By Andrew Matt
Since its establishment in 2009, developer Flying Wild Hog has been hard at work trying to bring back the old school first-person shooter. Their first foray came in 2011, when they released Hard Reset, an original IP that was technically sound shooter that captured the difficulty and twitch shooting of the '90s, but suffered from a hollow narrative and repetitive gameplay. Teaming with Devolver Digital, Flying Wild Hog has revived a classic '90s franchise in Shadow Warrior, promising to modernize the game while staying true to its origins. The result is an entertaining adventure that has been the best old school-style shooter to release since Duke Nukem 3D.
Shadow Warrior places players in the role of Lo Wang as you adventure to find three pieces of the mythical Nobitsura Kage sword and defeat demonic forces and ancient spirits that are at work. Accompanying you is Hoji, a demon banished from the shadow realm, who wishes to complete the Nobitsura Kage and return to his world.
Wang and Hoji are the core of the game and far from mature. Much like the original game and the Duke Nukem series, the duo toss banter between each other and frequently make obscene jokes throughout the game. Lo Wang, for the most part, is a walking dick joke, frequently making quips during battle like "Who wants the Wang?" and "Wang goes bang" that will surely make you chuckle. Flying Wild Hog even goes so far as to parody other games, with a section of a later level mimicking the infamous tram right from the intro of Half-Life with their own witty writing. For all the humor and silliness the duo provides, the background story about the ancient spirits and why Hoji was banished is much more serious, tragic story. The two layered on top of each other should by all means clash, but the writing is surprisingly strong, and I even felt a bit moved by the end of the game.
Graphics are extremely well done for an independently developed game, being of an almost AAA quality. Environments are well-varied Japanese architecture to secret laboratories and even the demonic shadow realm. However, character textures aren't the best, and the faces of human models in particular are tough on the eyes. Animations are somewhat rigid and certainly could use some work. For the most part, though, these visual issues are not a major issue, as they're not so noticeable with the amount of action going.
"Lo Wang, for the most part, is a walking dick joke, frequently making quips during battle like 'Who wants the Wang?' and 'Wang goes bang' that will surely make you chuckle."
The fundamental core of Shadow Warrior is what truly makes it an excellent and enjoyable experience: its sword- and gunplay. Lo Wang is privy to varied repertoire of weapons including fun weapons such as the crossbow and rocket launcher. In particular, the one weapon that really steals the show is your sword. Its ability to quickly slice and dice through swarms of foes is invaluable, especially when being chased down while you need to reload. The most entertainment I found was from the sheer glee I experienced in dismembering basic enemies in a flurry of slashes. The gore it provides is immensely satisfying from start to finish of the game's 17-chapter campaign and one of the reasons why the game is a joy to play. Outside of the sword, most of the other guns have a good weight and feel to them, especially the shotgun which can be upgraded to have four barrels that can all be simultaneously fired to instantly make giblets out of anything in your path. While guns like the shotgun feel satisfying, there are a few that are underwhelming. I hardly ever utilized the revolver or flamethrower due to their inadequacy even when upgraded, only ever truly being used when my ammunition in the other weapons in my arsenal was low.
Three skills trees are used to progress your power and make Lo Wang into a bonafide badass. Ki crystals can be collected to add supernatural powers to your sword like a force push and a cleaving flame projectile, money is scattered around the game's maps to use for weapon upgrade, and karma points gained from killing enemies are used to upgrade passive abilities like sprint distance and stamina regeneration. The most useful of these abilities is a healing power. Shadow Warrior utilizes a health bar, like old school shooters such as System Shock 2, and scatters medpacks for regaining life across the game. Using the self heal, you can regenerate a portion of your health, similar to the system made popular by Call of Duty. The balance between these two systems works excellently, always encouraging players to engage in combat rather than hide behind cover to regenerate or avoiding combat completely to search for health packs.
Level design is linear in nature and involves some frustrating backtracking through levels, but never makes me feel overly constrained like some corridor shooters do. Levels have open areas to accommodate large numbers of enemies and the run-and-gun nature of old school shooters. Flying Wild Hog smartly focused on minimal puzzle mechanics-most of which simply involve opening sealed doors-and keeps players almost always fighting a slew of enemies. The variety of foes increases at just the right pace across the game, so I never felt like I was grinding through repetitive scenarios, and there are enough changes in pace to always keep you on your toes. Boss battles are peppered throughout the story and are visually impressive and intimidating. Unfortunately, the battles all follow roughly the same easy-to-learn pattern, making the fights more of a chore than a pleasure.
My only other gripe with the game is that it is relatively easy on normal difficulty, as you can slice and shoot your way through most battles without sustaining heavy damage. The best remedy for this is to tackle the game on a higher difficulty where the enemies hit much harder and makes you feel much more vulnerable. The Ex Mode is essentially a new game plus, letting you tackle the campaign at a higher difficulty with all your upgrades from your last playthrough. On the other hand, Heroic Mode offers the most difficulty by disabling your ability to save or activate checkpoints, requiring you to play through each level in one run in order to advance. With the most deadly forms of the game's enemies, it is truly a great challenge and adds significant replay value to the game along with Ex Mode.
Shadow Warrior is a great homage to the old school shooters of the '90s, with a humorous pairing off Lo Wang and Hoji, a surprisingly good plot, gory visuals, a hybrid health system, and tight gameplay. Rebooting the Shadow Warrior franchise has been a great success for Flying Wild Hog, showing significant improvement on what it accomplished with Hard Reset. If you are a fan of the original Shadow Warrior, you will surely be content with this modernized adaptation; the game is a must-have for fans of strong single-player-focused first-person shooters.