When a lackluster game is remembered with undue fondness, the favorable light of nostalgia is usually the culprit. Not so with Shadow Of The Beast. It was overrated even in its own time. The perplexing levels of fame achieved by this unlikely 1989 game were probably the byproduct of an age when generational hardware shifts were accompanied by seismic technical advancement, violently punctuating the history of the medium in its most formative decade. Reflections Interactive, working on the most powerful machine of the era, the Amiga 500, recognized the opportunity and created a game of such dazzling audiovisual polish that it distracted everyone from the fact that it felt awful to play. In this sense, it was something of an advantage that Heavy Spectrum’s modest budget curtailed the chances of its Shadow Of The Beast remake following suit and trading pleasurable play for technical prowess, but an over-attachment to the clunky original has sullied the opportunity.
Aarbron, our bestial warrior, was kidnapped as an infant and turned into a gruesome, unquestioning pawn for the archmage Maletoth. After another human child strong enough to withstand the ritual of transformation is located, Maletoth dispatches our hero and his handler, Zelek, to fetch it. As it transpires, among the numerous clerics and knights protecting the child is Aarbron’s own father, and the confrontation between them finally results in the Beast revolting and seeking revenge against his former masters. It’s a mostly faithful retelling of the original story with some added exposition and a couple of new twists delivered mainly in snippets discovered throughout the game.
While narrative consistency is hardly cause for complaint, other aspects of Shadow Of The Beast have clearly suffered. Heavy Spectrum was wise to trade the original’s generic platforming for score-focused, skill-based brawling, lifting its level structure straight from Bayonetta, including secret encounters unlocked via set preconditions and a lot of backtracking. But the developer regrettably chose to retain the sense of claustrophobic helplessness that typified the original game (mainly because the size and speed of its sprites made it impossible to react to unexpected attacks). At times, it seems like the battlefield is half the expected width, a serious issue in a game that has enemies rapidly coming at you from both sides. Especially after the camera zooms out during one of Aarbron’s cinematic special moves, a couple of seconds are often needed to readjust to the situation, interrupting the flow of combat and leaving you vulnerable to attacks that may break your precious score multiplier.
Things are made worse by controls that are at once unresponsive and overcompensating. Aarbron’s attacks take ages to launch and, when they do, his deadly choreography is far more elaborate than the couple of simple button presses you provided. It creates a disconnect between your input and its on-screen results, as if the game is too eager to demonstrate its next grisly tableau to burden you with the task of having to execute it. You get used to the distinctive ebb and flow, and encounters eventually develop into enjoyable score-chasing affairs, but the initial sloppiness never quite dissipates from memory.
On the other hand, no amount of familiarization can redeem Shadow Of The Beast’s terrible platforming. Reaching running speed requires a little head start for Aarbron—a nuisance at the best of times and a nightmare when suspended on a series of narrow platforms that require precision jumping to navigate. Implausibly, Heavy Spectrum also included a handful of blind death drops—situations in which the next safe landing hovers outside visibility and it’s a matter of good, old-fashioned guesswork whether you’ll manage to reach it or plummet to your death and be forced to restart a 20-minute stage. One struggles to come up with a sensible reason a developer would adopt such an unfair approach to level design, though it’s not nearly as baffling a choice as the inclusion of a pitch-black platforming section that keeps sending you back to its start for failing to land on its hidden platforms.
Yet there is something in the sum of those accumulated oddities that serves the experience better than any of its individual parts. Shadow Of The Beast is so wholeheartedly immersed in the design sensibilities of a bygone era—not the rehabilitated and domesticated principles of permanent death and procedural generation that have become so common today, but ancient trends better left undisturbed like painful restarts and progress-halting puzzles—that it transforms into a refreshingly alien experience, if not an entirely enjoyable one. More than the gorgeous Roger Dean-inspired visuals and the simple pleasures of climbing the leaderboard, it is the game’s unmitigated strangeness that makes it so hard to dislike, even while the infuriating controls preclude recommendation. Shadow Of The Beast starts with Aarbron tethered to his current master by a leash, reluctantly doing his bidding. The unintentional metaphor of that opening sequence is plain to see: The player is just another master whose efforts at control will be resisted.