STAFF REVIEW of Shadowgate (Xbox One)

Friday, May 10, 2019.
by Adam Dileva

Shadowgate Box art If I knew how many times I was going to make my mom rent my Shadowgate for NES back when it released, I would have done the math and shown her that simply buying it outright would have been far cheaper in the long run. I can’t even imagine how much she spent on renting me that game every weekend, as I tried every time to solve puzzles and make my way out of that castle. Eventually Nintendo Power, or one of the other gaming magazines at the time, published a walkthrough, well before the internet days, and I was finally able to beat it. The hours I sunk into Shadowgate are probably easily in the hundreds, as the soundtrack and gameplay have been etched into my brain, and still to this day is one of my favorite games ever, bringing back a flood of childhood memories.

Naturally, when Shadowgate was remade a few years back, I was intrigued, but for some reason never really pulled the trigger and played it, even though I knew I would enjoy the nostalgia trip. Here we are in 2019, and the Shadowgate remake is finally on Xbox One, and I’ve finally gotten that trip down memory lane that I’ve been yearning for.

A cult classic, Shadowgate was quite popular at the time, showcasing new gameplay mechanics in a first person point and click world. While the genre had many come before it, Shadowgate was different, not just in its death mechanics, but tonality, puzzles and absolutely amazing soundtrack. More than just a simple remaster, this version of Shadowgate has been completely remade from the ground up by some of the original developers, and more than a simple paint job; new gameplay elements and puzzles have been included as well. I wasn’t completely sure if the genre would hold up to today’s standards though, and tried to look past the nostalgia with my rose tinted glasses.

You play as The Seed of Prophecy, a descendant from a long line of heroes who must save the world. To do so though, you’ll need to traverse and solve dozens of puzzles in Castle Shadowgate, where an evil Warlock resides, trying to bring hell upon the world. Told in a storyboard style, cutscenes will occur at various points throughout your journey with a narrator to add drama and depth. The original Shadowgate simply threw you into the game and didn’t do much for narrative, so it’s great seeing more focus on that this time.

Delving into the options before I began my adventure into Shadowgate’s depths, I was surprised with some of the choices given. Should you desire to have maximum nostalgia, you’re able to toggle on classic graphics, audio, text boxes and more, or go with the newly improved versions, it’s up to you. My first playthrough I wanted to experience all that was new, audio and all, which was great, but on my second, I went full retro and couldn’t stop smiling at the amazing soundtrack throughout. This satisfies new players and old alike and I have to give kudos for doing so in a fantastic way without feeling simply tacked on.

Difficulties have also been added, allowing a much easier experience for new comers, or extremely difficult for those that want a challenge. The easier difficulties make puzzles much less complex and will actually prevent you from dying in many ways, such as not even having to worry about keeping your torch lit, but more on that shortly. On the harder difficulties, the puzzles become much more intricate, involved and obtuse to solve. There’s even an Ironman Mode that disables saving and needs to be completed in a single sitting.

The UI has been drastically overhauled as well, as the classic version would appear gaudy and too old school. Instead, you have a wheel-based menu system that you’re able to toggle whenever needed, only getting in the way when you enable it. Played in first person, you move your cursor around on 2D hand painted backgrounds, able to interact however you wish. If you want to look at something for more information or detail, you have to select the "Look” command and then click on the object. The same goes for “Use” and other commands available. To open doors for example, you’ll have to “Use” them, then go through it with another click.

Sure, these days it would be terrible game design, but this harkens back to a time three decades ago when games like this were revolutionary. The same core gameplay hasn’t really changed, it’s just been remapped to the wheel-based menu and less prominent use of screen real-estate. It takes some getting used to, but after an hour of exploring Castle Shadowgate, I wasn’t fumbling with the menu system any longer, quickly accessing my hotkeys and whatever inventory or spell I needed at the time.

As you solve puzzles and progress from room to room, your map will automatically update, showing you how every room in the castle connects. While there’s no option to fast travel, be ready for a lot of backtracking throughout your adventure, sometimes having to go all the way back to the very first handful of scenes to solve puzzles later in the adventure. This does become annoying, as it takes a moment for every scene to load, and I constantly had to recheck my map for the correct path, though it’s part of that classic experience.

Part of Shadowgate’s original charm was how many different ways you could die. Pull the wrong lever? Dead. Went down a random ladder? Dead. Didn’t pick up the shield before a dragon breathed fire? Dead. Your torch fizzled out? Dead. You get the idea. Keep in mind, this was back in a time where not many games ever did something like this, especially on NES at the time. This new Shadowgate is no different on the harder difficulties, and you’ll want to make very good use of the quick saves and loads. And yes, the torch mechanic returns, so you better make sure to always keep that flame going.

A puzzle game at heart, Shadowgate didn’t simply settle for pretty new painted scenery but keep all the same puzzles. Quite the opposite in fact. A handful of the puzzles have a familiar feeling, but aren’t solved in nearly the same way as the original. It’s a great fan service to original fans, but allows for a new experience. I’d actually guess that the vast majority of the puzzles are new.

Many of the puzzles are actually quite challenging and had me trying every combination and spell I could think of. A handful of times I became actually completely stumped, having to resort to a walkthrough online, which I’m not ashamed to admit, as I would have never figured them out on my own. Some solutions are very obtuse, though maybe I just missed something along the way, nevertheless, I never became overly frustrated, I just wish there was a little more guidance when needed.

The cutscenes are backdrops that are hand painted with beauty, and I even recognized many of the scenes when compared to the original 8-Bit versions. It brought a smile to my face a few times, recognizing what exact room I was in from the classic, though much more modern and prettier. The real star of Shadowgate though is its soundtrack. Sure, I’m bias and much prefer the original Hiroyuki Masuno chiptune versions, but they did a fantastic job at also modernizing the audio, making it still recognizable at the same time much like the graphics. Sure the voice acting isn’t top notch, but the soundtrack is absolutely worth the price of admission if you want a trip down memory lane.

I didn’t realize how much I really loved the original Shadowgate until I started up this remake and heard the iconic opening music. If you were like me and grew up on the original Shadowgate, you owe it to yourself to pick this version up to experience the difference three decades can make. If you’re new to the title or genre, it’s still a great investment that will challenge your puzzle solving skills, even if it can be a little obtuse at times.

Overall: 8.5 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.5 / 10
Sound: 9.8 / 10


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