Impressions – Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms

By Alec Meer on June 18th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.

It is, I’m afraid, true that the only reason I even installed this fantasy roleplaying game is because Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor himself, provides some voicework for it. I’ve heard many strange and troubling things about old teeth’n'curls, but many wonderful things too, and most of all he’ll always by the iconic face of Doctor Who to me. Joyful, mercurial, wise, stupid, relishing rather than tortured by his adventures: a definitive screen hero, the definitive Doctor. Of course I couldn’t resist, even for a game with as forgettable a title as Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms.

Inevitably, Tom’s phoning it in for Shadows, which like so many past and no doubt future RPGs is lumbered with dust-dry dialogue that drowns under the weight of its own ponderousness. Still, Tom Baker phoning it in is equal to any other actor striving for maximum melodrama, so my ears were inordinately pleased by his instantly recognisable tones, even if they didn’t care a jot for the words those tones uttered. The good news is that, once I’d started playing, and once unmistakable Mr Baker had exited stage left, for a time at least, I found new, and better, reasons to continue.

First proviso – Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms is a follow-up to Kult: Heretic Kingdoms, which I know nothing of and thus will rudely ignore. As yet I haven’t encountered anything in Shadows which would seem to require having played Kult, so I think all is well on that front.

Second proviso – this is an Early Access game so it’s unfinished and subject to any kind of change, and I’ve only played a few hours of it so God only knows how it all might shake out further down the line. Hence, ‘Impressions’. There is a very particular word that ‘Impressions’ does not mean that same thing as.

And so onto to what I really want to talk about, which is Shadows’ party system. The game falls somewhere between action-RPG and more traditional, quest-based, party-based RPG, and one of the ways it does this is by giving you a team but only allowing control of one of them at any one time. You, you see, play as the Devourer a broadly malign spirit which dwells in a world of darkness wherein it talks to some ghosts and beats other ghosts to some form of death-beyond-death. There’s probably all manner of lore about how all that works, but no thank you.

In any case, Spooky-Face can’t do diddly-squat in the corporeal, or ‘light’ world, so he has to recruit/enslave recently deceased mortals to be his meat puppets there. The dialogue plays a little with the concept of these resurrected characters not being best pleased about their being in the thrall of a demonic and/or supernatural entity, but as so far it’s one of those games where before too long I was usually clicking desperately through endless text boxes and muttering “no, God, please, please, just stop and give me the trinket or let me go beat something up”, I’m not entirely confident this will evolve into a thrilling sub-plot.

What does work is switching from Devourer to puppet or to another puppet to suit the situation. There’s some basic puzzling, such as the Devourer’s ‘dark’ world sometimes having magical pathways that the light world does not, or only certain puppets being able to hold conversations or bash open doors, but mostly it’s a combat and levelling up thing. WHen one of the puppets is close to death and you’re all out of healing resources, you could switch to an archer character to pick a few foes off from range, or don the Devourer’s mantle to farm a few hapless spirits and thus stock up on souls, which are used for a party-wide healing and resurrection system.

Every time you kill a thing, its soul gets added to a mana-like pool. Hit’n'hold the space bar and whichever the active character is while slowly heal, which still being able to move and fight, or if someone’s dead hold down whatever key they were bound to (WASD controls character-switching by default) and if you’ve enough souls in the bank, they’ll spring back to unlife. There are health potions too, but they’re relatively uncommon and expensive, so instead there’s this fairly deft resource management system which helps keep every character in play.

On top of all that is simply feeling compelled to explore a new area in both light and dark worlds, in order to bag experience for multiple party-members and hoover up any tasty loot which might drop. There are separate skill trees for each character, though for at least one of my party most of the abilities aren’t actually available in the current build, and the Devourer has his own gear, some of which enables him to switch between melee, ranged and magical attacks.

It’s a fine system for having plenty to do, and for staving off boredom with one particular character, which has oft been a problem for me in action RPGs. Combat-wise this is much closer to those even if the clicking is not quite so frenzied, and areas are contained and scripted rather than randomly monster-spewing, but structurally it’s side-quests and even offers the odd decision to make. Mostly the plot/dialogue sees you being a little or a lot malevolent to those around you, and while what I’ve played has missed any number of opportunities for black humour it does at least have a certain tone that more traditionally noble tales of heroism lack.

For instance, one quest has the ghost of a murdered wife request that you find her body and thus reveal her husband’s guilt to the local guards. Justice is served, only for the cackling Devourer to promptly hoover up the poor spirit’s soul once the party has claimed its rewards. There’s something playfully dark in Shadows trying to get out, but so far it can’t quite make it.

I’m still skipping through bland dialogue and griping at uninspired and drawn out back’n'forth’n'kill ten spiders quests, but I’m broadly enjoying myself, and for non-Baker-related reasons. As well as the novel and offbeat party system, Shadows is well presented, if a bit hackneyed in its visual themes, and while the Early Access version is crash-prone and only a fragment of the full thing, it seems pretty solid. What I ultimately want from it is to be agonising over which puppets to recruit and which to deploy in given situations. I also want Tom Baker to voice every single line of dialogue in the game, presuming that doing so wouldn’t make him want to kill himself.

Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, developed by the unfortunately-named Games Farm, is on Steam Early Access now. It is incomplete and buggy in its current state, so as always with Early Access, you’ll have to decide whether getting to play some of it now is better than playing all of it later.

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16 Comments »

  1. Shooop says:

    The trailer looks excruciating generic.

    • Superpat says:

      Half of what they say does not make sense.

      • Shooop says:

        Maybe it’s the same kind of nonsense Alec said he was bombarded with in-game.

      • gnodab says:

        It’s like the narration was produced by the FantasyGenerobot2000. “the world of darkness, the only hope, the chosen one”. I think by this point these tropes have lost all meaning and it is physically impossible to perceive them as conveying any meaning whatsoever.
        All I hear is the bla of blu in a blup of blarp… Then I am waiting for real words and they never come.

  2. Darth Gangrel says:

    I haven’t played this or the previous game in the franchise, Kult: Heretic Kingdoms (or Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition in North America), but the predecessor to Noun: Generic Subtitle seems like a decent enough RPG. Not something that hasn’t been done before, but still entertaining. It’s currently on GoG at 3 dollars and for that price I don’t think anyone would be disappointed in it if they like similar games.

    • Dave Tosser says:

      Noun: Generic Subtitle is bettered only by Noun of Adjective and Noun of the Noun.

  3. Arglebargle says:

    I am always suspicious of ‘The story was bland/awful. I think. I skipped it all’ type commentary. Of course, game stories are often awful, as almost every person alive thinks they are a good writer. Even in the face of ample evidence to the contrary.

    Some of the mechanics seem to use the gameplay in a narratively clever way at least. Though I don’t give a rat’s ass about Dr. Who, so that avenue of enjoyment would be missing here.

  4. Drake Sigar says:

    *Offers up the contents of a paper bag with one outstretched hand*

    Jelly Baby?

  5. Gilead says:

    Will not play unless a character voiced by Brian Blessed is added as DLC.

  6. Borsook says:

    Recently it seems that RPS displays this logic all too often: “Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms is a follow-up to Kult: Heretic Kingdoms, which I know nothing of and thus will rudely ignore”. Many players want to know what has changed and thus it would have been better finding somebody who knows it or the writer to be bothered to play the original for 30 minutes to at least have the faintest idea what’s the game about (it is on GOG after all)

  7. malkav11 says:

    You absolutely should play Kult. It is a fantastic ARPG with plenty of unusual and/or innovative mechanics (healing items that are infinite use but gradually degrade your maximum HP until you can find a safe spot to rest; swapping back and forth between two versions of the game world; learning skills from your weaponry to customize a killer build) and a choices&consequences rich narrative with six different endings and the decidedly unusual hook of playing an inquisitor whose job, rather than stamping out people who are heretical against your religion, is to stamp out folks who are religious, because your organization killed their god and very much does not want it to come back. It’s seriously good stuff, and criminally overlooked. I was startled to see Shadows turn up on Steam as I thought for sure Kult hadn’t been successful enough to warrant a sequel, and I’m very pleased to hear that it’s shaping up well. (I shall ignore the ignoring of the story since I’ve met very very few games where this approach is justified and it smacks of someone who doesn’t much care about story in games in the first place.)

    And as posted above, it’s $3 on GOG presently, under the name Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition.

    • Rhygadon says:

      Agreed. Kult had some very original mechanics, and a refreshingly idiosyncratic world. I remember enjoying the story as well, though IIRC the moment-to-moment gameplay got stale enough that I didn’t play through to the end.

  8. Serious8 says:

    I bought Shadows, but I haven’t played it yet.
    They said it will cost 40 bucks when it’s done and it is 25 right now – it will ripen while I play other stuff :D

    • bonuswavepilot says:

      I recently categorised my ever-growing Steam backlog into a few different buckets. I made one for the games i haven’t installed or played, one called ‘meh’ and another called ‘not cooked yet’ for the early-release stuff (which I mostly end up with through kickstarters)…

  9. fenriz says:

    the guards and the short one reminded me of an infogrames’ style adventure(ie Time Gate)

    but no, we need more action rpgs.

  10. bonuswavepilot says:

    “…whichever the active character is while slowly heal, which still being able to move and fight…”

    The effect of a sentence written while swapping between different meat-puppets mid article?