Review: Shadowgate

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Not many adventure games reached the classic NES, but Shadowgate was a stand-out among the few that did. The merciless journey through a deadly castle allowed you unprecedented freedom to Take, Open, Drink, and Hit just about anything you came across in the game world. Now Shadowgate has been re-imagined for the modern era, which means new graphics and new interfaces for a new audience. Surprisingly, it might still be plenty familiar to the masochists that loved the original as well.

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The first place new Shadowgate diverges from the original is in the story, though it might not be immediatly apparent how much it does. You, being a strapping young warrior, are summoned by a mysterious wizard to the living castle of Shadowgate. Within its lethal, enchanted walls is an evil warlock seeking some world-ending power, and it’s your job to puzzle up a way to stop him. Along the way you’ll learn plenty about the circle of wizards who once inhabited the castle, the power they protected, and the lands beyond.

In terms of gameplay, this is a first-person point-and-click adventure. Each room is a static scene with features to examine and items to gather. Clicking on something brings up a context menu that allows you to perform all sorts of actions like looking, taking, opening, using, and more. Some items need to be used on yourself, some need to be combined, and so on. The objects you find are also helpfully sorted by type, which is a blessing once you realize how many damn scrolls you’re going to find.

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The other thing you’ll find is a plethora of ways to die. OG Shadowgate wasn’t shy about murdering you for daring to pick up a book or dipping your toe in a pool of water, and the remake carries over some of that, though most are locked behind the game’s many difficulty levels. Most fatalities will come at the hands of the few monsters that serve to block your progress at different points. They tend not to be hard to dispatch but there’s usually one correct option among a mess of more obvious ones. For example, one enemy can be dealt with by simply punching it in the face, but using any sort of weapon or spell on it means instant death.

This also brings me to my chief complaint about the game, the obscurity of some of the puzzles. Adventure games have thankfully moved far away from the days of cat hair mustaches and helium bubblegum tooth heists, but some still have problems directing the player to the right conclusions. There are plenty of puzzles in Shadowgate that have simple solutions that simply aren’t telegraphed in any way, like the cure for the banshee curse or the ability to remove runes. You’re sure to run into situations where you know what to do but not HOW precisely to do it, but also situations where it’s just not clear how to progress.

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Luckily this isn’t a particularly damning complaint, because the game provides significant help like a very specific hint system (his name is Yorick) and a useful map that marks important points of interest. It also helps that you’ll be exploring some rather lovely painted scenery, accompanied by quality sound work and inspiring riffs on the original soundtrack. And there are even retro options that make the game more like the original, setting some of the gameplay systems and interfaces and even the music back to their classic incarnations.

It’s something you don’t often see in remakes, a gradient of options between old and new, but it illustrates the love and attention that went into making it. And it doesn’t hurt that there’s a quality adventure that stands on its own hidden underneath. There’s enough of the original Shadowgate here that longtime fans will appreciate the arcane puzzles and sudden fatalities, along with enough innovation to keep newcomers hooked.

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