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Shadow Warrior 3 review: a promising arena shooter that squanders potential with repetition

Not so serious Sam

Shadow Warrior 3 continues the series tradition of completely rebooting the style of each game. This time it’s going for a more linear arena shooter style, similar to 2013's Shadow Warrior, and it’s got generally the right idea. You play as the former freelance mercenary Lo Wang, and mainly just try to get from A to B. This means jumping through hand-crafted levels, and generally shooting and slicing your way through the various demonic mobs and mini-bosses that spawn in front of you. Whenever you’re not clearing out enemies in an arena setting, you’ll be parkouring between them, or using your skills to navigate some setpieces. That's basically it, that's the game.

To further shake things up this time round, Flying Wild Hog have tossed in some new movement options. Shadow Warrior 3 lets you wall-run, slide, double jump, dash, and use a grappling hook to either swing between areas or jump towards an unsuspecting demon. These enemies are a group of variously-sized and variably outlandish monsters with glowing red eyes and, e.g., accordion bodies that spit saw blades. There’s a high level of precision to the controls as you platform between arenas, and they manage to balance keeping Lo Wang feeling super light with being really responsive. In theory, it’s all about constantly moving, and weaving in and out of danger in order to survive. But we'll come back to that.

In direct contrast to Shadow Warrior 2 (a game described in Adam Smith's review as "part Borderlands, part interactive chainsaw massacre"), everything’s been streamlined. You always have both your katana and a gun equipped, so you can switch between either at a moment’s notice. The devs have also brought the total gun count down to six, but whether it’s a revolver you can fan bullets from or a superpowered sniper rifle, all of them stand out quite cleanly from each other. Lo Wang has a simple skill tree now, and every weapon also comes with its own tiny tree that develops slight nuances to them. The revolver, for example, can go from being a pinpoint sharpshooter to an AOE weapon that sets enemies on fire.

My favourite addition has to be the Finisher moves. Located around the game, as well as dropped by most demons, is a new consumable called a Finisher Orb. If you collect enough to fill a meter, you can brutally dismember your assailants through an animation, instantly killing them, and then watch as Lo Wang converts their insides into a limited-use Gore Weapon. That name doesn’t really do it full justice. Lo Wang will punch a chunk of flesh out of a demon, yank out their bone like a chicken drumstick, and then swing their disconnected limb like a giant mallet. Every single enemy in Shadow Warrior 3 can have their body mutilated into a unique weapon or tool like this, and it rewards you for planning your Finisher moves around the enemies you’ve got left to dispose of. It sounds grim, but the tone of the whole game is so over-the-top that it’s impossible to take any of the violence seriously, and it's all the better for it.

The stakes are simultaneously the highest and the lowest they’ve ever been.

Speaking of which, Shadow Warrior 3 still puts a heavy emphasis on its story. Each level is bookended with a cutscene that links your journey together, and the stakes are simultaneously the highest and the lowest they’ve ever been. An interdimensional dragon is threatening the Earth, because it’s hungry or some shit, and it’s up to Lo Wang to stop it. The whole thing basically exists as a cartoonish framework to hang jokes on, and half the time Lo Wang will be running directly away from the story for the most ridiculous reasons.

I was on board initially, but after sitting through hours of Shadow Warrior 3, all I wanted was for Lo Wang to be quiet. Mike Moh turns in an okay performance as our protagonist, but the problem is that he’s not playing the Lo Wang from the previous two games. Instead of being overly cocky, Duke Nukem-style, and telling unfunny jokes in the face of danger, Lo Wang in Shadow Warrior 3 is wacky. He still has awful one-liners, but things like "That thing looks like a G string tyring to hold back last night's curry!" are delivered as if they're Marvel-esque quips. Half the time it feels like the most excruciating moments of Borderlands being filtered through a Deadpool impression.

Almost all of the problems I had with Shadow Warrior 3 came to the forefront in the second half, because as the novelty wore off it started to dawn on me that I had seen everything the game had to offer. I had gotten all seven weapons, the enemies had been repeating constantly, I was sick of Lo Wang, and there was still half of it left to play. Everything I enjoyed about it fell to the wayside, and I was left with the negatives. It took me about seven hours to complete the game, and it desperately felt like it was outstaying its welcome.

There just isn’t enough depth. I can’t help but feel like streamlining Shadow Warrior this much was a mistake. I rarely thought about what gun I was using, or where I was moving, because I didn't need to. You’re an overpowered Lo Wang whose weapons work in every situation, so what’s the point of strategising? While being a superhuman is a thrill, it’s absolutely a fleeting one. The simplicity ends up reducing the combat to a basic shooting gallery or continuously spamming your katana.

Complimenting that are the arenas you fight in, which become an extreme slog to wade through. They have a couple of interesting gimmicks, like traps you can activate, but they’re all open and fairly flat areas, and the design of the "Neo-Feudal Japan" setting isn’t enough to prevent everything from blurring together. Somehow, despite this, the levels aren't cohesive as a whole either. Nothing feels connected in any meaningful way, or like it's an actual location you’re meant to be exploring.

But, by far, the biggest letdown was the movement. Remember how I said that, theoretically, you should always be on the move? Well, you're not. Movement is unnecessarily constrained, will both the grappling hook and the wall-run restricted to use on specific, pre-placed points on levels. I always wanted further control over my movement, but Shadow Warrior 3 is insistent you play at its tempo. You can’t build much momentum, if any at all.

It feels like Shadow Warrior 3 puts a bigger focus on consistency than complexity. The moment you enter an arena it’s obvious what you can do because the areas all follow the same rules. You can predict where your grappling hook will go, what enemies will appear, and so on. But Shadow Warrior 3 soon stops throwing new challenges your way, and there’s very little to be mastered to sustain your attention till the end. It’s so repetitive that it becomes impossible to avoid confronting its other negative qualities until, as Lo Wang would say, they fill the room like a wet fart.

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Shadow Warrior 3

PS4, Xbox One, PC

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About the Author

Jai Singh Bains