Review and Screenshot Page
In my everlasting search for another game like Blade of Darkness, I try out many games that might even be remotely like it... I've tried Archangel, Rune, Enclave, Gothic I and II, Demon Stone, Blood Omen 2, and Apocalyptica. While all of the aforementioned games are good games in their own right.. they fall short of the combat perfection that is Blade of Darkness. I know it's not fair to the makers of this game, but throughout this review I will be making references to Blade of Darkness in many aspects that the games are similar or different.
And then the Shade demo is quietly released, and after seeing the screenshots I decide to try it out. And I like it. It wasn't groundbreaking, but it had lots of potential. Days... weeks went by.. The game was released on the 1st of October, 2004 and I had no clue. More days and weeks went by and I simply happened to see it at an Electronics Boutique store in Douglasville, Georgia. Of course I picked it up right then.
You first start out in Italy (I think) looking for your brother. The town is completely empty save for some zombies.. When you get to the house he was supposed to be in you find he is gone. An angel appears and says you have to do what he/she (the gender is not specified in the game.. the voice sounds female, but the main character refers to it as "it", and the subtitles say "him" when he says "it"..) says in order to find your brother. It was right about here where I stopped paying attention to the story.
At first you are armed only with a pistol, but later get a neat glowing white sword (similar to the sword of Ianna in Blade) and the ability to morph into a demon. You can also pick up any enemy dropped weapon (like Blade), but unfortunately you cannot stock it in your inventory. If you climb a ladder or rope you must drop it. With the touch of a button you can morph into a demon. The effects during this transition are impressive (movie, 1 meg) and while in demon form, with your talon arms you can really knock the hell out of some zombies... You are invincible (but any damage taken will reduce your time as a demon) and your strength is devastating.
With the sword you can perform special moves (or combos, as I like to call them), and as you progress through the game, you acquire more combos (again, similar to Blade). It wasn't until halfway through the game before I even figured how to execute one. You press F1 to see what combos you can do (also, exactly like Blade) and all they will say is "up, up" or "right, right", etc.. Somehow I figured out that to perform it, you need to be in your blocking stance while holding the attack button and press the directions on the keyboard for which special move you want to perform. Once I figured this out, a whole new level of depth was added to the combat.
As a demon, you can also collect (by finding glowing golden tears hidden in barrels and far corners in various places, and using them as money to buy spells later on) and cast fairly useless spells such as fireballs, fire walls, fire swarms, and freeze. My favorite spell was "Skulls of Death" where a bunch of skulls would float around your head, and when an enemy comes close they fly off one by one towards it and explode on contact. Unfortunately by the time I got the spell the enemies where strong enough to withstand all six explosions.
The enemies are varied in looks, but not so much in combat style. You have your archers, your melee fighters, and your spell casters. The spell casters and archers mostly run away from you until they get far enough, and then try to injure you with a ranged attack. The melee enemies run directly at you and swing when they get close... and if there's more than one they will try to surround you (in which is the best time to morph, take a couple of swings and watch the corpses fly!). There is a major flaw in the pathfinding when they attack you, though. If you jump onto a ledge they will walk to the point where you jumped up from, and then begin following the wall until they inevitably get lost. I've actually had to chase some of them down so I could hack 'em.
Character movement was very stiff at first... The 1.2 patch released soon after I installed the game fixed a lot of this (namely the ability to withdraw and sheath your sword while moving), but it's still not nearly as fluid as Blade. When you swing your sword while standing still there are two directions it can go. When you swing the sword while you are moving forward there are several directions it can go. What makes this a problem, is there is no way to predict which of these directions the swing will go. Sometimes it goes from right to left, sometimes from left to right, sometimes it's an overhead swing.. I haven't figured out which one depends on what.. But this lack of predictability makes precise killing very difficult. What I feel should have been a step-back, go-forward swing is now turned into 'run up close to the enemy and press the button and hope that it hits'.
You also have the ability to do long running jumps, grab ledges (and walk with your hands sideways), slide down ziplines, and a few other things. One of the better 'moves' that your guy has is when you walk off a ledge, he will quickly turn around and grab it thus saving himself from horrible death. If you happen to be holding the sword at the time, he will sheath it lighting fast before grabbing the ledge. Too bad he can't swing it at the bad guys that quick. :(
The gameplay has many characteristics. Part of it is using your abilities (climb ladders, jump, scale walls, etc.) to get from one point of a room to another. There will be spikes at the bottom, or a wall coming at you, or swinging pendulums trying to knock you off of platforms. It's all there.
Part of it is melee combat (though not much tactics are involved). Part of it is ranged combat (a la First Person shooters.). The shooting part of the game isn't the best out there, but it's effective. You can do this in either third person or first person.. since I couldn't aim at all in the third person, I always switched to first when using this method. The pistol is amazingly accurate (basically, if the crosshair is on the target, it will get hit), as well as the bow (though there is a time delay for the arrow to reach it's target.. so lead when nessecary). You also have fire-shooting spells as the demon that work in a similar fashion. Sometimes I got so hung up on melee, that I forgot to use the gun and crossbow.. In tough battles they are very handy as long as you can stay out of the range of your enemies. You cannot shoot while moving, but this is a minor encumbrance.
Another part of the gameplay is puzzle related. There will occasionally be large cubes of concrete that can only be moved by the demon, and moving them will allow you to get to required areas of a map. There are also thinking puzzles (a la Tomb Raider.. but not nearly as many) where you will have to turn something, watch it's result.. turn another thing watch the result.. and keep doing it until things get straight (that's as general as I can get). Also there are buttons/tiles you will have to press in certain sequences.. and finding what the sequences are supposed to be can be tough. And of course you have the typical 'find a key to unlock a door' puzzles. I was disappointed in the fact that there are no "shoot the button" puzzles.. There were things sticking out of walls in various unreachable places that looked like they could have been buttons to shoot.. but shooting them resulted in nothing more than a little less ammo. I think it's possible that this was in the original game design, but did not make it to the final cut.
The graphics are the strongpoint of this game. Almost every texture is highly detailed and even bumpmapped. They are well placed around a level so that they blend perfectly. The lighting is also another strongpoint... Every torch or spell cast creates a glowing light that lights up the walls and objects around it. The environments are incredibly detailed.. from castles (the architecture of which was very similar to Blade, complete with evil churches), to medieval suburbs (houses made out of brick and wood.. cobblestone roads and bridges), to ancient temples and memorials and oasis' (hieroglyphics, crazy statues, salamanders.. :) ), to the shadowland where bones of humongous animals lay in strange parts of the map everywhere.. glowing heat coming from the ground (with which a motion blur effect is applied when you are near), and old scraggly trees reaching for the sky. There's also a swamp level, but it seemed rushed.. Far in the background you can see large boats that were immobilized, but if you tried to reach them you died instantly from an invisible wall that if touched kills you. The final level was neat too. Floating marble platforms lit by white torches surrounded by pitch black.. Reminded me of a section in the book Eye of the World. You have the option to use detailed shadows.. When the shadows are working, they usually look okay (though not nearly as realistic as Blade's). Unfortunately, 90% of the time there are no shadows being rendered.. even if you chose to render them always in the options screen.
Enemies also matched the locations perfectly. In the castles suburbs you had knights, skeletons, zombies and sorcerers.. and in the Aztec-land (?) you had these men with dog heads (as well as skeleton versions) and large hard to kill scorpions. In the shadowland you had spiders that were almost completely transparent and were very hard to kill (a time where the crossbow came in handy) and floating brains that shot blue fireballs at you. The final level had the best enemies (which you got a preview of in the very first level).. large humanoid octopus looking things that throw high damaging fireballs from very long distances.. And if you get close, two or three swings from their hook arms will make you have to reload your game.
The sound was pretty good for the most part. The footsteps of walking, running, and crouch walking were all the same sound at the same volume.. this was the only thing I didn't like. The music is very well orchestrated.. professional sounding even. Sound effects are accurate.. sword swinging, sword hitting, sword sheathing, sword unsheathing all sound exactly as you'd expect. My favorite sound effect though.. was when you killed a sorcerer he screams a bellowing sound.. deep, producing a dismal echo where he falls. That sound makes you feel like you killed something very dangerous.
The voice acting, unfortunately.. is nothing short of horrible. The dialogue between the main character and the angel that follows him around is best Esc'd out of as soon as it starts. The main character's voice makes him sound like he should be named something like "Snake Logan".. I guess he talks a little like Clint Eastwood. And then there's the one-liners where he mouths off to the angel or talks to himself while exploring tombs. One comment he made, "I need an insecticide, not a sword" when climbing down into a room full of beetlebugs made me smile.. but most of the other one-liners kept me from smiling at anything for hours (they weren't funny at all). One of the best examples of the bad voice acting is towards the end of the game when he screams/hisses "Where...........IS........MY..........BROTHER??!!" into the pitch black sky. If you've gotten to that point, and have the US version of the game you'll surely know what I'm talking about.
The game wasn't overly difficult.. There were times where I had to take a break from an end boss(s) or a certain part in a level that I just couldn't figure out. Every time I came back it was with a vengeance, and chances are all I needed to do was change something minor in my tactics in order to proceed. I finished it in about 15 hours playing time (reloading included), which to me seemed a bit longer than it should have been, but this way you get more for your money. I used no strategy guides or walkthroughs to finish the game, but I'm sure I missed many secret areas because of this.
I highly recommend that if you have this game, to download the 1.2 patch as it adds a new play mode called Time Combat, where you are pitted against a certain number of respawning enemies and you must defeat them all as fast as you can. Your fastest time is saved.. and you have to keep playing to beat it.. Unfortunately, there are only two maps of this nature, and no more unlocked when you beat the game. Hopefully in a future patch BlackElement can add a few more. Or better yet, release a level editor for users to make their own maps.
As I said before, this is the strongpoint of the game. Levels are meticulously
designed with objects scattered in places that add a lot to the realism of the atmosphere.
One thing I found strange.. is that everything seemed small. Like instead of a castle
I was exploring a doll house.. with little doll tables and chairs. I don't understand
why I perceived things this way.
The music is outstanding. You can even see for yourself by downloading the soundtrack
from the official site. Sound effects where nicely done (except for the footsteps)
and enemy growls and howls were scary enough. The voice acting (as well as the voice
sounds) was well below par, unfortunately. This prevented me from getting into the story
and truly getting immersed in the game world.
This was the weakest part of the 'big five' criteria. Moving the character felt
like he was velcro'd to the floor most of the time. Swinging the sword was unpredictable
and clumsy at times. It wasn't until I learned how to execute a special move that
I was able to swing when I wanted, and how I wanted. There is no ability to strafe,
unless in first person mode. Moving to the right will result in you running to the
right, and thus swinging your sword to your right. If an enemy is directly in front
of you when you this, you will hit nothing but air. I would have liked the ability to
circle around an enemy, by either strafing/turning or "locking on" (like Blade) to them..
But you can't have everything the way you want it, and who knows.. maybe others like it
better the way it is.
Without this being good, the game is no good. And I would not be reviewing Shade, if I
did not think it was good. I enjoyed playing through the game a lot.. There's plenty to
explore and plenty of environments to see. Level progression was well balanced, enemies
and puzzles were rarely frustrating. You save your game not with quicksaves, but through
savepoints (a la Enclave) in various places in various levels (another thing the 1.2 patch
added was more of these) that luckily, were near critical parts of the game. There is an
excellent balance of challenge and fun that is hard to find in many games. Also at times,
I found myself hopelessly addicted to playing.. unable to exit the game to attend to important
real life matters. Like eating and sleeping.
A very worthy effort for the first game from BlackElement Software.. It has a high
level of polish on it, which is apparent the very first moment you look at the title
screen. There were many details visible throughout the game that showed a great amount
of work and effort went into Shade. I enjoyed the game very much, and truly
appreciated the atmosphere created by the level design team.
Not once did I encounter a major game bug or crash. There were times when I thought my character
would get stuck between two objects, but he always managed to float out of it..
The game seems to be very solid in the aspect of reliability.
I love the fact that they added a new mode with a patch, and are still working to
improve it by any means necessary. It is all too common that a developer forgets about
the game they created once it reaches the shelves, and I am extremely grateful that
BlackElement did not let Shade fall into the same fate.
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