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Shadowcaster Is Origin's bid to repeat the huge success of Ultima Underworld. The game comes from Raven Software and is towards the action end of the action/adventure spectrum with no eating, resting or spells and the minimum of text. 'Shadowcaster is radically different from Underworld,' says Steve Raffel, one of the programmers. 'It uses an enhanced version of id Software's Wolfenstein engine, which gives the game a faster and more action orientated feel than Underworld. We wanted to create a world where you could jump in and have fun instead of having to evaluate a lot of factors before every move. Our motto for the game was s.e.f - simple, easy, fun.'
That is why the game has a single character which is able to transform into a giant, a human, a dragon, a frogman, a cloud and a tiger. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses: some can breathe fire, fly over hazards, swim underwater, knock walls down or cast spells. 'While games like Ultima Underworld may have some of those capabilities,' says Steve, 'no other single character in any game does.'
Steve and Brian Raffel set up Raven Software in 1990 - The two brothers are artists. Their first commercial program was Black Crypt for the Amiga. This was heavily influenced by Faster Than Light's classic first person perspective rpg, Dungeon Master. Like the latter game, Black Crypt utilised a flip-screen view, but it had moved on significantly from that game in the complexity of its plot and the quality of the animation and artwork. The puzzles were, if anything, even more ingenious than those in Faster Than Light's creation. Although a pc version of Black Crypt was planned, it sadly never made it to the market. Shadowcaster is the team's first pc game. Is it more difficult programming for the pc?
'One important factor was the extra time required to design graphics that could be easily transferred from graphics programs to the game program without losing too much of their original appearance,' says Steve. 'Unlike the Amiga, we didn't have sprites and blitter to work with. Learning the 3D packages needed to create the illusion of depth in a flat screen, the morphing programs to create a believable transformation from one shape to another and incorporating the movement of monsters in relation to the player also presented challenges, but we feel that Shadowcaster has dealt very successfully with all of these factors.'
Shadowcaster was to be Black Crypt II with a multicharacter party, but the shape shifter gives the gameplayer all the power and variety of a multicharacter game without having to keep track of so many characters. Because the shapes are added one at a time, you can explore the powers and limitations of each shape as it is acquired, rather than trying to master several different characters and sets of powers at once.
The real fun in having a single character with a morphing ability is that, not only does each shape have different methods of attacking and defending itself, and different levels of mobility, but each has a unique perspective on the surroundings. The cloud, for example, offers the player a more expansive view of the area it occupies because it is able to float above the level of walls and other obscuring objects. The amphibian creature, on the other hand, is very much at home in the underwater scenes which are unlike anything you will have seen in a first-person rpg. You are suspended in a hazy expanse of green-blue, with lots of weird light patterns and shadows playing around you. All of a sudden, a large, ominous shape will start at you out of the gloom, only to vanish again into the distance almost as suddenly as it came - the effect is very atmospheric.
Wolfenstein engine, no spells, no faffing around with Trevor the woodland elf... this sounds too good to be true. Is this the end for manuals with 80 page appendices full of character attributes? 'There will always be hard-core rpg adventurers that will love the complex spell and combat systems,' says Steve. Seeing my face fall he added: 'We feel there will be more demand for adventure games that allow for faster action without sacrificing variety in gameplay. Operating systems and applications are moving toward a graphical interface so games and other leisure software will follow suit. Probably even those games which rely heavily on text and spells will have more of the 'point 'n' click' feel to them.'
Of course, there is always the danger that simplifying an rpg's interface will remove some of the freedom the player has in exploring a world at will, but this doesn't seem to be the case with Shadowcaster. The depth of the game has certainly not been sacrificed for the sake of simplicity and accessibility so it appears that dedicated rpg players can have their cake and eat it.
If Shadowcaster is successful, and it definately deserves to make it, Raven will embark on a sequel. Once you have mastered the various forms, you do not have to read through spell lists or designate actions for half a dozen characters every time they have an encounter. You have almost instant access to a full range of powers and abilities simply by changing forms. This lets you make quick decisions about how to meet an encounter and then act on those decisions just as quickly. Unlike conventional rpgs, Shadowcaster never loses pace and always manages to maintain an absorbing atmosphere with plenty of challenge. It's potentially the best rpg of the year.
Shadowcaster is the latest rpg to emerge from the Origin stable and tells the unlikely tale of a modern dude who is transported back to medieval times to defend his homeland. Apparently, the said dude used to be a medieval shape-shifting bod, but a bloody great war started and he was magically (of course) transported to America in 1994. Then came evil rotter Malkor who killed off all his shape-shifting mates and the 'dude' was promptly magically transported straight back to sort it all out. You are that dude. It's up to you to sort this Malkor bloke out and kill all his evil minions. Apart from all that rubbish, Shadowcaster is a sort of multi-purpose Doom/Ultima type rpg which attempts to be all things to all people with varying degrees of success.
The good bits
The graphics are excellent. All the locations in the game are beautifully texture-mapped and a joy to wander around in. The scrolling is smooth on 486DX and you can reduce the size of the screen to speed things up if you have a slower pc. The only other notably good feature is the ability to morph (change shape) into another form. You can turn yourself into different creatures (cat, pixie, dragon etc.) if you want to see the game from a new perspective and gain new abilities (or even if you just want to look cool and smart). The morphing feature is a neat idea and adds a new dimension to the rpg concept.
The bad bits
There is no character interaction or plot development. One of the great things about Ultima Underworld is the way the plot is developed by speaking to different characters throughout the game. In Shadowcaster you don't speak to anybody, you just beat them up. In fact, apart from picking up a couple of wands and keys, all you do for the entire game is go around beating millions of things up. This is okay for a while (about half an hour - maybe longer if you're in a 'beating-up' mood) but after that it becomes tedious and annoying. Without any shred of a storyline or any 'sub-quests' to keep your attention, the game is way too linear despite the exceptional graphics.
The New Bits
The cd version of Shadowcaster is considerably more enhanced than your average disk conversion, and Electronic Arts have even taken $5.00 off the price! There's an excellent, all-new animated introduction to set the scene, complete with digitised speech for old shape-changer and his grandad.
There are new animated link-in scenes between levels. The music's better and there are two completely new levels to explore. This would all be very exciting and enticing if it wasn't for the unfortunate fact that the gameplay hasn't changed. If all you really want to do is hack and slash your way through pretty scenery then you might want to take a look at Shadowcaster. On the other hand, if you want something that presents a reasonable challenge (or even spins a decent yarn), forget it, there are much better examples of the genre around.