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The GoodShadows of Darkness occupies a special place in my heart and belongs to my absolute top favorite games. One of the reasons is the fact it has such a strong personality while still being a typical Quest for Glory title. It manages to combine all the elements that made the series so great and add to them its own unforgettable flavor.
What makes Shadows of Darkness different? Well, for starters, there's the setting. All Quest for Glory games had "ethnic" settings, but they were always taken more humorously than seriously. In this game, however, the Eastern European milieu brings something that we haven't seen before - a uniquely melancholic feeling pervading it from start to finish. The designers concocted a marvelous setting mixing genuinely dark themes with the series' trademark charm, resulting in warm emotions spread through the entire experience.
The atmosphere in Shadows of Darkness is so dense that you'd sometimes swear there is a Domovoi hiding somewhere in your apartment, especially if you play the game at night. Try wandering in the forest when it's dark, and after a while you'll start having a strong urge to climb over the city wall, go into the inn, and warm yourself near the fireplace, while watching the taciturn Yuri smoke his pipe. The swamps, the trees, the wooden houses, the caves, the Borgov castle - everything is made with such great attention to detail that you begin to think it all really exists somewhere. There is a good deal of nearly macabre elements, and the overall feeling of horror and suspense is ever present; certain images, such as the vampire girl, can be almost described as creepy.
This atmosphere is immaculately channeled through wonderful hand-painted graphics that absolutely surpass most everything achieved in the field of 2D visual design. As much as the last Quest for Glory was pretty, this one beats it fair and square with its more serious, soulful art. Particularly expressive are the huge character portraits, bringing to life the intriguing, exotic personalities of Mordavia. The music is also superior to anything we've heard in the series' installments so far. Like the icing on the cake, the CD version presents excellent voice acting, with even the narrator's comments being fully voiced.
Now, if you are familiar with the series but never played this installment, you'll probably ask: "But what about humor? Did the series lose its charming sense of humor in this game because it is so serious"? Not in the least: like its predecessors, it is crammed with jokes and silly puns, and many descriptions have endearingly ironic undertones that have always distinguished the writing in the series. Characters come across as even more extravagant: alone Doctor Cranius with his theory about the five elements - air, water, fire, earth, and pizza - is guaranteed to amuse you. Wait till you hear the Gnome's performance, and your last doubts about this game not having humor - in case you still have those by then - will eventually disappear.
The gameplay of Shadows of Darkness is perhaps even more satisfying than in the earlier games. There is a bit less combat and more puzzle-solving here compared to other Quest for Glory games - which is a good thing, since combat was never the focus of those games anyway. Puzzles are never as confusing as in the second game, and are quite versatile and interesting - I enjoyed the animal identification or gathering the stuff for Baba Yaga quite a lot. There is a good deal of solid traditional puzzles, so any fan of adventure games will probably be more pleased with this game than with the earlier installments. Some puzzles involve finding correct pattern or placing objects in a correct order, but they are usually not excessively challenging and are never as tedious as they are in so many other adventure games.
The role-playing system of Shadows of Darkness is fairly standard for the series, mostly serving as an enhancement of the otherwise straightforward puzzle-solving adventure gameplay. You can spend your days training in the city, increasing your strength in order to fight those swamp monsters with ease, or you can decide which side quests to complete and which to leave out. Some puzzles require upgrading your abilities: for example, there is a puzzle where you have to throw a stone at something, but if your throwing skill is not high enough, you won't be able to hit the right object. You'll therefore have to upgrade your throwing skill by going into the woods, picking stones and throwing them at trees. I find this type of puzzles a rather refreshing and realistic alternative to the usual inventory-based gameplay.
The combat system has been re-made from scratch for Shadows of Darkness. Instead of offering you a real-time menu with various actions to choose from, battles have been upgraded to legitimate arcade-like exercises reminiscent of versus fighting games. Basically, every battle takes you to a separate side-scrolling area where you can move back and forth, as well as jump or duck to avoid enemy attacks. The system is simple, and the overall low difficulty of these fights will hardly satisfy a fan of real action games; but it works marvelously within the frames of this hybrid title, providing a light refreshment between the more demanding tasks.
On top of all that, Shadows of Darkness delivers what is undeniably the best story in the series. Sure, in the previous games there were conflicts, dramatic situations, as well as sad and touching events. But no other Quest for Glory had the same intensity of storytelling or dealt with a similarly serious subject matter. Shadows of Darkness has a lyrical love story, tales of sacrifice, alienation, tolerance, and other important topics that haven't been handled by this series - at least not to this extent. The natural is blended with the supernatural, the ordinary with the grotesque, the trivial with the poetic, resulting in a wonderful mixture.
The BadThere is a little bit less variation between character classes in this installment of the series compared to its predecessors. While the Paladin has appropriately unique options, the Thief character is not very prominently featured and mostly plays the same way as the Fighter. Also, the game's combat system would probably distress people who got used to the relatively pain-free clicking of the earlier games. The game wisely provides you with an option to set the battles on auto just for such cases, letting the game calculate the outcome according to the combatants' current parameters.
There are very few, if any, obscure or utterly illogical puzzles, and cheap deaths do not await the hero at every corner. That said, one infamously known element of Sierra design is unfortunately present in this game in at least one aggravating instance: if you forget to perform a certain action rather early in the game, it will become unwinnable much later. Dead ends might have been appropriate in the simple early King's Quests, but not in a game with so many options as Shadows of Darkness.
Unbecoming such an exquisite game, the initial release was very buggy. While subsequent floppy incarnations and the CD version seem to have corrected the most glaring flaws, new errors connected to speed issues started to claim their toll very soon. Only disabling the internal cache of my computer in the BIOS prevented me from encountering the dreaded crush occurring relatively late in the game.