They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. It’s an oft-repeated saying but it’s advice usually worth following. Shadowgate’s not like that though. Give it even the most cursory of glances and you know precisely what you’re getting. Enveloped in the most classical of fantasy and utilising some now-archaic game design, Shadowgate is exactly what you’d expect. It’s probably not the best way to convince you to read this review but just looking at a few screenshots of Shadowgate will be enough to know whether you want Zojoi’s latest.
A remake of an adventure title from gaming past, Shadowgate has been faithfully recreated by much of the very same team responsible for the original. Thrust into a sprawling castle with nary a clue of where to go, what to do, or why you're even here, you're slung in at the deep end of a perilous journey that will certainly result in death. Lots and lots of death.
The true aim in Shadowgate is to defeat the all-powerful Warlock Lord, which is why you've chosen to trudge into this death-dealing castle armed with naught but your bare fists. Shadowgate is an adventure game in the purest sense of the word, with the player moving from screen to screen, using objects, nattering to people/things/spawn of satan, trying to puzzle your way further. It’s a battle of wits that my futile brain often lost, but with a bucketload of trial and error and a feverous use of the quick save button it was just about possible.
Like many adventure games of yore you’re not restricted to a simplified contextual click-to-use interface. Instead Shadowgate has a range of nine methods to interact with any object whatsoever. The broad spectrum of Look, Take, Open, Close, Go, Use, Hit, Eat, and Speak open up all manner of convoluted, but oftentime hilarious options. Try any option on anything and you’ll nearly always get a unique response, no matter how bizarre your action might seem, lending Shadowgate a playful and experimental side not often seen in today’s structurally linear adventure games.
Most adventure games restrict you to a select number of items that can only be used in very specific ways. Shadowgate provides you with an overabundance of odds and sods you have to try and figure your way through. Some of it’s completely useless, so any attempts to combine an item with every object will usually prove fruitless, so you’ll have to get your thinking cap on here. There’s a few difficulty levels to choose from, with Master most closely matching the difficulty of the original. Notching it down a bit alters the solutions to the puzzles and makes things a little easier. Where earlier you needed to gather a skull, a key, and a rune, on the easiest difficult you may only need one of these items to succeed. When you run out of it ideas you’ve got your friendly talking skull Yorick to beg for ideas. Just don’t hit him because you might regret it.
Shadowgate can at times be a frustrating and overwhelming experience, but Zojoi has made a few concessions to modern play that do help ease your woes a little. The built-in map helps you keep your bearings while useful objects and points of interest are scribbled on it as you find them, allowing you to keep track of what still needs solving, while Yorick your skull assistant can occasionally throw out a few helpful hints.
Meet your maker
An aspect of Shadowgate that is annoying and feels totally micromanage-y and unnecessary is the use of torches. Rather than give you a nice flaming torch for you to adventure with to your heart’s content, it runs out and needs to be switched with others. Let it go out and you’re often up shit creek without a paddle so to speak, as the screen descends into darkness. You can try to navigate your way back to a light source, but you don’t have long until you summarily trip over and crack your head open on a rock. Welcome to Shadowgate, where nothing is forgiven.
Which brings me to another point. Much of Shadowgate’s choices or actions can be ambiguous. Some of this is negated thanks to the use of quick save and quick load, but certain actions such as being unintentionally poisoned can have huge consequences further down the line which you hadn’t anticipated earlier. At times Shadowgate can feel like it’s slapping you around the face for a bit of a laugh. You never learn and evolve your ideas based on your mistakes, you’re merely punished and attempt to click something different the next time around. Within 15 minutes of starting up Shadowgate I’d cracked my head open on a rock, been dragged into the murky depths by a lake-dwelling monster, and been charred to the bone by a dragon. There was little I could do to prevent these situations without prior knowledge, but this is the fundamentals of Shadowgate’s gameplay. If the prospect of that irks you, you won’t enjoy it, but if, like me, part of the fun for you is experimenting with options or laughing at the bizarre ways you can meet your maker, it can make the experience much easier to handle.
Ultimately to call Shadowgate a remake is stretching the truth a little. The environments have been redrawn from the ground up but that’s as far as it goes, save for a couple of new rooms and the aforementioned difficulty levels. The actual core game is practically identical to its predecessor, and everything about it is rooted in the past. The gameplay boils down to completing a set of puzzles spread throughout interconnected rooms in order to eventually overcome the evil inhabiting this place. That’s not to take anything away from those hand-drawn visuals. While sometimes the castle can appear drab it’s more often than not visually arresting. There’s some excellent detailed lavished on the environment and while animation takes a backseat, it suits the game down to a tee.
Zojoi have attempted to resurrect a classic here, but time has undoubtedly taken its toll. What's here is enjoyable enough for hardened adventure game fans, but gamers honed on a diet of The Walking Dead may be turned off by its complexity and strict adherence to difficulty. If you've got the patience then Shadowgate could be the game for you - it's often amusing, always head-scratching, but most importantly it's a taste of gaming past that many may miss.