Not Your Daddy’s Dungeon: An adventure classic is reborn for a modern era.
Shadowgate is a name many PC and NES point-and-click adventurers hold in high regard. Originally released in 1987 for the Apple Macintosh and ported to a multitude of platforms, it’s the third and arguably the best known title in ICOM Simulations’ trio of MacVenture titles, which also includes the superb hard-boiled detective thriller Deja Vu and the chilling haunted house simulation Uninvited. The game places you in the well-worn adventurer’s shoes of Jair, “last of a great line of hero-kings”, who has been tasked with vanquishing the evil Warlock Lord who resides in castle Shadowgate. The grueling fantasy point-and-click adventure built a name for itself on the backs of countless players who fell victim to the titular castle’s traps (which more often than not lead to the player’s grisly demise, often accompanied by a comically gruesome description of your hero’s final moments). Featuring a sprawling, living castle teeming with challenging puzzles to solve, secrets to uncover, and ways to meet the reaper, Shadowgate established itself as a landmark release for the fledgling point-and-click adventure genre. Now, some 27 years and two sequels later, series creators Karl Roelofs and Dave Marsh have returned with their new studio, Zojoi, to bring their beloved classic back for a modern era of adventure gamers. So, can a fresh coat of paint and a redesigned interior breathe new life into the dank and deadly halls of Shadowgate nearly three decades later?
Redrawn from the ground up in stunning detail, it’s hard not to be taken aback by Shadowgate‘s updated visuals. The lushly detailed corridors and catacombs of the iconic living castle have been masterfully recreated. The moody atmosphere is stifling as you wend your way through the derelict corridors of the once-great castle. From start to finish, Shadowgate’s visuals are a work of art that perfectly capture the spirit of the game’s legendary castle.
It’s not just the visuals that have gotten overhaul either, as the game now features three difficulties, which offer a tremendous replay value upping the ante with more involved puzzles and a much less forgiving timer for your limited supply of light-bringing torches and a potentially lethal curse you contract early in your adventure. One such example of how the challenge is increased is during an encounter with a vicious Firedrake early in the game. You’ll be able to simply waltz into his domain on Apprentice mode, while on higher difficulties the punishing heat of his chamber is too great, causing you to use some ingenuity with your wardrobe if you wish to fight the licking flames of his lair. These puzzles often require some seriously out of the box thinking that, while sometimes unintiutive, are always tremendously satisfying to overcome.
Almost as memorable as the punishing puzzles and gruesome deaths Shadowgate is known for, the game’s iconic soundtrack is also back and better than ever, as the NES version’s composer Hiroyuki Masuno’s incredible original score has received a triumphant orchestral return courtesy of Rich Douglas (though you can still select the original 8-bit score in the options menu if you’re feeling nostalgic). The newly composed renditions of the classic theme add an epic feel the to the proceedings, filled with driving percussion and haunting melodies that perfectly suit the game’s varied environments.
In addition to the increased difficulty, the story of Shadowgate has also been fleshed out considerably from the original release. Developer Zojoi has greatly expanded upon the lore of the series, building upon the tale of the fortress itself and the Circle of Twelve wizards who inhabited the living structure. The game tells its story through the use excellent narration and numerous scattered scrolls and tomes that flesh out the details of the castle’s history. It’s still nothing to write home about, but it adds a solid impetus to keep you soldiering on to the game’s ultimate conclusion.
Unfortunately, while the bulk of the updates to the game are welcome, they do come with their own set of unique problems. Namely, when playing on easier difficulties many items in your inventory go unused, creating a nagging feeling like you’re always missing something when fumbling through your inventory. This, combined with the game’s penchant for throwing red herrings into the mix can make for some occasionally frustrating moments. Thankfully, the game’s plentiful scrolls and notebooks tucked into seemingly every pouch, cupboard, and corpse you encounter have clues within that should keep you on course should you feel hopelessly lost. Also, the addition of a new companion, a wisecracking skull named Yorick, offers helpful hints on what you should be doing if you’re really feeling desperate.
Another nagging issue I encountered on several occasions was the game’s sometimes clunky UI, which can be a bit overly particular in the way it responds to your commands. While simply double-clicking a pathway works as a shortcut for selecting “go”, sometimes you’ll need to enter the command manually in certain situations, making it easy to overlook a path as simply inaccessible. While not a constant problem, this did cause me to waste precious time when attempting to cure myself from a deadly ailment early in the game. Another issue that drove me up the walls occurred when encountering an iconic foe from the original- a fire breathing dragon. In the original game, picking up a shield lying in the dragon’s gilded den would protect you from his fiery breath, allowing you to scavenge his lair for valuable items. However, while the solution is the same in this remake, you now have to equip items on yourself in typical RPG fashion, adding a layer of tedium that eventually turned to frustration. Rather than simply taking the shield, I discovered after countless deaths I had to “use” shield on “thyself”, before even having the item in my inventory to survive the beast’s blast of breath of death. It’s by no means a deal breaker, but the sometimes obtuse and inconsistent command system is bound to get under your skin at least once in your journey.
Thankfully, these nagging issues are easy to overlook when fully immersed in your quest to vanquish the diabolical Warlock Lord, though I can’t help but feel veterans of the original adventure will be a bit more forgiving in regards to these gripes than newcomers. Having said that, it’s obvious those series stalwarts making their return trip to the fabled fortress are the ones the game is truly meant for, and developer Zojoi’s labor of love shines through in every gorgeously rendered room you venture into. The castle’s familiar confines have been completely retooled, creating all new challenges to overcome, secrets to unravel, and ways to perish at the hands of the castle’s murderous inhabitants. It’s impossible not to feel excited as you uncover every hidden passage, tucked-away nook full of ancient treasures, or brand-bending puzzle to solve as you make your way through the sprawling stone structure. The game is chock full of knowing nostalgia and clever curveballs that will keep veteran dungeon delvers on their toes, eager to see what new changes await in the castle’s myriad chambers.
Despite a few questionable design choices that somewhat dull this long-awaited reboot’s otherwise brilliant veneer, Shadowgate still manages to stand as a triumphant return for the legendary adventure series, and a must-have title for any fans of point-and-click adventures looking for a serious workout to help flex those frontal lobes. Shadowgate is a gorgeous remake of a timeless classic, expanding on one of the genre’s most beloved titles with refined mechanics and a wealth of new content that’s sure to keep you glued to your PC for weeks deciphering the castle’s cryptic secrets. Whether you’re a longtime fan of the venerated series or a newcomer looking to see what all the fuss is about, Shadowgate demands your attention.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), Mac; Publisher: Reverb Triple XP; Developer: Zojoi; Players: 1; Released: August 21st, 2014; Genre: Point-And-Click Adventure; MSRP: $19.99