Shadows: Heretic Kingdom instantly falls into that oh-so-vague “action RPG” category, a net so broad it catches some of the biggest successes of the past decade (Mass Effect, Torchlight, Dragon Age) and some of the less impressive titles (Diablo III, we’re looking at you). This is a particularly difficult genre to purchase into – mainly because the gaming gold/absolute shite line runs particularly thin.
This particular developer has yet to make a real impact with the Shadows titles, a fact they acknowledge on the game’s Steam page and claim to be addressing. Bear in mind that the game is in Early Access and still a long, long way from being finished (still in pre-alpha at time of writing) so from here on out consider this all subject to change.
The core concept is pretty cool – you play as a demon called the Devourer, who has the ability to use mortal souls as puppets. It’s essentially a fancily wrapped way around choosing your character, but shifting back and forth between the demon and the puppet becomes an interesting little game mechanic in its own right. So far, there are just the three classes available with the promise of more on the way – the bog standard archer, warrior and mage (who was unavailable at time of preview).
Ever favouring the archer, I waded in shaft first. The Diablo influences are certainly strong in this one, but say what you will about Blizzard’s divisive title, it’s well designed, and not a bad building block to start with (After all, the Torchlight games came out of Diablo’s wheelhouse). It’s genuinely difficult to build an opinion one way or the other with the available content, and what was either a sharp difficulty spike or me being completely braindead resulted in some low level mobs giving my virginal archer far too hard a time. I’m all for the challenge but a level one spiderling should not be able to ruin my day at any point.
It doesn’t help that the combat feels particularly sluggish at current, something especially obvious when you play as the melee class – there’s a big delay between clicking and actually hitting, and when basic mobs can cleave a quarter of your health away in a single strike, it makes for a slightly frustrating experience. It doesn’t feel balanced, and it’s hard to find any fluidity or flow in the fight. The only thing that really provides a ‘hook’ is the obvious promise in the game’s core mechanics and the lovely visuals. There’s so much yet to come it’s hard to establish an opinion one way or the other.
You can shift between the mortal puppet and The Devourer at will, which proves necessary in traversing dungeons (the mortals will do the majority of the grunt work whilst the demon can pass through certain obstacles and find spectral bridges) and I’m assuming that as the game progresses you can pick up new puppets to switch between as there’s a specific hotkey for each mortal instrument, all carrying the promise of specific quests and subplots down the line. If a synergy can be found between the available mortals, we may end up with an engrossing Trine style mechanic, switching between heroes on the fly to better suit our combat needs. The thought of pelting a group of mobs with arrows and spells before switching to the melee class to charge in and finish the job is pretty exciting considering the stilted feel to the combat so far. There’s a lot of potential here – it needs only to be expanded upon.
The game world is pretty, but the ways in which you interact with it still feel unpleasantly static and old school. It has that weird kind of lingering, staggered movement vibe most remastered/reskinned classic games have. I’m not much of a fan of mouse-based movement and it certainly doesn’t do Shadows any favours.
If there’s one thing Shadows definitelyhas going for it, it’s Tom Baker providing voice over. Because if the presence of the Fourth Doctor isn’t going to sell something to you, then what will? Decent gameplay mechanics. Beautifully decrepit environments. And charming slices of Britannia. Can I add points for Tom Baker? And does that mean I have to give Little Britain some merit?… I hope not.
Is it worth buying in this early? Probably not – but Shadows has some alarmingly bright glimmers of promise and it could very well shape up to be a real contender, provided the combat improves over time and the so far capable design holds up. There’s not an awful lot to go on at this moment in time but if it keeps shaping up the way it is, we just might have a hit on our hands.
Look out for an update on this preview as development progresses.
Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms will be available for 27.99€ / 27.99$ / 22.99£ throughout Steam Early Access: http://store.steampowered.com/app/256030/