The first rule of fantasy should be to avoid the generic. This is much harder than it seems, because the genre incorporates its innovations. Tolkien was once uniquely innovative, but now his brand of high fantasy has been done to death. When I first played Diablo at a friend’s in 1997, it was unlike anything I’d ever played. The classic fantasy ARPG has gone through dozens of iterations or imitations since then. Shadows: Awakening is the third title in the Heretic Kingdoms series, and the developers at least tried to avoid the generic. Sometimes they succeeded.
I never played the previous games in the series, so I don’t know how Awakening compares to them. However, I didn’t have a hard time following the story or understanding the assumptions of the lore. Most of it seemed concise and presented in a way that was easy to digest. When they referred to past events, it was clear from the context. It didn’t interest me beyond the dialogue, though there are quite a few collectible books and notes. The world of the Heretic Kingdoms is not generic, but it can be bland most of the time. There are no elves and dwarves, but its unique races feel underdeveloped.
No one plays fantasy ARPGs for the worldbuilding or the lore, though. They draw a faithful and easily pleased audience that is content as long as it walks and talks like an ARPG. That’s what Awakening relies on with its relentless swarms of enemies to be hacked and slashed over and over. It’s very competent at that. The combat is mostly a mindless grind, but it’s hardly ever boring. Click away and lead your warriors, hunters, or mages toward the forces of evil. Unleash your powers, then collect the loot. Rinse and repeat.
It does flip the script in the sense that your main player character is a Devourer. Imagine a growling and raucous demon who devours souls and turns them into his puppets. You get to choose whether your main puppet will be a Warrior, a Hunter, or a Mage. Each is a unique character with their own backstory. The choice is final, and you won’t be able to switch during that playthrough. Along the way you get to pick up other puppets, all of them varieties of those three classes. Some of them you get to kill in a boss battle first before the Devourer eats them up, then they join your party.
The party-based approach is a feature that many ARPGs lack, which can leave the player stuck with the same character and the same playstyle. Awakening is very versatile with its party switch option, adding a lot of variety and flavor to the game. Each of the main puppets has their roster of unlockable companions sharing the same class. You’re not restricted or expected to use only those of the same roster, though. All of the main puppets have their stories intertwined, allowing you to pick and choose companions at your whim. While you can't choose another main puppet, you can choose any of the others.
Most of the companions are forgettable. The female characters are also kind of sexualized, which I had no problem with; it just seems kind of offbeat. Carissa, the one in the screenshot above, had a peculiar personality and some depth, but not much. My favorite companion was Zaar, the Wolf Gnoll. The whole Wolf Gnoll faction was really cool, and deftly designed into the game world. They are a unique race with their own worldview, and they don't come across as either good or evil with their own customs and beliefs. I wish the game focused more on that kind of worldbuilding, as most of the game you're either chasing or being chased by the evil inquisitors. It would be more interesting to engage with the factions in a meaningful way.
Another unique feature in Awakening is that when you play as the Devourer, you're in a different plane of existence, the Dreamworld. When you switch to your puppets, you're in the real world. Some enemies appear only in the real world, but some demons appear in both. The level design changes depending on the world you’re in, with some objects such as runes only being visible in the Dreamworld. This is where the puzzle design steps in, and it is often quite ingenious. At some point in a level, you may see a scattered sequence of runes in the Dreamworld. Later you might come across a puzzle in the real world that requires that sequence. It felt rewarding to solve these, and not just for the loot.
Some of the boss battles are messy and awkward. One of them expected me to simply avoid the boss while trying to draw a bridge, turning into a ridiculous game of cat and mouse that made me want to give up the whole thing. Most of the time it’s just a matter of spamming attacks and special skills to drain their health bars. Awakening is completely lacking in proper challenge, especially on the normal difficulty. You don't have to quaff potions in the middle of combat, but there's a magical stone that restores health and mana. It made the game very easy, and I didn't use it most of the time because it felt like cheating.
There’s no enemy respawn, and most of the time I was grateful for it. Some quests involve a good deal of back-and-forth, and the grind got in the way. The enemy variety seems great at first, but most of it just a reskin of the same pattern. A few enemies require some strategy, but most are just hack fodder. For instance, to kill some of them first you get their shield down in the Dreamworld, then switch back to the real world so one of your puppets can kill them.
Looting is fun as in any ARPG, but there’s nothing innovative about it. You get some weapons with better stats every once in a while, but most of them lack distinctive features. The weapons don't tap into your special skills either. Most of the side quests were fetch quests, but they didn't always lead to better loot. And the inventory UI becomes a bit of a hassle after a while. The color-coded icons work well enough to inform the player whether it’s worth to upgrade gear, but it turns into a chore. Buying and selling uses the same UI, and it’s just not very intuitive. This is an essential feature in an ARPG where the loot cycle is a constant, and it should be much more fluid.
The levels look nice enough, but nothing special. Most of them are too linear to be properly interesting. Levels like the Sewers were fun to explore, full of puzzles that unlocked doors leading to nooks and corners. There’s a good deal of variety in scenery, with woods and deserts, but most of it feels like a bland new skin on top of the same levels. The cutscenes are also pretty to look at, and the voice acting is decent for the most part. The writing can be very lacking though, and I spotted quite a few typos and misspelled words. I also noticed that the writers don’t seem to understand how to use archaic pronouns like thou and thee. Some of the sentences didn't make sense because of that.
Shadows: Awakening lacks the stand-out properties that would make it a great game, but it’s still a competent and fun ARPG that tries its best. A leisure playthrough took me about 40 hours, but I was curious to try the other characters I skipped. While there isn’t much in the way of choices and consequences, there is enough to justify a few extra playthroughs. If you’re an ARPG aficionado, it’s definitely worth your time, as long as you don't expect to be dazzled.
Shadows: Awakening doesn't do much that is new or interesting, but it does achieve a mostly enjoyable ARPG experience that will appeal to diehard fans of the genre.
- Enjoyable Grind
- Good Variety of Playstyles
- Wolf Gnoll Faction
- Bland Story
- Fails to Stand Out