Shadow Warrior Review: Cutting and Joking

Lo Wang slices his way back into our lives, and Phil is quite thankful for it.

There are some things we just have to accept from games criticism: my mood going into a game impacts the evaluation; the evaluation may change in my head over time; and binging on a game, as we are wont to do on deadline, can play a big part in the first two things.

But binging also lays certain things bare. In the case of Shadow Warrior, a four-hour session with the game made it very clear to me that while Flying Wild Hog has produced the Most Art Directed Game of the Year, probably, and slicing a dude to pieces with a katana is super awesome, this is a very repetitive experience. Encounters with the bad guys — mostly demons of various sorts — do escalate as the game progresses, but only incrementally; so while you can easily delineate between a fight an hour into the campaign and one five hours in, the evolution that creates that gap is slow.

On the other hand, taking eight hours off from the game to do other things before hopping back in emphasized something else entirely for me: Shadow Warrior‘s katana is the weapon of huge year, as having a legitimate melee weapon to use in what would aesthetically be classified as a first-person shooter is thrilling in so many ways. That said melee weapon actually will slice and dice your foes into little pieces is its own great joy as well, even if the cutting isn’t as dynamic as it was in Metal Gear Rising earlier this year. When you look ahead to November and see a next-gen game in Ryse from Crytek handing you a sword but not allowing you to actually cut anybody’s legs off with it, you have to appreciate these sorts of things whenever and however you can get then.

And so, as with Flying Wild Hog’s previous effort, Hard Reset, we are getting an action experience that is immediately novel and exciting but becomes repetitive over time. Shadow Warrior’s katana novelty factor is not-insignificantly greater than that of Hard Reset’s transforming weapons, and so in that way it is inherently a more consumable experience. They didn’t coast on that novelty, however.

Right before I first got to try my hand at this new Shadow Warrior at E3 this summer, one of the developers at the Hog commented to me that they look back on Hard Reset as a mere tech demo. When I look at the full Shadow Warrior package today, that observation seems apt because of two important improvements they’ve made game over game.

Hard Reset is a beautiful game, to be sure, but its visuals are not diverse. In Shadow Warrior, its beauty changes. As you move through the story you’ll encounter a truly wild variety of environments, with shocking lighting that serves to highlight the game’s delightfully schizophrenic color palette. The way this game looks, and the way that look changes from chapter to chapter, just oozes imagination and effort. It’s surreal, which in a game about demons overrunning present-day Japan sounds about right.

The second improvement is in that story I just referenced. The Hog has retained the cool motion comic-style cutscenes in spots, but the plot is most often demonstrated from a first-person perspective. By which I mean that unlike Hard Reset, there actually is plot in between those cutscenes, and it actually does make some sense.

While the combat scenarios do become repetitive, that pain is dulled by Lo Wang, our protagonist, and his interactions with the ethereal Ancient who has his own beef with the immortals who caused the demon horde to ride in. He’s also the only one who actually knows what’s going on — Wang is an airheaded badass, and this spiritual being walks him through events. Their interactions aren’t too pedantic, though; they’re informative, yes, but they’re mostly there to make you laugh at the banter as they spend a lot of time making jokes at each other’s expense even while they pursue the only sword that can kill an immortal Ancient and thus save the world, one way or another.

This isn’t really a game about story, though; it’s about cutting bad guys up, enjoying the view and listening to the jokes. What actually occurs outside that scope isn’t a huge deal, but that pretense is necessary just for the sake of providing a reason for doing what you’re doing. And it works in that sense.

And so does almost everything else about the experience of playing Shadow Warrior. The writing is amusing, the actors kill the lines they’re given, the world is just brilliant to gaze at and I cannot overstate how great it is to wild a melee weapon that does more visible damage to organic tissue than a wiffle ball bat does. But even with all that going for it, Shadow Warrior doesn’t achieve the sort of old-school remake perfection that we saw a couple months ago with Rise of the Triad simply because the gamplay is mostly fighting, and most of the fighting is the same from one battle to the next.

It still manages to be an excellent experience nonetheless, but that lack of imagination in a key point means Shadow Warrior is just regular old good.

Final Verdict

8.5 out of 10

A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.