Way, way back in the mists of time, in 1987 to be precise, when this reviewer was a fresh faced 14 year old, a game called Shadowgate was released. It quickly gained a following and was elevated almost to the status of a cult game, due in large part to its atmosphere and difficulty. See, in Shadowgate, if your torch went out and you didn’t have a replacement, you died. If you chose the wrong option, you more often than not died. You see where I’m going with this?
Now, back in 2014, Zojoi decided to “remake” the game, but remake isn’t quite the right word. It was more of a re-imagining, as although a lot of the puzzles seemed familiar, it wasn’t exactly the same. Fast forward to today, and after a five year delay, Shadowgate is launching on the Xbox One. But has time been kind?
You are The Seed of Prophecy, a descendent of a line of champions whose mission is to defeat the Dark Lord; an all round bad egg. The opening cutscene is absolutely breathtaking, but not in the way that you might expect, as I don’t think that ever before has so much ham been applied to the introduction to a game! The breathless tone, the attempt to engender a feeling of doom, and the absolute earnestness in the narrator’s voice all add up to make the dialogue sound very overblown and pretentious. Still, this same style happens with every cutscene in Shadowgate, so at least there’s that to look forward to. Anyways, at the end of the day, we need to infiltrate a living castle, find all the items needed to bring an end to the Dark Lord, and then defeat him in battle. Simple stuff.
Shadowgate plays out as a series of static backdrops, beautifully drawn, with animated sections as required. We play the game from a first person perspective, and control a cursor that can be used to interact with various objects on the screens. For instance, if there is a lever, we can “use” “thyself” on it to make it move. There are other actions available as well as use, such as hit, look, go, etc. This is almost exactly the same as the old game, with the exception being that the commands are now on a wheel interface, making them easier to access. There are wheels within wheels in Shadowgate, so that you can move to the spell casting interface from the inventory without closing the wheel. In this day and age it does feel a little clunky, but once you are used to what is where it actually works very well. Luckily, this isn’t a game where keen reflexes will be required, as even if a Goblin looks like he’s about to introduce your insides to the outside, there’s time to delve into the commands and figure out what to do.
So, graphically it is very pretty, the voice overs are hilariously over the top, and the rest of the sound effects are as you’d expect from a fantasy game; growling dragons and chattering skulls – yes, in the first section of the game, you have to pick a skull called Yorick, who can talk to you and issue hints. And strangely for a lump of bone with no lungs, he can also sigh sarcastically if you are going wrong. As you progress, Yorick will keep chirping up with little snippets, and to be honest, he is quite charming in a weird kind of way. If he annoys you, using the hit command on him will cause him to be quiet, so that’s worth bearing in mind. The big question then is how does Shadowgate play?
Very well is the answer. The puzzles are absolutely mind bending, even on the easiest difficulty levels, and more than once I found myself at a dead end trying out all the spells in an attempt to make progress. Sometimes the answer to the problem is so obtuse that you have to wonder what the developers were thinking, but it’s a testament to the quality of the gameplay that I didn’t ever feel the need to quit, instead just continuing to try. Although that said, the discovery of walkthroughs on the internet may have helped a smidge as well…
So, making progress, dying every now and then and working your way through the story is very satisfying. The feeling of solving a puzzle is genuinely a moment to feel pride in, and brings a feeling that the old grey matter hasn’t degraded to such an extent after all. There are issues with the game however, as I’m sure you’d expect.
One such problem is the amount of backtracking involved in Shadowgate on Xbox One. Luckily this time around there is a map, but it isn’t possible to fast travel to a location, and instead you have to backtrack through all the previous screens. As an example, after about two hours of exploring, I found a Glyph Skull. This skull is needed at the entrance to the castle, so I had to backtrack to literally the start of the game in order to progress. This consists of loading a screen, waiting for the description to appear, backtracking again, before rinsing and repeating. Then to go all the way back to where you were before finding the skull, you’ll need to do it all again in the opposite order. This gets very old, very fast.
Also the default action on the screen sometimes seems to be very dimwitted. At one point, I had thrown a grappling hook into a window and wanted to climb the rope. Use the rope, right? Nope, that put it back into my bag. I eventually figured out I had to “go” to the window in order to climb the rope. This caused some mild swearing to occur.
All in all though and if you want an old skool game with old skool difficulty and old skool logic, Shadowgate is the game for you. You will need patience and some very strange lateral thinking skills, but the reward is a game that opens out like a flower the deeper you get. There’s even an old fashioned labyrinth to get through, so really, what more could you ever need?
I’ve really enjoyed my trip down memory lane, and think that you just might do as well.