What game comes to mind when you hear the word “shooter?” Doom? Call of Duty? BioShock, Gears of War, or maybe even Fortnite? Regardless of which game, you probably think about action-packed encounters where you and your targets zoom around a battlefield. What you most likely wouldn’t think of is a game like Towaga: Among Shadows – a game that, despite its numerous shortcomings, has plenty of great ideas.
Created by Sunnyside Games, Towaga: Among Shadows is a shooter wherein your character, Towaga, must save the world and their tribe from darkness. Luckily, Towaga possesses the ability to unleash enormous beams of light from their hands. This nifty magic trick is incredibly useful for blasting away hordes of shadowy creatures, and it meshes nicely with the game’s unique idea of rooting the player to a single spot. That is correct. Aside from a handful of levels where you float around the screen, bullet hell-style, Towaga cannot move an inch. Rather than running, jumping, and dodging foes, you wait patiently for the seething masses of baddies to come to you.
At first, I thought this was a horrible idea. I’m a huge fan of the kinetic, high-energy gameplay that can come from a well-crafted movement system. After completing the first level, I was sure that I’d be tired of the gameplay quickly since the inability to move around felt so restrictive. However, I swiftly learned that I shouldn’t trust myself, because Towaga’s core gameplay loop is a blast.
I credit the stellar gameplay to three things: excellent presentation, thoughtful design, and meaningful upgrades. Towaga is a beautiful game. Based solely on visuals, it is one my favorite indie games I’ve played this year. Animations are lively, easy to read, and a delight to watch. The art style complements the story’s battle between light and dark perfectly, and the character designs are magnificent.
The artistry on display is an even bigger plus considering the carefully designed gameplay. Enemies can come from a multitude of directions, but it never feels like they’re coming out of nowhere and with no warning. Enemies can hit you with some mean attacks, but these are always clearly telegraphed. Your only mean of attack is your giant beam of light, but it shreds opponents in an incredibly satisfying way. Surviving wave after wave of attacks may start to feel a bit samey, but flying levels and new, progressively tricky baddies are introduced at the perfect moments. All of this is to say that Towaga: Among Shadows feels like its developers spent plenty of time playing their game. I never felt that anything was unfair, the pacing and challenge were right on the money, and I never got bored.
In addition, each level completed gives a small amount of shards. These can be used to acquire upgrades to Towaga’s health, increase the effectiveness of the beam attack, or provide boosts to unlockable spells. None of these upgrades feel too expensive, and the boost each one gives is immediately noticeable in gameplay. I found myself wanting to continue playing just a bit longer to see what an even more powerful beam could do.
Speaking of the unlockable spells, however, brings us to Towaga’s stumbling points. Only one of the six spells actually feels useful; that spell being the blast of air that knocks enemies away while slightly damaging them. It’s an absolute life-saver when you’re surrounded by an army of purple monsters, yet it completely outshines the other spells that are functionally identical and much less effective than the air blast. What makes this especially rough is that the air blast is the first spell you learn. It took the wind out of my sails each time I unlocked a new spell and it was dramatically worse than the first one. Not only that, but the gameplay’s gradual evolution feels one-sided. New enemies are introduced over time, but the player’s way of interacting with and adapting to those enemies is limited.
Those spells aren’t the only place in which the game falls short of what it’s reaching for. The story, for example, definitely had a lot of thought put into it. Sadly, little of that thought is actually shared with the player. Characters and events happen with hardly any explanation. Proper nouns are thrown our way as if we should already be familiar with them like we live in the developers’ heads. It wouldn’t be that bad if it weren’t for the fact that the story sounds immensely interesting, and I wanted to know more. I should also add that there’s a frustrating and total lack of audio during all of the game’s cutscenes. Intentional or otherwise, it removed me even further from the game’s story.
Continuing in their attempt to add content, the developers of Towaga: Among Shadows also included two survival modes and a multiplayer mode. None of these feel nearly as thought out as the campaign. The survival modes, either on the ground or floating through the air, present a way for players to rack up a high score by withstanding as many waves as possible, but they feel too similar to the campaign. Even with the weak narrative, the campaign has a clear end goal. Removing that goal not only does the game zero favors, but it doesn’t constitute a brand new game mode either. As far as the multiplayer is concerned, it sees you and up to three friends flying around to blast each other into oblivion. There isn’t much to say since it all feels shoehorned in and shallow. It’s easily the least exciting part of the game.
Did I have fun with Towaga: Among Shadows on Xbox? Yes. Do I wish that there was more to it? Even bigger yes. The alternate game modes and unlockable spells all feel pointless, and the story is lacking in many ways. Yet, despite these flaws, I couldn’t put the game down. Though it doesn’t feel like it lives up to its true potential, Towaga: Among Shadows is a unique shooter that I hope to see more of in the future.