There's a lot I don't much like about Heavy Spectrum's reboot of Shadow of the Beast, out now exclusively for the PS4. I don't like how its 2D combat should be fluid, a ballet of bloodletting with me, as the vengeance-fuelled Aarbron, a man-turned-beast-who-wants-to-be-a-man-again, as the principal dancer; and yet its exacting mechanics turn what could be a captivating symphony of counters and slashes into a frenzied breakdown of wobbly desperation that's uglier than an undercut. I don't like how its (similarly 2D) platforming sections rely on precise placement of feet on ledge edge, and momentum built from moving at speed; but the jump animation is slow and the button responsiveness spongy, making heavy falls leaving you close to death as likely as smooth, successful traversal.
What I'm basically saying, cutting through the gripe, is that I don't much like being bad at this new Shadow of the Beast, because when it's purring it's quite the revivalist thrill. Its demands of the player can be great, but it's only with the occasional section of leaping between moving blocks that it can feel unfair. The design of its combat is sound, as it has to be given this is effectively a score-chase affair, but it's complex too, and mastering the rhythms necessary to slip from a block-almost-everything guard to an offensive swing of Aarbron's... what are those things? Wrist cleavers? Big fucking claws, aren't they, except they're not technically claws, positioned where they are. They're spurs, I think. Definitely spurs.
Anyway, mastering how you flow from a defensive pose to one of either outright attack or counter-readiness, via special moves to earn generous points for stylish murders or health-replenishing noshing on an enemy's neck, will take patience. There are grabs and rolls, "rage chains" and more to toss into the mix, too, to ramp up your combo score and boost your place on the global leaderboards for each level. But this is something that fans of Devil May Cry and Bayonetta will lap up, greedily, especially with the medal rankings awarded at the end of each encounter on top of the raw numbers. (I got a lot of lead on my first playthrough, which isn't a good thing.) Enemy design is varied enough to fill a game that'll only take three hours and a little change to complete outside of its hardest difficulty, likewise the environments, and while boss encounters are generally simply dealt with, there's more often than not a satisfying feel of size and spectacle to them.
It's not in the same bracket of quality as two other retro reboots we've seen in 2016, DOOM and Ratchet & Clank, but Shadow of the Beast (2016) is the product of a very small development team, whereas those other two bear the marks of triple-A budgets. Naturally, it's a little creakier, rougher around its edges. It doesn't look as "new-gen" as it might, and its relatively brief length tallies with its low pricing. It's the sort of game you can totally imagine making its way to Sony's PlayStation Plus programme in the coming months, and definitely one to have a stab at should that opportunity present itself. Right now, with real money on the line, I can't fully recommend it as a worthwhile purchase above so many other indie titles to have come out in 2016, but I will say this much: this Beast is a far better game than the one that inspired it, Reflections' 1989 original for the Commodore Amiga, subsequently ported far and wide.
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Hey. No. Your memories are liars. Or made up, entirely, because you weren't there. Let me tell you about Shadow of the Beast: never has one video game been so misunderstood by those who weren't even born when it came out. I've been doing my reading; I've seen the reports of this new version lacking what made the first one, the foundation of what would become a trilogy, so special. And yes, if you believe everything you read on Wikipedia, you could easily be swayed into thinking that way. Five stars from five, eh? Must be a classic of its kind, of its time, and therefore eternally because that's how retro gaming works: if it's old, it's okay. New shit's so commodified, isn't it? It's just appeasing a market that's happy to be drip-fed the same games in different skins. Fast-food gaming for console junkies who know no better.
Except, again, no. Shadow of the Beast was terrible. Impossible. Unbreakable. It didn't have a difficulty curve; it had a fuck-off-massive vertical wall of unscalable evil that laughed at your pathetic attempts to beat so much as a few bats and rocks. This isn't the inept but persistent me of 2016's Beast talking – ask anyone who had the Amiga original as a kid how far they got into it. You can apparently finish the whole thing inside half an hour, but I spent months running the same short paths, climbing the same few ladders, dying over and over. Always crashing in the same cave. You'd think such an experience might have steeled me for modern grinds like the Dark Souls series; but as my PlayStation trophy count so clearly illustrates, nope.
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Combat was easier on the Amiga, I'll give Reflections that. Shallower than a paddling pool party on a sheet of cardboard, admittedly, but that one-button-does-everything attitude didn't hurt (computer) video gaming's accessibility in the late 1980s and early '90s. Big boss: punch its nose a few times. Strange furry shrieking thing: same thing, but just the once. Chubby floating testicle with tiny wings: sure, sock it on its schnoz and down it goes. One thump will do. The same's true in 2016's Beast: Aarbron can one-hit-kill just about anything, but then, have you seen his hands? But the variation you can bring to repeat encounters, through the wide array of moves available, ensures that pugilistic proceedings remain fresh even when you're actively sucking at them. Platforming was just as bad, though, and no saves whatsoever guaranteed teeth-pulling frustration when an avoidable mishap sent you back to the very beginning. Cue: another snapped Zip Stick.
'Shadow of the Beast', launch trailer
In 2016, stages are separated at a menu level, identifying objectives before you begin to maximise your take-away from each one. Your progress is saved as you go, and there's even a beginner difficulty level available (though it's still moderately challenging). Do well and you can level up, becoming even beastlier than you were when you started – which was pretty bloody beastly – with stronger attacks and inreased health. There's your usual buffet of unlockables and collectibles to muck about with, from NPC models and concept art to stat-boosting talismans and ability improvements. Play long enough and you'll earn enough "mana" to unlock the 1989 game itself, emulated, assuming you want to treat yourself to a truly hellish old time.
"But Mike. Parallax scrolling, Mike. That's what made Shadow of the Beast so special." Did it, though? A graphical technique that provided the illusion of background distance? Look, full-motion video in gaming was a pretty big deal when it broke through in the early 1990s only to die off again a few years later, but I don't hear anyone calling Night Trap or The 7th Guest all-time classics. "But Mike, Roger Dean did the box art, Mike, surely there's that." So you're telling me that, aged nine or ten or whatever, you looked at the Shadow of the Beast packaging, saw that it was by the same guy who'd painted the sleeves of your dad's droning prog-rock records, and you figured that was a good thing? Besides, you're fooling nobody: only eight percent of Amiga owners ever stuck exclusively to retail versions, saying no to cracked discs picked up at the local car boot sale, four for a fiver. (I made that stat up, but sure, it sounds about right.) The only time most Shadow of the Beast players saw the box art was through the pages of Amiga Power, god rest its soul.
Shadow of the Beast II, though. That was alright. Sold a lot of Amigas. Terrifying intro sequence. Still gives me the willies.
Shadow of the Beast is out now for the PlayStation 4. Find more information on the game at its official website.
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