Developer: Flying Wild Hog
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Rating: M for Mature
I have to confess that Shadow Warrior (2013) caught me by surprise. As I detailed in the Backloggery Beatdown column, underneath the veneer of a hyper-violent, nostalgic, and tawdry shooter is likely my favorite story in the past gaming generation. With the caliber of writing that would bring Shakespeare to tears, I looked forward to seeing how its sequel would amaze me. Unfortunately, what I experienced with Shadow Warrior 2 is not an evolution, but a regression.
Violence: Expect DOOM levels of violence. The Road Hog Engine has been enhanced to increase the probability that Lo Wang’s hacking and slashing with his sword results in maximum gore and gibs. The above screenshot is exemplary of this; however, it is difficult to capture while the game is in motion and looks worse than the game actually is in real-time.
Lastly, a character commits seppuku.
Language/Crude Language: As Shadow Warrior fashions itself after 90’s style action movies, crude language is not merely featured, but an expectation. Lo Wang frequently limits his vocabulary to words made of only four letters so regularly, it is as though he earns a commission for using them. Like Duke Nukem, Lo Wang is fond of one-liners and crude language, such as describing his enemies with an epithet for female genitalia, “p***ies.”
Sexuality: In terms of the simpler, predictable material, the anime “bathing girl” easter egg can be found in the game. An early game enemy called a D.O.L.L. is a pleasure robot reprogrammed to be a killing machine, though they are no less provocative. A later-game enemy called a Hata Mari is a mutant cultist who runs around with one exposed breast, making other female characters with extreme cleavage appear modest by comparison.
Lo Wang meets a certain NPC, and he confesses to them that he has a girl trapped inside of his head. From here proceeds a joke about transgenderism, and the girl in his head asks him if he has told all the important people in his life, and how his transition can be stressful.
Spiritual Themes: Various oni, or Japanese demons, appear as cannon fodder. Lo Wang can channel Chi as a sort of magic power. Like in Shadow Warrior (2010), Lo Wang will visit the shadow realm, which is a Japanese version of hell, to do business with some higher-level demons.
I jumped right into Shadow Warrior 2 expecting a reprisal of the spectacular story, and first-person gameplay that actually allows me to use a katana from the beginning to the end. The introduction delivers. Playing as Lo Wang, I receive a mission to retrieve a macguffin, and set off to the tune of the most famous 80’s song in all geekdom to do just that. Combat initially feels familiar; I can use my sword exclusively, dicing foes into little bits as fine and plentiful as the meat found in a tuna fish can; I can also fill enemies with lead via my revolver—which I always found an interesting first weapon—or my smg, a cool but stereotypical Yakuza-type weapon.
After finishing the introduction mission that highlights gameplay mechanics like dodging, immunity to fall damage, and using Chi for healing and kinetic blasts, Shadow Warrior 2 brings me to a hub world. From this base of operations, one can purchase new weapons, buy or sell charms and trinkets for attaching to weapons to add attributes, speak with NPCs to progress the story, and acquire new missions. The world map is also accessible here, allowing me to teleport to the next destination.
Not concerned about side missions or buying new weapons, or worrying about charms and such—as I am of the disposition that the best weapons in video games are found rather than purchased—I proceed to the next story mission. When I arrive at Zilla’s Labs, I am met with a message that tells me that I might not be a high enough level. Pardon? What genre is this again? What does the game mean by experience levels?
I push forward, figuring that I could handle any difficulty spike given my vast experience in FPSes. In the first half of this level, enemies are noticeably tough—not necessarily deadly, but certainly bullet-spongy. I begin to observe that some enemies possess status modifiers such as “immune to fire.” Upon their eventual deaths, they explode into piles of treasure in addition to blood and/or circuitry depending on their carbon-based makeup. I run around collecting all of these goods, barely paying attention to what any of it is, and finish the level.
Still only halfway paying attention to the story, I launch the next mission. I am immediately stonewalled by a basic enemy that inflicts major damage, yet I am unsuccessful in returning the favor. Discouraged, I remember that the game had previously reminded me that I might be “underleveled.” I exit, and try one of the side-missions. The first concerns bullying a dealer of some sort and eliminating his handler—easy as an introduction. However, when I attempt the next mission requiring me to kill several special enemies around a Japanese garden, I am once again incapable of dealing much damage, reaching the point where I would exhaust all of my inventory’s ammunition, while killing perhaps 2/100 enemies. Left with only two impossible missions to play if I want to advance, I quit the game.
Returning only after a break of several weeks, this time I explore my inventory looking for possible solutions. Some of the treasures that I had collected along the way would increase physical damage; others would add elemental damage such as cold or lighting after attaching them to my weapons. Returning to the Japanese garden mission, I actually succeed in administering damage, and carve my way through enemy combatants at a moderate pace. What would slow me down was not necessarily the (still) bullet-spongy enemies, but the mini-bosses who become invulnerable until I kill three of their spawn to whom they were attached by chain. The game introduces this mechanic in the introduction, where a “prime” seemingly sits in meditation while connected to three or more enemies until these underlings are dispatched, and it, too, becomes susceptible to damage.
Even if Shadow Warrior 2 did not include this pace-breaking mechanic that is contrary to what I expect from an action hero FPS, the Diablo-like mechanics are the worst. Yes, I just used a cliché. In a game like Shadow Warrior 2, which includes a chainsaw as a weapon choice, I am trying to Rip and Tear, not stop what I am doing after every other other enemy encounter to spend five minutes in my inventory comparing item statistics of the newest shiny I have collected. This is an exaggeration of course; regardless, not only are these inventory sorting intermissions emersion breaking, but they are also genre ruining. This itemization mechanic likely serves to balance the game for multiplayer purposes given that Flying Wild Hog designed this game to support up to four players in co-op for no other reason than just because. Yet when I log on to find others with whom I can suffer in misery, I get a blank server screen despite an average 300 players logged on per day.
Even though the combat is a dreadful grind-fest, I hoped that the story would redeem the game. Instead, it jumps the shark at once. Lo Wang is tasked with rescuing a young woman named Kamiko from Zilla’s Labs, who has been injected with an an incapacitating substance. Her soul is then transferred over to Wang because “reasons.” Regardless of what the plot attempts to establish, Flying Wild Hog simply aimed to reproduce the Lo Wang/Hoji dynamic from the previous game. Instead of a trickster who presents their own schemes, jokes, and off-camera, power, Kamiko simply plays the role of the annoying little sister Wang never had. Shadow Warrior 2 rubs more salt into the wound by featuring cameos by Mezu, Zing and Gozu from the prior game, and all of them are incompetent punchlines. Even worse (yes, again, the worst!) is the most dramatic makeover that I have seen for a female video game character since Nikki in her transition from Pandemonieum to Pandemonieum 2. WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO AMEONNA???
With so many miscues, it might be easy to downplay Shadow Warrior 2‘s greatest strengths, including featuring perhaps the best theme song for an FPS since Hans Zimmer composed the theme for Crysis 2. Other songs such as “Serenity,” “I Am Power” and “Larry’s Blues in a Bar” are soundtrack highlights, too, but two of these tracks are featured in the hub world rather than during action sequences, and the other is for the trailer.
The Bottom Line
Shadow Warrior 2 is the tragic result of a video game that suffers from identity dysphoria.