|Almost a year ago now, Denyusha Co. Ltd. unleashed Shadowflare on the eager gaming public of Japan, after a particularly successful showing at the Tokyo Game Show. Through word of mouth and on-floor demonstrations, the title generated considerable buzz among gamers, which was parlayed into considerable success when the game was released in October of 2001. Very quickly, Shadowflare became a legitimate hit with Japanese game-players, and this coming fall, shareware publisher Emurasoft is hoping to spread the craze here to North America. |
In some ways, it's very easy to see why Shadowflare became so popular so quickly. An action/role-playing title, Shadowflare follows the same formula that made Diablo so popular -- namely, fast and furious action combined with simple role-playing elements -- and adds the flexability of being able to change professions, vary your skills, and travel with trained animal companions. As a hardened mercenary, players are issued a series of continuous quests to retrieve magical items, defeat particular monsters, or clear out specific areas of any opposition, while having the opportunity to gather up plundered gold or magical objects that they can use in their adventures. Slaying all of these monsters also lets players rack up experience more or less constantly, and as they advance through the game, they aquire new spells and abilities that will help them get to the bottom of what's going on.
The premise of the game is fairly straightforward: Somewhere in the near future, the earth lies in ruins. Out of nowhere, a massive and destructive demonic force appears to unleash hellish fury on the world's population, turning the world into a battleground between humanity and demonkind. Unfortunately for us, humanity comes out on the losing side, and it's not long before civilization itself is left shattered and broken -- but just when things appear their darkest, small pockets of resistance spring up, dedicated to acquiring the magical and martial disciplines required to push the demonic horde back to wherever they came from. As one of these hardy adventurers, players find themselves deposited in a small, besieged bastion of society, charged with fending off the barbarian goblins at the gates.
And so ShadowFlare begins. Contrary to the custom of most recent role-playing games, ShadowFlare starts the player with a more-or-less default character, whose statistics are built through combat and exploration. Indeed, the only real customization that players can make to their in-game avatars are to choose the gender and enter a name -- everything else is generated by the game. Accordingly, everyone starts off the same way as a relatively weak first-level grunt, with no particular specialty and only a modest compliment of equipment. Players have the opportunity to explore the simple town from which their adventures will be based, which features all the amenities of the genre: a merchant happily purchases extra or left over equipment with an apparently endless supply of gold; a priest cheerily heals your wounds and restores your mana whenever you ask for the aid; a gruff military type will dispatch you on missions of hair-raising danger along with assurances that "you can do it." As well, as part of Shadowflare's buddy system, players start off with an animal companion (limited to dogs for the first three chapters, but thereafter expandable to hawks as well) who's actually more of a combat asset in the early going than the players themselves.
As you might have already guessed, the difficulty curve in ShadowFlare is awfully steep, and players will quickly get used to dying horribly on the battlefield as they're clubbed under by waves of enemies. On the bright side, the players' deaths will only result in being immediately teleported back the starting point of the game, minus a single piece of equipment, which will remain in the spot where they fell; on the downside, that piece of equipment might be something as critical as a sword, or even worse, armor. Subsequent forays into the wilderness can quickly turn into grim death marches, as the player is slain over and over again, until they have nothing left to their name but their underwear and a fanatically loyal animal companion. ShadowFlare offers a few ways around this, by granting players the power to teleport back and forth from town at will and by having monsters drop useful treasure on a very regular basis, but even so, the experience is frustrating enough that it might turn players off just as they're starting the game.
The other hurdle that players will have to overcome is the look and sound of ShadowFlare, which feels very dated indeed. The game is rendered in a very simple palette of what feels like very low resolution, and enemies are often only discernable from each other by what color they are. The spectrum feels consistent, at least, such that in any battle players know to concentrate on red enemies first, blue foes second, and green grunts last; however, combined with the simple graphics, the internal logic of the game gives ShadowFlare a very strong console feel.
That said, ShadowFlare also benefits from all of the assets of console gaming, as well. The game is fast and smooth, regardless of the number of characters on-screen at any given time. Load times between areas are almost unnoticable, keeping the pace of the game quick and enjoyable, allowing players to focus on the action instead of on mapping out the enormity of the gaming world. Similarly, the interface is centered the very simple and familiar heavy mouse-clicking that Diablo fans know so well, with a menu of shortcut keys that allow players to quickly pop pills to restore their health or mana, or to drop land mines in the path of oncoming hordes.
And it's in the hordes that ShadowFlare is addictive. The action is speedy and constant, and becomes only moreso when you think you've got a handle on it. Networked with three others, players can rely on ShadowFlare to provide some fast-paced mayhem with some almost immediate rewards. I was only able to log a few solid hours of game time for this preview, but even then I managed to amass a tidy pile of treasure and advance in level about eight times; indeed, it was only my death in the depths of a dungeon, and the prospect of the long, bloody walk back to the site of my demise, that allowed me to tear away to write this. On top of the combat, there are also additional games within the game. A Tower of Ordeal stands at the end of each Chapter, allowing the players an even greater chance to win treasure and boost their skills, and finally a blackjack-style card game can be played against the master of the Towers of Ordeal, with cards gathered throughout the players' journey.
Emurasoft is planning to release ShadowFlare in four separate chapters, starting with the first this October. Each will be downloadable over the web, and priced in the sub-$20 range, so it should be interesting to see how they fare. From what I've seen so far, ShadowFlare has the potential to become as much of a success here as it did on the other side of the Pacific if it can find the right audience, and there's no shortage of gamers out there looking for quick, simple, addictive fun to download straight off the web.