Puzzles and Solvability
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat. Shadowgate is a really hard game! But it’s not difficult in the same ways that Uninvited was. That game was difficult due to illogical puzzle solutions, and for putting way too many items at the player’s disposal. The solutions to the puzzles in Shadowgate are for the most part very logical, and in some cases actually pretty clever. I may have struggled to solve sections such as the key under the rug right near the locked door and the arrow acting as a directional marker rather than a weapon, but I didn’t feel angry when I finally solved them. They were just hard, and involved taking a different approach than you might expect. Where Shadowgate is unnecessarily difficult is the way items and even locations are so deviously hidden. The ring hidden in the tree in the garden, the metal rod behind the map in the observatory, and the holy water under the floor in the laboratory, are just three examples of items that require a bit too much luck to find. Miss even one of them, and you can’t finish the game! As for locations, well the cavity behind the waterfall isn’t at all obvious, and the game gives you absolutely no hints that there’s anything beyond the collapsing rickety bridge, with both locations being of ultimate importance. I’ve given Shadowgate a 3 for this category, which is two more than I gave Uninvited, as it’s definitely an improvement.
It was nice to successfully solve puzzles using logic this time round. The cyclops went down with a rock to the eye.
Interface and Inventory
The interface for Shadowgate is identical to Déjà Vu and Uninvited, so I’m not going to go into too much detail here. There are some aspects of it however that affect Shadowgate in ways they didn’t in those previous games. Firstly, having actions in the interface that the player is never required to use is off-putting. I never once used consume or hit, and speak was only useful once in the entire game, but I tried using them probably a hundred times! I realise they’re just a carryover from the other ICOM games, but that’s just lazy in my book. The way the game changed the way the player needs to use spells was also a major bitch for me. In Uninvited I used the “speak” action to cast spells, whereas in Shadowgate I needed to “operate” the parchments themselves. This resulted in me initially leaving all the parchments behind to save on inventory space when they were in fact required, and it also meant I failed to cast spells successfully for half the game despite attempting to use them at exactly the right points. Finally, there’s the inventory. The game requires you to carry a lot of items, but it also requires you to keep a good few torches spare on you at all times. There’s just not enough room in the inventory for both, which means leaving behind things you actually need later on. This problem is exacerbated by the game not informing the player when an item has served its purpose. I was never told that the gauntlets helped me get the flute out of the fountain or that the cloak allowed me to enter the fire drake’s den, and therefore kept them far longer than I needed to, once again taking up valuable room in my inventory.
If only I knew at the time that I no longer needed the cloak or the gauntlets...
Story and Setting
I quite like the fantasy setting of Shadowgate. I’m naturally attracted to swords, magic and monsters type themes, but even more so when they’re a bit darker than usual. Shadowgate feels as much like a horror game as it does fantasy, which is right up my alley. That being said, the story isn’t exactly brilliant, and is basically a bunch of clichés tacked together. The player must make his way through a booby trapped castle, collecting five items of power on the way that are required to defeat a Warlock that wants to rule the whole world. How incredibly original! I actually didn’t mind the second half of the game turning into a “find and destroy the five guardians to get their magic items” quest, but it sure was confusing finding parchments and prophecies everywhere that talked about the items in the first half of the game. I found myself trying to apply the fairly cryptic documents to everything, but none of it made any sense until much later in the game. At least they eventually did make sense, unlike in Mortville Manor where they didn’t mean anything to me even after I’d finished the game.Rating: 4
I thank you your majesty, and in return I give you this fine goblet that I could find no use for on my quest
Sound and Graphics
As with the interface, the sound and graphics are pretty much of the same quality as Déjà Vu and Uninvited. In fact, the majority of the sound effects, including those used for opening doors and screams, were lifted directly from Uninvited. That means they’re terribly grating, and the small amount of music that pops up from time to time is even worse. Dying is never much fun, but when it's accompanied by a horrible little tune that makes you want to end your real life, it's just not cool. The graphics are once again CGA, and given that Shadowgate was released on the PC in 1988, that’s not really acceptable. The illustrations are not terrible, but the limited colours make everything ugly and certain puzzles all but impossible to solve. There’s quite a bit of pixel hunting due to all the hidden items and locations, and what might be obvious in 16 colours is all but indiscernible in 4 colours. The markings on the stairs in the Sphynx’s room and the key under the rug are just two examples of where the difficulty is substantially increased in the PC version of the game due to the low graphics quality. It was a 2 for the other two games, so I’m giving Shadowgate a 3 for the increase in illustration quality.Rating: 3
The most evil of all castle inhabitants is undoubtedly Sebastian the interior decorator
Environment and Atmosphere
As with Uninvited’s House of Abraxas, Castle Shadowgate is a suitably dark and creepy place to spend time hunting down a Warlock Lord intent on world destruction. Right from the opening screen containing a skull adorned wooden door surrounded by stones and the silhouettes of jagged trees, Shadowgate keeps the atmosphere dial turned right up. The amount of ways that the player can die during the game, the majority of which I discovered unintentionally, is pretty impressive, and I was seriously thankful that I managed to get the save feature functioning correctly prior to setting out on my quest. There are touches of humour here and there, but it’s more of the mocking variety than laugh out loud comedy. As much as I hated the time limit created by torches having a use by date, I have to admit that it adds a sense of urgency not felt in many adventure games. Whether that’s a good thing or not is another matter, and I think it’s pretty obvious which side of the fence I sit on. This should really be the highest rated category for the game though, so I’ll go with a 5.Rating: 5
Shadowgate Death Number 173: Death by Brick
Dialogue and Acting
The dialogue in Shadowgate can really only be described as adequate. There is quite a bit of descriptive narrative and it’s satisfactory in giving the player a good sense of their surroundings while using both unsettling horror and mildly amusing comedy to help keep things interesting. If it wasn’t for the small amount of interaction that occurs when the player operates certain objects in the graphical interface, the ICOM games could really be considered interactive fiction, and would probably have worked reasonably ok in that format. There really isn’t much else to say about this category and I'm happy to repeat the 4 I gave to Uninvited.Rating: 4
The highly descriptive narrative does make up a little for the technological deficiencies.
That leaves Shadowgate with a final rating of 35, which is 5 more than Uninvited, yet 10 less than Déjà Vu. Is Déjà Vu really that much of a better game? Probably not, but it was unquestionably pioneering for its time, and ICOM made next to no technological improvements in the 2 years proceeding it. Comparing Shadowgate to other games that came out in 1988 (the time of its release on the PC), it just doesn’t hold up. If I played the Windows 3.x version that came out a few years later, the game might have rated a fair bit higher, but I can only rate what I’ve played. It’s onto Space Quest II we go!