Of the numerous reboots, remakes, and remasters this generation has brought us, this one may just be the most drastic. Originally released in 1989 on the Commodore Amiga, Shadow of the Beast was well received and lauded for its mind-blowing visual fidelity. Heavy Spectrum's modern take on the hard-as-nails classic has been a long time coming. However, we've finally got our claws on it, and it's intriguing to see not only the differences between the old and the new, but also the similarities.
You can plainly see these for yourself once you unlock the emulated version of the original game. Both tell the story of Aarbron, a man kidnapped as a child and transformed into a deadly warrior by Maletoth, an evil and powerful sorcerer. Enslaved, Aarbron mindlessly slaughters all who stand before him, but when he inadvertently kills his father, his memory returns and he breaks free from his confines to seek revenge on his captor. The story is told in-game without a word of English, but you can find and collect Prophecy Orbs in the levels which help flesh out what is happening. You can also unlock the ability to translate the alien subtitles in the game to English, but this requires a lot of Mana.
Mana is your in-game currency, doled out at the end of each level, depending on how you've performed. It's what you'll spend on health and combat upgrades, new abilities, and even features like the Amiga original and art galleries. This is where some of the remake's more contemporary elements become apparent. Though still presented in 2D and featuring similar environments to the classic game, this is a title far more concerned with combat and high scores. Luckily, the hack-'n'-slash style fighting is what will keep you hooked.
It takes a bit of getting used to, with almost too many abilities and moves to wrap your head around, but once it clicks, you'll feel unstoppable, with no encounter ending in anything less than a veritable bloodbath. Your basic attack is on just one button, but simply spamming square will net you a poor score. Even the timing of your basic attack is important; if you strike just as a golden glint shines from an enemy's weapon, you're guaranteed a kill, and you earn more points for doing so. You can also block, counter, stun, throw, and get behind your opponents, and mastering all of these will mark the difference between a bronze and a platinum award.
You'll want to shoot for platinums if you can, because achieving these medals net you an Elixir, which you can use to re-spawn if you die. There're still plenty more options at your disposal, and once you've unlocked Aarbron's other abilities, you'll find a robust and deep combat system that rewards skill and dexterity, rather than button mashing.
Outside of combat is where the game fares slightly worse. Each level is fairly lengthy and can contain many pathways for you to explore. The platforming itself is a little stiff, and we often found ourselves taking fall damage and mistiming jumps. It's a shame, as the hidden routes are great, often leading to collectibles or rare health pick-ups. Fortunately, it's not a complete deal breaker, and, like the combat, simply takes some time to acclimatise to – just for different reasons.
Sadly, it may take you the length of the game to truly appreciate the intricate combat and fiddly movement. Shadow of the Beast is not a long game, with just seven levels to plough through. Repeat plays are highly encouraged, though, with hidden battle encounters, Prophecy Orbs, multiple endings, and branching paths throughout each location. The small number of environments handily means that each is unique, with its own look and feel. And throughout the game maintains a wonderfully eerie atmosphere, with lots of detail in its backdrops depicting a fascinating alien world. This is helped by a fittingly haunting, almost old-fashioned soundtrack and handsome visuals – though they won't wow modern audiences like the original did back in its day.
With many nods to the original games and a compendium of retro unlockables, this re-imagining of Shadow of the Beast is a game not just concerned with moving forward, but with looking back in detail at its forebears. Stilted platforming and a short story don't prevent the deep, satisfying combat and multifaceted levels from being worth experiencing more than once. And when you're done, the very first game awaits in all its glory for you to discover – maybe for the first time.