Sunday, March 19, 2023

Shadowcaster (PC-98,1994)

Publisher:Electronic Arts Victor
Developer:Raven Software
Time:7 hours 40 minutes
Won:Yes (63W/58L)

I said the last time that I played Shadowcaster that it would be the last time, unless I played the PC-98 version. Guess this really is the last time I play this game. I can't say I regret that. It's a good game, it just has some issues. Yeah, I played the game for under 8 hours, but counting time I just had the game running in the background, you could double that.

The game unceremoniously tosses you into combat, a bit of a theme.
If you're unfamiliar with the game, you can think of it as Ultima Underworld by way of the Wolfenstein 3D engine. You have a fancy save system like UUW, a map system that puts most used in Wolf source ports to shame, and a fancy control scheme. I don't really have anything bad to say about any of them. The controls are the kind of game where turning and moving is ideally done without the mouse, as that functions independently of the gameworld. Like UUW, its better than it sounds. I do note that when I played the CD version, that had a glitch with the save system that this didn't have. Bug added by the CD version, or bug fixed by the PC-98 version? Considering that the infamous glitch from UUW was only fixed in the CD version, not the various ports, I think the former.
The third and last time I used this guy.

The central concept of Shadowcaster, playing as one of the last members of a shapeshifting race, is interesting. Running around being able to change into different forms for different situations is interesting, its just that this combined with the RPG aspect of it is kind of awkward. Each form has its own experience and is implied to be its own character independent of the human one. The player has three metrics which are improved by increasing score/XP. Mana/power in the base, human form, health in all forms, and in one, the amount of time some relatively unimportant spells last.

This incentivizes you to use the human form as much as possible, to ensure you have the highest possible mana. While XP gotten in non-human forms transfers over a little to the human form, you don't get much out of it for most forms. Let's take the first form, the Maorin, a cat warrior. There is only one place you really get something out of him, and even that you can sort of just rush through. While he does do more damage, there's not really any reason to use him over the human form. Sure, its harder now, but later you'll really appreciate it when you have a ton of mana.

Meanwhile we have the Caun, an old-school elf or brownie-type. It is actual suicide to use this guy in melee, he's a pure special purpose form. Except most of his spells are useless. Hiding from enemies is pointless, stunning enemies is pointless, and reaching in the distance nearly so. You do not get anything from avoiding enemies. Instead the creature's only purpose is to cast healing and light spells, and jump over a few obstacles. This is also the only creature to actually get non-health advantage from XP, the strength of some spells increase as it levels up. You'd have to be dedicated to give it more than a few. You don't really get anything out of this, short of an increased length for its light spell.

Enemies can get stuck like this, and it absolutely is intentional.

Then the forms become useless or of limited utility as you get later forms. The Opsis is good for a little while, as it can fly and cast fireballs, iceballs and some other things you don't really need, its useless once you get the much faster Ssair, which only has a fireballs attack but can actually survive in melee. Nothing you'll fight at that point won't fall to one of its two attacks. The resistance each enemy has to various kinds of attacks does vary, but it doesn't come up much. Very few creatures have a high resistance to a combination of physical and whatever magical attacks you're likely to use. I had an issue last time trying to drive up as much XP to the base form as possible, which can only use physical attacks without items.

These red cloaked fellows absorb your health, making them one of the most dangerous enemies in the game.

Now, that said, combat isn't necessarily as straight-forward as I describe. Certainly, despite some forms having multiple physical attacks, you're going to focus on certain ones, at least before you get a sword, but I did find myself in some interesting fights. While you can blindly melee fight a good chunk of the fights, I found that some of the few sections that worked a fun reprieve from the more troublesome sections. I've been dividing things by physical and everything else, because that's more or less how it functions. Physical attacks don't cost any power, and even the physical ranged weapon, a shuriken, is infinite. Magical attacks either cost mana, on top of the usual maintenance cost for being in a different form, or are from items with a limited number of charges.

With the enemies you can't brute-force, you have an interesting variety of attacks. Obvious attacks usually come in the form of a special item you just got, like a silver sword against a werewolf, or the form you just got having special attacks that work against this section's enemies. If an enemy isn't swift enough, you can pelt them with the shuriken and avoid their attacks. Still, it feels somewhat underutilized. You don't really need to shift between a lot of forms if the terrain doesn't force you to.

Fighting a flying enemy with the shuriken, something I'm forced to do as I don't have a form with a ranged attack yet.

Moving back to not being able to brute-force, should you not have the option of a special attack or worse yet, run out of mana, you can run away. Its part and parcel of playing the game, unfortunately. Like most RPGs, you can heal when you're away from combat. As this is built on the Wolfenstein 3D engine, this works in strange ways. You just sit there and wait. No, no rest button. Yes, I do think the game should have had a rest button. Unless you're building a game around a lack of resting ability you should have one. You just wait some fifteen or so minutes every time you need to heal. I'd even be okay with it having an ungodly high amount chance of enemies spawning.

I'm torn as to whether or not this was a conscious design choice or one forced on them. There's a strict number of enemies throughout the game, for instance the base form can only just reach level 8, at least I think, I got to level 7 here, and the XP required increases quite a lot. Because there are no or very limited respawning enemies, you have to track all their positions as you sleep, in the Wolfenstein engine. Even just the alert ones would be annoying. I can see the design choice being that they thought was a cool idea, "you're always in danger", they think. Good luck, I'm hiding behind 7 doors.

Two of the items I have here could be ignored without any penalty whatsoever
And that leads into the game's items. I don't really think there's a good sense of how they should be paced out. I ended the game, me, an expert in the game supposedly, with quite a few more items than I needed. Health and mana items are a hard thing to get a sense of, because you can get to be very good at running away in this game. The only time they're truly needed is at the end of the game. Damage items aren't much better, because the enemies you want to use them against are bosses, who are introduced with little fanfare. Sometimes they even just look like every other enemy. And of course, using them too freely puts you in a bad place against the final boss.

This all gives the impression I don't like the game. I do, but it feels unfinished in the sense it feels like its missing something. Its not like a lot of games where it feels like they gave up near the end, rather, they managed it so it feels like some of the middle sections are lacking. The game basically has twice the running time it should have thanks to that regeneration system. Is that why it was added? It just feels like there could be more, more levels, more ways to take advantage of each characters forms. With games like Dungeon Master, Ultima Underworld and Pathways into Darkness, I know what it could be.

Fighting a lava monster as a dragon over lava, what could be easier?

This is in part because the game does some things very well. It didn't occur to me until this particular playthrough that Shadowcaster does something very rare for a first-person game of this era and technological limitations. Every section is unique. Not something you see in every dungeon crawler or FPS from the time. Quite the opposite. Even games that succeed at making levels interesting tend to look very samey. And to this day games can struggle with succeeding at this, both professional and indie titles.

A lot of the game feels just right, and its not necessarily an opinion I just got either, when I think back to my memories of my first proper playthrough, in many ways it felt well-balanced. Perhaps on the easy side in that you should be able to figure it out the first time you play through the game. I made fun of some of them, like a puzzle that consisted of a rope along with putting boulders on pressure plates, but it is hardly enough to put a damper on the experience.

An aspect of the game that works out surprisingly well is the game's visuals, specifically the fog. People tend to dislike anything that reduces visibility because we shouldn't have anything. Once again, I think this is an intentional choice, and it works. The thing about fog from a player perspective is that it only matters if it impacts you in a negative way. Like you can't shoot someone or you get shot at. Because Shadowcaster is primarily a melee game, that's not an issue. It does a lot for the game, causing some encounters to sneak up on you and improving the mood of the game.

This game does more than you would think at first glance. Its by no means a must-play, but I think the game does enough interesting things to make up for its short-comings. Others will probably be put off by the long resting times. It always comes back to that. Some things are good, some things are pretty good, but none of it ever truly makes up for that stupid little design choice.

Melee is satisfying, but its rules are unclear. Ranged combat is very interesting, as I mentioned the item issue. Using them has a sense of liberation about it. When you can finally attack enemies from a distance is a satisfying as other games ultimate weapons. 3/10

The AI is subtly clever. Its hard to see. Enemies run away if they're damaged enough, but continue attacking if cornered. If they chase after the player and lose sight of them, they actually chase after where they last saw them. Not that you'd ever see that most of the time. Otherwise there's some surprising variety here. Even though you can broadly categorize enemies into ranged and melee enemies, they feel different from each other. A werewolf fights differently than a skeleton or a wereboar. 5/10

Some simple non-hostiles in one of the stages. 0/10

Each section feels unique, but not always good. The castle section, despite having a very mazey part of it, did a good job in creating unique situations and encounters that this wasn't a problem. There's also the factor that some of the less good sections might be suffering only due to poor choice of the player's form. 7/10

Player Agency:
I've never found the right words to describe the Ultima Underworld style of controls, where you use the mouse as a sort of menu in addition to having normal-ish FPS controls. It works, but kind of strangely. You basically need three hands, one on the numpad, on resting in the middle, and one on the mouse. I like how the inventory itself works, especially right click to rapidly change items, but not how I might have to change between 3 forms to give an item to a form that needs it. Or how dropping items and picking them up in some forms is more annoying than doing this. Otherwise its fine, no real complaints about fighting or moving. 6/10

Interactions are mostly limited to using a few scenery objects along with the odd destroyable wall. 2/10

There's a very good sense of travelling through the disused ruins of a once great civilization. From the overgrown gardens to lonely, abandoned areas, the game keeps a nice, dark mood. 7/10

Everything looks nice; wall graphics, even the more generic designs, feel like they belong together. Enemy sprites, while limited, are well-drawn. 7/10

A simple story, told primarily through two cutscenes at the beginning and end. The CD version was better with multiple cutscenes, even if those didn't age well. 2/10

The sound effects are nice and punchy, though I wish enemies made alert noises. Musically, it sounds nice, but its not anything special. 5/10

That's 44. Up 2 points from the last time I played. The difference, surprisingly, isn't just that I gave the sound category more, most things have jumped around. No pity point for non-enemies, atmosphere and story were a bit over rated, and weapons, enemies and levels were a bit under rated. Were it not for the increase in sound I actually would have rated the game one point less.

I still recommend this, but I have to admit, this doesn't really appeal to anyone. RPG fans, even those hungering for an old-school dungeon crawler, won't like how it has a smattering of RPG elements. FPS fans aren't going to like it because its very unusual. Even if this game uses the same mechanics as PS2 era action-adventure games, I doubt fans of that era would care. Those interested in augmenting their Japanese learning with video games are not going to care for a western game they could already play, when Ultima Underworld is right there. But yeah, for the two people out there for whom this sounds interesting and don't mind dealing with the awkward healing, its worth it. But perhaps I'll be proven wrong whenever the CRPG Addict ever gets to this.

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