[8 November 2013]
Shadow Warrior is a game with one foot in the past and one foot in the future of the first-person shooter genre. Shadow Warrior is a reboot of the 3D Realms cult-classic PC shooter from 1997 and in many ways retains much of the same spirit as the original. Shadow Warrior is a game that faces its racial past, acknowledges it, and embraces it—mostly for the better. While it revels in its own nostalgia—almost to a gratuitous level—it still manages to straddle the line carefully enough to remain fresh.
Once again the player steps into the shoes of Lo Wang, the wise-cracking badass assassin, albeit less of a caricature this time. After all, Lo Wang is now given some nuance to his personality. He “Drinks Four Roses bourbon, neat, collects…comic books…and works for…Orochi Zilla.” Lo Wang speaks with a less stereotypical “Asian” affectation in this rendition. And he has a penchant for 80s rock music, as the game opens with him singing “The Touch” from The Transformers Motion Picture Soundtrack. It’s clear this game was aiming for the audience that was a fan of the original game and a fan of 80s culture in general. Lo Wang is guided by a banished spirit, Hoji, who often remarks on Wang’s egomaniacal behavior to a comic degree. This tongue-n-cheek approach to the buddy-movie dynamic also provides a commentary on the amount of killing that goes on in first-person shooters in general. Hoji further gives Lo Wang grief after his discovery of his “Wang-cave,” lamenting, “500 hit men in this country and I have to get the nerd.” Still, Lo Wang is given an identifiable presence, recognizable for more than his simply being Asian. Lo Wang is representative of a male power fantasy, one equal to that of his often-white counterparts, and given his personality quirks, is relatable to a larger audience, as opposed to being reduced to a stereotype.
Shadow Warrior addresses its racially questionable past in the opening moments of the prologue. As Lo Wang reaches his destination, an stereoypically crafted Japanese villa, Lo Wang sarcastically remarks, “I was hoping for a more clichéd setting. I guess koi ponds and cherry blossoms will have to do.” And while they are beautifully rendered trees in a sea of pink and calming bodies of water, the setting is clichéd. Nonetheless, Lo Wang is on a mission to purchase an ancient sword for his boss, Zilla, from a Mr. Mizuyaki. Wang’s offer is rejected and what breaks out is a scene reminiscent of Kill Bill Volume 1 (a film also known for its blending of Asian cultures through a western lens). Wang unsheathes his katana, and dismembered Yakuza limbs, torso parts, and heads litter the showroom floor. The katana moves smoothly with the thumbstick, leaving the player feeling very much in control.
Mr. Mizuyaki’s antique Japanese art collection only adds to the eastern milieu of the game. Eastern mysticism—or the western expectation of it—is addressed near the end of the Chapter 1 when Lo Wang commands his spirit companion to tell him his name because if you speak a demon’s name, you can control it. Hoji reluctantly tells Wang his name, warning him that mortal men can’t pronounce demons’ names. When Wang correctly pronounces Hoji, Hoji surprisingly tells him he must be the one the prophecy spoke of, before mockingly revealing, “that the one will also…believe any goddamn idiot thing you make up on the spot!” The writers are clearly toying with western preconceptions about eastern mythology by putting us in Lo Wang’s place. His gullible ignorance serves to reflect our own. However, you couldn’t say Shadow Warrior is enlightened. It might be self-aware but you are still collecting fortune cookies and antique Japanese statues. When the player does find fortune cookies, with very entertaining fortunes mind you, they are rewarded with the expected obsolescent “oriental riff.”
Shadow Warrior is infatuated with its own legacy but also with classic gaming in general. Arcade cabinets featuring the original Shadow Warrior, Hard Reset, and Hotline Miami can be found throughout earlier parts of the game. For the ambitious, hidden Easter eggs reveal 2D sprites of bathing girls, hanging soldiers, and more, all likely from the original Shadow Warrior. The first time Lo Wang picks up a revolver he exclaims to himself, “It’s dangerous to go alone,” referencing the classic Legend of Zelda line. A fortune cookie fortune recalls Super Mario Bros. with its message of “Thank you Lo Wang, but your fortune is in another cookie.” The game even references films such as Taxi Driver and Full Metal Jacket. Shadow Warrior is a cornucopia of pop culture references, mostly hailing from the 80s, speaking to the nostalgia of the designers and of its players alike. The influences are endless and unpredictable.
Shadow Warrior is described as a throwback to classic first-person shooters, and it works hard to live up to that ambition. This equates to featuring no maps, tight corridor shooting, and unrelenting hordes of demons coming at you from all directions. Still, there are large open areas that allow for creative battle combinations and some strategic planning. The game starts you off easy, only throwing a few enemies at you at a time, and allowing you to experiment with upgradable katana moves. The learning curve is forgiving, but once the game is in full gear, battles can become overwhelming and will be challenging even on the normal difficulty setting.
“This is my katana, this is my gun. One is for killing, the other’s for…ok, the other’s also for killing,” one fortune cookie proclaims. While guns can be fun, the katana is your best friend. Once upgraded fully the katana is the most powerful weapon at your disposal. It is interesting that in a shooter, your most powerful weapon would be a katana. Slashing is satisfying and effective. However, all the tools in your arsenal will be useful and necessary for the varying opponents. In addition to an extensive armory, Lo Wang can learn demon powers by collecting ki crystals. Further capitalizing on the pan Asian theme, ki powers are represented by Yakuza style tattoos, offering the player the power to stun enemies, lift them in the air, or up their own health and luck. These demon powers provide a refreshing versatility of attacks that could otherwise become mundane. Combat is simply put, fun. While enemy types and locales eventually become repetitive (something that happens even in the best of shooters), locales change from chapter to chapter keeping the player on his or her toes.
Also returning from the original Shadow Warrior is the crass humor. If that is your style, you will feel right at home. “A wang in the hand is worth two in the bush,” one fortune cookie wisely relayed to me. However, what can you expect from a game with its main character’s name is based on a phallic pun? What is surprising is the sublime back story of the otherworldly spirits that are also chasing the magical katana. These scenes play out like a 2D animated graphic novel but contain stories of Olympian proportions. Tales of loss, betrayal, and deep sacrifice subvert the immature humor of the early part of the game. These latter tales take a subdued turn and a somber tone to tell a surprisingly compelling and heartfelt story.
Shadow Warrior is a solid classic-style first-person shooter. It’s difficult enough to satisfy fans of classic PC shooters and versatile enough to recruit new players of the genre. Combat and lengthy levels can be repetitive but the combat is satisfying enough to keep you coming back for more. It is self-aware about its racial past, and while it doesn’t fully work to change its ways, Shadow Warrior is too charismatic to not play.