’re a big fan of the genre.
Shadows: Awakening solves this issue in a way which is both novel, and also sensibly ties in with the game’s story. Set in the Heretic Kingdoms – a fantasy realm where religions have been outlawed – players are cast in the role of a demon known as the Devourer. Summoned by the mysterious mage Krenz (a powerful sorcerer on the run from equally powerful foes), the Devourer has the ability to absorb the souls of the fallen and take on their physical forms and abilities.
While there is an initial choice of class – cast in terms of which fallen hero’s soul you choose (mage, warrior or archer) – as the game progresses players will get access to at least one, if not several characters from each class. While the initial choice will effect some story elements (so completionists can still go back and play again as a new character), in gameplay terms all major classes are available in each playthrough. As an aside, these ‘puppets’ are more than that, but characters in their own right, and the verbal byplay, chatter and arguments between them and the Devourer (who becomes increasingly confused as he finds he’s not as in control as he thought he would be) is both engaging and amusing.
By building a party of up to four characters (the Devourer and three others), players can switch characters on the fly. This has quite a few implications, both gameplay and story-wise. Experience and levelling is shared amongst the entire squad, so there’s no need for players to tediously level each character, streamlining the experience. Different characters may open up different paths, and provide wildly differing tactical options: for example, players may use a relatively weak but hard hitting mage to soften up a group of foes before switching to more durable warrior for the close-quarters combat. The one-man squad also means that Shadows: Awakening can afford to be more punishing than other ARPGs, as the player can only be defeated if either the Devourer himself, or all the ‘puppets’ that make up his squad, are killed.
While the Devourer’s puppets are needed to engage with the physical world, switching over to the Devourer also swaps over to the ‘shadow realm’ – an incredibly atmospheric and eerie reflection of the real world. When you switch to the shadow realm, once vibrant and lush environments take on a shimmery, shadowy, murky quality, as if you’re at the bottom of the ocean, and the sound (including the game’s music) becomes muffled and distorted except for the occasional eldritch screech. Along with opening up new pathways and providing means for solving puzzles (for example, a door shut in one realm may be open in the other), and giving access to certain locations in the world where you can revive fallen squad members and regain health, it also has interesting tactical options. Upon entering the shadow realm, activity in the ‘real world’ is suspended, with real world characters and creatures having an immaterial (and invulnerable) reflection in the shadow realm. This means you can use the Devourer to run away from fights, or reposition your character to dodge particularly devastating attacks. Of course, entering the shadow realm is not without risks. Alongside its own list of hostile denizens, some creatures exist in both realms, some are invulnerable within the shadow realm, whilst others require you to fight in both physical and shadow realms to defeat them.
Setting the shadow realm and puppet system to one side, Shadow: Awakening, plays like most other ARPGs, and anyone familiar with games like Torchlight, Diablo or Grim Dawn will instantly feel at home. Visually rich with highly detailed and atmospheric environments, and an engaging story, Shadows: Awakening is a compelling game. Adding to this in a big way is the fully voiced dialogue and the excellent voice acting – including Tom Baker, known to Doctor Who fans as the Fourth Doctor.
While it gets many things right, it does make a few mistakes – though fortunately none major. The main one is that some objectives and locations are simply too spread out over the map, with quick travel locations too far away. This can mean a bit of backtracking which can quickly become tedious: once you’ve cleared an area of foes or items it stays cleared, meaning there’s nothing to do on your long return journey. Also, sometimes the controls and animations are not as tight as they could be: activating a switch may take several clicks of the mouse, and one of the playable character’s sword swings (Carissa) doesn’t always connect with its target – detracting slightly from an otherwise highly polished implementation.
All things considered, Shadows: Awakening is an engaging and novel take on the ARPG genre. With its streamlined levelling system and the ability to switch between characters and classes on the fly, it is easy to recommend to both newcomers, and fans of the genre. ■