Capsule Review: Shadows: Awakening
Welp, this is embarrassing. I am embarrassed. I have slipped on the banana peel of discourse and landed face down in a pool of conflicting opinions. Shadows: Awakening is a solid action RPG with captivating art direction and some of the best combat I’ve encountered in the genre, and yet, I don’t know whether to recommend it or not, because I’m struggling to work out who exactly this 15-30 hour, single player game is for.
Shadows: Awakening has reams of backstory, lore, and some interesting characters, and yet the narrative isn’t centered or emotionally resonant enough to act as a central draw. It’s got involved, tactical combat and satisfying power creep that elevates you from lowly mortal to some sort of very big sword-having deity, but the lack of new game plus or online component confines it all to a single playthrough. It’s got a whole buffet of tasty sidequests set in winding, multilayered dungeons with actual gosh-darn puzzles and a varied bestiary of battle-hungry oddities that, for the most part, never feel like they contribute to the whole in an especially meaningful way.
Perhaps Shadows’ biggest issue lies in its monkey's paw of a hugely interesting central trick. There’re a lot of characters here, each with different classes and special abilities. You control one at a time, but can switch between them on the fly. Press a button, and the character you were just controlling disappears in a puff of convenience to be replaced by another party member. You’re not actually playing as any of these characters, you see, but as a big spiky demon who collects the souls of others to use as ‘puppets.’ Some abilities last between switches, so you can have your gremlin thief lay down some AOE de-buffs then switch out to your werewolf warrior to bring the pain. Along with balanced difficulty that’ll kill you if you stop paying attention, this keeps combat varied and interesting. As you might imagine though, it also means co-op is out of the question.
This lack of co-op feels like such an issue in Shadows: Awakening because its excellent core combat loop is often lacking in context. There’re dozens of beautiful, varied maps across a huge continent drawing influence from everything to from Ancient China to Mesopotamia, but I always felt a tourist being hassled from stop to stop with little context. This is a real shame, because there’s so much character and history in the art style, costumes, statues and decor.
Dungeon design, which never fails to impress artistically, also gets less inventive as the game goes on. Switching to your demon takes you to a Soul Reaver-esque underworld, which helps find new areas and solve some puzzles, but it’s not utilized for much except path-finding. The first time you make me roll a boulder on top of a pressure plate, you’re testing my ability to experiment with my surroundings.This is fine, but after that, you’re just testing my patience. There’re some real splashes of quirkiness here and there, like getting turned into a wasp and needing to seek a cure on one quest, but these moments are rare.
Shadows Awakening is the Ur-solid seven out of ten, basically, if the concept of the solid seven hadn’t been melted to a frisbee and tossed out of the realms of usefulness, never to return. My reservations revolve around the fact that, in this landscape, in this genre, I’m not sure that ‘good’ is quite good enough. From time to time, though, Shadows: Awakening got me excited about action RPGs again, and I’ve got the feeling Shadows: Awakening-er is going to be truly excellent.
Maybe, if you're just looking for something in your wheelhouse that doesn't try to reinvent said wheel.
Main takeaway: Well-built and gorgeous to look at, but lacking the substance to truly make it memorable.