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Shape Shifter (TurboGrafx CD)

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MobyRank
100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
2.8
MobyScore
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (168858)
Written on  :  Jun 19, 2012
Rating  :  3.2 Stars3.2 Stars3.2 Stars3.2 Stars3.2 Stars

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Summary

A panther, a shark, and a golem walk into a bar and die horribly

The Good

Shape Shifter is an odd beast (no pun intended). At first sight, it has all the right ingredients for an awesome "Metroidvania" platformer. You've got a large interconnected world. You've got animal transformations that sound absolutely cool. You've got light RPG elements such as money, shops, and weapon leveling. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, for a while the game is certainly enjoyable. You discard the initial choppiness as insignificant, firmly believing in better times when you actually become adept at jumping and hurling that mace towards the annoying enemies. The first couple of quests are acceptable, because they don't take you far away from the town and you gradually learn to adapt to the barbarian's weird behavior on the field.

Then you acquire the transformations. One thing must be said: if the game had a God mode built in, it would have been great just to visit all those new locations that open up as you get in touch with your beastly self. The visual style is certainly original. There is something stiff and corny in it, but the appeal of the detailed areas can't be denied. You are interested to find out how the next place will look like, and agree to endure more of the gameplay to see what lies ahead.

In the end, the reality of the game takes over and its cool features disintegrate one by one. But you still feel there is something in it. The designers obviously cared for this game enough to plan and include even some of its most vexing components. One might argue, for example, that the panther jumps realistically and must land with four paws or slip off a platform otherwise. I don't know, and unfortunately also don't care much; I play games for fun, and I didn't have enough of it with this one.

The Bad

Shape Shifter is one of those games that look very promising and interesting when described, but turn out to be a painful experience when actually played. For every good idea that the game has, it prepares frustrations and irritations galore that throw you back to "old-school" difficulty without any compelling reasons. We are not in the 8-bit era any more, Toto. Games have evolved, and there is no need to bother us with sluggish controls and artificial limitations so that we can boast to each other of our gaming skills. Shape Shifter is "Nintendo hard" in some of the worst possible ways.

First of all, the controls are terrible. No activity feels right in the game. Whether you are jumping over pits or tossing your axe towards enemies, whether you are swimming headstrong into the underground city or fight a fierce boss as a golem - nothing is satisfactory. Even though there are several unique and interesting forms, none of them feels rewarding. In theory, it all should have worked like in Dragon's Curse; but that's theory. In practice, each transformation brings more pain with it. You thought jumping was bad as the barbarian? Try doing it as a panther and see how it repeatedly falls off cliffs that you could have sworn you've landed safely on. You thought you'll have fun as a shark? Tough luck, because the thing feels like a broken raft navigated by drunks. When you get the more powerful forms, you'll encounter bosses that will make you scream and throw your controller at the wall.

All this is made even worse by an awful save system. You can only save in the first town, but the problem is that most of your quests will take you well outside it, deep into hostile areas and even another town, where for some reason you cannot save. You'll have to endure maddening boss fights and cheap deaths, and replay huge chunks of the game over and over again just because you can't find a safe spot where you can give your soul some rest.

The game's big problem is that it doesn't know how to reward the player. You acquire new forms and level up weapons, which is supposed to give you satisfaction and feeling of growth, yet it doesn't. No stage, obstacle, or enemy feel fulfilling; you don't rejoice when you win, because you know nothing will ever be easy in your life again. You trudge through the game and let it repeatedly kill you, or hide on platform edges and do nothing for several minutes until the next eclipse occurs and your health is restored. This is a game where you keep struggling at all times, incapacitated by its controls and forced to be a coward.

Shape Shifter lacks the cartoony aesthetics associated with Japanese products, and instead attempts to be more seriously Western in its depiction of high fantasy. This results, however, in a particularly dull plot and characters completely devoid of the quirky charm that made those hard Japanese console games of the past tolerable.

The Bottom Line

Shape Shifter could have been a monumental, cinematic open-world platformer, but ended up being a frustrating experience marred by bad controls and a draconian save system. I tried very hard to love this game, but I gave up because I felt it didn't love me back.