In 1989, the Amiga classic Shadow of the Beast launched. The game was well known for its difficulty, but also for its soundtrack, art style, and fun gameplay. It’s now 2016, and it seems Sony has decided to remake one of those strange old IPs they’ve been hanging onto. Shadow of the Beast has quite the legacy to live up to, so does this remake offer up the same thrills as the original or should it have been left forgotten?
Shadow of the Beast has you playing as Aarbron, a human turned into a monster and enslaved to kill others. After breaking free of his enslavement, he begins pursuit of two people: Zelek, who directly controlled Aarbron and has abducted a baby that Aarbron is attempting to save, and Zelek’s master Maletoth. You probably won’t get most of the story on your first time through the game since everyone talks in different languages and there are no subtitles to accompany them. As you play, you can spend XP to buy the ability to understand the monsters, and you can also find collectible prophecy orbs that recap the story with a narrator. Even then, there’s not much here. About a quarter of the way through the game, the baby that Zelek abducted just sort of vanishes and is never brought up again. Events happen between levels, but you’ll only learn about them by finding the prophecy orbs related to them. Finally, the ending is rather sudden and just sort of there. It doesn’t give much of any feeling of finality, so much as a sense of “we ran out of time, so this is the best we can do”.
When it comes to the gameplay, it’s true that Shadow of the Beast is a challenging game. Sometimes this difficulty is fair; sometimes it feels unfair. Basic combat took some time to get used to. All of Aarbron’s attacks instantly kill enemies in a single hit, and he can easily chain kills to dispatch of crowds. It’s not as easy as it sounds, as each of Aarbron’s kills are executions that take a couple of seconds to perform, and you’re not invincible during them. The goal is to keep enough distance between you and other foes until you’ve finished dealing with the enemy you’re currently attacking.
You have a few different ways to do this. Stun attacks will keep enemies in place for a couple of seconds, and you can keep them down longer by tossing one enemy into another. You can also dodge roll through enemies to get around them, as lining all the enemies up is one of the most efficient ways to fight them. Finally, blocking and countering is available, though you can only block enemies in front of you. Combat becomes an interesting affair, based around dodging and stunning enemies rather than directly attacking all the time. It’s tough and takes some getting used to. This game is one of the few that I would honestly recommend starting on the easiest difficulty, and even then basic encounters may still find you getting killed.
Aarbron does have a few special attacks he can perform as well, tied to a Blood meter. The blood bar goes up every time you kill an enemy or step into a blood pool. It’s divided into three sections, and you can spend one of them to perform either a health or a score attack. These require you to mash a button to complete a little minigame that can either restore some of Aarbron’s health or give you a chunk of extra points. This mechanic is the only way in the game to heal, and the extra score is sometimes necessary to getting gold/platinum medals in fights, but it does slow down the combat and mashing buttons to complete the minigames gets old quick.
If you fill the Blood meter all the way, you can use all of it to go into Rage Mode, which allows you to just keep jumping between and instantly killing enemies for as long as you can correctly go through the quick time event. If your goal is points, then Rage Mode doesn’t quite get nearly as much as just going through combat yourself does. Later in the game Aarbron will also get a gun that allows him to shoot enemies at the cost of some Blood, get a unique skill that shoots spikes out to clear the area around him, and find shadow stones that allow him to summon shadow clones to assist in combat. Except the gun, all of these abilities are just “kill everyone around you”. They’re useful, but I’m not sure why there needed to be three different versions of this.
Some encounters seemed to go a little crazy. Sometimes it’d just be swarms of enemies so large that I’m not sure how I’m supposed to deal with them, while others would just be adding too many elements to a fight. One encounter saw it raining meteors which were extremely difficult to dodge between attacks. Most of the fights aren’t this way, and once I got the combat system down I felt quite in control of what I was doing, but occasionally there was some that just made me wonder if the developers just wanted to go overboard on the difficulty.
While normal encounters require a good deal of attention and use of all your skills, boss fights strangely seem to be the opposite. Most just require you to repeat whatever their weakness is. The first boss is defeated by holding down block until he stuns himself, and then hitting him to knock off some of his life, the third boss is just a chain of counter attacks and occasional dodges, while the last boss suddenly turns the game into a really easy shoot ’em up for reasons that are beyond me. It seems like a waste of the rather fun battle mechanics.
Between fights, you’ll be exploring the alien world. There’s some basic platforming, with Aarbron having the ability to climb and slide down walls. Much like combat, the platforming is a bit strange at first. Aarbron’s jumps are slow and don’t cover much distance and needing to press X a second time to grab onto a wall feels a bit strange. After a few levels, I got the platforming down at least. Traps along the way still made it another difficult affair. Having to dodge spikes, flames, and electric mines is tougher than it seems at first, and moving carefully was always a must. There are collectibles around the world, allowing you to find talisman and prophecy orbs. You can also stumble upon the body of another player, enabling you to either consume them, earning you a shadow stone, or send them an elixir so they can keep fighting next time they get killed.
At least when you’re exploring the levels, you’ll have plenty of eye candy to look at. Shadow of the Beast is a lovely game, a showcase technically and artistically. The world feels genuinely alien, and it’s one I wouldn’t have minded getting to explore some more. Backing this up is a lovely soundtrack that further helps make the game feel alien. If there’s one thing Shadow of the Beast gets right from the start until the end, it’s making sure to show off the world. On the other hand, “from the start until the end” isn’t quite as long as I’d hope it would be. Shadow of the Beast is seven levels long, and they took me only about three hours to get through.
Between the levels I could use points to purchase various things. Upgrades for Aarbron is where the majority went, though I also spent some on talismans that I had previously found which could give passive upgrades. There’s also some neat bonuses. One of the biggest is the original 1989 Shadow of the Beast in its entirety. The old game doesn’t quite hold up very well anymore, but it’s still cool as far as bonuses go. You can also get a video playthough of the game if you’re not interested in playing it yourself. A bestiary provides more context to the world, some concept art is nice to look at, and a neat written essay on the original game that provides some really interesting facts and insights as to why it was a big deal in 1989 (did you know the original game came with a T-shirt? That’s pretty awesome.)
Shadow of the Beast is a confusing beast. Its combat system is interesting and can lead to some fun encounters, but the learning curve makes it a bit tough to get into. The story is somewhere between “confusing” and “empty”, but it has such a lovely world around it. I’d be a bit cautious when approaching this remake. I like the game, it frustrated me and drove me crazy at points, but I do like it. I’m just not sure it’s worth its initial asking price. As it stands, right now you should only apply if you’re ready for the challenge.
Shadow of the Beast was reviewed on a PlayStation 4 using a copy provided by the developer.
Shadow of the Beast does quite a few things right and I can appreciate its different battle system and lovely world. Its also still annoyingly frustrating sometimes and currently overpriced.