Monday, October 3, 2016

A Month of Horror Games - Shadow Tower

"Darkness swallowed all, and closed a gate"

Here's a game that is near and dear to my heart: Shadow Tower, released on the Playstation in summer 1998 by From Software.

If you count yourself a Dark Souls/Demon's Souls/Bloodborne fan you seriously need to get off your ass and look at the games that started it all. You'll often hear that King's Field is the grandfather of the Souls series, but I'd argue for Shadow Tower--the game's weapon degradation system, lack of music, use of "Soul Points" to level up and overall dark and more oppressive atmosphere bears an even stronger resemblance to the franchise that brought From Software to the mainstream.

Shadow Tower is dense, dark, unfriendly and scary as hell. Visibility is often limited if you don't have a torch. The claustrophobic locale and downright bizarre enemy designs lean heavily toward the horror fantasy genre, and if you're afraid of the dark, giant insects, hanging skeletons, or losing half of your HP to one mistake you should stay away. Shadow Tower doesn't care if you make it through or not.

Though there are a few NPCs scattered throughout, this is one of the loneliest games I've played

hell yea

Here's a wonderfully From Software part that I love, and it has no bearing on the gameplay; just some unobtrusive hints at story. Reaching this room will present the player with a useless, instant-death pit. Wait a bit and you'll see the occasional corpse fall through a hole in the ceiling and into the pit. Someone or something is dumping bodies down here for no explained reason. Nice.

Unlike Dark Souls, Shadow Tower doesn't sport the same responsive and intuitive controls or physics. Even back in the PS1 days playing it was a bit of a chore, so visiting it now may prove to be an absolute god damned nightmare for those unfamiliar with From Software's admittedly rough early catalogue.

This bozo nearly made me drop the controller

Though the creature designs are imaginative and often nightmarish, this game does NOT look like it came from 1998, and that's not a compliment. If you can appreciate the inherent creepiness of the low res, low draw distance graphics indicative of the early days of 3D games there's a lot to appreciate. It's very blocky, very corridor-ey, and ultimately very confusing if you aren't working with a map or paying close attention to landmarks.

I was going to compare it to King's Field until I remembered how terrible King's Field looked. The graphics are improved over its predecessor, but not as much as you would expect with three years between the games! A review of the Shadow Tower from 1998 supports my claim that this game was  rough even by the standards of the day.

If you can get over the initial difficulty curve and manage to collect a few spells and a pile of useful weapons, the game becomes somewhat more forgiving. You will definitely still get lost, and you will probably get caught with your pants down by a weapon breaking mid-fight, but if you have the patience and nerve you'll find a creepy, atmospheric history lesson for Souls fans.

In conclusion, Shadow Tower is so dense and confusing that if you're going to attempt it, the best approach would be with the aim of exploration.* The labyrinth is lousy with illusory walls, full of dead ends, double-backs and shortcuts--not to mention ambushes everywhere. It's quite the experience to go into blind. If you want to go really method, hardcore dungeon crawler with it you could even draw a map as you go! A certain type of player could get a lot out of this game.

Please give it a try if you can, or better yet get a PS2 emulator and track down the English translated copy of its sequel, Shadow Tower Abyss! Everything good about the original is preserved and everything bad is improved upon, making Abyss the most playable and fun pre-Souls dungeon crawler that From Software ever developed.

*or use a walkthrough because this game is hard as balls