I remember opening the door to the Castle Shadowgate, taking a step inside, and after the Warlock Lord was done laughing maniacally at me, I became promptly stuck without any idea of what to do next. Anyone who has ever played Shadowgate probably knows that feeling well. As you explore the halls of one of the strangest castles in videogame history, you are confronted with a series of puzzles that require thought and logic, or if all else fails, just "trying everything" to solve. Until you finish it, Shadowgate is a game that you'll think about as much when you're not playing it as when you are.
As the last living member of a line of warrior kings, it is your job to infiltrate the Castle Shadowgate and stop the evil Warlock Lord from unleashing the dreaded Behemoth upon the world. You will accomplish this by using a point-and-click interface to examine, pick up, and use a plethora of mysterious items. The gameplay is similar to those old PC text adventures that had lines of dialogue like, "You are standing in a forest. You see some trees and an axe. What is your command?". Shadowgate brings that idea to life with picturesque scenery and a haunting soundtrack.
One of my problems in reviewing Shadowgate is that I have to pull quite a bit from my memory of the first time I ever played through it. That is because once you know all of the game's solutions, there is no more challenge in replaying it. I dare say it is a testament to how memorable an experience Shadowgate was that I even can remember where I got stuck, for approximately how long, and what the solutions are.
What is it that makes Shadowgate so compelling? The game, like most in its genre, is completely devoid of action. The graphics are colorful and well-drawn, but have hardly any animation. Even if puzzle-solving is your forté, why not choose a game that combines it with more action-oriented tasks?
I believe a big reason for Shadowgate's success lies within the game's great atmosphere. It is a common childhood fantasy to explore a mysterious castle, finding secret passageways, collecting treasures, and slaying medieval beasts. Shadowgate excels at bringing those ideas to life in a game environment. The sheer amount of rooms creates the illusion of the size and scope of the castle. The variety and complexity of them delivers the sense of awe and wonder. There are times when you can step right into the path of an angry wraith, and others where you can only see the beady eyes of a dragon staring at you from down the hallway. You can be in a cramped stuffy laboratory one minute, and a giant erosion-hewn cavern the next. The effect is that you see many things, and then get a sense that there is a lot more than what you can see.
Shadowgate's puzzles are linked together through a mind-boggling sequence of events. Oftentimes, many steps must be taken to ultimately find an important item or open a stubborn door. One of my most profound memories of Shadowgate was studying strange etchings on the side of a staircase and then suddenly realizing much later what they meant. While it may be possible to solve any conundrum by "trying everything", it is more productive to pay attention to the subtle clues that accompany each item.
Another reason Shadowgate works in spite of the lack of action is because there is always a pervasive sense of danger. Make a wrong move and you'll be reading a grisly description of your dying moment as you're sent back a step and docked a torch. A good percentage of rooms are teeming with obstacles that can instantly end your quest. Since experimentation is necessary and will often lead to undesirable results, avoiding deaths will be practically impossible the first time through. It wasn't long before I was often thinking, "This will probably kill me, but I have to try it anyway." At least Shadowgate has one of the best "Game Over" screens I've seen.
It is fascinating how much Shadowgate is absorbed in its own little world. The story is given very little set-up and has minimal development, but it's fun to read the descriptive dialogue. Examining objects and sometimes just stepping into a room often prompts details about the game's setting, in a quick and relevant manner. "A silver arrow is not uncommon in the Elven Lands", the game quips, so we now know what kind of world we're dealing with and what may exist in it. Other dialogue is written with a dry, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. (Try the command "Use Self" or read the "Blue Dragon" book in the library.) My personal favorite amongst Shadowgate's writings are the rhyming poems. Just try getting "Five to find, three are one, one gives access, the bladed sun..." out of your head.
There is also some excitement in simply not knowing what will be in the next room. My favorite moments were when I'd face a new monster. Sadly, Shadowgate 64 was almost completely devoid of monsters. But this game has them around every corner: Hellhounds that materialize in a burst of flames, gargoyle statues that come to life, demons that pop out of holes or fly out of coffins, and a cranky toll-demanding troll on a bridge. At one point, you even have to solve a Sphinx's riddle.
All of this, the atmosphere, clues, story, exploration, danger, and interlocking puzzles, builds toward the climactic final confrontation with the Warlock Lord and his menacing Behemoth. Upon entering his chamber, the dialogue proclaims that your stomach knots up as you lay eyes on this spectacle. Indeed, mine felt like it did.
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