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Shadowgate review: This castle still wants to kill you, 25 years later

Hayden Dingman | Aug. 22, 2014
"You have chosen poorly, young Jair," says the screen, flashing an image of grinning Death. I hate him. I hate his bony little skeleton face so much. I've seen it at least ten times in the last hour and a half, each time listening to his snide comment about my demise.

How magnanimous.

It's hard. I cannot repeat that enough. There are going to be people who get stuck after playing the game for less than half an hour, clicking everything because the game doesn't highlight what items you can interact with.

And yet for all that old-school clunkiness, for all the torture it puts you through, I genuinely enjoyed Shadowgate. Puzzles tend to make sense in a fantastical Dungeons & Dragons manner, with few notable instances of Adventure Game Logic. The game forces you to pixel-hunt a bit too much, maybe, but it's in keeping with its retro roots — this is the absurdly difficult, painful adventure game that fans of Shadowgate Kickstarted.

The pain of pixel-hunting is somewhat assuaged by the fact that Shadowgate is absolutely gorgeous. Each new room in Shadowgate is a treat. A treat that's trying to kill you, like a poisoned lollipop or something. From damp dungeons to dusty tombs and lavish towers, the hand-painted art style implies as much as it shows and would look at home in a Dungeons & Dragons manual. It's perfect for conveying Castle Shadowgate and its often-strange trappings.

Recognizing the strength of the artwork, the developers have included my new favorite adventure game feature — Immersive Mode. Press the default toggle key, F11, and the entire UI fades out — the miscellaneous clutter, the list of commands, the flavor text. You get an unobstructed view of the artwork, while mousing over any of the invisible UI elements will bring it back momentarily. It's a fantastic way to play the game once you've memorized the various command hotkeys and want to appreciate the spectacular views Castle Shadowgate provides.

The game also includes a "Retro Mode." Enabling retro graphics just puts a pixel art filter over the 2014 artwork, making it somewhat emulate the NES version of the original, but it's hard to play and doesn't quite look like real pixel art. However, a separate checkbox provides the option to swap the (fantastic) modern score to the original NES music, done by Hiroyuki Masuno.

Bottom line

One last time, in case you missed it: Shadowgate is hard. There's no getting around it. Even if you're a veteran of the original, you'll most likely get stuck occasionally considering the developers switched or tweaked most of the puzzles. You're going to die. You're going to be frustrated. You're going to have no clue what you should be doing, wandering at random between rooms.

If that doesn't sound like fun? That's fine! Give this one a wide berth.

This is exactly what fans of the original wanted, though. This 2014 version of Shadowgate is really just the original Shadowgate with prettier graphics — it's unapologetically difficult and occasionally clunky, but all the more charming as a result.


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