Shadowgate Review

  • First Released December 1989
  • PC

Dungeon master.

If you've been playing games for a long while, the Shadowgate name is probably familiar to you. Since it helped spark the adventure game genre back in the 80s, Shadowgate has been ported to a variety of systems, most famously the NES. You used a lot of the same commands as in a text adventure like Zork--"go" here, "take" that, "eat"--but a graphical representation of each room helped you navigate and solve puzzles. This new Shadowgate, a reimagining of the original, operates in more or less the same way. But while it's the same quest in spirit, much has been changed, added, and improved in order to make this a throwback adventure worth exploring whether you have nostalgia for it or not--provided you're ready to do a lot of pointing and clicking.

Shadowgate drops you in front of a locked door with nothing but a dagger, a torch, and your wits. An optional tutorial walks you through the first few simple puzzles, but for the most part, you are on your own. The perspective is first-person, and all exploring is done by moving between mostly-static (though wonderfully illustrated) images, or rooms. Each room has its own objects of interest, which you interact with via a variety of verbs like "hit," "look" or "open." Time only moves with each of your actions, leaving you free to stop and stare at the scenery as much as you'd like. You must keep a close eye on your torch and replace it if the light starts to go out, but Shadowgate is a largely slow-paced affair.

Giant eyes made of fire aren’t usually what you want to see when you enter a building for the first time.
Giant eyes made of fire aren’t usually what you want to see when you enter a building for the first time.

If you get stuck trying to figure out a specific mechanism or wondering what item might be useful in a situation, you can get a hint from your sole traveling companion, a skull named Yorick. This is good, because there's so much to look at and interact with that it can be overwhelming. Yes, you can use your torch to burn a rug and find two gold coins underneath it. Will you need them? No. On one hand, such unnecessary interactions are great, as they give you a better sense of freedom than many point-and-click adventures, which usually limit your interactions to a few key objects. On the other hand, it means your inventory can get cluttered, which is a pain if you prefer to brute force your way through puzzles by using every object on every other object, just in case.

If you find yourself using certain items or commands more than others, you can bind them to the number keys on your keyboard. This is one of several ways the developers have streamlined the experience; thanks to another tweak, a double click will usually look at an item or move in a direction, depending on what's clicked. (This doesn't always work, though. Don't hesitate to try the "go" command if you think you should be able to move somewhere.) Nevertheless, there is still tedium to struggle with. There is no overall quick-travel system, for instance (aside from a few shortcuts), so if you need to go from one side of the world to the other, you must make the long walk screen by screen, click by click. There is also some degree of pixel hunting, as it can be easy to overlook an item that you might need in the future.

Time only moves with each of your actions, leaving you free to stop and stare at the scenery as much as you'd like.

Expecto Patron... oh, wait, wrong hooded fantasy creature.
Expecto Patron... oh, wait, wrong hooded fantasy creature.

Unfortunately, Shadowgate also still suffers from the age-old problem that plagues most adventure games: puzzle solutions typically need to be very specific, and they aren't always intuitive. To be fair, this game is far better than its predecessor on that front, as most puzzles make logical sense and can be solved with wits alone. And even if you're wrong but on the right track, the game will try to nudge you in the right direction; for instance, if you try to use a dagger, the game might advise you to try something bigger (like a sword). For the most part, carefully reading clues and carefully thinking about the tools are your disposal will get you where you need to go.

But spending hours trying to decipher riddles doesn't make for the most welcoming experience, especially if you lack experience with the original game. Fortunately, Shadowgate does some interesting things with its difficulty settings. You can choose between three difficulties at the start of the game, and they make the quest easier or harder by actually adding or removing content from the game itself. For example, one of the very first things you see at the start of the game is a doorway with skulls forming an arch on top of it. On the game's easiest difficulty setting, this arch is missing one skull, which you have to find and place within the arch later in order to progress. On harder settings, it's missing three. Easier difficulties remove certain items, puzzles, and even entire areas.

No Caption Provided
You’ll probably see the grim reaper a lot.
You’ll probably see the grim reaper a lot.

Removing content might sound counterintuitive--why choose a gameplay setting with which you don't actually get to see the entire game?--but the effect is huge. By eliminating so many steps from the journey, Shadowgate becomes a lot more approachable if you prefer a more laid back journey. There is less chance of feeling lost, less chance of feeling paralyzed by confusion. Not only do these varied difficulty levels make this an appealing adventure to all types of players, but by adding diversity to individual puzzles, they invite you to make the trek a second or third time. The only catch is that some objects and options no longer serve a purpose on lower difficulties, which can be distracting. Players on earlier difficulties will find locked doors that can never be opened, and the game's hint system will occasionally give you information for puzzles that you never encounter, making them not just irrelevant but also misleading.

Death can come quickly in Shadowgate. Using the wrong item at the wrong time, being unprepared for a room, or even simply taking too many turns to explore may prove deadly. Saving often is key to avoiding frustration, though the game's automatic saves might rescue you as well (something they're more likely to do on easier difficulty settings). There are so many ways to die, in fact, that the developers have in a sense created an entire metagame around finding Shadowgate's special "hidden deaths," which are ways to die that are slightly more outside the box.

For the most part, carefully reading clues and carefully thinking about the tools are your disposal will get you where you need to go.

One death condition has the potential to be more annoying than the others, if you succumb to it. Relatively early on in the game, an enemy poisons you, an event that you cannot avoid. The game hints that you should take care of this sickness, but isn't specific about how long you have. Every turn you take after that point, a timer counts down to your death. Should you waste too much time trying to solve the mysteries of the castle, you could end up locking yourself into a no-win scenario.

Adventure games have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, but Shadowgate represents a different and currently rare kind of experience. It's unashamed of its roots, sometimes to a fault, but as an attempt to recreate a classic it succeeds far more than it falters. It doesn't do anything that would make the Shadowgate name as revolutionary as it once was, but it's an enjoyable adventure for old admirers and newcomers alike.

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The Good

  • Wonderful new art evokes classic scenes
  • Smart difficulty options allow for more casual adventuring
  • Avoids many of the missteps common to older first-person adventures

The Bad

  • Walking and object hunting is sometimes tedious

About the Author

Britton Peele took his first step into the castle with Shadowgate Classic on the Game Boy Color, which kept him up way too late for many nights afterward. He took a couple thousand turns to beat the new Shadowgate and spent some time with the various difficulty levels before writing this review.