This PlayStation 4 reboot of the 1989 original is unrelentingly brutal, but a dream come true for its creator.
Shadow of the Beast is a tiny indie project that's trying to suggest the opposite is true. Its developer Heavy Spectrum has a core team small enough to be counted on two hands, yet the ambition here is to lace the game with enough special effects and visual flair that it comes across as a polished extravaganza. Not triple-A exactly, but in the ballpark.
The outcome is curious; it's a little archaic, reverting to side-scrolling platforming and button-mash fisticuffs (think of a marriage between God of War and the original Prince of Persia), yet punctuated with lovingly crafted details and striking vistas to make it stand out.
Rendered in 3D yet fixed to a side-on perspective, the gameplay is as straightforward as the 1989 original (run right, jump ledges, decapitate enemies) though now benefitting from cinematic effects that flaunt the sheer brutality on display. At times the camera will break free and swoop in for a close-up of enemies being impaled by the monstrous claws of the game's bestial hero, Aarbron. Blood explodes from the necks of foes whose heads have been torn off and tossed into the air, splattering blotches of crimson across the camera lens.
Yes, it's all so very crude, but it isn't brainless. The world of Karamoon is laced with its own myths and history, depicting an ancient civilisation buried among the sands of an alien wasteland. Stretching out into the horizon is what appears to be the upturned carcass of an unfathomably colossal beast, its eroded ribcage so vast that it creates an extraordinary skyline. Spires of bone stretch out into the sky, made into silhouettes by an unbearably bright sun that hangs low.
There's a resonance to this world, a sense that all its parts belong to a wider mythology. Considering Heavy Spectrum's workforce limitations, it's remarkable enough that Shadow of the Beast is an attractive 3D game, let alone one with a soul.
"Sony is one of the companies that are still trying to make games better"Matt Birch
Such a feat would not be possible if it weren't for its principal designer Matt Birch, who had stayed up until three in the morning the night before our interview to polish the demo code. That's the kind of person he is; one with so much passion for Shadow of the Beast that, when he finally revealed the project for the first time, he tried in vain to hold his emotions.
"We've got hundreds of pages of text explaining why everything belongs in the world, what its history is," he says. "The demo we're showing has thousands of words that I've written explaining the back-story. I deliberately want to not expose all that to the player, I want to make sure there are mysteries and gaps that people can fill with their own imagination."
It wouldn't be hard to imagine that Birch only interrupts his work to eat and sleep. The project is now more than two years old, but couldn't have reached this pre-alpha phase were it not for his unrelenting love for Shadow of the Beast, his infectious passion, his somewhat unnerving determination to succeed.
It also wouldn't be possible without the help and resources provided by Sony, he says. "Before Sony announced its plans for PlayStation 4, they showed us the specs and asked what we thought we could do with them. I couldn't believe they were revealing this to us. It was one of those pinch-yourself moments."
Birch, who previously held a managerial role at the now-defunct EA Bright Light, went on to found Heavy Spectrum with his wife. Though the project would likely be far further along in production had he hired more staff, Birch would be the one paying the salaries, and as such decided to keep the team small.
"I really appreciate how Sony respected my wishes for the studio to stay creative and small," he says. "Sony is one of the companies that are still trying to make games better."
For Birch, better doesn't necessarily mean original. In terms of its core combat design, Shadow of the Beast has more in common with games from the eighties (Kung Fu Master, Double Dragon, et al) than those of the modern era. Granted, there is a God of War rhythm to the light and heavy attacks, and moments of strategy and counter-hits, but overall it's a cathartic massacre played out by pressing the same sequence of buttons a few hundred times.
Which is to say, it's just like the original Shadow of the Beast; a game released 25 years ago and generally forgotten by the masses, but arguably the reason why Birch took a career in games and wanted to retell its story to new people.
"Shadow of the Beast was a defining moment of my childhood. I remember going around a friend's house; he just got an Amiga and showed me the game. I remember being just... awestruck by it, and every time I took the bus home from his house it was all I could think of.
"Those bus journeys were probably the moment I realised games were not just about challenge. They have worlds and stories that you can take with you."
Shadow of the Beast will ship exclusively on PlayStation 4. Heavy Spectrum has yet to confirm its release date plans.