Shadows Awakening Review - Fantastic and Flawed
Mortal adversaries are bound through life and death by a strange and powerful magic. In our preview we found an archmage, a long dead princess, and a demon inexorably and mysteriously bound together through an ancient artifact and political betrayal. As their journey unfolds they discover there are darker more sinister forces at play.
Shadows Awakening is an eclectic ARPG with familiar systems assembled in a unique way that give the game its own style and personality. The combat is skill based with an auto-attack on the left mouse button, but instead of “classes” in the classic sense there are characters with class roles such as fighter, mage, archer, and demon. Players have a main character, the demon, and can select two others to accompany them. More characters are unlocked through gameplay and each type belongs to a main role category but can be built and configured to play with a unique style within that role.
Characters And Combat
Each character has its own unique backstory that explains both its role and addition to the crew.
The demon, who is known as The Devourer, is an evil being who consumes the souls of those it encounters and destroys, except for the puppets. The Demon is a core character an always a member of your party. He is unique in that he is both tank and melee warrior with dark magic spells. His attack rating easily rivals that of warriors but has twice the defense rating. Unlike the rest of the puppets, when the Devourer dies the game ends and reloads from the last save.
The game starts with one of three main narrative characters (give players the choice of warrior, archer, or mage). I chose Evia a long dead Garulian princess. You gain further characters, called Puppets, as you slay certain powerful enemies. Instead of consuming their soul, they join your party and fight with you, under the control of your demon – or is it the other way around?
Every character has a list of skills that they unlock as they level. There are three skill slots, so the player must choose a combination of skills that works for them and fits in well with the entire party. Some characters work better against certain enemies and are weaker to others.
Additionally, there are talents that also unlock as your characters level. These can enhance your build with buffs such as increased regeneration or critical hit chance. They can also improve core stats or increase gold and drops. Many of these are based off base stats and only unlock once the stat is high enough. These are permanent and can’t be changed so choose wisely. I made that mistake in my first few trait choices and regret not waiting for more powerful traits to unlock. That added to a stifling feeling in the progression system.
Combat itself is extremely satisfying and easily tailored to an individual playstyle. Movement and skill execution are fluid and tight, reminiscent of Diablo combat, but that’s where the similarity ends. In Shadows Awakening you swap between characters, and thus classes and roles, in the middle of combat. It’s not so much that it affords you the opportunity, but rather requires it when the challenge puts the pressure on and is a key aspect of encounter strategy.
Players can control the flow of combat by switching between the two realms. While using the Devourer you’re in the Shadow Realm, while using the other puppets you’re in the real world.
Switching puppets affords the player a wide array of tactical opportunities such as breaking crowd control conditions. If one character gets rooted, silenced, stunned, heavily damaged, or even killed, you can switch to another character and keep on fighting. Since each character has 3 available skills, switching between them gives you a total of 12 skills. It also multiplies your health pool and opens up defensive options as all characters share spell effects such as “Flame Shield” which reduces damage and provides fire immunity for a short time.
Death in the game is “rogue-like” in that you reload from the last save when you die. This happens if the Devourer or all three puppets die. The game offers a variety of challenge modes and even an “old-school” option which disables quest and map markers.
The Loot Chase
Chasing loot is an important part of ARPG progression and Shadows Awakening stumbles a bit here. Gear comes in familiar quality tiers that are designated by the traditional color coding system gamers are used to: white, blue, green, gold, and purple. Augments can be added to a piece of gear upgrading its stats and abilities. This can be done up to four times, until it become Legendary (or purple) quality.
Gear stats are determined by the level of the gear when it drops so there is always new stuff to try or upgrade. Augments are found by the demon in the Shadow Realm and can also be purchased from shadow vendors. It costs gold to buy them and to insert them into the gear, even though there is no NPC interaction to justify the fee.
This is where the ball got dropped. Money and gold are finite resource as far as I can tell. This means the player has to decide whether they should upgrade a piece of gear or if it’s best to wait and spend those precious resources on better gear. In theory this should be interesting and depth to tactical character and team building. It doesn’t. It feels constrictive and stifling. It robbed most all the joy from the loot chase for me. The upgrade system and drops are fun but I didn’t get to play with twinking or powering up and that was disappointing.
The Story That Binds Them [Light Spoilers]
The premise of the plot is familiar – ancient artifact, powerful arcane forces, corrupt humanity, dark rites to feed off the souls of the dead to prolong life, what could possibly go wrong with that? The execution of the story is well woven and layered making it feel fresh and compelling.
Each main character has a unique story arc that touches the others from a different time period and perspective. The ancillary characters remain the same, but how they tie in is cleverly and slowly revealed as the story unfolds.
At the beginning we only know there is a hooded man of some power. We don’t understand how or why we’re summoned and bound to the demon or who this strange man is. Later we find out he is an archmage on the run from a conclave of mages corrupted by the power they sought to control.
Why are some souls bound to the demon? Why do some get consumed and others not? Who is in control, the Devourer, the puppets, the archmage, or something else? What really happened 300 years ago? What is this odd magic that pervades the story of each puppet in some manner or another? Those are the things that keep me pushing and pulling me along. Will it play out well and how will it all tie together?
Odds, Sods, and Flaws
There are a few aspects to Shadows Awakening that don’t fit neatly in other categories such as the puzzles, realm shifting and exploration, and the annoying flaws.
Shadows is truly and eclectic mix of systems and somethings they don’t fit together neatly. The puzzles are one such system. Sometimes they fit right in and enhance the beautifully crafted and immersive world, and other times they feel like bolted on packages of frustration that serve nothing more than interrupt the flow of play. The worst offenders in my opinion are the dexterity / platforming puzzles. For some, if you can’t make it past the dexterity check, then you’re not progressing any further in the game until you solve that puzzle. Others are optional, but like I said not all are bad and some are rather clever. It’s the hit and miss nature of them which drags the game down because when they interfere, they really interfere.
Realm switching is a part of combat, but also exploration. Different paths, doors, and bridges open or close depending on which realm you are in which is determined by whether you have the demon selected or not. The shadow realm also houses different treasure chests, destructible objects, and enemies. Shifting between realms can impose a lot of map backtracking, but it’s way more fun than the few times it felt tedious.
The game has a couple serious flaws though, the most serious being progression and the second being bugs. As mentioned previously progression feels stifled and even suffocating at times. There doesn’t seem to be a way to farm more resources. There are no “Lesser Rifts” to run in order to level up a bit or pad your gear. That made the experience feel more guided and on rails than it should.
There are also too many bugs. There is a bugged quest from the first chapter that is still broken. It’s a minor side quest, but still annoying. The bugs or glitches are all minor, but enough to detract from the experience.
The voice acting is very good, especially for an Indie game, however the designers trigger voice over comments far too frequently with too little dialog variation. You can turn down voiceovers, but then you lose the entire narrative which is voiced as well. The only one I’m not tired of hearing is the demon screaming out, “Pathetic! I’ll handle this myself.”
So, after all that criticism and a 6.2 score, you might think this game should be a pass. It’s not. It’s a really cool game with some very annoying flaws. It has familiar almost rote systems but when put together give the game its own unique charm and flavor. I do recommend this game especially if you’re a fan of uniquely styled ARPGs with an interesting story that makes you want to know what is next. At $40 base price, it might be worth waiting for a sale if you’re worried about getting your value for the money.
Note: Our copy was reviewed on Steam with a code provided by PR.
- Immersive atmosphere
- Satisfying Combat
- Interesting narrative
- Platforming and puzzles are hit and miss
- Progression feels controlled and stifling