Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Beyond Shadowgate

ICOM Simulations / TTI / Viacom New Media
Super CD-ROM

This puzzle-centric adventure game seemed like a sure thing to me. Shadowgate is my favorite NES game by far, and I even like the N64's much-maligned Trial of the Four Towers. Plus, back in the day, I dug Sierra's Quest games (which this title is highly reminiscent of) and the TG-16's similar-in-style Loom. So all the ingredients necessary for success seemed to be in place here.

Well, being that I experienced lots of awesome monster encounters while playing through the first Shadowgate, I've expected subsequent episodes to provide plenty of cool creatures to deal with. Shadowgate 64 let me down in this regard, but BS comes through with a minotaur, a troll, a wraith, and all sorts of other beasts and demons.

I also expect a good bit of humor in my Shadowgate experiences, and once again, BS does not disappoint, as it incorporates lots of creative ways to die, lots of silly situations for the protagonist to stumble into, and plenty of amusing NPC utterances. The humor here involves goofiness as opposed to the wittiness displayed by the original, but hey, funny is funny. The only scene that takes the goofiness too far is that of the final confrontation, as the main character looks absolutely ridiculous and the dialogue is remarkably awful ("He offered me everything a man could want. But... I'm NOT a MAN!").

Of course, more important than monsters and gags in a Shadowgate game are puzzles, and BS's are pretty darn easy to solve. They're preferable to the absurd conundrums that Shadowgate 64 presents, but the first game in the series is just about perfect as far as challenge goes, so it's a little disappointing that this one doesn't deliver a few more cleverly conceived brain teasers.

The "challenge" to be found here basically comes in two forms. You need to be careful about what you spend your gold on and whom you kill, at least if you want to see everything the game has to offer. I'm sure the designers were thinking replay value here, but I like it when a title of this ilk requires you to make all (or at least most) of the right moves the first time through rather than forcing you to take shots in the dark during subsequent journeys. Also, at times, items you can pick up blend in so "well" with the background graphics that you may not even notice that they're there.

But whether the puzzles in a Shadowgate are hard or easy to solve, I like to have good music to listen to while I'm working on them. The original's soundtrack is a classic, a perfect mix of eeriness and catchiness; and heck, great music is probably what saved Shadowgate 64 for me. The tunes here... well... I don't know if I can really say. You see, every time you step into a different strip, the game has to load, so the music stops playing. You often don't spend more than a few seconds on a single strip, so even if the musical track remains the same in the next one, it has to start all over again. It's possible to jaunt along through four or five different segments and hear just the first few seconds of a particular tune over and over again. What I've heard isn't bad, but it doesn't really compare with the music in the other Shadowgates. There are plenty of ominous tracks as well as a jolly town number.

The interminable cycle of stopping and restarting the tunes essentially kills the atmosphere for me. It isn't until the final all-too-short journey through Castle Shadowgate that I really find myself immersed in the adventuring. There's an awesome hall of monster statues; a creepy organ room where you meet a wild elephant man; and of course, a gong-and-ferryman scene that'll stir up fond recollections for Shadowgate vets.

Castle Shadowgate isn't the only place that looks good here. Sometimes, the background graphics are a little too static, so it looks like the hero is walking past a painting rather than treading through a real environment. But there are beautiful woods, quaint rustic towns, and appropriately dead-looking marshlands in addition to the aforementioned awesome castle strips.

Unfortunately, navigating these neat-looking locales can prove tiresome, as the hero traipses along at a very slow pace. The slow walking in and of itself doesn't annoy me much, but combine it with said hero's inability to walk diagonally and the fact that he controls kind of stiffly, not to mention that you have to do lots of backtracking, and BS ends up feeling slow and tedious at times. Also, the interface is cumbersome; an additional button on the TurboPad probably would've worked wonders for it. The occasional punch-ups feel awful with the scheme that was implemented.

All in all, BS is a good game, but I don't like it as much as I do the original or 64. To be honest, as far as this sort of title goes, Loom has proven to be a little more enjoyable for me. One last interesting thing to note is that BS's protagonist was voiced by the same guy who did a great job voicing Lykos for Shape Shifter (but he delivered a finer performance in SS).

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