Of all the crusty IP lurking in Sony’s portfolio, the decision to encourage Shadow of the Beast to rise from its grave still seems a perplexing one. Originally released on 16-bit computers and consoles back in 1989, it’s fair to say that the Psygnosis developed action adventure fostered a cult, yet modest following among the crowd of the time. So fast forward twenty-seven odd years to the fourth generation of PlayStation home console hardware and Shadow of the Beast has made its return, presenting itself to an audience which is mostly unaware of its origins and which will also rightly compare it against the contemporary genre fare available.
Before we get to the core experience of Shadow of the Beast it’s probably best that we set out the narrative premise for the game which, in all fairness, is one that is pretty well executed. Cast as Aarbron, an orphan stolen by the dark wizard Maletoth and then changed into a mindless killer beast, events come to a head when Maletoth tasks Aarbron with killing the human guardian of another baby only for the latter to discover that guardian in question is none other than his very own father. Obviously more than a little miffed, this act of daddy death causes Aarbron to break from his programming and so off he goes on a quest to kill Maletoth and all his goons in an effort to gain some measure of revenge.
From the get go Shadow of the Beast will seem both familiar and a little alien to fans of side-scrolling action adventures. With a bespoke focus on hyper-violent melee combat (Aarbron does have a neat pair of pointy death hands after all), Shadow of the Beast has you skewering, bisecting and generally making a right old mess of whomever or whatever is unfortunate enough to end up on your bloody path for vengeance. Immediately the first thing you notice about combat in Shadow of the Beast is that you can literally carve fools up on the go and it feels absolutely brilliant. This sensation does a grand service to the effortless violence that Shadow of the Beast endeavours to foster; successfully making you feel like a murderous engine of perpetual motion and rage as you beautifully segue from one bloody kill to the next.
Rather than allowing the player to run roughshod through the entire game this way though, the developers have instead elected to split these battles up into separate skirmishes called encounters, with a set amount available on every level. Instead of just being a series of pugilist pit stops en route to the end of the story, each encounter awards a player rank and bestows the appropriate amount of in-game currency, called mana, which can then be spent on everything from upgraded abilities, health bars and so on through to a wide-range of retro memorabilia such as a fully emulated version of the 1989 original.
On a technical level, there is a real nuance and mastery that comes into play as developers Heavy Spectrum have implemented a system of timing and situational awareness that becomes extremely taxing in the Shadow of the Beast’s final few levels. Because combat is contested solely on a two-dimensional axis, Aarbron will only come under attack from the left and the right side of the screen, effectively turning him into the meat of a particularly vicious smackdown burrito if you’re not careful.
Of course to make sure that this doesn’t happen you need to run from left to right, whittling down the attackers on each side like some sort of perverse version of the bleep test sponsored by Conan the Barbarian. Layering this yet further are the different types and strengths of your enemy which must be prioritised, while various blocks, evasions, rage attacks and counterattacks can also be employed, making Shadow of the Beast’s outwardly brutish combat feel a great deal more tactical and refined than it does on first inspection.
You’ll want to get good at it too since tearing up foes while keeping up high combo multipliers and not getting walloped yourself will result in a better rank which in turn not only dishes out additional mana to spend on treats and upgrades, but also can unlock resurrection elixirs and secret encounters when the higher ranks have been achieved. As well as useful for unlocking new abilities and oodles of retro content, mana can also be spent on unlocking special stones that translate the language of the game’s numerous characters during the various cut-scene conversations. While some have argued that this irrecoverably breaks the story, that really isn’t the case since all of this extra exposition is supplementary rather than elementary to the story itself and as such, merely stands as a nice and additional incentive to revisit earlier levels.
Oh and whilst we’re on the topic of mana, it’s worth noting that you don’t need to finish a level to bank your precious currency. Instead, the game rather generously lets you keep any mana you have accrued up until that point without finishing it, so those who are concerned about losing their hard won mana due to being forced to quit the game need not worry as Shadow of the Beast allows you to do your mana gathering in a piecemeal fashion.
If the combat in Shadow of the Beast is arguably its raison d’être then the platforming side of the affair is an absolute let down by comparison. Disregarding the fact that Shadow of the Beast was never really a platformer in the beginning (though I can understand the need for it in part of its bid to reinvent itself a little for modern tastes), making Aarbron leap about the place in 2016 just feels *bad*. Stymied by both unresponsively clumsy controls and a camera that just loves to get all cinematic and useless just when you least need it to, it becomes frustratingly easy to tumble to your death and thus have to restart the entire level should you find yourself bereft of those handy resurrection elixirs mentioned earlier.
Elsewhere, Shadow of the Beast’s flaws also extend beyond its platforming ineptitude where in terms of the game’s mechanics, a great deal is left up to self-discovery. When you stumble across a fallen corpse of another player for instance, you’re given the opportunity to either devour it or leave a gift with the former giving you a shadow stone (whatever that does) and the latter doing something that I’m still not clear on. This is considerably problematic because you would think that the developer would make a bigger deal about Shadow of the Beast’s passive online functionality and secondly, not knowing what half the stuff in the game does is a big problem when your game isn’t called Dark Souls, isn’t made by FROM Software and doesn’t have the goodwill to get away with such shenanigans.
From an audiovisual perspective though, Shadow of the Beast shines. Managing to channel both dark fantasy and alien inspirations to create a distinct and richly detailed world all of its own, Shadow of the Beast is an unreservedly attractive affair that deftly marries great effects work with the fantastical stylings of artist Roger Dean, who worked on the 16-bit original back in 1989. It’s a fact which is made all the more impressive by the fact that Shadow of the Beast was fashioned by a team of just seven individuals, too. Audibly speaking, though the game no longer has the seminal David Whittaker providing the soundtrack (though you can still obtain the wonderfully haunting original soundtrack in-game with mana currency), Ian Livingstone still manages to pull off a grand score that wonderfully oscillates between the haunting and epic with aplomb.
With Shadow of the Beast you have an effort that is both hugely respectful of its classic origins (the veritable avalanche of retro content tells us that much) but yet is also committed to bringing its side-scrolling action beats to a new audience. While the result is far from perfect, largely on account of its catastrophically ham-fisted attempt at platforming and poor explanation of its mechanics, Shadow of the Beast’s charm and intriguing take on fantastical violence creates an impression that remains a good while after its desperately finite duration has been reached.