If Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms was a recipe book, it’d be a book like Chicken Soup for the Soul. Actually, it’d be more like Chicken Soup for the Souls, since there are so many souls to choose from in this game. Players of Shadows take up the mantle of a demon, called by a mysterious human to aid against an impending disaster. Unfortunately, directly interacting with the human realm is more than a little tricky for a demon who resides in the realm of shadows, so the demonic Devourer must find and utilize the souls of fallen warriors to accomplish his goals. Does Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms have the soul to sing with the best of them, or is it just a shadow of Kult: Heretic Kingdoms?
As mentioned previously, players will explore environments in a plane of shadows as the Devourer. Initially, you’ll only be able to attack ghouls and revenants in shadows, but quickly stumble across the resting place of three dead warriors. Using the souls of these warriors, the Devourer can manifest puppets in the physical realm, which is convenient since these souls fill very rudimentary class goals in isometric action RPGs: The archer-styled rogue, the physically hardy warrior and the immolating mage. If this sounds very similar to another isometric action RPG (cough-Diablo-cough), that would be because it is. Players move the Devourer by clicking the environment, attacks are performed by clicking the target and even though there are hotkeys for activated abilities, players can use their fire cone spells by clicking the UI for that too. It controls very, very similarly to Diablo and, by extension, a large number of common isometric RPGs from the last decade and a half.
Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms makes absolutely no attempt to hide that it tries to be like Diablo and its incredible number of clones, though it does differentiate itself in its party system. The first choice of souls you get is one of many, and players are allowed to swap between the Devourer and one of the three puppets in the physical world at any time, which makes for an interesting dynamic during combat. Surrounded as the archer and are unable to stun that many foes at once? Switch to a bulkier character to tank the hits and defeat the foes. Of course, if you find yourself completely overrun, you can switch to the Devourer himself and flee an area, since enemies in the physical realm can’t harm him (though ghosts in the shadow realm can).
Each party member you come across in Shadows fulfills a specific niche: One character may excel in dealing damage at range, but is best suited to deal high damage to one or two foes at a time while another character makes bombs and is best suited for handling large groupings of mobs at once with his area-of-effect skills. Taking the best party members for upcoming situations is one of the more important things to do in this game. Each character has his or her own upgrade path upon leveling up, as well, so as the game continues there is commonly even more to differentiate the various puppet souls with their various passives and activated abilities. Swapping through party members to deal damage more efficiently or mitigate the damage dealt to your group is a dynamic not seen in a lot of games of this style.
Certainly combat is only one aspect of the game, however. Switching between the physical realm and the shadows is another dynamic used multiple times throughout the game, whether for puzzle solving, avoiding traps or even to flee powerful enemies and recover. Sometimes switching between planes is necessary in order to continue exploring an area, because there could be a wall erected that prevents the Devourer from continuing forward, but a puppet in the physical world can destroy it. Similarly, there could be flaming torches in the physical world that will burn one of your party members alive (er, as close as they count toward, “alive” anyway) that the Devourer can turn off or bypass, himself.
Overall, the switching realms mechanic and controlling different characters when you want works. It’s not exactly the most revolutionary thing ever done in an RPG of this nature nor does it evolve the genre as a whole… but it sure is fun when you quickly switch and use different character’s activated abilities to completely blow away certain targets. If a huge attack is telegraphed at one of your puppets, there are times you can simply switch to the Devourer in the shadows to emerge completely unscathed from the onslaught. Getting surrounded, leaping to the shadows and then reemerging outside of the enemy’s circle is another very common tactic in Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms. Every kill nets the Devourer the targets soul, and using those souls via the space button will allow him to heal not only himself, but the controlled puppets as well.
The music in Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms is quite possibly the most epic fantasy fare heard in quite some time. The soundtrack is beautifully composed and matches perfectly what is going on around the player, whether you’re in a dry desert or a dank crypt. The sound effects are all simple, but they all work: Finding gold pops a very familiar jingling sound, sliding open stone coffins sounds spot on, etc.. Some of the effects are a little over-the-top, however, with those for when you eliminate spiders being more befitting of the sound of hearing a bug go splat in a Saturday morning cartoon (which is also like the sound cartoons use when a bowling ball is dropped on a birthday cake. Yeah, that’s got to evoke some wonderful memories).
The graphics look just about right, not exactly cutting edge in any regard but the game can at least stand side-by-side with Diablo III and not look atrocious in comparison at least. The cutscenes in the game are horribly pixelated, for some reason, and look quite muddy, overall, with the opening being the worst offender. Thankfully, the poor quality of the cutscenes is not representative of the actual in-game engine, so don’t judge the game based off it’s opening, for sure. The environments you traipse through are pretty atypical of action RPGs, ranging from deserts to underground tombs, and while it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, each locale fits with the theme of the game and has wonderful music, to boot.
The plot of Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms is mostly just an excuse to marry together the idea of controlling multiple party members simultaneously- the story isn’t exactly anything you haven’t heard before in some generic manner or another. What is fantastic, however, is the dialogue between the Devourer and his puppets. There will be times a puppet will support what he does or says, and other times when they will be directly at odds with one another, leading to some very humorous discourse. The character interactions are among the best parts of the game, as several of the eaten souls are not obedient enough to stay silent when the Devourer does or states something directly in conflict with their views.
Overall, Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms is not a groundbreaking game. It plays a lot like Diablo, despite some novel conventions and deeper strategies, such as swapping in and out of different realms to dodge heavy attacks. The music is absolutely superb and, while it’s not breaking any benchmarks, the game is relatively easy on the eyes and nothing sticks out as horribly textured or drawn. While Shadows is a little rough around the edges, there is some hope since it has been improved dramatically over the last six months, with the third chapter being added in the last couple of weeks (as of this writing), giving Shadows some decent length as well. There’s a lot of content and fun to be had with the added depth in Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, especially if games such as Diablo, Dungeon Siege or Torchlight fit your fancy.