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Impressions - Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms

Doctorin' The Darkness

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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