Shadowcaster. (computer game) (Entertainment Choice) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Scott May
You'll be so immersed in this game's stunning graphics and effects, you may get motion sickness.
Shadowcaster fulfills the ultimate goal of any role-playing game: total immersion of the player in a farfetched fantasy realm. The true brilliance of Origin's next-generation adventure, however, lies in the ingenious ways it accomplishes this, not in the story itself.
The story is based on the usual fantasy fundamental--good versus evil--with a few atypical twists. For instance, instead of keeping track of multiple characters, you change into different personalities.
Less a role-playing game than an action adventure, Shadowcaster has a plot that is neither conceptually original nor blatantly derivative. You play the role of Kirt, a modern discendant of an extraordinary race known as The People. The gods gave your ancestors the power to shape-shift (called morphing) into the form of creatures. Sadly, only a chosen few received the power, and they abused it to create a social order divided by magic.
The upper echelon fostered a subclass of malcontents.
>From the ranks of the abusers rose Malkor, an outcast god who bestowed a more decadent power of morphing upon all who worshipped his wicked ways. The most brutal and vile of this new breed is Veste, who almost succeeded in defeating the powers of good. Banished to a distant temple, Veste vowed to return and destroy all who oppose him.
Distressed by this misuse of power, the gods withdrew the gift of morphing. Only you, as Kirt, the last child to be born with full power, can save the villagers. You must search the ruined city of The People, confront Veste, and end Malkor's reign of terror.
Dazzling first-person graphics are the game's hallmark feature, driven by the same ultrafast 3-D engine pioneered by Id Software, creator of Wolfenstein 3-D and Doom. Unlike those slightly claustrophobic efforts, much of Shadowcaster takes place outdoors, with stunning mountain peaks rising in the distance.
Texture-mapped polygons help deliver blazing full-motion speed and startling detail in walls, floors, and ceilings. On an 80486, open the window nearly full-screen for best results and be prepared for motion sickness.
Key to your success are six obelisks scattered about the multifarious landscapes. Touching these mysterious monuments enables you to morph into the shape of a fantastic creature from another plane. The Maorin is a 400-pound, six-limbed cat with razor-sharp claws; its specialties are speed, jumping, and cat's-eye vision. Quite different is Caun, a two-foot-tall elflike humanoid able to make light, grab items from a great distance, and form protective shields and cloaks. The Opsis are one-eyed floating orbs capable of throwing missiles, fireballs, and blasts of cold air; they can also see beyond normal range, increasing the effectiveness of the game's built-in automapping feature. Kahpa are large green froglike beings who are tireless swimmers and tenacious fighters; they're able to attack with sonic waves and electric shocks. The Ssair, legless flying red dragons, breathe fire and inflict great damage with their pointed tails. And Grost, a powerful stone giant, can punch through walls, paralyze with a touch, and cause earthquakes by stomping its feet. Very durable, it can withstand most attacks and survive extremely hot temperatures.
Each morph drains various amounts of your energy. The shape-shifting graphics are mesmerizing, and morphing brings several fascinating new turns to the often stagnant fantasy genre. Gone are the complex logistics usually involved with a large group of adventures; your self-contained multiple identities represent the ultimate in role-playing economy. Instant personality changes give you combat readiness, terrain adaptability. and stopgap health protection. For example, if you're taking a pounding in one form, change to a more durable one. When the attacks have waned, change to a healing personality, such as Kirt or Caun.
One of the only drawbacks to the game's one-man army is lack of efficient inventory management. Although you can view each character's supplies, the only way to trade items is to morph, discard, remorph, and pick up. More than just awkward and time-consuming, this wastes valuable power points.
Most of the game's 24 levels consist of convoluted maze running--solving puzzles, maneuvering treacherous passages, finding special objects, and fending off Malkor's evil horde. But whatever thhe design lacks in originality is more than made up for up its variety of settings and sensational visual effects. Along the way you'll also find weapons, armor, potions, and magic to aid your cause. The trick is not only knowing when and where to use special items, but which morph form is best suited to each job and situation.
The icon-driven player interface is a model of sparse, efficient design. Onscreen features, readily available with a mouse click, include character inventories, automapping, hands, compass, power and life bars, morph shapes, and special abilities.
Of particular interest is the Altitude Gem beside the main view window. Move this to help climb over or crawl under objects; while you're swimming, it allows you to dive or surface.
As many as four games can be saved in progress, displayed with a snapshot of your last location and descriptive text. Five difficulty levels assure challenging play for both beginners and pros. The rather slim user manual outlines the basics, but little more. Origin offers a separate clue book ($14,95), which is mandatory for four full enjoyment of the game.
The only recurring problem in an otherwise flawless design is with the game's multipurpose interactive cursor. Depending on your current mode or which mouse button is pressed, the cursor is used for walking, running, swimming, targeting weapons, spell casting, hand-to-hand combat, opening or closing doors, picking up or dropping items, and jumping. Although it's admirable that the designers could do so much with so little, it's easy (and often costly) to invoke the incorrect response during the heat of battle. Considering the speed at which this game moves, intelligent and intuitive controls are a must. Keyboard controls are provided, but they are not preferred.
Fortunately, this is one of the first titles to directly support Logitech's amazing CyberMan interface device ($129, 510-795-8500). A futuristic-looking meld of mouse and joystick, the CyberMan provides true 3-D multidirectional movement. Perfect for first-person maze exploration, CyberMan's control is so intuitive and responsive, it provides an almost virtual-reality experience. Shadowcaster also takes advantage of CyberMan's unique vertical mechanisms; you can push down or pull up on the controller head to dive or ascend while swimming and flying. The game also supports CyberMan's tactile feedback function, via built-in motor, which delivers realtime physical response to onscreen stimuli: bumping into walls, fierce creature attacks, and even impaired footing while walking through much. Overall, Logitech's CyberMan makes an excellent game even more dynamic.
In the vanguard of next-generation softwarre, Shadowcaster is a near-perfect blend of traditional adventure and role-playing devices, with intense arcade action and first-person graphic flair.