Let’s get this out of the way.
Shadow Warrior (2013) is a first person shooter where the character you play is named Lo Wang.
Let’s get those giggles over with, yes, yes. Ho ho ho. And yes, he says things like ‘wangtastic,’ and ‘wangercise.’ Oh my sides.
We done? Everyone’s had a good ole’ chuckle at the dick joke?
Let’s talk about the game now, okay?
The Game You Play
For the majority of players, you know, normal and sensible human beings who don’t bother to delve into the historical context of video games of all things, Shadow Warrior (2013) is an easy review. It’s a competent first-person shooter that has a robust plot that could have been done better. Ta-da.
When it comes to offensive variety, the game is genuinely impressive. Normally in FPS games, most of the guns are designed out of a checklist and the most fun guns are designed so you use them rarely. The Flying Wild Hog developers seem to have taken an opposite route here, and supply you with an abundance of everything you could want to use your favourite methods of murder – and what methods you have! You can shoot with seven different guns, you can tear off enemy heads and use enemy hearts, you can use magical techniques, and you can use special, magical sword moves. You can run around shooting demons, which is effective but relies on ammunition, or you can rely on sword techniques and magic, which don’t spend any resource, per se. Thing with magic is, your enemies are demons from the shadow realm who can feed off the magic you use when you use special sword moves and magical techniques. If there’s enough magic floating around in a combat, they’ll enrage, and start hitting much harder and faster. You can still keep using the techniques, but combat becomes much more precarious, where a slip-up can have you killed.
If you were to draw a map between all the locations, you’d find that the game mostly looks like a flow-chart: there’s a room, then there’s a connecting passage to another room. The rooms have a variety of shapes and sizes, the corridors are of varying length, but it’s still, room-passage, room-passage. This design was something I complained about in Bioshock Infinite as ‘fightbox’ style design, and later mentioned in Hard Reset, too. While Hard Reset at least had the narrative excuse that robots were trying to trap you in small areas so you could be killed, Shadow Warrior does not have that conceit – and there are many, many times when you will find an obviously openable door won’t open, because there’s still a demon roaming around. This design is bad for creating the feeling of a living city, and it doesn’t give enemies much room to be intelligent – but Shadow Warrior (2013) isn’t trying to demonstrate intelligence. It wants fights, big open brawls where you’re engaging twenty or thirty targets at a time – and so, fightboxes. While I didn’t like it in Bioshock Infinite, I think it’s more telling that here, the actual combat is, itself, fun.
Finally, there is basically no deviation from the central line of the story in Shadow Warrior (2013). You can customise how your character kills things, but Lo Wang goes through his own narrative arc, he solves most of his problems with violence (most – there’s one crucial plot point where Lo Wang argues someone down), and that’s it. Room, corridor, room, corridor. If you don’t enjoy the experience of stabbing one room full of demons to death, you’re going to have a problem with this game, because that’s all it’s going to offer you, over and over again. The game is linear and repetitive, two things that didn’t bother me in the slightest, because I quite liked the story it was telling me, and I enjoyed slaughtering rooms full of demons. If you’re the kind of person who needs setpiece fights to break up the core mechanics of a game, or don’t enjoy herding enemies like a sheepdog to better launch rockets into the middle of these packs, then you’re not likely to have that much fun in this game.
The Sins Of The Ancestors
Let’s talk about heritage.
The videogame as an art form is one that has a heritage that stretches back, outside of its own art form, almost by definition. It’s rare to be able to talk about a videogame that has any kind of pedigree, because while there is some connecting tissue between games, and some games change the landscape so that the games that come after them are defined in how they imitate, it’s simply not very common to be able to talk about a videogame as if it has much in the way of predecessors. Those games that do tend to be very similar – the Dynasty Warriors franchise, for example.
In the mid 90s, the main conversation on the PC was about first-person shooters. They were a type of game that consoles just could not get right, whether because of censorship standards or hardware limitations or system inputs. PC gamers were convinced that it was our format, and that’s where developers were working hard to create. For a time there, there was something of a horse-race, a culture, developing, a rivalry between Quake-Engine games and Build-engine games. The Unreal engine hadn’t come along yet, and it did upset the status quo. While the Quake engine aspired to a principle of demonstration – where objects had rules that applied to them – the Build engine was more a collection of clever tricks that brought with it limitations. The first of these games was Duke Nukem 3D, where the tricks included things like bodies of water actually representing two totally separate areas on the map, which teleport objects between them perfectly, creating the illusion of a 3D-space, rather than two not-quite-3D rooms. Build engine games were big on flavour and trickery, and tried to sell themselves on what the felt like. Duke Nukem 3D claimed to be hyper-macho, humourous and indulgently sexual, in the vein of R-rated early 90s hyper-violent macho movies. In its footsteps came Shadow Warrior, a game that tried to take the same route of style over substance, using 1970s and 80s kung fu movies and anime to fuel its aesthetic.
Thing is, the original Shadow Warrior made me uncomfortable. The more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I became. I’m not going to launch into an essay about those games’ aesthetics, especially when it comes to women, but let’s just say that the original Shadow Warrior seems to be really racist in hindsight.
That direct line between Shadow Warrior and Shadow Warrior (2013), however, is not the only point of heritage for this game. The developer behind Shadow Warrior (2013) is Flying Wild Hog games, a development company that is responsible most immediately for Hard Reset, a game composed of equal parts fun shooting and terrible writing, and, further in their history, the serial-murder funathon Painkiller. Neither Painkiller not Hard Reset had writing worth a damn – but both were fast, high-paced experiences with colour and speed on their side. You can imagine then, my caution when I learned this team were creating a game meant to re-establish a previously troublesome franchise.
Two legacies stand together in this game’s shadow – one dark, one light, and yet it has such potential to do great things.
Why, it’s almost like some cheesy kung fu movie.
Redeeming The Past
The actual game mechanics of the original Shadow Warrior were never a problem, nor were Hard Reset‘s. While Hard Reset was a little short and mechanically repetitive, the mechanics themselves were tight, responsive, and had that satisfying ‘crunch’ effect when you blew your opponents to bits.
I had a lot of fun playing this game. I liked the story. Heck, I liked the central characters, which is a rare thing for me to feel in any shooter-style game. These are genres populated by people I normally dislike.
With context, things get really complicated, really fast. The videogame is made by a Polish developer emulating an Asian aesthetic and I’m playing it as a western consumer. The previous game was outrightly sexist and felt racist, while this one has three female characters and almost passes the Bechdel test. Yet, despite all this, the game still centers around a main character whose name is a dick joke!
This is complicated, and it’s hard for me to determine what I do and don’t think about this game. It’s interesting. I enjoyed it. I did not encounter any complete turn-off jokes, and the storyline left me thinking about something. The boss fights were pleasantly different, if a little slow. I felt clever when I jousted well with the swordplay, and I felt that mastering some combos in relation to one another made me markedly stronger and capable of handling major threats.
What I think, more than anything else, Shadow Warrior (2013) left me with was doubt. I could not be sure of how good this game was on social issues, on things that matter to me. The interactive, shooty-runny-funny-gunny component? Wonderful, I really hope I see more games like this. It had a real narrative arc, it had a good mechanical balance, it made use of its linear design. The story elements? I am unsure.
Without a spoiler, there’s a pair of female characters, whose dialogue seems to objectify Wang. Wang does not respond to it – when his friend, Hoji, suggests that there’s a sexual element there, Wang explicitly suggests the women are too dangerous to engage. What I think really confuses me here is that, if the same characters were male, aside from some flirty dialogue between them, would there be much difference in their character? They’re treated as equals to Wang, people he respects, to some degree – but they are also sexy catsuit-clad ninja assassin girls. Is it one step forward, one step back?
Then there’s one of the central story, which is about restoring to consciousness a woman. The story rings of Asian-style myth, but I’m not so versed to say it definitively is or is not connected to real myths. One of the things you ‘have’ to do to do this involves killing Whisperers, ceramic robots that look like dolls. This also stands on the border of creepy for me – I mean, I don’t think the aim of the creators was to ‘let’ you kill a woman, as part of that pervasive, creepy trend. Lo Wang’s first kill of a Whisperer is very callous and offhanded. The last one is almost careful, after he’s transitioned through a story arc. I think that it was meant to seem somewhat tragic – but it’s still stabbing a defenseless woman figure in the stomach.
On the one hand, two decent female assassins who were sexual without being objectified the way I expected. On the other hand, stabbing helpless women.
Buy it if:
- You enjoy old-school action-based shooters like Painkiller and Hard Reset.
- You want a good, meaty investment of time for your money.
- You like cheesy, dorky dialogue.
Avoid it if:
- You prefer a more relaxed, tactical sort of shooter, like Mass Effect or Sniper Elite.
- You’re sensitive to graphic blood and gore.