Review by Britta S.
So who is Adam? I wondered as I started up the game. Likely the hero?
No, quite wrong - Adam is no person but the name of an idyllic village tucked away in a forever classic corner of retro JRPG fantasyland. In a way, this name ambiguity proved a harbinger for the many other obscure and often downright baffling pathways and quests in this deceptively simple game. Mind you, if a game is all about recreating that classic experience, albeit wrapped in a new coat of modern gameplay mechanics, then spending many hours painstakingly retracing your steps for that one elusive clue or secret passageway that will lead to the fabled treasure … is surely part and parcel of that experience?
The days of the Wraith War are long gone and passed into legend. In this world, magic is feared and despised since it brought only misery. But, inevitably, powers with dark intent are on the rise and even peaceful Adam is safe no longer. The village’s hero, Orazio, vanished ten years ago, leaving behind his motherless son Kellan and adopted daughter Asrael. Their journey towards uncovering the secrets of the past and fighting the new forces threatening the land starts when they are pushed by the village into investigating the treacherous Tangle. And yes - before you ask - crystals (“shards”) do play an important role!
No doubt you will straightaway get classic JRPG vibes from this story setting; the early Final Fantasies spring to mind, and you could spend many a pleasurable discussion over which particular parts of Shadows of Adam remind you of favourite games. I’ll leave the story details with this meagre outline because, to be blunt, the story itself, while perfectly serviceable, does not deviate an inch from the tried-and-true scenarios of yore. For me, however, a riveting, fresh JRPG story is practically essential; and yet I would’ve been quite content with the tale of Adam’s world if the characters had been fully developed and more engaging. This I see as the biggest letdown in an otherwise remarkably well-crafted game.
Kellan and Asrael are joined on their travels by two companions to make up their party of four. That’s right, that’s all the combat characters you get, from start to finish. It’s quite refreshing not having to agonise over whom to use for which battle and rather concentrate on how to get the best out of each. These four are basic archetypes of JRPGdom enhanced with some fruitful hybridisation: the all-round fighter Kellan, the mage Asrael (healing and attack spells), the ‘monk’ type Curtis with high physical and chakra powers, and the ‘trickster’ Talon who has some delightful buffs and luck-based skills up his sleeve. The game shows its strongest side when you dive into the tactics of battle. Outside of enemy encounters, these four don’t have very deep personalities to get to know. I skipped quickly over many dialogue scenes laced with tiresome parades of insults, quaint swear words and accusations, reminding me of nothing so much as a middle school playground. “Did not!” and “Did too!” hurled at each other were at such a remove from the sombre tale on the grand JRPG scale, that it resulted in breaking the immersion for me. I did, though, get captured by the background details to the story whenever one of the nicely sepia-toned flashbacks rolled.
The main narrative, with our intrepid band of young adventurers journeying ever further on the overworld map, is tightly structured and leads you at a good pace towards the ultimate goal. Enemies in each area and dungeon are plentiful, but do not appear randomly and only regenerate once you return to the overworld. This means that, if you diligently fight your way through all opposition, exploring every nook and cranny, you will in fact be perfectly levelled for whatever lies ahead. No repetitive grinding and no nasty difficulty spikes here. It is a thoroughly satisfying experience that still provides a good challenge.
The other well-judged high point of the game and level design are the puzzles. All dungeons demand that you solve a series of spatial puzzles which will then unlock the next dungeon area. I like the fact that every puzzle adheres to a unified theme - guiding an orb into a portal - and we simply get creative and increasingly more complex versions that tie in with each dungeon’s theme (the four elements, basically). I hesitated at first to take on this game because I can be a dunce with puzzles, but I completely adored these orb ones and never grew tired of them (on the other hand, the mine carting with all the levers got a bit much for me after a while …). The puzzles manage to achieve that most difficult balance: perfectly poised between ‘too simple and boring’ and ‘so hard I threw a fit’. The secret seems to be that you don’t have to overthink them, and you never feel like you’re being tricked.
Where the dunce in me often failed to see the wood for the trees, however, was in cobblestoned dungeons or convoluted passageways, which expect a pair of highly primed eyeballs to find a well-camouflaged exit or other secret access. I spent much time examining walls millimetre by millimetre … and at one point, late into the night, I finally gave in and posted a cry for help on the game’s community board. Thank heavens for that board! There’s nothing like knowing you’re not the only ‘dunce’ out there. I feel that perhaps a bit more shading adjustment could make all the difference in not forcing the player to fritter away so much time on basic exploration issues. There are some classic JRPG traditions which benefit greatly from a fresher coat of paint.
Before you can exit a wind tower, magma sanctum, earth maze or water garden, you first need to confront their denizens - and what an inspired range of enemy creations you will meet. From your enhanced slimes to ghostly wraiths, from defence-buffed gate keepers to magic golems and dastardly cut-throats; they will all throw their laundry list of insidious skills at you, the ultimate irony being that they mimic or expand on your own skill set. Talon, for instance, has a neat individual evasion buff - the “blur” - but some enemies, like the cut-throat, can cast a vastly magnified blur buff (a “mirage”) on their whole party. This will tax all your ingenuity to break through. Your secret weapon here (apart from patience and much healing) is that many of your skills are stackable. You don’t have a huge array of skills, and they don’t come in different level versions, so you may feel disappointed at the simplicity of the skill tree. But once you grasp the extraordinary possibilities granted you by stacking one buff on another, then reinforcing it with, for example, Talon’s “Double Up”, you can create a physical powerhouse Curtis who just keeps on biffing everything right and left, or a magical prodigy Asrael dishing out annihilating Freeze or Wraithstorm damage. This system has seriously addictive properties, and I sometimes found myself prolonging a fight just so I could try out yet another stacking combo. For a break, and a bit of levity, the comic duo Nik and Zak pop up at intervals. They are enslaved to the darker forces, and to outrageous malapropisms and tortured puns.
There is one roadblock on this streamlined journey before you can face your end adversary. Once you beat a major baddie, you acquire control of an airship (yes, there had to be an airship!) and are free to explore the whole world. Rather than feel elated, though, I strangely enough felt a bit deflated at this stage. This is a big caesura in the narrative; we transition from a linear journey to a completely open side quest system. It felt to me that the game lost some of its momentum here. I exaggerate a bit (but not much) when I describe it as “aw, shoot, so which quests do I need to pursue so I can level up and also find those crucial special weapons for the end fight?” In other words, a day at the office for prepping and grinding for the final boss.
And then something really strange happened. One side quest leads you to a treasure hunter who offers up a priceless weapon and armour set (must have!) if you can beat him at a game of dice. Out of a 1000-numbered die cast, you have to roll a “1”. Oh my, how that took me back to Suikoden and that incredibly annoying, interminable dice (or card?) game! I knuckled down and after about a quarter hour I hit the jackpot. Only once I got onto my next side quest did I realise that the required event was not being triggered, and that this was likely due to it being linked to the previous one. A quick consultation with the developer confirmed that apparently they had not calculated on anyone actually cracking the dice-rolling task before completing the other quest; thus I am unable to add that particular quest achievement and a dragon scalp to my collection. I mention this not as idle gossip, but because it is one (at least entertaining) example of issues still plaguing the game three weeks after its release. Most of the bugs and glitches are very minor, but can add up to some irritation, and it would be remiss of me not to mention this.
The positive aspect is that problems are taken seriously and patched, with the developers consistently attentive and helpful.
So finally I was ready to descend into the Wraith Abyss for the final reckoning, and it was simply superb. I enjoyed that last dungeon tremendously. Everything I had learned and practiced so far all came together beautifully, and the final boss battle was suitably nail biting. And then the story ends, perhaps a bit too abruptly, without tying up back story threads with the future of our heroes. If I were more attached to the characters, I might have been disappointed with that ending. As it is, what I remember and take away from the game is the enjoyment of a beautifully crafted, and modernised, level and combat design. Does Shadows of Adam reinvigorate the classic genre? It does so to a generous extent. The fact that you can save literally anywhere - overworld or in-dungeon - is a boon that cannot be overstated. It also makes Shadows of Adam a prime candidate for porting to a portable platform; I’m thinking of the PlayStation Vita or Nintendo Switch in particular. Personally, I would much prefer to play a game like this in smaller bites, portably, than on the PC screen. The pixel graphics would benefit, too, from the greater compression in my opinion; the graphics were a tad too blocky (even in a small window) for my taste to qualify as “great”. Special mention, however, needs to go to the sublime 32-colour palette (those purples!) and to Tyler Mire’s very pleasant, but not mould-breaking, soundtrack.
And that really sums up Shadows of Adam for me: it does a lot right, but it does not break the classic mould enough to make it feel like a true new classic in its own right.