Long before the original PlayStation came out, a now-defunct company called Psygnosis published Shadow of the Beast. Its graphics and soundtrack, which were remarkable for the time, managed to generate a lot of buzz and interest for a game that was, in every other way, almost entirely forgettable.
27 years later, Sony has published a PlayStation 4 exclusive reboot for reasons that, having played through the entire (short) thing, aren’t obvious. Shadow of the Beast retains the original’s core lack of anything interesting whatsoever, but completely fails to excel in either the soundtrack or graphics departments – let alone both.
The premise is simple enough. Through a handful of short, side-scrolling levels, you must trek either left or right and occasionally fight things. Fighting will normally be constrained to a small area where a set number of enemies will spawn alternately from the left and right, and you must use a combination of attacks to eviscerate them, mostly leveraging your pointy claw things (you’re the titular beast, and are pretty pointy all over).
Your skills in this combat zone will be scored, and your overall level score itself forms a kind of currency you can use to expand and improve the range of fighting skills you can draw upon during gameplay.
Combat, while it has potential – after all, who wouldn’t want to tear various creatures to pieces in beast mode? – hasn’t been executed with the kind of finesse it really needed. While the building blocks of something interesting are there, using them in a satisfying way is difficult to achieve with any regularity.
For example, flashy moves performed by pressing a combination of buttons take longer to execute than the simple stun or attack moves, and given enemies are constantly spawning in front and behind you, that generally means using something cool pretty much guarantees you’ll be attacked from behind, losing both potential score and actual life. This is actually near inescapable even with the basic attack as well, thanks to the way enemies spawn basically on top of you, making the periodic combat sections more frustrating than they are exciting.
Many of the levels feature “leap of faith” style exploration, which means you’ll end up learning how things work by falling afoul of them at least once, rather than getting a good read on the mechanics through design alone. This is further compounded by poor lighting and camera choices in many sections, and these things lead to cheap deaths and general awkward frustration.
There is a social gaming component included, although there’s not much to it. You’ll find corpses of other players scattered around the level, and should you choose to, you can either gift that player something (exactly what you give them isn’t clear), or rip their corpses to pieces by repeatedly spamming the buttons shown on screen.
Finally, the story component is nearly non-existent. What little speech there is is unintelligible, with even the subtitles presented in alien languages. You can pay in-game currency to translate these sequences, but the meaning is clear enough: you’re a beast with a conscience, and you’re trying to rescue a baby before it gets turned into another beast. Or something. There’s really not a lot going on here, which is either good or bad depending on your perspective.
Most of the game feels rushed and low budget, which seems odd given it was first announced all the way back in 2013. Exactly what went on behind the scenes can only be speculated upon, but it’s hard to imagine that everything went swimmingly. There are frustrating hints at cleverness here, like the remarkably unique final boss, and you definitely get the idea that with more time spent on them, combat and level design could have gone in interesting directions.
Ultimately though, what’s here is pretty uninspiring and even at the low entry price of a movie ticket plus popcorn is pretty tough to recommend. There are quite a few things to unlock, including an emulated version of the 1989 original, and if you’re a fan of Psygnosis, developer Heavy Spectrum has included plenty of little homages to the legendary creators of classics like Wipeout and Colony Wars. Without much of a game to support them though, it’s unlikely these extras alone are enough to justify the purchase.