Shadow of the Beast review

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform PS4
Publisher Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer Heavy Spectrum
Release Date May 17, 2016

Do you have fond memories of Shadow of the Beast?

No, not Altered Beast, that retro grave was already desecrated in Europe and Japan in 2005. We're talking about Shadow of the Beast.

Let's say you do, in fact, have a soft spot for the 1989 cult classic from Reflections and Psygnosis. Despite the lengthy development time (the remake was announced way back in 2013) you're eagerly waiting to see how demonic warrior Aarbron has made the leap to modern platforms.

If that describes you, then you ... you had better sit down.

There is much wrong with Shadow of the Beast

Shadow of the Beast was a standout when it was originally released on Amiga computers, largely for the parallax scrolling graphics that put so many of its contemporaries to shame. It also had one heck of a cool score.

The remake of Shadow of the Beast being released in 2016 by Heavy Spectrum has neither of these advantages to lean on. It's got some interesting art choices and a decent soundtrack, but neither are radical enough to stand on. No, this new Shadow of the Beast has to live or die by its mechanics and ... well, it certainly does one of those things.

Spare me a paragraph to sum up the story: Aarbron is a magic baby turned into a mindless demon warrior by an evil wizard named Maletoth. But when Maletoth charges him with tracking down another magic baby (greedy), Aarbron also kills the baby's human guardian ... who just happens to be his own human father. The unintentional patricide reminds him what he once was, and sets him on a quest for vengeance against Maletoth.

shadow of the beast review screen 1

Shadow of the Beast is, like its predecessor, a two-dimensional brawler that, unlike its predecessor conflates hyper-violence with modernity (Aarbron's hands are two big murder prongs for crying out loud). Sadly, in the pursuit of stylishly violent combat animation, Heavy Spectrum has sacrificed fluidity and fun.

There is much wrong with Shadow of the Beast, but most of it daisy chains back to this: It's sluggish. Button presses feel less like commands and more like suggestions. I lost count of how many times I got hit with a cheap shot from behind because I was performing some stylish attack animation on the monster in front of me. Every fight feels like it's being conducted in a vat of half-congealed Jello.

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Aarbron has some special moves, like an attack that siphons health or one that ups the experience points he's awarded for each fight. But the demonic warrior controlled so poorly, I was almost always rewarded for my flashiness by getting sucker punched. I learned to stick with the basic dodge-punch-repeat-forever combo.

I can't imagine a game good enough to claw its way out of a core gameplay loop of perfectly blended boredom and frustration. Shadow of the Beast doesn't even come close.

For starters, the sluggishness bleeds into the platforming segments that surround the combat. Every jump is granted an added layer of tension when it's anyone's guess as to when Aarbron will decide to leave the ground after the "X" button is pressed. The platforming feels terrible, and it makes it discouraging to unearth secrets hidden throughout each level when getting around feels so bad.

Here's the hitch: If you don't seek those secrets out, you probably won't have any clue what's happening in the story. Baffling as it may sound, the actually surprisingly decent tale of Aarbron's vengeance must be unlocked piecemeal via hidden collectibles. Actually collecting those spheres requires you to waste one of Aarbron's extremely powerful screen-clearing special attacks. I have no idea why.

There's a lot I'm in the dark about regarding Shadow of the Beast, so poorly did it communicate with me. I got stuck for a full hour because I couldn't find a mission-critical item better hidden than any of the game's secret collectibles. Shadow of the Beast actually works itself up to a few half-decent puzzles, but they were only admirable after I stumbled into a solution, because in the moment they hovered between baffling and infuriating.

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Perhaps the best example of this issue: Boss fights and other tricky sections are often accompanied by glaring white text at the bottom of the screen explaining what needs to happen to proceed. The way forward isn't illuminated by environmental hints or by building on previous mechanics. It's just barfed out in front of you with all the deft subtlety of a full-volume GPS unit.

It took me around four hours to finish Shadow of the Beast (including that hour I got stuck). In that time, the only time I experienced anything that could have been mistaken for pleasure was when I briefly checked out the 1989 original packed in with the remake. Oh, I also won a particularly heated match of Clash Royale I had fired up during one of Shadow of the Beast's lengthy loading screens.

Wrap Up:

Shadow of the Beast's recreation leaves no room for modern ideas

If Shadow of the Beast is in any way effective, it's as a cautionary tale of the dangers of nostalgia. This revival appears to have been created by people who dearly love the original game, but it's so slavish in its recreation, there's no room for modern ideas to be injected (or outdated ones to slough off).

This entertainment decade has been defined by attempts to revisit games, movies and characters and somehow enliven them for a modern audience. Let Shadow of the Beast stand to remind us that some things, no matter how beloved, should — nay, must — stay buried.

Shadow of the Beast was reviewed using a pre-release "retail" PSN code provided by Sony. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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