I've always been a big believer in the idea that games should do more then just exercise your hands, and that's why I've always been a big fan of tower defense games. These have often been a simple yet challenging formula that keep me diverted for hours and that's why I was excited to have a chance to play Shad'O. Created by an independent company called Okugi Studios, Shad'O tells the story of William, a young boy trapped within his own mind, and who must face hordes of shadowy creatures in order to reclaim his memories.
Fans of Lewis Carroll will find much to like about this game's level design due to the fact that the guiding principle behind the game is to take things that are familiar to a child, then stretch and twist them into something otherworldly. One level, for instance, is a giant bed. You can make out a headboard which has a couple of pillows thrown against it, but those are the only things that give you a hint as to it's original shape. You never thought such an innocuous piece of household furniture could be corrupted by the forces of darkness? Well, you were wrong.
Once you work past the disturbing look of the levels, you will quickly become amazed at how good this game looks. The fog which covers the levels, acting as both a fog o'war and a physical barrier to your units, rolls and moves as if it were a living thing. When you win a map, the portal that the dark creatures emerged from explodes upward and then rolls up in a smooth piece of animation that can feel more satisfying then the win itself. The units, both yours and the enemies, are quite realistic looking. The enemies appear as ambultaory shadows and your units have a patchwork doll look to them, which is quite fitting considering the protagonist. All in all I often found myself spending just as much time watching their movements as playing the game.
The levels boast good variety and the story maps will change from area to area as well. When you first begin the game the enemies will only be able to come at you in one direction, but in the later stages foes will be able to come at you from multiple paths. As their movements will often be concealed by the fog, you'll often be left guessing as to where they will come from. You'll also be given the chance to play in special missions that will provide passive bonus for you to use in later levels. There's also the chance to go back and replay each mission in Nightmare mode, if you found the challenge initially given lacking.
Now onto the game's bad points. The first, and this is a minor flaw, is that you occasionally hear or read some odd phrasing. For instance, after an ominous noise has sounded, William will ask "did you hear this?". However, these moments are few and far between, and the two English voice actors who voice William and his stuffed teddy bear companion do their jobs adequately enough.
I only really have one serious complaint against this game and, unfortunately, it's something of a game breaker for me. See, there's a very marked discrepancy between how quickly your enemies upgrade and how quickly your forces do, with your opponents having the advantage. Once you get past the introductory missions you are given the option to choose to upgrade either a spell, which will do things like heal your units or halt the progress of enemy units for a brief time, or a specific unit. This is the only chance you get to upgrade your units while the enemy units change both in power and unit type with every level. Your opportunities for energy collection are always confined to one spot on the map as well, which also makes the tried and true tactic of just throwing out massive amounts of cheap units a problematic endeavor. You can always go back and beat each level in the more difficult Nightmare mode for more upgrades, but that seems to be a solution to a problem that shouldn't have existed in the first place.
This may not be a problem to a gamer who enjoys having such an obstacle to work against But for someone like me who enjoys a more casual experience, this arrangement can lead to a certain amount of frustration during gameplay. Also, the way you are allowed to choose one spell every time you complete a mission can make it all too easy to not have the one that will most benefit you during a certain mission and there's no way to reset your spells, at least not yet. Both of these factors can leave you in a much weaker position in the later stages of the game and the only option is to start all over again. In a game that otherwise looks so good, this is a very bad piece of design.
All in all, Shad'O is a very pretty game to look at, and an innovative addition to the tower defense genre. However, I think the rather unforgiving upgrade system lends itself to a TD enthusiast, rather then someone who is looking for a more casual gaming experience. I give it an overall score of 7 out of 10.
Shad'O is currently available for download onto your PC from Steam.
- Developer: Okugi Studios
- Publisher: Okugi Studios
- Platform: PC
- Genre: Tower Defense
- Release date: September 4th, 2012