Fans of the original 1987 release of Shadowgate have a lot to get excited about, because the game’s 2014 remake is a well-polished gem that does nothing but enhance the classic. Shadowgate is still a frustrating enigma that makes use of the retro command system that was de rigueur at the time of the original’s release, but this version doesn’t feel dated - rather, it hearkens back to a time when games weren’t so obvious and certainly weren’t as forgiving of mistakes.
The tale here has remained much the same as in the original: you’re Jair Cuthegar, a soldier summoned to Castle Shadowgate to discover why the magical fortress has fallen into ruin by Lakmir, a member of the mysterious Circle of Twelve, who promises to tell you more if you can locate him within the castle. Now, armed with “Naught but a dirk, a torch, courage,” you’ve got to explore the myriad crumbling, booby-trapped and enchanted rooms to uncover items, spells, secrets and missives left behind by Lakmir that flesh out more details of the castle’s dark history. Much of the plot is standard fantasy fare - if you’ve ever played Dungeons and Dragons or read much of the sword and sorcery genre you’ll feel at home here, but at the end of the day Shadowgate fans don’t keep coming back for the story. It’s all about the puzzles.
If you haven’t played many older point-and-click adventure games before, this interface may seem foreign and overly complicated. While most modern adventure titles only let you use objects in intuitive ways (matches on candles, keys on doors), Shadowgate instead offers the player an assortment of possible commands ranging from “use” and “look” to “eat” and “hit” that can be used on the game world, inventory objects and even the protagonist himself (who is represented in the upper-right corner by a scowling portrait). Muddling through these commands is at first tedious and repetitive, but once you get them down and enter the mindset of someone willing to try anything, however improbable, the game moves along at a steady pace. However, the ability to take almost anything lying around means a cluttered inventory that can contain six different kind of skulls with no discernible difference between them, so be prepared to wade through your improbably small satchel for just the right token.
The range of available actions can lead to some inadvertent comedy - for example, try to “take” a waterfall, “eat” a dragon, or “hit” a pile of damp vines - but is also the game’s primary source of frustration, as it can be difficult and not always intuitive to discover which seemingly arbitrary combination of commands will beget the proper result. You can spend several minutes trying to “use” thyself on a torch that appears to be a secret lever before discovering it only requires you to “hit” the lever to reveal the nearby concealed door, but persistence is rewarded. Furthermore, the game rarely falls prey to “adventure game logic” (rubber ducky puzzle from The Longest Journey, anyone?), so if you find yourself in front of a mirror that seems to conceal an opening, don’t exhaust yourself trying every item in your inventory on its unyielding surface - just go find a hammer!
The stakes are further raised by a turn-based mechanic as measured by a torch that burns in the corner of the screen, growing ever fainter as you progress through the game and attempt different moves. There are more torches to be gathered and lit as you journey deeper into the castle, but this feature helps create a sense of urgency (as well as preventing you from trying to eat a coin for the twelfth time and instead encourages using your brain to solve the puzzles).
Finally, it’s worth knowing that you’re going to die. A lot. From curses, creatures, rickety bridges, and everything in between, which is one of the biggest indicators that this game isn’t going to take it easy on you. Fortunately, reloading is easy and takes you back to just before you made a fatal mistake, so there’s plenty of room for exploration. Just don’t expect to finish this quest without a few burns and scars.
Thirty years has been enough time to polish up the visuals from pixelated graphics to gorgeous hand-painted 2-D screens that better conceal hidden runes and secret passageways than the original game’s blocky, straightforward illustrations. The animations are simple but effective, and it’s easy to get lost in the colorful game world.
The score has also gotten an update, and the soaring caverns and dripping chambers are set to the sounds of a full orchestra and a chanting, moaning choir of voices. The overall effect is wonderfully sinister, but perhaps the best feature the game offers is the ability to turn on certain retro options, like swapping out the violin-heavy score for the original 8-bit music to recapture some of the magic of the original Shadowgate.
Other features give the game more replayability and decrease the frustration of getting stuck, at least theoretically. There are now three difficulty levels - Apprentice, Journeyman, and Master - which are differentiated by the difficulty of puzzles and the number of turns it takes a torch to burn down, and the normally impossible game is made a bit easier for newcomers (though not drastically so). There’s also a dubiously helpful hint system in the form of a talking skull named Yorick, who provides more snide commentary than helpful advice but can still be counted on occasionally to highlight some important feature you may have missed in one of the castle’s endless rooms.
The remake is a delightful fusion of what made the original game great - namely, head-scratching puzzles and a hundred different ways to die - with modern enhancements that make it more accessible to a larger audience. Though this game isn’t for the intellectually faint of heart, it reestablishes the Shadowgate name as an adventure classic. You’ll love it - just don’t forget to bring your shield.
Final Grade: A
+ Challenging and varied puzzles
+ Attractive visuals and immersive sound design
+ A variety of difficulty levels and gameplay settings to choose from
- The sheer number of controls is its own potential fatality - commands can feel tedious and confusing
- Its easy to get stuck if you don't notice some crucial item or passageway early on