When you start your first game of Shadowgate, it’s likely you’ll do exactly the same thing I did. You’ll sit through the tutorial that walks you through the first and second rooms of the game, picking up keys and torches while an evil wizard does his Guardian-From-Ultima You’ll-Never-Defeat-Me schtick, and then when you get to the third room the game cuts you loose and leaves you to sort things out on your own. There’s a collection of verbs along the top of the screen that represent the ways you can interact with the room you’re in, which contains a statue of a hooded figure holding a book, flanked by a couple of candles. Now, if you’re anything like me you’ll immediately start experimenting by doing the usual adventure game thing of using VERB on OBJECT. LOOK at the statue. OPEN the book. LOOK at the book. LOOK at the candles. TAKE the can-
And then the floor opens up beneath you and crushes you under ten tons of stone. You have spent less than two minutes in game, and you’re already staring at the Grim Reaper’s death screen. Welcome to Shadowgate. Fuck you.
Shadowgate can best be described as Knightmare: The Game. If you fall into the age bracket to whom that sentence will mean anything at all, Knightmare: The Game might sound like an awesome idea, except for one tiny flaw: there’s a big difference between watching a bunch of inept kids flail around inside a punishingly-difficult dungeon, and flailing around inside said punishingly-difficult dungeon yourself. When it’s you that has to deal with figuring out the solution to an instant-death puzzle the prospect suddenly becomes far less entertaining, and it shows in Shadowgate, a game that is by turns frustrating, tiresome and rage-inducing in almost equal measure.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Shadowgate bears passing similarities to Legend of Grimrock, but where Grimrock did an admirable job of updating the concept for the 21st century Shadowgate feels so dated it’s damn near ossified – it’s supposed to be an “update” of a game that was released back in 1987, except it updates precious little except the visuals and music. All of the tiresome game mechanics you’d expect to find in a game from 1987 are present and correct in this remake, except where the 1987 version has the excuse that it was made in 1987 and therefore had to be that way out of necessity, Shadowgate 2014 has made a conscious choice to make my life difficult purely in the name of remaining true to the original.
Take navigation, for example. You move from room to room inside the eponymous castle, with each room being a mostly static piece of painted art that might have a little bit of animation in it like a waterfall or a swaying bridge or something. The castle is mostly a featureless grey sprawl and has an awful lot of unnecessary rooms that serve only to waste your time. Navigating it feels clumsy and time consuming; you GO to an entrance to explore the room beyond and there’s a back button that’ll take you back to the room you just came from, but while Shadowgate includes a decent map that notes the locations of every single room it doesn’t include a fast travel system. The amount of back-and-forthing necessary to complete some of the harder puzzles often requires you to retrace your steps by ten or twelve rooms, which is nothing but tedious make-work. Fast travel would have made these puzzles a lot less painful to solve, but Shadowgate spurns such modern conveniences in its shortsighted belief that old = good.
And this is an attitude that prevails throughout the game. Shadowgate shows an almost pathological disdain for any mechanical improvements that might make the player’s life easier. If you want to use an item on an object in the game world, this is the process you have to go through.
- Click the satchel in the bottom left of the screen.
- Click USE at the top of the screen.
- Click the item you want to use.
- Close the inventory because otherwise it blocks the entire screen.
- Click on the object you want to use the item on.
This takes about four or five seconds. It might not seem like much, but given that many of the puzzles in Shadowgate require a trial and error system of using everything on everything to even begin figuring out how to solve them it rapidly becomes yet another instance of Shadowgate’s annoying make-work. What makes it even worse is that there’s next to no nuance in the verb system. If there’s a lever that you want to pull, you cannot USE the lever. USE is strictly for using items on things. Instead, you have to HIT the lever. Attempting to GO through a closed door will result in you running into the door; you have to OPEN the door first despite this being implicit in your desire to GO through it in the first place. It never makes it easy for you, and the idea of maybe moving away from this fossilised method of interaction with the game world to something more modern – a context-sensitive right-click menu, say – never even seems to have occurred to Shadowgate.
Then you’ve got the puzzles. I am somewhat more tolerant of Shadowgate taking a retro approach to its puzzles; as it happened I was in the mood for a game where I’d have to engage in copious note-taking to decipher what I had to do, and this is the one place where Shadowgate absolutely delivered on my expectations. Still, at first the puzzles seemed almost absurd in their obtuseness – I got stuck about fifteen minutes into the game, and while a quick trip to Google told me what I’d have to do to progress I didn’t understand why. It made no logical sense, with the puzzles revolving around use of spells that were never explained and items that were supposed to go in tiny niches that I thought were just part of the ambient scenery. The art style hindered me greatly, too; the rooms are all drawn in a very painterly fashion that blends everything into everything, making it really, really difficult to discern which items are part of the background and which are the ones you can pick up/interact with. Never mind figuring out what to do, just figuring out what you can do in a room is half of the challenge of Shadowgate.
As far as the actual puzzle design goes, though, it made a lot more sense once I realised that you are not supposed to play this game on Medium or Hard on your first time through. The puzzles in these difficulty modes are more complex and don’t fit together in any logical way if you try them first, but if you approach them having already gone through the game on Easy (and thus having acquired a basic working knowledge of Shadowgate’s structure) it’s just a matter of figuring out the extra details. “Easy” here is a bit of a misnomer because it’s still really, really difficult, but it’s a little more forgiving (rooms that instantly kill you for not having the correct item in the other two modes will usually give you at least a chance to escape), cuts out a lot of the nonsensical bullshit and is more forthcoming with clues and background that point you in the right direction. Easy mode is probably closest to a classic adventure game experience; all the harder difficulty modes add is more Myst-style bollocks and a lot more instadeath encounters that I don’t feel particularly adds to the game.
The issue with the weird puzzle design isn’t so much a problem with the puzzles themselves as it is the way the game is presented to the player, then. Veterans of adventure games will probably plump for a harder difficulty mode and run slap bang into a brick wall that can’t be bypassed without prior knowledge or an awful lot of trial and error, when what they should be doing is starting on Easy no matter what. I’d even go so far as to say the latter two difficulty levels should be locked until the player has finished the game on Easy and familiarised themselves with the castle. Unfortunately as things stand precisely none of this is advertised to prospective dungeon-crawlers, and so it functions as the first – and largest – pitfall for an unwary player to fall into, before they’ve even gotten to the candle deathtrap two screens into the game. And even if it’s avoided the puzzle design is still extremely questionable in places. In Grimrock when you solved a puzzle you felt like the smartest person in the universe. In Shadowgate you simply think “That was the answer? For crying out loud!”
Still, I don’t quite hate Shadowgate. This is strange, because aside from some lovely music it’s fundamentally not a very well-made game. I think it’s because despite its slavish devotion to old school gameplay meaning there’s very little that’s actually modern in this modern update, it still scratched the itch I had for a game that was like Shadowgate. I would have taken a much better game if it were available — and ideally I would have taken Grimrock 2 — but in the absence of either Shadowgate just about cleared the very low bar I’d set for it. That’s not even close to being a recommendation, but it is a justification. A Shadowgate remake isn’t a bad idea – handled more competently, and in a way that played to its strengths rather than letting its obsession with the old school of game design accentuate its weaknesses, it probably could have been quite good. Unfortunately this Shadowgate isn’t.