The castle of Shadowgate is a puzzle box, a sinister stronghold of secrets, challenges, and obstacles which ultimately provides the opportunity to become a hero of legend. The central character in Zojoi’s remake of the cult-classic Shadowgate, this living keep offers a treasure trove of puzzles and riddles which will confound, confuse, and likely dishearten even the most seasoned adventure gamer at times. It’s a game that is meant for a very particular audience – a patient and persistent one undaunted by the prospect of teeth-clenching frustration – but if you count yourself among those willing to venture into Shadowgate’s deadly spires, you’ll find a grand challenge waiting for you.
Like many games these days, the updated Shadowgate is a product of crowdfunding. So far, Kickstarter has been hit-or-miss for the adventure genre. For every success, we’ve also seen our fair share of disappointments, delayed games, and even controversies. This makes Shadowgate’s success all the more refreshing and inspirational – even more so considering its approach to gameplay remains uncompromisingly old-school. Of course, there is a reason that games like Shadowgate don’t exist anymore: it is definitely not designed for a mass market.
The game begins with you standing in front of a hidden entrance to the titular castle. Shadowgate is played in the first-person perspective, with players taking on the role of Jair Cathegar, an adventuring soldier briefly introduced in the opening cinematic. Jair has been called to the castle of Shadowgate by the enigmatic wizard Lakmir – although the reason he has been called only becomes apparent as you unravel the mystery of the keep.
The opening cinematic also introduces Shadowgate’s revamped art style. The original game was released in 1987 for the nascent Macintosh platform, and was played through windows featuring minimalist black and white illustrations of the castle’s rooms. An NES version followed in 1989, but still featured graphics restricted by the 8-bit system. In this 2014 remake, the game opens with spoken expository dialogue from Lakmir set against an abstract, impressionist-style series of landscape paintings depicting Jair’s approach to the keep. This visual style, both atmospheric and suggestive, continues to be used throughout the game, providing an immersive aesthetic for the dark medieval atmosphere. The castle of Shadowgate is a forbidding place, and the visual world that Zojoi has created deftly creates the impression that there is something to fear around each corridor.
Once you set foot inside the castle, the game’s plot begins slowly revealing itself, and it’s mostly standard fantasy material. An evil warlock is attempting to gain control of arcane powers hidden deep within, and it is up to Jair to stop his scheme. A “living castle,” Shadowgate has been trapped, tricked, and populated with a number of monsters that you will have to overcome to eventually face the evil warlock, Talimar.
While the set-up and traditional environment feel derivative now, what Shadowgate gets right is verisimilitude. It might be a fantasy world based on established tropes, but the game does an excellent job of making it seem like the castle and all its inhabitants – antagonists and protagonists, evil warlocks and slain wizards – are all important players in a very real place. From dialogue to room descriptions to the forgotten scrolls and journals found throughout the keep, the game is committed to creating a living, breathing world. During his adventure, Jair is forced to learn more about the castle’s past, its place in this world’s history, and even what part he will be forced to play.
Although each room in the castle is a fixed 2D image which can’t be viewed from different angles or perspectives, Zojoi has populated them with a number of effects and animations that help bring them to life. At the entrance to the keep, a heavy rain is falling. Inside Shadowgate’s doors, fog rolls down the circular stairs of one of its spires, and an escaped banshee howls as it comes flying towards you.
The sound in Shadowgate is also used very well. The orchestral soundtrack provides a perfect complement to the sinister mood of your journey through the castle, and there’s a number of musical cues, such as the staccato suspense theme that plays when a torch is about to run out, which augment the haunting atmosphere. As a tribute to its origins, Shadowgate also allows you to play the game with the original Nintendo soundtrack, which I did for novelty's sake, but quickly switched back because the tinny synthesized beeps were too incongruous. (You can choose to have the game’s scene transitions animate in the NES style as well.)
During a few cutscenes, the game features spoken dialogue from the Gandalfian Lakmir and the evil Talimar. Both are performed splendidly, hitting the perfect notes for a game in a dark fantasy world. Jair is almost completely silent – the only time he speaks is at the conclusion of a battle or during a strenuous activity. This is sadly played a little more for comedic relief, but it’s too infrequent to negatively affect the game. While there are some very rare moments of levity, most of the game is a foray into darkness, and the sound, graphics, and lethal challenges all reflect this.
The interface is simple and intuitive. At the top of the screen are a number of buttons which represent all of the actions you can take: look, take, open, close, go, eat, speak, hit, and use. Next to these buttons is a depiction of Jair himself, which changes depending on what gear he’s currently wearing. On the lower left of the screen, a knapsack is displayed, which allows you to access your inventory. Next to that is a map that tracks your progress through the keep.
A status window in the lower center of the screen provides textual information – often used for atmospheric details such as a cold wind blowing through Jair’s hair or information on how he is feeling. Early on you are able to pick up a skull, which provides the last interface element. This particular skull is different than the multitude of others strewn throughout Shadowgate’s corpse-littered halls, because it can talk, refers to itself as Yorick (har har) and becomes a permanent icon on the screen that can be “hit” in order to provide hints for overcoming the castle’s puzzles.
And riddles there be aplenty in this accurs’d place. The interface needs to be intuitive and simple, because the puzzles you will face while exploring are anything but. Overcoming each puzzle allows you to continue advancing deeper into the castle and learning more about what has happened to Shadowgate, its previous keepers, and how to defeat Talimar. There are three difficulty levels, Apprentice, Journeyman, and Master, which you can choose from before beginning the adventure, but all three are a challenge. Playing the game on Master level is the closest to the difficulty level of the original game, and should be reserved only for the most passionate of puzzle enthusiasts – or biggest masochists. The lower levels simplify some of the more complex puzzles or remove them entirely, but that still leaves more than enough challenge to go around.Continued on the next page...