It’s been two years since Heavy Spectrum CEO Matt Birch announced the revival of a classic 16-bit franchise at Gamecom 2013 in Cologne, Germany. Working closely with Sony Computer Entertainment, XDEV Studio Europe, the small game developer was bringing back the old Psygnosis classic Shadow of the Beast. Sony had long since retired or closed down what was left of Psygnosis, the publisher of the original games, but had sat on the IP for years. The announcement, alongside one of the biggest gaming conventions worldwide, made many a retro gaming fan’s ears prick up. A short teaser video was posted to YouTube and on a few gaming websites, then came… silence.
For two years, virtually no news was heard about the game, leaving old fans wondering. After all, Shadow of the Beast was considered one of the hallmark titles of the 16-bit eras or at least, in European home computer circles. The game wasn’t really a revelation gameplay-wise. Truth be told, it contained some rather obtuse puzzles, as anyone who didn’t immediately turn his character around after starting the game soon realized. On the other hand, it was an outright beautiful game with a great soundtrack. Since the visuals and sound were what made the game stand out in the first place, what would that mean for a possible remake for the newest generation of home consoles?
Well, at Gamescom 2015, we finally got an answer to that question. Without much fanfare, Sony allowed visitors a sneak peek at a couple of upcoming PS4 games in beta stage behind closed doors. One of these games: the revamped, all-new, Shadow of the Beast. In fact, it seems like there was only a solitary console at the whole Gamescom that ran an early preview of the game, so I grabbed the opportunity to have a closer look. Two years after the first announcement, about 25 years after the original game, and more than 20 years since the last game in the franchise was made, what impressions did the new visit to the magic land of Karamoon leave behind? Well… truth be told, it was kind of a mixed bag. What I could gather from the roughly 20 minutes I could spend with the game left me wanting for more, but not necessarily in a good way.
In similar fashion to the original, our protagonist Aarbron was turned into a bestial creature bound into servitude, but he has somehow regained some of his old memories and now tries to break free from his dark master Maletoth. The Karamoon seen in the playable demo is a barren wasteland with jagged cliffs, gloomy caves, and vast deserts devoid of life - safe for the shadowy, bestial creatures we have to face in our journey. The visuals aren’t bad, mind you; wind is blowing waves of sand down the dunes, stone is crumbling… but what the game has to offer for now looks relatively bleak and devoid of life, a far cry from the lush graphics the original games were known for. It seems very “powered by Unity engine,” which doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it doesn’t look like they squeezed out everything they could out of the resources at hand, either. In fact, the environments on display reminded me less of a fantasy realm with forests and plains like in the original Beast games and more of ’80s era sword & sorcery movies like Conan the Barbarian, or ironically enough, The Beastmaster.
The game itself plays like some kind of 2.5D platformer. Most of the time you watch the hero from the side, exploring the lands from left to right (or right to left, depending on the passage). The scenery is broken up across several screens, and to find your way you have to scale walls or pass some jumping puzzles to proceed. Every once in a while, your path is blocked by enemies or magical barriers, and you have to fight our way through. Once all enemies are defeated, the way is cleared.
Combat is a very timing-based affair. You cant’t just plow through enemies by mashing the same button over and over again. Some enemies have to be stunned with the square button and then finished off by hitting the triangle button. Others carry a shield and have to be bypassed by hitting the circle button and effectively back-stabbed. It kind of reminds one of the fighting in the Batman Arkham games, only on a 2D plane instead of in three dimensions. After finishing off a couple of enemies, you may enter something the game calls “Blood Rage,” a mechanic with a certain QTE flair: Hit the direction of the nearest enemy (to your left or right) and the triangle button at just the right moment, and you may finish off several enemies in a row with just one hit each. It’s certainly different from your usual kind of button-mashing brawler. Hitting the touchpad also allows your hero to thrust shadowy spikes from the ground, hitting most of the onscreen enemies at once.
Being a beta and all, several aspects of the game are unfinished as of yet. Still, I found the experience a bit lacking. Combat felt a bit tough, since I felt it hard to get a good flow going. The platforming also felt a bit imprecise, as the protagonist always seems to jump a tad shorter than you would expect. Finally, at least in these early stages, there was very little variety, especially when it came to the enemies. The dark, shadowy beasts look very similar to one another and weren’t very interesting to fight.
But these were only the first parts of the game, and there are bits and pieces there that seem to promise more. The game utilizes an intriguing mechanic that, for lack of a better term, I would describe as some sort of “Reverse Life System.” If you die and continue, a counter goes up, representing the number of “Innocent Souls Consumed.” So there is very dark magic at work that keeps you alive, which would be very much in tune with the original games. It also left me wondering whether this sinister, foreboding message comes into play in different aspects as well later on. Furthermore, in one early cut scene, we see a colossal, monstrous creature break free from its shackles, crashing through a wall in a swath of destruction, a possible future boss encounter against a foe ten times your size, perhaps? That could be interesting.
Overall, the game didn’t leave me very impressed, at least not in its current state. Though there are a few nice bits here and there, it seems like there is still quite a bit of work to be done until the game sees a finished state. While looking decent, you probably shouldn’t expect Shadow of the Beast to be the impressive visual marvel it once was. However, if the scenery in the finished game is more diverse and the game mechanics receive some much-needed polish to make the timing-based attacks shine and the platforming less sluggish, then it could make for a pretty decent modern platformer, one that makes a few callbacks to its roots but still gives the whole affair more modern and improved gameplay features (which, let’s face it, are much-needed). It won’t be a huge AAA affair, but really, that wasn’t to be expected.