At first blush, Shadows: Awakening certainly smacks of yet another Diablo III clone, an isometric hack-and-slash game like so many others. It soon becomes apparent that while there are some shared elements, this new Heretic Kingdoms game diverges from Blizzard’s model in quite a number of significant and interesting ways. In the end, Shadows: Awakening feels very much like its own thing and not just another wannabe.
Shadows: Awakening is based in the Heretic Kingdoms mythos, a somewhat convoluted story of clashing religions, supernatural forces, powerful artifacts and of course, heroes that must unite the worlds or…something. In the current game, you play a Devourer, a demon summoned from the Shadow Realm to do battle with other demons but who must find sustenance by devouring souls and inhabiting human forms in the Mortal Realm. It’s a very complicated explanation for the game’s central mechanic, which is the ability to switch on the fly between the unseen Shadow Realm of ghostly spirits and demonic monsters, and the Mortal Realm of more mundane enemies and human task givers. Because the Devourer cannot move in the Mortal Realm, it must inhabit the skin of one of several “puppets,” each with a set of special weapon abilities or specializations. Up to three Puppets can be added to the party and swapped at Sanctuaries in the Shadow Realm. Essentially, this gives the player a party of four but without the issue of crowd control.
Shadows: Awakening is light on RPG elements but heavy on environmental puzzles that must be solved by switching between the Shadow and Mortal Realms as well as equipping the appropriate puppet with the right puzzle-solving tools. There is the usual array of magical and mundane weapons that can be upgraded along with unlockable skills and abilities for both the Devourer and Puppets. However, the system isn’t as robust or interesting as in a more skill-focused RPG. Still, combat is usually fluid and once all the puppets have been unlocked, planning, timing and some finesse are needed to use each puppet effectively, managing ability cooldowns and special spells or weapons.
Most of the story and side quests arise from interactions with NPCs in the Mortal Realm. The general pattern is that simple requests will often lead to an elaborate dance between realms. While this gameplay mechanic is Shadows: Awakening’s strongest hook by far, it does have a downside, especially for gamers who obsess over finding every treasure and exploring each cranny and nook. They will have to explore essentially two versions of the same area. Not all the quests are particularly interesting, and there is a fair amount of enemy recycling in both Realms. Some of the optional area puzzles can be obtuse, and bosses are very challenging.
Shadows: Awakening looks great, with a saturated palette and a lot of crisp detail in both the Mortal and swirling blue Shadow Realms. NPC and architectural design lean into the Arabian Nights aesthetic, as does the musical score, although there is quite a bit of variety in the Mortal Realm. Not an open world, there is still plenty to do and explore, and the amount of loot to find and manage is reasonable.
Although the option to play a variety of starting puppets and see the story beats change nudges up the replayability factor, Shadows: Awakening does become repetitive. There are moments where characters feel unbalanced, and load times can border on egregious. Overall, though, Shadows: Awakening breaks the mold of the action RPG and reshapes it in some entertaining ways while still retaining enough of the genre to appeal to fans.