Shadows: Heretic Kingdom – What We Think
Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms from developer Games Farm, is a fantasy RPG where you play as a demon summoned by a mysterious man to help save the world. You must consume souls and possess the bodies they previously inhabited. This concept alone makes the game interesting, but the game excels largely due to the fact that it takes advantage of its premise by creating a fun, satisfying combat system around it.
A secret group known as the Penta Nera has been taken over by Devourers, which are demons that consume souls for power and essentially take control of the body of those souls, changing them into Puppets. One of the last surviving members of the group – known only as The Hooded Man – summons a special Devourer who can consume and control multiple souls. You play through the majority of the game as this Devourer and are tasked to help The Hooded Man take down the other Devourers that have taken over the Penta Nera, ultimately saving the world.
A new game begins with the Prologue which has you playing as Carissa and serves as the back story to the game’s narrative. Carissa is one of the five members of a the Penta Nera. I felt this orientation phase failed to adequately explain the game; it’s mostly an overview of the most basic concepts like press “T” to open up your skill tree and spend points to unlock new abilities, which appear as small tips at the bottom right of the screen.
Overall, I felt that players unfamiliar with the genre, or the premise of this title could be left confused as to what is happening, especially if they didn’t read what the game was about before playing it.
The Diablo Is In the Details
The game plays like an isometric action RPG, much like the Diablo or Torchlight series; it has a lot of loot, a skill tree, cool-down based attacks, hub areas, and dungeons. The combat is entertaining and never once felt repetitive, much in part due to the game’s under-explained Puppet switching mechanic.
At the start of Chapter I, playing as a Devourer, you are given the option of choosing the first Puppet you wish to take control over. You can choose between Dasker, who is a long range archer, Kalig – a strong tank like close combat specialist, or Evia who is a fire-based mage that has a good balance between close and long range skills at her disposal. Each character comes with their own quest line and combat uniqueness. All three of them feel good to control and it comes down to which play style you prefer.
Some Strings Attached
The Puppet mechanic is what makes this game stand out. As a Devourer you can consume certain powerful souls and play as them. When controlling a soul, it comes complete with its own memories, personality, skills and abilities. You can have up to three Puppets active at a given time and can switch to them anytime during gameplay.
Throughout the game you’ll slowly acquire more Puppets you can play and can switch out by traveling to the Realm of Souls. It’s a fun mechanic that offers a lot of variety and as to how you might approach given situations. The only downside to the Puppets overall is that only some of them are key to the game’s narrative or even developed in therein.
Since the Devourer is a demon, switching to him takes you to the Shadow realm. This realm is mostly the same in terms of layout, but different in the enemies you would encounter from the normal realm. Things like broken bridges or blocked doors in the normal realm will be cross-able in the Shadow realm. Early on in the game the Shadow realm is also useful for gathering Soul Essence. Since enemies in the Shadow realm are generally weaker, Soul Essence is easier to acquire. Soul Essence is what you use to heal yourself and your Puppets. It’s also used to resurrect a Puppet if it is slain during combat.
Dance, My Pretties!
Switching between different Puppets means that essentially you can switch between up to 4 different characters throughout most of the game. The combat doesn’t feel repetitive because of this, except when the game forces you to play as only one Puppet, which can be very restrictive, especially if that character isn’t one of your favorites. Thankfully these sections of the game are few and far between.
The game’s combat gives you freedom to experiment and create your own strategies. A basic strategy involves playing as a heavy damage Puppet like the Ironclad Zombie to use his powerful ground smash ability to stun enemies, and then switch to a Puppet with an area effect attack to finish them off.
Taking advantage of Puppets’ different abilities while switching mid-combat makes it all highly entertaining. Also all experience points gathered are shared, which means that no Puppet is going to be vastly weaker than another. It’s a smart design decision that I really appreciated.
The fact that your skills, magical or not, are not tied to a mana bar, is refreshing. Your Soul Essence bar is the only bar other than your Health bar that you have to worry about. It’s yet another design decision that helps make the combat so enticing.
The loot in the game is varied in terms of their stats, but loot never once felt special or truly unique. You’ll pick up a lot of the same loot and end up selling most of it. You’ll rarely pick up worthwhile equipment but instead end up wearing the same equipment for 3 or 4 levels until you find something better. In a way, this helps alleviate constant inventory checking, but the problem of monotonous loot remains.
Said the Narrator to the Hero, For Some Reason…
The narrative in Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms is not engaging. The game has a habit of raising more questions than answers. It will gladly introduce things like The Oracle or The Order of the Veil without ever explaining what they do or who they are. The game assumes you know what is going on in a given moment, when frankly, the narrative is all over the place.
While you’ll be tasked side quests that make sense because they are smaller and straight forward, the main narrative seems very grand and vague on purpose. I appreciate vague story telling. As an individual who likes how narrative was handled in Dark Souls, it’s something that can create mystery and intrigue.
When a game like Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms has so much dialogue and yet no clear understanding of most of what is going on, it gets confusing. You’ll most likely end up deciding to not care about the story and just enjoy the game’s combat. It’s a shame, because the game has an interesting backdrop of a world that is filled with many factions and interesting locales, but it’s not fully executed as well as it could have been. Even the Devourer will sometimes talk to the Puppets he has possessed, which could afforded an interesting insight into those relationships, but it doesn’t and is a missed opportunity.
The game’s art style looks good when you bump up the graphical options but it doesn’t feel unique and locales consist mostly of dark indoor environments with unremarkable architecture. Areas don’t look the same, but end up feeling the same since they are mostly on flat plains with not a lot of depth or Y Axis information.
Everything you hear in this game is impressive. The game’s soundtrack is wonderfully orchestrated fantasy feel. The game’s dialogue is fully voiced, with strong voice acting all around.
There were some issues with the game that bring it down. The game suffers from some crashing issues. One particularly egregious crashing issue happened after a time-consuming and difficult boss fight. On many occasions the game will just freeze when you exit out of the game, which isn’t that big of an issue since it’s out of combat, but still an annoyance.
Adding to my growing chagrin is the fact that after a boss fight that happens 20 or so hours into the game, up comes the text: “End of Book I: Devourer of Souls. The fate of the Heretic Kingdoms shall be determined in Book II: Age of Demons.” There is just an abrupt ending to this game that basically is saying “We haven’t finished the second part of the game yet.” At this point, at least you can go back and complete some side quests but there is no proper ending to Book I.
If the narrative was more engrossing or at least made more sense it would have been even more frustrating. But since it doesn’t, this ending just feels so underwhelming and odd. The game doesn’t make a mention of the fact that it’s episodic, maybe since the first episode takes around 20 hours to complete, so it in a way feels like a more complete experience to the developers.
It would have been nicer if it ended on a more conclusive note. Reading the Developer’s recent updates on Steam suggests that Book II will complete the story and will be out sometime early next year as free DLC for owners of Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms.
Some Nasty Tangles
Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms is a a solid action RPG that can’t escape some of its issues. Its Puppet mechanic helps make the game an engaging experience, but the insistence on its overly-grandiose tale keep it from being a stellar action RPG title. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t mind a game built around a lackluster tale, so long as it plays well, then by all means give this game a shot.