We have all played that game before, the one where the focus of the developers was clearly on all of the bells and whistles, as well as the game play loop rather than the gameplay experience itself. These are the times where it is painfully obvious that it is all about the destination and not the journey. Not so with Shadows Awakening from Games Farm studios where the biggest issue might be that with such a strong focus on the adventure at hand that they have fallen to the complete opposite side of the spectrum.
I usually start a review with a look at the graphics in a title, and I see no reason for this to be any different. Shadows Awakening looks fantastic. That’s not to say that there aren’t any issues, as even on a PS4 Pro the images sometimes came off as fuzzy or unclear and lacked the sharpness that was expected from this generation of consoles. The fantastic is more referring to the art direction and style as a whole. Character models are very well detailed, new armor pieces usually result in unique and imaginative skins, and the world that is traversed is well textured and diverse. Special mention absolutely has to go to the color work, since every asset in the game is bold and vibrant resulting in it popping off the screen and being a feast for the eyes.
When it comes to the gameplay, at least on the surface, it comes off as fairly typical for the genre as a whole. You pick up a quest, venture out into a dungeon or wilderness area, and start killing everything in your path while picking up all the loot and currency that drops at your feet. For the most part you would be right, that is until you come across a skeleton that you have killed who just stands back up. You kill that same skeleton again, it stands back up. It is at this point that you realize that you are playing a different type of game and need to use the unique mechanic of switching to the shadow realm since what you couldn’t see was a demon resurrecting that skeleton. Only by defeating that demon and then switching back to the material realm would the defeat of that skeleton mean that it stays down for good.
While this is an entirely solo, story driven campaign there is no way to get through it with just one character. You play as the Devourer, a creature from the shadow realm that can absorb the souls of fallen warriors and utilize them to do his bidding in the material realm. These puppets as he calls them, of which you can take up to three into the field with you at any one time, can all equip up to three abilities to be used in combat in order to provide strategic benefits. So if you run into a boss that has a resistance to slashing weapons, swap from your warrior to your mage character and barrage it with fire. If that same enemy has an energy shield, take control of the Devourer who is always in your party and destroy that shield so that your minions can take down the foe.
The combat all works fine but there was a slight noticeable input delay and adjustment to the hit detection with melee characters specifically. This seldom felt like a problem, since once you learned some area of effect abilities or supplemented that character with the appropriate ranged party companion it no longer mattered. Also characters possessed abilities that would maintain even after being swapped out. Have your mage summon a clay golem, switch to a hunter that can throw down a silencing totem and these will both still be there as your barbarian delivers the final blows.
Be wary as it isn’t always safe to dodge confrontation by slipping into the shadow realm. Sometimes it is the exact opposite, as the shadow realm plays host to a whole different slew of enemies who are just waiting to pounce on the Devourer. You will however, find yourself going back and forth often since finding all possible treasures and solving many of the games puzzles will require the appropriate navigation of both realms. The glyphs which reveal the solution to a puzzle might only be visible in the shadow realm while the levers that need to be manipulated are a material thing. Many of the games weapons and armors will be locked away in containers that only your puppets can open by physical touch while the collection of essences for weapon upgrading or interactions with soul stones for additional skill points cannot be done with the hand of the once mortal.
Exploration is also affected by this mechanic. Come across a dilapidated bridge that has put a halt on your progress and its ethereal version will probably still be there in the shadow realm allowing you to move forward. I was pleasantly surprised to find that even the world interactions had some slight nods to this. Walk into town and you will see some of your characters are not accessible, makes sense that the townsfolk of a settlement would not interact as well with a giant lumbering skeleton or little goblin like archer as they would the main human character you selected at the outset of your adventure. It doesn’t seem like much but you will be seeing a lot of certain characters when it comes time to deal with the many merchants and quest givers throughout.
This system is very unique and allows for a lot of customization but it is also the source of a few negative points. For one, it is one of the main reasons that co-op is just not possible in this title. Secondly, for those who do not enjoy spending large amounts of time in the menu, they will find it a slog since each and every one of your puppets needs to be outfitted and leveled up individually with no option for it to be done automatically. When you get back to town having completed a handful of side missions all at once and need to allot skill points, attributes, and gear load outs for at least four characters, you will feel a bit of a slow down to the games pacing.
This is probably where the lack of bells and whistles hits the game the hardest, the longevity. There is no co-op, leader boards to speak of, and even revisiting areas don’t result in enemies having respawned. Sure that last one can be viewed as a positive since it will limit grinding but all of these things have come to be viewed as staples of the genre and at this point their absence is inevitably felt. There are three main puppets, of which you can only pick one at the start of your adventure, who have their own unique stories, backgrounds, and world interactions. So in order to see all that the game has to offer one would need to play through the campaign three separate times. So while the certain combination of puppets you take with you will influence the type of banter between characters you hear as you play, all of which is surprisingly well voice acted, it is not enough incentive to play through it again.
Ultimately, while the game does provide an excellent narrative with good voice acting, a solid story, and the kill/loot/upgrade game play loop that we’re all familiar with, many will only experience it once. It’s difficult not to dock the game a couple points for it but there was a time where a solid campaign that could be boasted as about 30 hours counting the side missions and not much else was not viewed as a bad thing. If that is all that you are after, don’t pass up on this one.