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SummaryOne with soul pods can make it, take my sword but please don't break it
The GoodAfter FromSoftware completed their triumphant "Verdite trilogy" of King's Field games, they decided to create a spin-off of sorts, an action RPG similar in concept to their flagship series, yet with subtle differences in gameplay. This spin-off is Shadow Tower. Like many other games that placed depth and gradual immersion above glossy presentation and user-friendliness, it was released in the West to scathing reviews and was ultimately forgotten until Dark Souls opened our eyes and led many of us to the treasury that is FromSoftware's RPG lineup.
Shadow Tower is even harder to fall in love with at first sight than any King's Field game. The bleak visuals do little to welcome you, and when your weapon breaks after a few fights you begin to contemplate quitting the game and never coming back. But just as you decide to give it "one last try" and at least be open-minded and fair enough to complete one area, things begin to come together and you realize that you are being sucked into the game's world and addicted to its nuanced gameplay.
After King's Field games have expanded more and more, taking you to a mysterious island and a vast countryside, Shadow Tower takes us back to a hermetic environment reminiscent of the first installment of the series. In a way it is even more claustrophobic, taking place entirely underground, within narrow, confined areas that seem to suffocate you. While there are clear advantages to more generous settings, the bizarre monster-infested realms in the sinister tower have that particular cozy appeal, akin to a good scary book you'll want to read at home in a comfortable chair with the curtains drawn. And while the game's graphics may not be of premium quality, lighting a torch and witnessing a gilded ray of light being shed on a pile of bones scattered on a cold stony floor may just compel you to stay with the game and soak in its atmosphere.
The game's ability to pull you into its world would have probably been reason enough to make you spend some time with it. But Shadow Tower is much more than just a scary romp through a decaying dungeon. Like King's Field games, it boasts stellar level design. Exploration is the heart and the soul of this game. The world of Shadow Tower may be confined to a single tower, but it feels much more like a complex, sprawling system chock-full of optional areas. In fact, most of the game's content can be considered optional, since there are only a few requirements you must meet in order to complete it. Essentially, just going straight to the boss of each realm and defeating it will take you to the endgame. But naturally you'll want to stick around and make sure you'll survive these encounters by carefully exploring and choosing your own path through the game's massive world.
The game never holds your hand. It never tells you where you should go and what you should do. You'll even have to determine on your own the order in which you tackle separate areas, though you'll have to go through some of them first to access others in most cases. Once you begin to explore a particular realm, however, you get accustomed to going back and forth and studying its intricate layout before attempting to figure out what needs to be done. This kind of freedom coupled with precise, clever, non-random design of the environments is rare in games and should be savored and appreciated.
There are secrets everywhere. You'll want to explore every nook and cranny and tinker with every wall, because you'll never know where a well-hidden passages may lie. Exploration is always rewarding: there are things to find and collect everywhere. Shadow Tower throws at you vast amounts of weapons, equipment, items, and rings with embedded spells that serve as the game's only source of magic. Killing the same enemies multiple times may result in rare drops, which are much more prominent here than in King's Field. In general, equipment management is more refined in Shadow Tower, and the game is more generous than its predecessors by constantly giving you stuff to experiment with.
Many players were instantly repelled by the game's dreaded weapon deterioration system. Like in System Shock 2, weapons and (to a lesser extent) armor will degrade when used repeatedly, and often do so at an alarming rate. I am no fan of artificial challenges and such a system can be a deal-breaker for me. However, in a game that can be played in so many different ways, it becomes much less of an annoyance and much more of an additional strategic element to think of, adding even more depth and customization possibilities. You'll want to carry several weapons with you, alternating between different types in order to preserve their balance and not let anything break before it's too late. In theory this sounds intimidating, but in practice it can be managed with a fair degree of efficiency. Constant trips to a weapon-repairing blacksmith are no more tiresome than retreats to safe areas with healing spots or comparable places in other games. It is also important to note that you'll always be able to afford repairing weapons, since you pay for that with your own hit points, which can be restored to the full with a single health potion regardless of their amount.
Character growth is handled differently in Shadow Tower. There are no levels, but that doesn't mean there is no experience. Each defeated creature raises your stats in a particular manner, doing it right away instead of accumulating points to an arbitrary limit after which you magically become stronger. Weapons and armor also affect your stats, which means that experimenting with equipment goes beyond the usual comparisons of attack and defense ratings. Everything you carry directly affects your performance in battles. In addition, you can collect soul pods, special items that can be consumed in order to manually increase your stats. This system is a direct precursor of Dark Souls, making Shadow Tower a sort of a bridge between King's Field and later FromSoftware RPGs.
Shadow Tower is a very challenging game in many ways. However, I found the actual battles easier than in King's Field games. You don't have to circle-strafe around enemies so much any more, and they generally go down quicker than the tough opponents of King's Field. You still need to know where to strike to inflict most damage, and enemies can still kill you easily; but if you are careful enough, you can enjoy more fast-paced and generally more pleasant combat. The damage you deal to enemies is displayed in numbers, which is a really nice feature. Also, even more so than in King's Field, most enemies can be avoided, and you can practice your sneaking skills as you attempt to madly rush through a room full of scary undead into the safety of a save point.
There are different types of physical damage and different weapons suited for that. Magic spells can be easily overlooked and you'll always be even more compelled to explore to trace them. There is a whole encyclopedia of creatures you encounter, helping you to understand their strengths and weaknesses and knowing how to deal with them. In short, Shadow Tower gives you a full playground with so much stuff to do that you completely forget it is the same game you were ready to quit as a poorly-looking dungeon crawler.
In the end all of the game's features balance each other, weaving a beautiful tapestry of role-playing. You'll worry about your new shiny axe bound to break in two hits, hunt for rings to learn a new spell, and play around with a bow to take enemies from afar. You'll spend a good deal of time at the equipment screen, trying to find the ultimate outfit that would increase the right stats needed to deal with a particular situation. All this leads to varied and unique gameplay experiences, making you want to retry the game again and again, curious as to how much quicker you would tackle it with all your acquired knowledge and wisdom, and how you would do stuff differently and search for new places and items you might have missed before. And this is exactly what great role-playing games are all about.
The BadShadow Tower tries to be even more hardcore than King's Field, and its survival gameplay may be just a bit too demanding. As I mentioned in the "Good" section, in certain aspects the game is actually easier than King's Field, and there is a cure to every problem it poses. But as a whole, it is a very similar experience, and one that doesn't accept any kind of haste. You'll have to study this game. You'll have to get used to it. You'll have to coordinate every move and replay sections over and over again until you learn the layout of the area, understand your enemies, and plan a whole campaign that will have to be executed with precision and take you from one safe place to another. The scarcity of repair shops and save points keeps the player in a state of perpetual anxiety. Death awaits at every corner, and only few surprises are pleasant. In short, the game will open up only to those who are willing to invest their time, skill, and patience in it.
The game's definite weakpoint are its visuals. One would think that the enclosed areas of Shadow Tower would be lavishly decorated, or in the very least more detailed and pleasing to the eye than the bleak outdoor vistas of King's Field III. However, despite impressive enemies and occasional well-rendered objects, the game remains disappointing on the graphical front. Most locations consist of rectangular corridors and square rooms almost devoid of detail. The game's environments also tend to be too abstract sometimes, with tired elemental themes that fail to immerse the same way as the intricate locations of King's Field games.