The original 1989 Shadow of the Beast is one of those mythical unicorns of my gaming life. The game was a punishingly difficult 2D side-scroller, but beyond that it just dripped with a certain mysterious and malevolent atmosphere that blew my tiny mind. It’s one of those gaming experiences that stays with you always. But as time passes the feeling becomes history, and that history becomes myth, to the point that you can’t really remember the exact feeling or what truly inspired it, just that it existed. I was hoping that Heavy Spectrum’s reimagining of Shadow of the Beast might remind me of what made the original so special and manage to reinvigorate a classic from my young gaming life, but unfortunately it isn’t the true spiritual successor to the Shadow of the Beast of my past. While it tries admirably to stay faithful to its iconic source material, it falls short on a couple of fundamental levels, holding it back from greatness.
A cheeky wink at the original
Shadow of the Beast follows the tale of the tormented Aarbron, stolen as a babe from his father’s arms and transformed into a hideous creature known as Beast. As Beast he is forced to do the bidding of a cruel sorcerer named Zelek who commands him to slaughter endlessly in the name of his lord Maletoth. The player controls Beast as he tries to break his chains and rise up against those that made him into the foul creature he has become in order to escape his cruel fate. The story follows that of the original and generally keeps moving along at a decent pace, although I would question slightly how the story is actually told. Finishing a level gives you access to Prophecy Orbs that fit into certain timelines and contain short snippets of narrated exposition. The ones you receive for completing a stage generally tell you what you just did and the consequences thereof, but there are others which have to be located through exploration which further flesh out the backstory. It seemed like a slightly clunky way of moving the narrative forward (and sideways at times), and perhaps brief cutscenes would have served better than the relatively static and lifeless stills with voice-overs.
Like stumbling into one of Willy Wonka’s creations
Feeling like a freak on a leash
Gameplay in Shadow of the Beast has two distinct components: side-scrolling puzzle platforming and score-based combat gameplay. The latter is by far the most fun of the two, as the controls while platforming are fairly unresponsive and awkward. Beast can run, jump and use his massive claws to grab onto and climb walls, but you don’t get the sense of momentum or fluidity that you do in a game such as Ori and the Blind Forest, and I never felt I could truly control Beast the way I wanted to (there’s a deep metaphor in there somewhere). The puzzles are all fairly standard, but exploration is fun and there’s plenty of secrets within each level to discover. The relatively disconnected and imprecise movement mechanics are definitely the game’s biggest let-down, and it becomes hard to become engaged in this section of the gameplay, which unfortunately makes up a large portion of your playtime.
Combat is definitely the highlight of Shadow of the Beast, and it’s clear that a lot of effort has gone into making the savage battles a frantic and bloody affair.
Combat is definitely the highlight of Shadow of the Beast, and it’s clear that a lot of effort has gone into making the savage battles a frantic and bloody affair. Combat comes in the form of Encounters, where a narrow section of the level will become cordoned off by magic barriers and enemies will pour in from left and right. While the end goal is to clear a set amount of enemies in order to progress, at its heart the combat is about scoring as much points as possible by being stylish about the way you dispatch your enemies and not getting hit in order to maintain a score multiplier. There are tonnes of moves at Beast’s disposal, and these affect a range of score attributes. While Beast can more or less kill most enemies with a simply press of the square button (in gloriously violent fashion), only doing that will net you a fairly poor score, and stunning an enemy before rolling behind them and stabbing them mercilessly in the back is a much more lucrative option. There’s also special moves that allow you to regain health or charge special attacks, but these consume blood which you’ll have to extract from the bodies of your fallen enemies. The combat is actually fairly difficult to get right and perhaps a little too busy in the end, but once you find a rhythm it feels pretty liberating (in a psychopathic kind of way), and it’s at these moments I felt most connected to the rage-filled Beast. These Encounters are fairly brief, however there are several strewn throughout the stages. You’ll want to do well in these as the points you get can be used to buy upgrades for Aarbron, as well as more cryptic things like tomes which will allow you to translate certain subtitles within the game and even a full emulation of the 1989 original. If you have the inclination I recommend you play through the brutal original (which in reality is actually difficult to the point of being unfair) just to hear the awesome 16-Bit soundtrack. You’ve never heard anything as sublimely eerie in all your life, and I was actually pretty disappointed the developers didn’t incorporate the original music into the game somehow.
U wot m8?
The game doesn’t play often enough with its 2.5D perspective
The combat is actually fairly difficult to get right and perhaps a little too busy in the end, but once you find a rhythm it feels pretty liberating … at these moments I felt most connected to the rage-filled Beast.
Shadow of the Beast at most times looks quite beautiful. Making good use of a wide palette of colours and competent use of lighting and textures, the environments change fairly dramatically from level to level; from the idyllic grassy plains at the beginning to the more alien environments with their strangely-coloured forests and graveyards littered with the bodies of fallen warriors, each stage has a distinct aesthetic. Enemy visual design is also good, and there’s some great looking bosses. It’s a pity then that the bosses are fairly lackluster in terms of actually fighting them, including the ludicrously strange final boss fight. I also think the levels could make better use of the 2.5D perspective at times, as they do tend to feel fairly flat when you traverse them.
The Aurora Borealis was hard to appreciate while I was knee-deep in bodies
Playing the game on Normal difficulty will take only about 6-8 hours to complete, however the developers have gone to lengths to entice you to replay. Given the heavy focus on score there are prominently-displayed leader boards for each stage to show you just how terrible you are compared to everyone else. There are also multiple unlockable endings that will likely take a run or two to achieve. For instance, respawning when you die consumes an innocent soul, but consuming these takes its toll on Beast and alters the ending to his story. If you’re looking for a further challenge, you can also try and take on the formidable Beast difficulty, where you have reduced health and harder Encounters, and no option of respawning using innocent souls.
Waking the demon
This is my serious face
Shadow of the Beast is a game that shows a clear amount of love for an idea, but fails to execute it to its full potential. While some pretty fun and visceral combat manages to buoy the experience, it’s impossible to ignore its shortcomings in terms of the platforming, and in the end it really hampers interactivity with the game. It’s certainly worth a look for PlayStation owners, but prepare yourself for some flaws amongst the fun.
Reviewed on PS4