I can remember buying the original Shadow of the Beast for the Amiga 500, marvelling at the parallax scrolling, trying on the t-shirt which came in the box – sadly a size too small, even then – and gazing at the gorgeous Roger Dean artwork that had nothing to do with the game. Back then, buying a Psygnosis game was an event. They were considerably more expensive than standard video games and came in oversized boxes in which the 3.5″ floppy disks bounced around like pinballs.
Twenty-six years on and Shadow of the Beast is back, but this time the purchasing experience is rather more muted, with a trip to the PlayStation Store followed by a cup of coffee as a little bar filled up on the screen. It may be faster and more convenient, but it’s certainly less of an event and indicates just how much the video game market has changed. The original Shadow of the Beast was the Uncharted of the day, but in 2016 it’s yet another downloadable title fighting for space in huge library of games available on PlayStation 4.
A lot has changed since that game in 1989, not least the nature of the Beast. The original game’s simple side scrolling combat has been upgraded with a larger number of moves that have been infused with the DNA of brawlers such as God of War and Devil May Cry. The objective is not just to kill your enemies, but to kill them in the most brutal and spectacular fashion, combining heavy attacks, counters, and special moves to gain the highest score possible in each battle.
Tou might encounter enemies with traversing the levels, but the big points are scored when multiple enemies attack at once. During these fights the sides of the screen are blocked by magical barriers that force you to fight the enemies that attack from both sides. It’s here that the Rage Chain comes into use.
A press of L1 and R1 instigates the Rage Chain mini game where timing is key. As soon as you have attacked one enemy, the screen briefly flashes up the direction of the next enemy and you have a very short time to press the required direction and attack button. Each successive attack decreases the time you have to respond making it progressively more difficult to create long chains, but if you can manage to sustain it, they are immensely satisfying. Indeed, you will need lightning reflexes to get the very best scores throughout the game, as countering or attacking at the opportune moment gains you ‘perfect’ points.
All of Aarbaron’s attacks and abilities can be upgraded through the game, and these are augmented further by rune stones that grant him extra powers such as regenerative health. The more powerful attacks require blood which is gained from performing simple attacks, and there is a super attack which causes spikes to shoot out across the play area and kill pretty much everything in sight.
One thing this games has in common with the original is that it is damn hard. There are plenty of opportunities for instant death and if you haven’t mastered the combat you will be dying an awful lot on the later levels. Thankfully, unlike the original game, you can restart where you met death, although using an ‘innocent soul’ to resurrect Aaraborn means you won’t be able to access one of the end game unlocks.
Between the over the top combat there are simple puzzle sections which usually involving finding the right lever to pull. It feels an awful lot like Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty, right down to the unfixed camera that can pan and zoom in and out, and has backgrounds that sometimes show off enemies which you’ll be fighting later on in the level.
The game was never going to have the same impact as the original did graphically, but it does look gorgeous and runs at 60fps. Aarbaron is surprisingly good at conveying his emotions, despite being mostly teeth and eyes, though to be fair most of his emotions are “Kill everything.” Fans of the Amiga game are well serviced with iconic locations and images dotted throughout play and I was particularly pleased to see that – at last – Roger Dean’s artwork has finally made it in to game, as one level features large transport craft emblazoned with his distinctive patterns.
The music also has some delightfully nostalgic tones, with Ian Livingstone’s new pounding orchestral score score featuring wonderful hints of David Whittaker’s more sedate pan-pipe infused 1989 score. You can also unlock David’s score, the original artwork, a retrospective on the series and a full emulation of the original Amiga game.
You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the plot, and it’s actually my biggest problem with the game. They only way to uncover the story is by completing the levels, which then unlock small scenes with a voiceover to retrospectively explain what has been going on. During the game some of the enemies will talk to you, but you need to purchase Forbidden Tomes to decode what they are saying, with each one costing a huge 2 million currency to unlock.
Unfortunately this is the same currency as you use to unlock moves and powers to upgrade Aarbaron. That is always going to take precedent over getting a few snippets of story, so you’ll be left with little clue as to what is going on the first few times you play through the game. There are cut scenes in the game, but they tell you very little other than naughty mage Zelek captured a baby (one that seems to completely forgotten by mid-way through the game) and that you want to give Zelek a good slap.
It’s incredibly frustrating that the details of the story are locked away, as near the end of the game the various races you encounter come and talk to Aarbaron. Unless you have all the Tomes, which you won’t until at least your third play through, what follows is a couple of minutes of screeching.
I’ve never been very good at games that have you mastering combos and chasing high scores, so I’m quite surprised just how much I enjoyed chaining together attacks in Shadow of the Beast. The game, whilst quite short, just begs to be played over and over as you chase scores and unlock secrets, and the inclusion of live feeds which pop up and tell you when one of your friends has beaten your score is a clever way to keep you playing. Storytelling annoyances aside, it’s a solid and polished game with just the right amount of nostalgia for us oldies.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4