Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms Preview

Shadows_Heretic_Kingdoms_Concept_Art_01

Have you heard of Kult: Heretic Kingdoms?

No?

Don’t worry; it was a relatively obscure 2005 isometric RPG created by 3D People which garnered some moderate success at the time, but which now lies largely forgotten (though it was pretty enjoyable).

Well, 3D People – now Games Farm – hasn’t forgotten about it, and they, with the assistance of publisher bitComposer, recently took to Steam’s Early Access program with the next chapter in the Heretic Kingdoms saga. We’ve been given the opportunity to try out the game – currently in pre-alpha – and, so far, Shadows looks like it will become a solid release.

He doesn't seem like a pleasant fellow...

He doesn’t seem like a pleasant fellow…

So far, only the first chapter is available to play, so the depth of the story remains unknown, but right from the beginning it’s clear that the game’s setting is rife with conspiracy. Set a few years after the events in Kult, the story opens with a Hooded Man summoning a demon known as a Devourer (that’s you) and challenging you to find him. We don’t really know for what purpose, but it’s clear from the mysterious man that all is not well in the world. As you progress through the tutorial stages, you’re presented with an introduction to the movement controls and weapon skills, though anyone who’s familiar with the ARPG genre will be in familiar territory.

 The Devourer is a force to be reckoned with, mowing down other spirits with powerful magical attacks.

Combat is simple, like many Diablo-esque point-and-click dungeon crawlers, and includes melee attacks, ranged attacks, and specific skills depending on the type of weapon equipped at the time. When an enemy dies, its soul is released in a brightly glowing orb that floats around the player until absorbed (though if you go too far, it will eventually vanish). These absorbed souls are stored and can be used to heal yourself, in an interesting twist which encourages confrontational play.

Where the game truly differs from other ARPGs such as Diablo though is that you don’t just play as one character, you play as several, and can swap between them after casting a spell which takes a couple of seconds to complete. In the demo, only one hero is available to choose from shortly after the start, but the presence of further empty slots indicates that eventually you’ll be able to fully round out your party.

After about five or ten minutes playing as the Devourer, you arrive at a point where you’re able to choose a hero to accompany you (though only two were available in the build we played). Your three choices are fairly standard fantasy tropes – an archer, a mage and a barbarian – though each can be customized to your liking as you level up and spend talent points in a number of different areas. We went for the archer, known as Jasker, hoping that his skills would complement the more melee-focused attacks

This is where Shadows gets interesting. The Devourer and your heroes exist simultaneously, just in two separate realms. They can talk to each other too – the Devourer is highly demanding of obeisance, while Jasker is more reserved, more humanly suspicious of things. As Jasker, we found ourselves in the human world, and the spirit-realm that we had previously run through changed into a crumbling catacomb filled with spiders to kill, coffins to loot, and barrels and urns to break. When we reached a dead end, a vast chasm with a broken bridge, the Devourer suggested he may be able to get past the obstacle. Shadows comes into its own here, as you can switch back and forth between the real world and the spirit realm at any time. Switching back to the shadow realm revealed no obstruction at the bridge, and so we were able to pass unhindered and continue on our journey. It’s a pretty simple example, but we hope that the finished game will make better use of its potential in a similar way to how games such as Soul Reaver and assorted Zeldas use their dual-world mechanics to craft some inventive brain teasers.

Each character, your Devourer and mortal party members (or, as the game calls them, “puppets”), have their own separate health, experience bars and skill trees, though they share collected souls and inventory space. You are two entities sharing a single body (and later, three or four, if the UI’s empty character slots are anything to go by in the demo), and that aspect of the game isn’t something we’ve seen before, which gives Shadows a really intriguing characteristic that we are excited to see employed further along in the story.

Using gathered souls to heal came in handy when Jasker took a quick beating after fighting off multiple enemies. We escaped the tomb from which we were summoned and arrived in the first human city, and it’s here that the quests start rolling in. Refreshingly, instead of being tasked with clearing rats from a basement or clearing a house of zombies, we ended up finding a quest given by another phantom trapped in the spirit realm as we would liken a ghost haunting a house, giving us the impression that the Devourer is not just for passing through obstacles but will eventually gain other abilities and uses.

shadows_heretic_kingdoms_08With the above issues noted, gameplay is smooth, however movement and combat feel a little sluggish. The character animations, particularly in the real world, felt labored and torturous compared to similar dungeon crawlers like Diablo or Torchlight, so if you’re used to the brisk pace of those titles, transitioning to Shadows may take some getting used to. Jasker, in particular, was very slow to draw his bow and fire, leaving him exposed for long periods of time (though Kalig the Barbarian felt equally as sluggish at times). It didn’t feel like it was a framerate issue, rather an excessive number of animation frames; but it was difficult to tell if that was intentional or not. We’re so used to the faster pace of other games in the genre that this weightiness felt strange, and we’re eager to see if this will be addressed in future builds.

Environments and models are all well-detailed though, with some lovely lighting, smoke and particle effects that really bring the world to life. More impressive is that it runs smoothly on even a modest set-up. The final look falls somewhere between Diablo 3 and Path of Exile, and as fans of both games, that’s ok with us.

On the aural side of things, the music is excellent and exactly what we were expecting when relating to the mood of the setting, and the quality sounded flawless. What was available of the voice acting (it’s not fully implemented yet) was also superb, with the narrator guiding us through the opening cinematic and the sonorous voice of the Hooded Man daring us to challenge him all tying in very nicely.

Keeping in mind that Shadows is still in the relatively early stages of development, it’s difficult to say at this stage how representative the current demo is of the final experience. According to the Games Farm, the finished release will implement a crafting system, more playable characters, full voicework, revised assets and many other things – including a revised user interface. But it’s striking just how complete the game already feels at this early stage. The visuals are crisp and detailed, the mechanics are solid, and while we hope sluggish animations will be addressed, it’s rare to find a pre-alpha game feeling as cohesive as this.

Developer Games Farm has the start of something really interesting on their hands; point-and-click dungeon crawlers are ten a penny at the moment, but Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms has enough ideas of its own to stand out in an increasingly crowded genre. Its innovative character-switching lends an extra tactical dimension to combat, the dual-world mechanic is something that we don’t recall seeing in this genre before (despite being used in other games), and there’s the potential for plenty of depth in character development. The story behind the tried-and-true concept is what initially drew us in, but the unique element of playing multiple characters simultaneously and switching between them at will is sure to keep us playing as it continues to develop.

Jenna Fraser
A New England born, Boston native, Jenna says "wicked" with reckless abandon. She loves video games almost as much as she loves words and to say that she has an obsession with Queen would be the biggest understatement of all time.
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