Written by Layden
Sunday, 29 August 2010 12:33
Shadow of the Beast
Developer: Psygnosis / Reflections
Release date: 1989
Review machine: Commodore Amiga 500
You play the role of an enslaved beast. One day, you decide to break free from your chains and seek escape. Thus the scene is set for a fairly average run 'n' jump scrolling game, albeit one with an extraordinary atmosphere. You begin in a forest, populated by numerous types of horrible creatures. You can punch, kick or jump over them. The game is initially a 2-way horizontally scrolling game, spread over a large plain. However, at both ends of the plain lies doors that lead to an underground cavern and a creepy castle. Both of these areas take the form of multi-directional scrolling labyrinths.
Initial impressions seem to indicate that the player has the option of playing through the game using a variety of routes. Unfortunately it soon becomes apparent that the game levels must be played through in a set sequence, otherwise progress is halted by the lack of inventory items. Trust me, there's nothing worse than reaching a locked door in the castle, only to find out that the key is in the underground cavern!
The bulk of the gameplay comes from exploring the various areas and fending off enemies. There is the occasional switch-pulling puzzle, but nothing too thought-provoking. Enemy combat is vey simple, being not much more than an exercise in timing your punches/kicks. Exploration can be frustrating if you travel in the wrong direction and reach a dead end or fall into a lethal pit. However, with extensive play, the maps are easy to learn and navigation becomes second nature. The player is given 12 lives, which will rapidly disappear under the onslaught of gruesome enemies. Fortunately there are powerup that will restore lives. Unfortunately you can never have more than 12, which is not really enough. There are powerups that let you fire laser beams and lightning bolts. These are unfortunately shortlived and tend to disappear after the nearest boss fight.
Graphics and audio
The Commodore Amiga 500 had been out for a good couple of years before Shadow of the Beast. During these years, many game companies were simply releasing old 8-bit games and ideas with slightly improved audio-visuals. Shadow of the Beast was one of the first games to show what 16-bit power could really do. Technically, the game is impressive with the plain level have over a dozen layers of parallax scrolling. Many enemies are huge. The player's animation is excellent, but the animation quality of the enemies is somewhat variable. However, there are tons of different types of enemy and the sheer imagination behind their visual design is awesome. All of the backgrounds are incredibly well drawn and atmospheric. There is no doubt, this is not simply computer graphics - it is real art.
The audio is stunning, even today. David Whittaker's pan-pipe and heavy drumbeat tunes still impress. They create an amazing atmosphere. Sound effects are sparse, but there is a very satisfying crunch when the player hits an enemy.
This is a tough game to review. I certainly regard it as a classic, but it has flaws that simply cannot be overlooked. As mentioned above, the audio-visuals raised the bar for 16-bit titles at the time. However, the gameplay is less impressive, being very 8-bit in design. The gameplay doesn't even match that of a good 8-bit game. The exploration can be frustrating. The combat is dull and unforgiving. The whole experience is marred by a poorly judged difficulty level. This is a shame because the atmosphere evoked by the scenario, graphics and music is excellent. As a technical demo, Beast remains a 16-bit showcase. However, as a game, it struggles to be anything other than average.
With its 8-bit gameplay, it's perhaps not surprise to find that the game was converted to most systems. Gameplay is fairly similar on all versions, but some compensate for the high difficulty level by offering 25 lives instead of 12. It's still quite hard though! Most versions obviously struggle to match the audio-visuals, but special mention must go to the PC Engine CD version for its funky synthpop remixes of the Amiga music.
Shadow of the Beast was followed by 2 sequels; Beast 2 and Beast 3. Beast 2 dropped some of the parallax layers to improve graphic detail. It offered more puzzle-solving and arcade-adventuring gameplay. It had even better music. Unfortunately, it also had the most ludicrous difficulty level ever! Beast 3 was a surprise to many, as it offered more refined puzzles and actually had a sane difficulty level. It's a very pleasant game to play. Recommended!
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