There is a trend emerging in shooters, absolutely fueled by the likes of DOOM 2016’s stylings, and the movement emphasis found in titles like Titanfall 2 and…er, DOOM Eternal. The FPS genre has long finished its broody tactical shooter phase, and is letting its freak flag fly in the form of bombastic style shooters, of which Shadow Warrior 3 is a stellar example.
All good stories start with the main character in their undies
Shadow Warrior is a franchise I have always been rooting for. Starting off as a fun but overtly stereotyped DOOM clone in 1997, the rebooted version from 2013 managed to identify what made it neat and focus on its strengths, ditching the racism to instead form a modern foundation as a series that continues to one-up itself and surprise me time and time again. This time we see a pretty savage crank on the tone knob, blasting a severe injection of colour and zaniness into the IP – and it works.
The third instalment reaches deep into its own mythology to take another step into the absurd nature of its storytelling, finding the protagonist Lo Wang alone in his ruined Wang Cave – moping about in his underpants. Turns out the giant dragon from the end of Shadow Warrior 2 is a real bastard to kill, and the epic failure on Wang’s part has left him feeling washed up and pathetic. Thankfully Zilla (former antagonist and well known series Asshole) turns up and offers a truce to perhaps stop the dragon from eating the entire world.
There is no ‘eye’ in team
It is this uneasy alliance that plants the seed for character development within the game. What follows is a curiously flawed set of hare-brained schemes and failures, all anchored by Lo Wang learning about trust and hope. Every character may well have an agenda, but they are not too proud to admit when it may not be in their best interests to pursue it – allowing a somewhat warm tale of human nature to form the core of this tale. This is the promise from Flying Wild Hog, that while Shadow Warrior has always had a very puerile sense of humor inhabiting it, they can still tread a path to teach us all a little more about what makes humanity worth fighting for.
That isn’t to say the game is without its signature one-liners – they come in spades, adding a tidy exclamation point on the carnage you display. Stylishly evaporating a horde of yokai demons is made all the more satisfying by Lo Wang asking if “We clipped that,” in a crazy meta fourth wall break. This was unnerving, because I actually did use my video capture at that point (I am calling it coincidence for the sake of easing my mind though).
And stylish killing is by all means the main course, with a bundle of fun weapons and methods to turn enemies into soup. Sporting a far smaller number of weapons this time around means that each can have its own thunderous niche, and I was super satisfied at how naturally I would cycle through almost every one of them throughout a combat encounter. The enemy variety intuitively nudged me into using particular weapons to dispatch the different neon-coloured shitbags that sought my demise, by way of bullet or by blade, with a tasty little side dish of explosions for a treat.
These weapons could then be upgraded to ratchet up their potential, turning them from simple death-dealers into more creative, nasty little buggers. One upgrade simply removed the need to reload my shotgun – turning it into a near-bottomless barrage of slugs that would simply empty every shot I had with nary a pause. Another gave my railgun-like Basilisk cannon the ability to pierce enemies, while also slowing time briefly when I charged the shot. The upgrades are quite creative and lean into the breakneck pace of gunplay by opening up new and exciting player options.
There is a simple joy in trying to innovate how you dispatch enemies, whether you are launching them into a giant mincer or grappling an ice barrel to your location to flash-freeze surrounding punks for a shatter-spree, it’s the way it splatters that matters
You can also eschew firepower entirely if you wish to instead deliver swift steel to your enemies – the signature swordplay of the Shadow Warrior series is back, albeit simplified and now entirely dedicated to the right-click/alt-fire. At first it felt alienating not using the katana as a specific weapon, but rapidly it became apparent that having it so delightfully on-demand was a satisfying choice. It felt like every shooter that had ever had a melee attack button, only this attack does amazing AND bloody damage.
The genius of the system comes from the very arcadey nature of player pick-ups, where using your katana will cause defeated enemies to drop ammo, while using ranged weapons will cause them to drop health. Weave your methods of murder together to keep yourself healthy, and your ammo stocks full – all while enjoying the spectacle you are creating.
Lose your cool, lose your head
The real thrill comes from the inclusion of new Gore Weapons, shorter duration super weapons that are claimed by executing a yokai and yoinking a steampunk set of gun-gubbinz from its guts. These can range from a massive drill to pulp everything in your path, to a disco grenade that will blast a massive radius with beams of light. Then there’s my personal favourite, a massive falchion blade that will hurl you through the air to split your target in twain. These and more are all accessed by filling up your Execution Gauge by way of salvaged power ups and then triggering a gory finishing move on whatever poor sod has the goodies you want. Brilliantly, you will often find yourself scoping out the poor sucker well in advance and planning a specific weapon to help out your current situation – noting exactly which deadly toy is going to have the most impact.
As if killing demons with their own mechanical guts wasn’t enough, perhaps the most exciting gameplay element that is present in Shadow Warrior 3 is the inclusion of ridiculous environmental hazards, ranging from mundane spikes and pits, to glorious wood chipper blades the size of a city bus. Sometimes these will be static parts of the map, and you can shove and explode your prey into their awaiting maw, other times you will have a huge contextual button waiting for an errant bullet to activate its deathly offering – sending a massive rolling bulldozer of death charging through the arena, annihilating everything in its path. It never got old.
All this chaos had me gleefully recalling People Can Fly’s 2011 title Bulletstorm – the environmental hazards and grappling hook did most of the heavy lifting there – and it is in no way a negative thing. There is a simple joy in trying to innovate how you dispatch enemies, whether you are launching them into a giant mincer or grappling an ice barrel to your location to flash-freeze surrounding punks for a shatter-spree, it’s the way it splatters that matters.
Uh, lemme read that boss name again…
And the grappling hook is absolutely worth a mention – if not deserving of a crown as something that completely defines the game. Massive sections of the game will involve using the grappling hook to traverse, navigating absolutely enormous set pieces that dominate the environment, while also having a huge presence in combat, whether you are using it to rapidly relocate yourself to avoid enemy fire, or using it to hook into a hapless idiot so you can cleave them with you sword. Combining the grappling hook with the already generous double jump AND dash, means you end up playing this meta game of FLOOR IS LAVA while liquidating your foes. The game even puts a hat on its inclusion being part of a trend, with the protagonist clearly stating that all the cool kids are doing grappling hooks now.
This isn’t without error, however. On more than one occasion during my grappling hook traversals I would find myself trying to understand its rigid nature. By its very design, using the grappling hook to get somewhere tries puts you on a somewhat pre-determined path, which can be at odds with how you can approach a grapple point from any direction. If the grappling hook wants you to head southwest, approaching it from somewhere close to that direction means you endure a very awkward swing arc as the game tries to accommodate for you ‘doing it wrong’. This sometimes means your viewpoint is not where the developers expected, and you leave the grapple staring in the entirely wrong direction and will likely fall to your death as you miss a running wall or mantle-able ledge. You can also somehow end up with geometry between you and the place you are supposed to be going – where the game will then grasp you in place for a moment before unceremoniously dumping you straight down. In a combat encounter you can maybe use this to create a really doofy example of cover – but when moving across bottomless pits it is a death sentence.
Oh boy, the Easter bunny comes to ninjas as well!
This quirkiness with some of the game’s traversal comes to a frustrating head when you realise that the more involved set-piece encounters are dependent on you perhaps nailing the majority of your journey in one go. The closest I came to taking a break due to frustration was a particularly creative section where I had a grapple point located on a moving raft – and the game would task me with leaping off it to avoid hazards, do some ninja wall running, and then return to the raft. Grappling onto this moving target was fun at first, but quickly revealed that doing it ‘the wrong way’ was an instant fail, and many of my failed attempts felt more under-designed than truly a fuck up on my part.
There was also a light sprinkling of bugs during my experience, with enemies sometimes getting stuck in geometry, traversal sections suddenly not accepting that I wanted to run on that particular wall and one especially nasty experience where my katana just…vanished. At first I was confused that perhaps I had missed a story beat that maybe explained I had lost my sword for some reason – everything else was working flawlessly, my sword button just stopped responding to me. No slashy slashy meant no easy ammo replenishment, and eventually I just employed the old trick of restarting from checkpoint, and all was well. Odd.
Even a ninja should know better than to trust a fart
Perhaps the gravest mistake is the lack of creativity displayed for offering an opportunity for replayability. I understand that not every game needs hours upon hours of meaningless busy work – but the fact that the core gunplay loop within Shadow Warrior 3 takes place almost entirely within gorgeously designed arenas begs to ask why some kind of challenge mode wasn’t implemented. The title is just begging for a ‘drop in’ combat experience, perhaps with a leaderboard system and mutators to really amp it up – the combat is just that much fun. Hell, even throwing in the option for a co-op buddy to join you for a yokai slam-fest is a swoon-worthy thought. These sorts of things were present in Bulletstorm…just saying.
What did leave me curious was how wildly the game that has emerged differs from a lot of the marketing materials. Enemy types missing, sweeping changes to voice actors and even a curious amount of downplaying on newer characters’ roles within the title. The sorceress, Motoko, only really appears in any capacity twice, mostly to finagle a macguffin before vanishing again. Hell, her familiar – a racoon – gets two entire sections of gameplay dedicated to him, elevating his trash-panda status to starring role in comparison. With the long development time and eventual delay, it does make me wonder just how much the game has changed from its inception. This does not mean the final product is lacking or has nagging voids, it still feels very tightly packed. Perhaps these missing items are merely unwanted fat that was shed on the journey to the authentic Lo Wang experience.
This bloke joined the ‘found out’ club
Shadow Warrior 3 is a high flying, octane-fueled swerve on the franchise’s existing formula – with a strong desire to please, it hits far more often than it misses. Its only real crime comes from the shallowness of its replayability – relegating it to being more of a kiddie pool than the Olympic-sized aquatic playground it might have been. But as far as kiddie pools go, this one is a cracker.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher
- Flying Wild Hog
- Devolver Digital
- PlayStation 4 / Xbox One / PC
- March 1, 2022