Roger Ebert famously asserted that the value of something doesn’t lie in what it is, but how it’s about being what it is. By that measure, the original Shadow Warrior has been slowly ground into critical infamy. When it released in 1997, it was the height of the Doom era for first-person shooters, and Shadow Warrior was the boorish prizefighter that answered to no one, a cock of the walk (in every sense) that was tragically unaware of the vacuum of obsolescence that would consume it whence came Half-Life. The reigning king of 90s FPS design was soon exposed for the outmoded, offensive sham that it was.
By contrast, 2013’s reboot of Shadow Warrior doesn’t appear to have changed much. It’s still a 90s-esque, low brow FPS that absconds Asian mythology like a 16-year old going for a joyride in his parents’ Jag, but it’s a hell of a lot smarter in how it goes about being a 90s-esque, low brow FPS that absconds Asian mythology like a 16-year old going for a joyride in his parentrs’ Jag. And it’s a ton of fun, to boot.
Shadow Warrior tells the story of Lo Wang, a mid-level gun-for-hire who works for the Zilla Corporation. Wang’s boss wants him to track down a fabled sword called the Nobitsura Kage, a mission that quickly spirals out of control to the tune of samurai demons invading from alternate dimensions, rogue assassins on the same hunt as Wang, and greedy ancient deities who want the power of the Kage for themselves.
The story keeps things simple, and elects to side-step much of the racist cruft that weighed down the original by portraying Wang as an honest and reactive hero. He’s cynical and sardonic, but he doesn’t share the same need to aggressively sell his wittiness like his cousin, Mr. Nukem. His machismo comes from his loyalty to his job, and his total indifference to those who try to make fun of his love for comic books and classic cars. The Mickey-Rooney-by-way-of-Shwarzeneggar Wang of old has been replaced by a confident oddball who can demonstrate his skill with a katana and discuss his love of Stan Bush’s “The Touch” without seeming tonally dissonant.
The script itself is surprisingly strong. There are a fair share of groaners, and a few leery comments about a pair of twin assassins, but Shadow Warrior’s sense of humor finds a way to imbue the Asian aspects of its source material without descending into full-on tastelessness or Orientalism. Racial angles are used as springboards into gags, rather than punchlines, such as the dumb jokes you find on fortune cookies scattered throughout the levels. Shadow Warrior’s uncluttered narrative and puckish attitude end up being a great buttress for its furiously quick and– this word is more than appropriate here –visceral combat.
Shadow Warrior earns the distinction of being one of the few games to have first-person melee combat that’s just as strong as its shooting. Lo Wang’s katana takes center stage, a lethal weapon that’s effective against nearly every enemy when used in the right way. One of Flying Wild Hog’s smartest design decisions is treating the sword as if it’s a real sword, capable of cutting anything down to size in neaseating detail. There are no enemy health meters, and no bogus “gameplay balancing” resistance to the effect of sharp steel on flesh: if Wang’s cut is accurate, it severs whatever it strikes.
The sword slash is oriented depending on the direction Wang is moving in; forward or back produces a vertical strike, and side to side swings the blade horizontal. Enemies rush Wang in staggered groups, creating a feedback loop that challenges players to move in the right direction when they meet their foes. The game moves rapidly, which makes cutting down a line of enemies with perfect forward and lateral slashes a wonderfully satisfying strategic sequence that often happens in the space of seconds.
Combat encounters are frequent, briefly spaced with just enough time to catch one’s breath. Shadow Warrior enriches its mechanics with some advanced katana techniques, magical attacks, and a small array of archetypal weapons- all of which are upgradable through sundried mystical currency. The depth does a great job of giving the player a sense of gameplay progress; however, none of the other various weapons are given quite the same opportunity to shine as the katana is.
Shadow Warrior insists upon its best mechanics a little too much. That sounds like an odd problem to have, but what it boils down to is that the sword is often positioned as the best option, even when the player might feel like switching to something else. The guns have been carefully tempered to be just weak or inaccurate enough to discourage players from over-relying on them, and ammo is both scarce and expensive. I can understand Flying Wild Hog’s goal behind doing this, but it’s still a bummer when I have to use the sword instead of the shotgun that’s now out of ammo, and the balance only compounds these issues at higher difficulty levels.
Shadow Warrior won’t win any awards for complexity. It’s a shamelessly self-confident return to the whiplash, blood’n’guts symphony of 90s-era shooters, but it salvages the low concept, and it’s own checkered legacy, with ironclad mechanics and the likable, if oafish, story it tells. Players eager to treat themselves to some meaty nostalgia will find Shadow Warrior ’13 just as nutritive as Shadow Warrior ’97 was unhealthy. It’s a refashioning that even Ebert would have a hard time disparaging.