One of the things I love dearly about platformers is that no matter how insane the world that you’re navigating your sprite through may be, there is usually some kind of internal logic to the level design. Whether it’s the zany cat levels of Super Mario World 3D or the sublime underwater levels in Rayman Origins, the world that you navigate feels like it makes sense – even as you stomp on the head of a Goomba or splat some bizarre thorned creature off the screen. Shadow of the Beast, the remake of the 1989 ‘classic’ platformer, throws all internal logic out the window, grabs nostalgia by the throat and says, “Remember me?”
Well, no, I’m sorry, I don’t particularly remember you Shadow of the Beast. Sure, I’m aware of your history – a solid enough platformer with impressive parallax scrolling graphics that existed on original Amiga computers – but 1989 is a long time ago and between then and now, there have been a lot of platformers that have taken some of the concepts that exist within Shadow of the Beast and implemented them better in their relevant releases. The ‘plot’ of Shadow of the Beast has the player taking the role of Aarbron, the titular beast, who is attached to a wraith-like ghoul. Aarbron assists the ghoul in taking out the soldiers protecting an infant, who is kidnapped by the ghoul after the soldiers are slaughtered. After a bizarre vision, Aarbron has a turn of conscience (or something), breaks his attachment to the ghoul, and goes to rescue the baby. Well, that’s what I think the plot is. I’m really not that sure. Admittedly, not every platformer requires an in-depth narrative that keeps you engaged every minute; however, this strange ‘plot’ (which I think equates to “Sorry Aarbron, the baby is in another castle”) is further befuddled by even stranger enemies and terrible combat.
One of the unique artefacts of late eighties/early nineties games is that there would be a high amount of ‘random stuff’ thrown into the game to provide variety, or possibly even because the sprites were easier to animate in a certain manner. With that in mind, the fidelity to the original game and its level design is honourable, even if it doesn’t exactly make for compelling or logical gameplay. Take one of the early bosses that you fight – a humanoid wasp-like figure, guts and all visible under translucent skin. She’s a faceless creature with a supermodel-like body – well, except for the fact that she has wings and you can see her intestines – pulsing breasts exposed. This boss’ existence makes little sense within the level that she inhabits, and her physical aspects also make little sense – why is her face just a giant mouth? Why are her breasts exposed? Why is it that when she is killed, the infrastructure that she lives in angrily consumes her dead body?
I’ll gladly defend the desire to remake old games until the cows come home – especially when the original game is magically bundled along with the remake, as it is here – after all, what better way to enlighten people about the history of games than by bringing a new version to the public. Yet, these remakes (just like some of the original games they’re based on) aren’t always good, and they often may never find their intended audience, but I’m glad they do exist. That’s a topic to discuss at a different time.
See how easy it is to get distracted when talking about Shadow of the Beast? For such a gloriously violent game (this is rated R18+ in Australia after all), there is something that is so purely milquetoast about the core mechanics and general mood of the game. When writing down notes as I progressed through the game, I tried to parse through the huge varieties of combo’s and mechanics that make up Aarbron’s combat techniques – yet, when looking back at my notes I was amazed by how incoherent the various combo’s were. Button combos in games can work quite well if implemented properly, but here they’re so poorly explained that it becomes a confusing endeavour in trying to execute something like ‘Rage Mode’ – an aggressive mode that can be activated when your blood bars fill up, allowing Aarbron to perform attacks that are pretty much the same as your regular attacks.
On top of these confusing combos is the biggest crime of Shadow of the Beast – it’s so very painfully slow. Attacks are sluggish, feeling more like good old Aarbron has had a few too many pints at the pub and has decided to take on the one sober beefcake at the bar. Defence is even worse – R1 is the block function; however, it’s not possible to break an active attack to initiate a block from an oncoming enemy. This is made even more frustrating when you’re required to block an enemy’s attack to stagger them just so you can attack them. Given the field of combat is restricted by force fields that appear at the beginning of each battle, the difficulty in attacking, intensified by the frustrating block function, as well as the confusing attack combos, all combine together to make a frustrating and bland experience. I instead reverted to simply enacting a block > punch > block > punch attack pattern, instead of combining together some ‘fully sick’ combos that would (quite literally) cover the screen in blood and gore.
Visually speaking, Shadow of the Beast looks nice. Yes, the combat is tedious, but the subsequent gore from the combat is suitably bloody and great. The score – one of the better elements of the original game – is reimagined well here, but at a point, it simply fades into the background. Exploration of levels is rewarded by collectible items that ‘reward’ you with concept art and other items. While the concept art is really nice, it’s also one of the collectible quirks that has always left me scratching my head. There is no in-game use for collecting these items, and thanks to Google, the concept art is readily available, making this exploration slightly redundant.
Another thing that exploring the levels will deliver is the very random portals that you can break. Some of these portals add a bit more ‘plot’ to the story, while other portals transport you to a very random quick-time event. If you don’t seek out these portals, then you’re left out to dry as to what on earth is going on in what is otherwise a very short story. I’m still quite unsure what the point of this mini-game is – Aarbron attacks another beast, tearing it apart. I think this other beast is another player’s fallen body, who had died in combat, and for some reason you have the ability to destroy it in glorious gory fashion. This is not exactly explained and feels more like an attempt to implement some kind of online component to the game. In fact, it’s so poorly explained that the first few times I encountered such ‘portals’ I was given the opportunity to ‘Gift’ or ‘Consume’. Being the nice individual I am, I opted for the gift function – after which, nothing happened. Given this is one of the newer features within the game, it’s odd that it simply exists without explanation – or, if there was an explanation, then odds are it was simply a collectible that I didn’t manage to find on my journey. There are leaderboards that encourage you to complete levels without dying, or gaining as many points as possible to reach that coveted top position, but there’s little in-game incentive to reach that spot other than gaining certain ‘ranks’ for the level.
Overall, I’m pleased that Shadow of the Beast has been given the opportunity to find a new audience – after all, we can’t just hold the older games that the industry considers ‘great’ as the essential historical games to play. It its time, Shadow of the Beast may have been a superb game, but it unfortunately has not aged well, and sadly the remake has not been adjusted modern standards. What could have been an honourable attempt is instead a remake that falls flat on its face – too beholden to the mechanics of the past, and too nostalgia-driven to embrace the mechanics that make up modern platformers. As a cultural memento, Shadow of the Beast deserves to exist – but purely its existence alone doesn’t qualify it as being great.