The Heretic Kingdoms series is no stranger to the action-RPG genre, but until now games have been limited to the PC. Shadows: Awakening marks the first entry for the series to release on Xbox One, and PlayStation 4, although the game is also available on PC. There are subtle references that fans of the previous titles would appreciate, but newcomers to the franchise (the last game released in 2004) shouldn’t have any problem understanding the self-contained narrative. Where similar titles have been adding cooperative features for both online and local multiplayer, Shadows: Awakening focuses on the single-player experience. While the isometric perspective is familiar, some intriguing gameplay mechanics help propel the game past its competition.
The story unfurls with the Devourer; a powerful demon summoned forth from the shadow realm by a mysterious stranger (a mage). His instructions are simple, consume the souls of long deceased heroes, and search for him in Thole, an ancient city hidden in the desert. The initial choice sees you choose between three classic action-RPG classes: a melee-focused warrior, a sneaky rogue, and a cunning mage. You’ll have the chance of consuming additional characters that fit within your chosen class, with 14 unique souls to serve as your puppets across multiple playthroughs. Some of these characters are optional, so they may be missed, while others become locked out based on your initial choice. With the newly consumed souls inside of you, you are freely capable of traveling in not only the shadow realm but the mortal plane as well.
As a single-player title, Shadows: Awakening focuses on a fully-voiced storytelling experience, including Tom Baker who lent his talents to the game (it’s not the first time he was involved in the Heretic Kingdoms franchise). Broken up into individual chapters, Shadows: Awakening features main quests and side quests, each one listed in your journal by the recommended level. There is plenty of interaction with the NPCs throughout the city of Thole, although unlike other games, the availability of side quests isn’t visible on the minimap nor will you find a character with a question mark above their head or anything of that nature. Instead, you have to talk to each person you come across and learn of their struggles and turmoil within the city walls, and they may or may not have a quest for you. Once acquired, however, you can track any quest, allowing you to just follow the waypoint on the minimap. This can be turned off if you so desire.
At any given moment, you can have three souls, or puppets, to form your party. You can switch between them instantly. If one of them dies, you can still use the remaining puppets or the Devourer; however if the Devourer’s health is depleted, you must reload from a previous save file. Within each character, you can have three active skills (all are upgradeable) mapped to the face buttons on an Xbox one controller. The combat system is slow at the start, as you will only have one puppet to use, but once you can easily swap between three characters, you’ll learn to use each of their abilities in unison. It may take some trial and error, but you’ll eventually figure out which combination works best during specific situations.
Action-RPGs are defined by their ever-flowing amounts of loot drops, especially in game’s such as Victor Vran, and Diablo III, however, Shadows: Awakening won’t shower you in gear, but enough to scratch the loot dropping itch. The item management system, however, can be frustrating at best. While your characters have plenty of spots to equip different pieces of equipment, such as primary weapons, off-hand items, helmets, rings, bracers, etc. it’s not an easy task to compare between gear you have equipped and gear sitting in your inventory. Instead of providing an easy to view list of acquired items, you need to click into each spot first; then it will display the items in a list because it shares that space with the item description for your equipped item. It’s not terrible but isn’t as efficient or easy to use as other titles.
Every piece of equipment and all of your weapons can be enhanced by extracting essences from hex marks, actual dimensional pockets littered throughout the shadow realm. These have a wide array of effects or bonuses, such as adding ice damage to any weapon of your choice. Instead of finding or purchasing potions to recover health or mana, you use soul stones; each one has varying effects, a set amount of uses before charging, and abilities. Strangely enough, it took a few hours before I was able to find and equip one, making the opening boss battle artificially harder than it should have been, as I was unable to heal at all. It’s not too costly to recharge, as you have the option of slaughtering countless foes or by paying a merchant in the shadow realm to do so with your fight earned gold.
Shadows: Awakening is a tale of two dimensions, as you can instantly switch between the two to solve environmental puzzles, access hidden passages, or to bypass enemies. Often you’ll come across a collapsed bridge in the real world, but switching to the shadow realm may reform the broken pieces or give you access to a secret area or a wide array of its own caches. Be warned, deadly spirits are attracted to your location and will attack you constantly. During one boss encounter, which happened to be a massive acid-spitting spider, you had to cut through a shield first in the shadow realm, before dealing damage in the mortal plane. Not only that, but the Devourer has a unique freeze ability, which you can use to stop any enemy momentarily. This made dealing damage as one of your puppets much easier.
Over time, your characters level up, providing additional stat points to spend across four different categories: strength, agility, endurance, and willpower. Each one plays a role in the development of your characters, either increasing damage dealt from your primary or skill-based attacks, making your character faster, or improving your health pool. While your attacks will automatically target nearby enemies within range (shown by being highlighted in red), you may opt to use the targeting system when finding yourself surrounded by a group of foes. Using the right stick, you may alternate between enemies to ensure your long-range abilities of spells hit the proper foe.
Shadows: Awakening proves that loot-focused action-RPGs can feature a deep narrative with meaningful side quests. The unique party system works in unison with the combat mechanics, allowing you to put together a devastating combination of attacks. Featuring a lengthy narrative, and reason to play through multiple times, this unassuming title may be the sleeper hit you have been looking for.
Note: Shadows: Awakening was reviewed based on a digital Xbox One copy of the game, provided by the publisher.