Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms Review

  • First Released Jun 13, 2014
  • PC

Master of puppets.

With a name like Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, this dungeon crawler might prompt you to file it as yet another action role-playing jaunt, embellished with a series of colon-spliced fantasy buzz words. But you'd only be half right. What might not translate in its ambiguous title is a wholly unique hook: twin dimensions in which its hack-and-slash fare unfolds through a revolving door of swappable puppet heroes. Though Heretic Kingdoms' numerous quirks, undercooked features, and surprise cliffhanger reveal the project to be an episodic work-in-progress, rather than a standalone, self-contained game, it boasts enough intrigue to convince you to overlook its obvious faults.

Heretic Kingdoms summons for you the Devourer, a soul-consuming demon confined to the nether realm whose ability to possess the bodies of the long-dead and the freshly deceased grants it a foothold in the physical realm. As your first agent in the mortal world, you choose to resurrect a soul from the traditional trinity: the legendary archer, the famed warrior, or the deposed princess-mage. Your curmudgeonly demon is portrayed as the self-assured protagonist, barking over-delivered Old English lines at its subordinates, but as soon as you wake the dead, Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms sports a truly ensemble cast.

Consume the essence of the living as the ghostly Devourer.
Consume the essence of the living as the ghostly Devourer.

Your chosen hero and the demon bicker, jab, and actively mock one another as the dynamic between them shifts from subservience to reluctant partnership. They spit caustic dialog that lacks nuance but serves to build character as you're guided through Heretic Kingdoms' unique mechanics. You learn to instantly phase back and forth between the two while you undertake your living hero's opening quest line: to wrap up questions lingering from their former life, before they wound up in a tomb and in the ethereal service of the Devourer.

That relationship, and the hero-demon dialog that propels it, is the peak of the interaction between characters. But you're never forced to rely solely on them for your connection to the Heretic Kingdoms. Before long, you slay and consume the souls of assorted creatures: the zombie behemoth, the lupine berserker, and the crocodilian shaman. Uncovering new skills and talents are a large part of the genre's draw, so watching this stable of playable heroes from diverse species and creeds grow into a fighting force is a special treat. These fully customizable supporting characters can be rotated in to fill out the remainder of your four-slot party and are every bit as upgradeable as the top-billed duo, down to their own unique armor, weapons, and skill trees.

Your chosen hero and the demon bicker, jab, and actively mock one another as the dynamic between them shifts from subservience to reluctant partnership.

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Weapon of choice is one of Heretic Kingdoms' strongest virtues: a refreshing change of pace from the traditional lone wolf mentality when it comes to hacking through its fantasy environments. And the Heretic Kingdoms, though represented through the expected archetypes--the forest zone, the desert area, the caverns and crypts--are beautiful, tangible places, bearing the weight of history and scars that are reflected in fine detail. A few levels stand out as especially unique, strange, and otherworldly. But for the most part, they each house their sights and vistas to be gazed down upon from an isometric perch.

With the addition of the shadow realm, each area is also represented in a darker, slightly altered mirror of itself, shrouded in neon nether energy. A collapsed bridge or blocked passage in the mortal realm may not be present in the shadow world, forcing you to shift back and forth between the Devourer and its living puppets in order to progress through each long area and underground dungeon. Traversal itself plays out like a puzzle in this regard, reinforcing the welcome notion of cooperation between these realities, despite the simplicity of the mechanic.

Heretic Kingdoms, at least initially, promotes exploration through treasure caches, crafting materials, and loot-bearing breakables that cover the paths of the physical plane, while optional tasks from eager non-player characters can be found off the beaten path. Yet these side quests begin to taper off toward the adventure's midpoint, which is a shame, since the Heretic Kingdoms are as convincing a world as you're likely to find.

The Heretic Kingdoms are detailed places full of history and scars.
The Heretic Kingdoms are detailed places full of history and scars.

The centuries of conflict, politics, factions, and secret orders that shape the geopolitical climate are referenced constantly. Throughout the adventure, it's actually quite easy to lose track of the finer points and even some larger, overarching notions. If you're not diving into the flavor text wrested from historical books and tomes, or listening for names and places in the quick conversational dialog, you're likely to fall behind. And though scripted conversations are at times campy and inconsistently delivered--too quietly to fight the persistent soundtrack--Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms is populated, albeit sparsely, with well-conceived characters and a dedication to fleshing out a believable universe.

Unfortunately, the focus ultimately shifts, and that air of discovery and non-violent interaction with the world gives way to the inflexible destruction of anything between you and your quest marker. It's a symptom of an unfinished product that falls back on dense periods of combat for lack of something else to do. And Heretic Kingdoms' combat is its most divisive element. Though well-designed in form, with the aforementioned clever twists, it can't functionally support the grand scheme.

Its standard click-to-move, click-to-attack system is finicky and floaty, rendering precision targeting and maneuvering difficult in thick groups or tight spaces. At its best, it takes some getting used to; at its worst, it's jagged, seemingly delayed, and not smooth enough to deliver on the seamless swapping of characters necessary for ability combinations. I regularly found myself trying to control targets with a quick succession of spells, only to be hampered by a delay or an unregistered click, and walking toward the enemy with a fragile mage.

One of the only times you could identify with a giant wasp over the human hero.
One of the only times you could identify with a giant wasp over the human hero.

When Heretic Kingdoms works, it's rewarding. The strengths of its combat lie in the variety of consumable party members and the ability to outfit your squad with characters that meet your needs. Each character's basic attack and four-slot action bar can be augmented from a deep skill tree, allowing you to create extensive combinations by swapping between characters on the fly.

You might have your mage open with a lobbed fireball, then slow the approaching beasts with a magical blast of sand so you can swap to your archer and pin them with poisonous arrows. When finally cornered, you might shift to your zombie bruiser, leveling the area with shockwave ground attacks and stunning nearby monsters in order to buy time to switch back to your mage and repeat for desired results. This dance of skills and talents creates opportunities for moments of brilliance when you've memorized your party and its many abilities, potentially hammering keys in quick succession to cause all sorts of impressive destruction.

Of course, the Devourer has its own obstacles in the ghostly phantoms, apparitions, and demons that roam the shadow plane. Both realms work in tandem, and aside from a few monsters that have a presence in both, you can pick and choose the lesser of two dangers. But the Devourer is the driving force of your adventure, and if it dies, your journey ends. Knowing when to sacrifice a puppet character in the physical realm to get away from dangers in the shadow realm is a hard-earned lesson.

Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms is populated, albeit sparsely, with well-conceived characters and a dedication to fleshing out a believable universe.

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In keeping with the themes of the afterlife, death itself is merely a temporary setback for those puppets. You'll collect soul essences from each enemy killed to resurrect your own dead characters or to quickly heal any member of your party. With enough souls in your pouch, it's possible to stand toe-to-toe for a short time in even the most dangerous encounters. The system rewards smart, strategic play, while allowing you to pick and choose how you want to engage. With so much to manage, control, and keep an eye on, the potential of Heretic Kingdoms' combat is obvious--but it won't be reached until a future update soothes its twitchy unpredictability.

And in that regard, updates are coming to Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms with both fixes and content. Heretic Kingdoms isn't complete at this time. In its current state, it runs approximately 8-12 hours before it abruptly ends, promising the next "book" in the journey will be delivered at a later date. While episodic games are nothing new, the fact that some quests and dungeons are included but can't be completed yet, along with features that feel incomplete, means Shadows feels less like an episodic game and more like an incomplete one.

The crafting component of Heretic Kingdoms exemplifies this difference. Though at first it seems robust and extensive, it played almost no role in my adventure. Nearly every recipe for an item in my level range required ingredients I hadn't encountered yet, despite the burgeoning stash of materials quickly filling an extensive inventory. I regularly scanned the unorganized list of recipes for potential improvements, but the only craftable items were inferior to my current gear by several levels. It's a wasted feature in its current form. And though I have no doubt future attention will be paid to fleshing it out, right now it seems more like an ambitious feature that never quite arrived where it was supposed to.

Zaar the Berserker’s swift axes play a vital role in reclaiming the homeland of his people.
Zaar the Berserker’s swift axes play a vital role in reclaiming the homeland of his people.

Despite the admitted incompleteness of Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, some elements of the game also lack finish. Cutscenes are grainy, and minor graphical artifacts pop in and out of menu screens and character windows. Bugs of varying severity hide just under the surface--e.g., removing characters from your party and reselecting them causes some of their skills to become unmapped from their action bar. The rough edges are not enough, however, to overshadow the game's smart, refreshing design. Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms has many unique qualities that both elevate and iterate on the traditional mechanics of the genre. With time and enough developer support, the game could even become an unheralded standout in a space dominated by a few big names.

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The Good

  • Clever use of two dimensions fleshes out the standard hack-and-slash experience
  • Unique puppet heroes are varied and allow for various combinations of heroes
  • Swapping between heroes to combo skills is rewarding when it works
  • A realized world that instills a feeling of history in its lore and detailed locales

The Bad

  • The combat basics lack smoothness, making precision difficult
  • The campaign is a work-in-progress with more story content coming in a later update
  • Some included features, like crafting, are underwhelming.

About the Author

Brandin Tyrrel spent 30 hours marching through the Heretic Kingdoms with multiple starting characters despite the main quest line requiring only a third of that. Slaying the Lords of Hell in Diablo II remains his favorite hack-and-slash memory, though Titan Quest and Torchlight are not far behind.