Back in 2004, a game called Kult: Heretic Kingdoms (also known as Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition in some locations) first released. It was a game without a full-sized map, and the first few hours were painful as you struggled to figure out its weird gameplay systems, but the story and lore were deeply interesting, and it was rewarding figuring out the mechanics and subsequently curb-stomping everything in the second half of the game. Ten years later, developer Games Farm attempted a sequel, Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, that was set to release in two parts, with Book 1 coming out in 2014 and Book 2 having been scheduled to release some time after that. Then publisher bitComposer went bankrupt and Games Farm had to go to court to fight for the series’ rights in order to finish Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms. For years, there were no obvious developments, but eventually Kalypso—evidently taking a break from publishing incest fantasy and engaging in the questionable business practices that all but destroyed Omerta – City of Gangsters—came on board to publish both stopgap aRPG Vikings: Wolves of Midgard and a rebuilt/completed Kult sequel that came to be known as Shadows: Awakening. Having now finished Shadows: Awakening (and all of its sidequests), it’s striking how similar it feels to Kult: Heretic Kingdoms despite its gameplay and characters being worlds apart. Like Kult, inventory management can be a bit of a pain and the only real difficulty comes at the very beginning of the game, but you then spend the entire second half mercilessly beating down every living creature foolish enough to cross your path thanks to some entertainingly empowering mechanics. That being said, Shadows: Awakening inherits Vikings‘ repetitive and gimmicky boss fights, while its shifting rules and general inability to explain how certain things work can turn its frequent puzzles into a slog. Add a slow movement speed and too few teleport points on top of that, and you have a game that, while enjoyable overall, fails to live up to its potential.
This isn’t another adventure in the Heretic Kingdoms that you remember
A quick refresher on the lore: god existed once upon a time, but was eventually slain by a hero named Arkor. The blow proved fatal to them both, leaving only the powerful Godslayer sword that was central to Kult: Heretic Kingdoms‘ conflict. Depending on your decisions at the very end, you could either have Kult‘s playable character keep the sword and become the new theocrat, give it to friend Carissa Cantrecht so that she could become reborn as the new god of the world, or destroy it to fulfill a promise to her mentor. Shadows: Awakening takes the third possibility as canon, elaborating that the destruction of the sword caused a hellish realm called Shattered Heaven to impinge upon the Dreamworld that mages and shamans can traverse, transforming it into the dangerous and demon-filled Shadowrealm. You play as a demon called the Devourer who’s summoned without a pact as part of a mage’s desperate gamble. It turns out the Penta Nera, an organization formed to abolish religion that was ultimately torn apart by arguments about how to handle the Godslayer, have suddenly seen the return of several dead characters. Thanks to the Penta Nera’s rituals over the years in which they harness the essence of the dead god for their own benefit, their spirits have been fortified, allowing them to enter into pacts with demons and return to the world of the living.
The Devourer can similarly absorb the souls of characters fortified with essence, but to a far greater extent. Shadows: Awakening begins with you choosing one of three characters to be your main “puppet,” and whoever you choose becomes the co-protagonist with the Devourer. I went with Evia, fire mage and long-dead princess of a previous age, and it’s impressive how integrated she feels into the overall plot despite the fact that she’s ultimately one of three potential main characters. The same holds true for other characters, too—based on where you go and who you engage first, you’ll obtain new puppets and be locked out of others (many seem to operate as part of mutually exclusive pairs), and yet these characters chime in and interact with each other well enough that you could be forgiven for thinking that Shadows: Awakening relies on a fixed group of characters. These new characters are really well realized.
The old characters, on the other hand, have received some slightly jarring personality changes. This is ultimately hand-waved away as the result of demonic influence (which is kind of a cop-out), and it ensures that your reunion with characters from Kult: Heretic Kingdoms doesn’t feel much like a reunion at all. Serge Valkarin comes across as a sniveling coward. Carissa Cantrecht is suddenly Judas-lite. Krenze is a tricky, scheming mage. Only Baron Evanger acts like he did in Kult, day-drinking in his downtime and otherwise pursuing his targets with single-minded devotion. These new personalities aren’t necessarily bad, but part of the fun of sequels is revisiting familiar people and places, and there’s no joy to be had on that front. The main character from Kult doesn’t even exist in this game outside of some journal entries, and I never found anything explaining her absence from Shadows: Awakening‘s events despite being the figure who set all of these events into motion in the first place by destroying the sword. Familiar places have likewise received a facelift to become unrecognizable, with Kyallisar’s memorable rope bridges apparently having been phased out and mostly replaced with mechanical lifts. The Penta Nera don’t even have their own building anymore, now convening in the Civil Mage’s Villa. All of these little niggles prevent Shadows: Awakening from feeling like a homecoming, and while that makes it accessible to new players, fans of Kult will likely be underwhelmed by all of the missed opportunities here.
In fact, there’s not much heresy in Shadows: Awakening at all
Religion was a huge factor in Kult: Heretic Kingdoms. The fear of religion. The fight against it. The temptation to give in to a comfortable new belief system. It’s not surprising, then, that Shadows: Awakening drops the “Heretic Kingdoms” title entirely, because religion barely matters in this game. Valkarin practically breaks the fourth wall at one point to acknowledge that things have moved far away from the anti-religion crusade that was supposed to be the universe’s focal point, and while there are a handful of token efforts (such as being pursued by demon hunters after carelessly telling someone that about how you’ve been affixed to a demon), this game’s priorities are elsewhere. This leaves the setting feeling like a much more generic and interchangeable fantasy game’s setting as the emphasis is placed on the familiar over the universe’s distinct elements.
Shadows: Awakening’s gameplay starts out rough, but gets better
After struggling with the keyboard and mouse controls in Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms (which I played a few hours of for the sake of comparison), I decided to use a controller in Shadows: Awakening. This works incredibly well and makes playing as a mage much easier than it was before. Directly controlling your characters is an infinitely more natural way of weaving through hazards and enemy attacks, and kiting around is pretty much required early on. These early sections have been changed somewhat from the way they looked back in 2014, but one thing remains entirely the same: there are some early undead enemies and bosses who represent significant spikes in difficulty that come out of nowhere and can’t be adequately prepared for. Things get quite a bit better in that regard further on once you have enough resources to approach situations in a variety of different ways, but the early sections are easily the most awkward part of Shadows: Awakening because you don’t have many resources to fall back on.
Since the Devourer essentially resurrects his puppets using his own body, Shadows: Awakening revolves around a character-switching mechanic that allows you to swap between the Devourer and three of his “equipped” puppets at will (unless you’re crossing a bridge that only exists in the Shadowrealm, in which case switching is disabled until you reach the other side). All characters have their own strengths, as well as a handful of unique skills that can be unlocked with points obtained as you level up. Level gating keeps these skills from being much of a choice—most skills will be maxed out by the time you reach level 30 and head to the final confrontation—but many skills can impart their bonuses to other characters and be combined with those of their own. An early useful move is to use the Devourer’s enemy-freezing skill, then swap to one of your other puppets and bombard the frozen enemies with attacks. Later on, however, I came to rely on a combination that involves the Devourer using a skill that adds bonus damage that increases as blows are landed, then switching to Carissa to use a skill that gives her a massive bonus to attack speed and damage.
All of the unique Kult-isms like infinite-use healing items and weapons teaching you perks have been replaced in Shadows: Awakening, though skills function a lot like perks once you’re in the heat of combat. Additionally, the essence system has been totally overhauled, with essences now being items that can be attached to equipment. Every piece of equipment can be enchanted with up to four essences, and this can allow you to stack things like fire resistance (pro tip: fire resistance is the most important resistance and the only one you’ll consistently need) and damage bonuses against certain types of enemies. In Kult, you often found yourself switching back and forth between weapons in order to activate and deactivate specific perks tied to that weapon type, and Shadows: Awakening has you doing the exact same thing despite its mechanics being completely different. Everything works differently, and yet it all feels surprisingly Kult-like.
The gimmicky boss fights and puzzles can be a problem
I’ve talked at length about how bad Shadows: Awakening‘s puzzles are, but it’s worse than I even thought. The puzzles that I had assumed were timing-based? It turns out you can freeze time by switching to the Shadowrealm. I haven’t tested this for myself because I finished 100% of these puzzles in real time by the time someone told me, and that comes down to the fact that the Devourer can’t interact with switches. Basically, you have no reason to ever switch to the Shadowrealm during these puzzles. That’s doubly the case since there’s no consistent set of rules for what does and doesn’t freeze in the Shadowrealm. Fireballs continue moving, but floor traps don’t trigger. Enemies freeze (unless they’re shamans or demons), but fire/lava jets on the floor continue their rhythmic eruptions. The only way to know if something freezes or not is to enter the Shadowrealm, and since Shadows: Awakening‘s switch puzzles can obviously all be completed in realm time and the Devourer can’t interact with the necessary switches, you have no reason to think that they weren’t designed to be finished that way. None whatsoever. The other points I made about other types of puzzles remain, however—puzzles with glyphs teach you to approach them in one way, then suddenly change the rules without telling you. There are multiple teleport mazes where you’re left to go from teleport to teleport, blindly looking for a combination that doesn’t send you back to the beginning. These puzzles are poorly designed and communicated, existing to waste your time.
The boss fights can be every bit as annoying as the nonsensical puzzles, too. Bosses and some stronger enemies have “shadow shields” that have to be removed by the Devourer before his puppets can do any actual damage, and that’s a reasonable ask for a game designed around character switching, but later boss fights are scripted to the point where they run afoul of your powerful skill combinations. There are numerous bosses who I could have one-cycled if not for the fact that they were scripted to instantly teleport away and send in a lackey once they’ve lost a certain amount of health. Meanwhile, you’re standing around twiddling your thumbs, watching the temporary abilities you’ve just activated wear off, hoping that the cooldowns and mana usage are restored by the time the boss deigns to actually rejoin the fight.
Then there’s the final boss. Not only do you have to beat it multiple times, but each victory results in you having to slowly move a boulder into a glowing portal thing, fighting with Shadows: Awakening‘s clunky boulder-pushing physics all the while. If you don’t move them perfectly—and you won’t—the boss respawns and you have to beat them again. You can be forced to beat the final boss 7 times in a row. It’s not fun.
But hey, at least Shadows: Awakening looks and sounds nice
The only negative thing I could possibly say about the visuals is that there are a few parts of the environment (totems, mostly) that my characters could move through because they were lacking collision detection, but that’s something that was true of Kult: Heretic Kingdoms, too. Somehow, that makes it better. The lighting here is also a bit brighter and more vibrant than in Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, with a somewhat similar look to its highest visual settings but with a much less significant performance cost. That’s not to say that there are no performance hitches (at one point I was dealing with a freeze that risked wiping out all of my progress defeating enemies in a large area—thankfully, Shadows: Awakening eventually recovered), but certainly nothing too consistently bad. The lighting is easily the star of the show here, with moody God rays pouring through windows and lava-filled caverns tinting everything in reds and oranges. Some of the snowy areas can go a bit overboard with the reflections and bloom, and the outside area of Upper Kyallisar is kind of washed out, but otherwise the visuals are really impressive. Changes in character equipment is even reflected in their models, which is a nice touch given how many strange armors there are to be found (with a personal favorite of mine being the helmet that looks like a Xenomorph skull). The music is similarly great and memorable, and while it can become repetitive after awhile, its default volume is low enough to keep it from wearing out its welcome too quickly. All in all, a great effort.
Story: 1/3 Gameplay: 2/3 Visuals: 2/2 Music: 2/2 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ – 7/10
*Click here and scroll to the bottom for a detailed explanation of what these numbers mean
Shadows: Awakening Screenshots
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