In one dimension, a grief-stricken husband desperately pleads with the puppet. His wife passed away and he can’t move her corpse to the burial grounds so he had to preserve his beloved in a barrel of salt. Meanwhile in the other dimension, his wife’s soul pleads with the puppet master for her murderous spouse to meet justice for taking her life. Deciding to side with the wife, our puppet master guides his charge to tell the guard of the man’s uxoricide, for justice to served. This is just a glimpse into the twisted world of Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, an isometric action-RPG from the unfortunately named Games Farm.
Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms aims to tell a story of two worlds intertwined. In the world of the living, people stumble around while a darkness grows deep within the wilderness. In the spirit world, a demon has risen to possess the fleshy shells of warriors, mages, and archers to further its own agenda. Whether it’s actually good or not is as yet unclear but with only one act out of six being available right now there’s plenty of room for narrative growth.
Dealing death to your enemies, which in the current early access build range exclusively between spiders and ghosts, has a very slow and purposeful feel. If you’re coming from other action RPG like Diablo 3 or Torchlight 2 the reduction in pace is jarring. That’s not to say combat is boring though. Attacks vary between chosen puppets and the demon dependent on the weapons used as well as the character themselves. Dealing ranges death as an archer using short bows feels totally different to the same character with a long bow (damage is slower but much stronger in the latter) in the same way as changing from a laptop keyboard to iPhone touchscreen; different methods still reaching the same conclusion.
Hopping between characters takes only the push of a button. It’s literally possible to change puppets every second if you’re that crazy. The system is even necessary to interact with certain NPCs, open up certain pathways and, in the case of entering the shadow realm with the demon, builds some bridges to advance into the next aesthetically pleasing locale. Switching between the different realms in combat however is a risky. Often, you’ll clear an area of spiders (seriously if you suffer from severe arachnophobia steer clear of Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms for now) then upon switching to the demon find yourself ambushed by too many enemies to count.Those of us who want a nice, firm pair of buttocks however should consider this a blessing as these moments are enough to make anyone’s backside clench up.
Rather than leveling one character at a time, each puppet (and your demon) has its own bank of experience which can be distributed between the three weapon varieties available to the individual. This system encourages switching between puppets frequently to ensure a useful level across the board and does mean that after a short time your weapon drops will always be at least usable by a character in your party. It does become a mite overwhelming though. Receiving a nice new axe then switching to the right character before continuing on will excite the min-maxers (players who strive foe the perfect character of each type) but for more casual play it grows tiresome.
Holding Spacebar uses souls, its blue like mana but not mana (total mindfuck right?) to replenish your health bar. It’s a simple yet delightful addition which removes the need for health potions, a mechanic which often stymies progression in titles like Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms. These souls are harvested from enemies you slay and will save your life. You see, the puppets and their demonic master have the same rigid properties of jam. This propensity to fall apart at the first breath from a spider’s sneeze means that healing and damage avoidance are necessary. Where this system is helped is in that good old central gimmick of character/realm swapping. Let’s say Pegolas (the name I’m giving the archer because for the life of me I can’t remember it) is taking a little too much damage but you’re all out of souls. A swift switch to a healthier puppet or even your demon to farm a few souls then jump back to ol’ Pego for a little tasty healing is all you need. Might not sound particularly ground breaking but compared to death it’s preferable.
As a sensory experience, Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms gives you a good show. Every surface looks weathered and grim with a strangely inviting tone to it. In the normal realm the environments rarely differ from the norm, with foreboding tombs and wide-open market areas making up the majority of sights. The spirit realm on the other hand will remind many of the visions Frodo sees in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Shifting spirits cavort around misty green smoke. It all looks like… a spirit realm. It’s not going to break any new boundaries in graphics card burning but walking around this world, is far from unpleasant. When it comes to audio there’s not much to say. The soundtrack is your usual fare for fantasy action RPGS; inoffensive but lacking any real hook. If you’re not a fan of reading and expecting a tonne of voice acting it is coming, just not yet. In the current form of Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, Tom Baker reprises his role from Kult: Heretic Kingdoms but seems to have a lack of passion for the work.
Admittedly, many of these issues are niggles when you take into account the fact Shadow’s is in Early Access. As a baseline, the whole game is very promising and Games Farm – even with their odd name – are in ownership of a title which with more time, more work, and more content could become a wonderful addition to the library of any action-RPG lover. Let me put it this way, when I first played Baldur’s Gate I felt exactly the same as I do right now about Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms. As time went on the Baldur’s Gate went on to consume my life and nearly cost me my education. Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms is in a position where, in theory, it could be poised to do the same.