Sunday, April 5, 2020

Game 25: Shadowcaster

Developer:Raven Software
Time:25 Hours

Going in on this, I had nothing to complain about. Going out, I still really don't. Shadowcaster is less of a real FPS and more of a weird true 3D Dungeon Master clone, and all the good and bad that entails. Don't like switching between screens to see if your health is back up? I wouldn't suggest it. You don't mind? Play it.

In Shadowcaster, you play as Kirt, the last free member of the People, a race of shapeshifting humans. You go across various worlds, seeking to undo the evil the Veste has done in the name of Melkor, a dark god. As opposed to the People's various good gods. The real gem of the story is what Veste did, which is described in the Cluebook that came with the original version of the game. Its worth a quick read even if you don't play the actual game.
Kirt has several forms he can change into, some of which become quickly useless. As a human, Kirt knows martial arts and can jump. This is, as can be expected, the most important form. In every other form Kirt drains his mana (called power, but eh, lame name) until he changes back. The human form is unique in that it also gains mana whenever the player levels up, and that they get experience from the other forms. In theory, you could play through most of the game in this form, which isn't a bad idea up to a certain point.
There's the Maorin, a muscle-bound four-armed catman. They sink like stones, or so the manual says. Wasn't exactly running around the water with them. They get special vision and can also jump, neither of which were really useful after the opening levels. To be honest, I only used this guy this time because I wanted to see if there was any point. Realistically, you don't need him and he doesn't offer that much more damage than Kirt. His special eyesight can only be activated some of the time, and, I'll be honest, isn't really needed. It only reveals a few traps, of which consist of the first level, and the second-to-last CD level. The first time I went through the game, I didn't even know I could use that and avoid damage.
There's the Caun, which is a brownie elf, which serves as your regeneration form, and a few times there are items out of range you need them to grab. They can also jump, which is needed a few times. Fight with him? Ha! He has a bunch of other stuff that either isn't needed, or, like his light ability, run out before its useful.
There's the Opsis, a floating two-tentacled beholder. He has various magic attacks, which are immensely useful against a few enemies some of the time. Fire, ice, a death attack I didn't bother using. Probably useless. A shout which did effectively nothing. And a map increasing thing. He's also slow. Each character, surprisingly, has different speed, and most of them are okay, but this freaking thing goes like a Nissan Fairlady someone's transporting sixteen tons of gold in. Which makes it a problem for the two sections you only have him to fly in.
There's the Kapha, which is a fishman. He swims, that's it. Yeah, he has an electric attack and a shout attack. Neither of those are very useful. The electric attack seemingly is, but it has a very poor rate of fire and seems weak. A check of the booklet reveals the shout would have been useful...underwater.
There's the Ssair, which is a dragon man, with no legs. Shoots fire, but it eats up mana. He has a tail too, you don't want to use the tail, because his bonus for using a weapon effectively makes all weapons better than the tail. Also, his claws do more damage than the tail. Fast, but not really stronger than Opsis for some reason.
Finally, there's the Grost, a stoneman, a giant tank. He doesn't come out until near the end, but he gets 50% of the running time at that point. Magic damage? Gone. Physical damage? Usually tolerable? Damage with a weapon? Double, basically. He even has an anti-air+crowd control attack in an earthquake. And a paralysis attack.

Because of the weird way this came about, this game is very...interesting in its design. The things you will be doing the most is melee fighting, not shooting. Shooting makes use of limited resources, either items or magic spells. You're not going to have the later until a third of the way through, effectively. There is a shuriken, but its better to use that in melee, oddly, because of your ability to throw it and punch someone. This effectively makes it the first melee FPS, at least until I find something more.
So, this is ultimately a game about tearing people apart with a sword and using magic on those that can't be torn apart. Its good at that, for the most part. I have some issues, though. I played this at the hardest difficulty, because I knew what I was doing, for the most part. There were two types of enemies, the kind I could easily kill, the kind that nearly killed me. For a good chunk of the time, this would fall into the ranged enemy category, but a few melee enemy types got the better of me. Which leads into what a good chunk of the game's running time is about. Waiting. You passively regenerate health and mana. This was about a 1 every 10 seconds. By the end of the game, I had 175 mana, and that was my top for around the last half or so. For about ten hours of gameplay, it was alternated between killing something, then running away and healing. Rinse, repeat. It happened in the beginning too, but that was more manageable.

I can't say there are any other real flaws that don't come down to personal opinion. I like the level design, but I've played it three times willingly, what does that mean? I like the art direction, especially of the enemies. It shares some things with Heretic, but feels different from it. This feels more...distant...alone, despite actually have other people.
I have two suggestions for anyone who ever wants to play this. Play the floppy version and don't play on the hardest difficulty. Honestly, the later one isn't as bad if you play the floppy either. Seriously, the CD version only adds some 3D cutscenes, voiceover and some pretty annoying levels. Are you someone who has to have that pre-rendered '90s 3D goodness? Some cheesy narration? Is it worth it spending two hours waiting for your mana to recharge?

There was a great deal of variety, however, most weapons fell into two categories. 1) Melee weapons or 2)Wands with a limited charge. For the most part, there was some arcane mumbo-jumbo regarding damage that I didn't quite get until later. Which is a problem stemming from it being a Dungeon Master-style FPS, really. 2/10

Most of the enemies fall into the melee side of things, and generally don't deviate from being easy to fight. The ones that aren't easy are a pain to fight. It's at the level of a typical RPG where the enemies don't have much character. Even the bosses aren't really that impressive. Some thought was put into it, however. 3/10

There's a guy and some odd things running around that aren't eager to kill you. Nothing really impressive though. 1/10

Shadowcaster stradles the line from being a good Wolfenstein clone to being memorably good. With the obvious exception of the bonus levels, there wasn't really a time where I considered it outright bad, just annoying. 6/10

Player Agency:
I don't quite feel satisfied, but I don't really have anything to complain about. You move slightly as if you are on ice, but not in a really troublesome way. The slower forms are not really a problem, because you rarely need to just use those forms to move around. 6/10

This is mostly limited to puzzles that rarely deviate from the incredibly obvious. I think even if this wasn't the third time I went through this, I would know what to do. There are a few little touchs, but mostly what you expect for the era. 2/10

Shadowcaster hits a unique kind of feeling that just no other game really hits. You really feel like you're traveling through the dark, desocated husks of what was once a good, thriving civilization. 9/10

Outside of a few fog issues, the game has a very good art direction for the time. There are all these dark tones and colors, but they're not needlessly dark, you can tell what everything is and most importantly, it looks good. 7/10

The story, as presented in the game, is a fairly straight-forward, but slightly morose hero's journey. No, the gold here is in the cluebook, describing in great detail how Veste and Melkor turned Kirt's people to ruin. But given that it isn't in the actual game... 4/10

The sounds are okay. They don't always activate in key situations, which is really a problem. Now, the music is made by one Marc Schaefgen, who did some additional music for a few other Origin games before this. So this was his big break. Before I reveal the big bit about this, I want to point out that I couldn't get the music to work in-game, so I used the internet to listen to the soundtrack, and I also listened to Cradle of Filth - The Manticore and Other Stories toward the end, and a few others, let's be honest.
It...exists. Its not good, its not bad. There's not really any distinct themes or overall tone beyond generic fantasy music. 2/10

That is 42. I'm not going to remove any points for regenerating health and mana, I figure that's sort of accounted for. You really play through it not because its hardcore shooting action, but because its a fun experience. This puts it at the 4th highest game, below Alone in the Dark and above Bram Stoker's Dracula. Undoubtedly, both of those things will change in the future.
Oddly, I have to add something the creator said, for once. Brian Raffel, in a quote once upon a time on the Raven website, said that he loved the concept, but hated the story and name. I wonder how he hated the story, was it the lack of it in the game proper, or the story in general? It also might have been Black Crypt 2. Black Crypt being an Amiga RPG, a Dungeon Master-clone.
Origin and Raven will be a future mainstay of this blog. Origin having released a few unimportant space sims, among other things and Raven having done a few shooters over the years. I guess the only thing they ever did that wasn't a shooter would be the Marvel games they did.
As for me? I think this is going to be the last time I play this. Not because it isn't a good game, but because it has a LOT of issues I don't want to deal with again. If I do, well, there's a PC-98 version, and you know, I always did want to learn how to translate a game...

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