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In the realm of video games, guns and swords go together like Yin and Yang. The complementary inverses of each other, it’s hard for developers to choose one when they could have both. Imagine Devil May Cry or Bloodborne without guns, and if X from Mega Man was cooler than that time he used the Z-Saber to compliment his X-Buster then it’s not in a game I have in my library.
And waiting patiently in the shadows like a good kagemusha, Flying Wild Hog drops in when everyone least expects it, wielding a game that effortlessly combines the satisfaction of using fire-forged steel to bisect enemies with the power to erase everything at the pull of a trigger. The fact that Id Software may have been shown up slightly is also amusing.
For someone new to the series, the first impression Shadow Warrior 3 made on me came from its presentation. With polished menus, crisp graphics, amazing audio effects, and a laid back, inviting soundtrack, the overall production value is top drawer. Bayonetta or Persona 5 might use their sensory flair to mask the lower-than-average budgets; here it feels like all aspects of the game have to elevate themselves just to match the quality of everything else. The six-year gap between releases ensured that Shadow Warrior 3 was the best it could possibly be. If you weren’t a fan beforehand, it’s certainly easy to leave one.
The en media res story immediately thrusts players into the action and is accessible, regardless of experience. Reformed assassin Lo Wang has inadvertently unleashed the world-devouring dragon of prophecy from its ancient slumber, ushering in the apocalypse. As dire as this news sounds, the fact that it’s being related to a mask by a man prancing around in his tighty-whities sets the tone right away. There are only five characters in total, keeping the narrative focused: by the end, friends will become enemies, and enemies will become friends… who end up being enemies before becoming friends again. The last thing Shadow Warrior 3 wants the player to do is take anything too seriously. There are more than enough fart jokes to go around, but even moments of low comedy serve to reinforce the spirit of light-hearted fun. The story understands its purpose and knows when to get out of the game’s way for its own sake.
Shadow Warrior 3 could be best summed up as: “DOOM Jr. with minor platforming elements”. This might sound derogatory at first, but not only does it speak volumes about the level of dedication that went into the game’s creation, it’s somewhat telling of the diverging philosophies of Flying Wild Hog and Id Software. From where I’m standing, Shadow Warrior 3 is closer in spirit to DOOM (2016) than DOOM Eternal and is more indicative of the sequel I wanted but didn’t get in 2020.
The moment players take control of Lo Wang, comparisons to the Doom Slayer become unavoidable. From his fluid movement, diverse weapon loadout, and proclivity for glory kills, Wang would easily gain admittance to the ranks of the Night Sentinels. He’s not as customizable and doesn’t have as many options concerning his arsenal, but there are still plenty of choices to keep the wise-cracking ninja in peak condition.
Alongside a dodge-like dash and slide, Wang has two other important traversal tools at his disposal. A grappling hook can be used to close the distance between foes and swing throughout the environment to mix up an approach. Wall running also helps considerably, adding brief moments of verticality without taking focus off the combat. A combination of unpredictability and confidence is needed to keep enemies off of Wang’s back and in front of his weapons.
There are two primary ways to kill demons (melee and ranged attacks), and together with the deadly ‘Finishers’ they form a sort of weapon-triangle that dictates the flow of battle, defining the gameplay. It’s the proper adherence to this simple formula that elevates Shadow Warrior 3 above DOOM Eternal and its decahedron-like approach to fighting.
Dragontail is Wang’s close-range weapon of choice, and its role on the team is that of a synergist rather than the star of the show. The katana’s main focus is to generate resources for Wang – each melee kill spawns ranged ammunition, a necessary tactic for ensuring your favorite weapons are topped off in the heat of battle. Keeping Dragontail bloody and upgraded is the catalyst for maintaining the carnage.
Wang’s main arsenal consists of six ranged weapons: a pistol, shotgun, machine gun, grenade launcher, railgun, and one reminiscent of the Razorjack from Unreal. While not the most original of catalogs on paper, each firearm has its uses as players constantly juggle between them all. Favorites will certainly crop up, but due to the intimacy of the loadout it can be wise to show preferential treatment to the guns you don’t want to use. A weapon wheel rotates its smoothest when all of the sections are full of air. Ranged kills always give Wang health drops, so the best recommendation in a pinch is to spray, pray, and hope.
Yellow orbs are the third piece of the trifecta, allowing access to Finishers – instant death techniques reminiscent of DOOM or God of War. The twist is that eliminating enemies in this fashion creates ‘Yokai Weapons’. Each demon has its own unique boon, whether it be a dimensional vortex, miniguns, or rib-cracking mauls. It’s tempting to save your Finishers for larger enemies like the chainsaw in DOOM, but being able to kill a standard grunt, gain a 100% health bonus, and five seconds of invulnerability can be more valuable in the long run.
The final tools in Wang’s box are humble, but important. A chi blast disorients foes, introducing them to conspicuously placed environmental hazards. Proper manipulation of an arena expedites encounters, assuming it doesn’t backfire on the player. Investing in explosive barrels to increase their efficacy sounds strange, but with the right skills unlocked you’re offered additional degrees of freedom in battle.
Upgrades comes in two flavors, applying to either Wang or his equipment. The scarcity of these jewels will force all but the most diligent to pick and choose their rewards carefully. Some are no-brainers (full-auto and no reloading on a shotgun, anyone?), but everything is left to the player’s discretion. Personally, I wish I had developed my machine gun earlier than I did and showed my grenade launcher some love – but that’s what subsequent playthroughs are for.
The gameplay outside of combat consists of watching cut scenes, hunting for augments, and traveling to the next area for more mayhem. Not only are the locales gorgeous to behold, what I love most about them is their color-coded nature. Anyone who was a fan of DOOM and its ‘go towards the green lights!’ level design will be overjoyed to hear that Shadow Warrior 3 adopts a similar formula. Gold vines glow after every encounter showing where to go next, and once Wang passes through they turn purple, sealing the previous area off. This eliminates backtracking completely and always keeps the player moving forward and progressing. There wasn’t a single instance throughout the entire adventure where I was lost or couldn’t figure out the way to proceed. Each time you sit down to play, you’ll always know what to do, how to get there, and have a good time doing it.
Shadow Warrior 3’s ‘flaws’ exist partially outside of the game itself, essentially boiling down to the overall length of the adventure (8-10 hours) and the price tag it carries. This is where two opposing viewpoints will conflict with each other and the dreaded ‘irreconcilable differences’ come into effect. If you’re like me and not only enjoy shorter titles, but replay them multiple times, $49.99 isn’t a big pill to swallow. But if you’re more frugal about spending money on games or only play through them once, I could understand the hesitation – especially in the age of flash sales and subscription-based services. At the very least, we can concede that a financial concession was made to compensate for the game’s duration and that, ultimately, none of this stops Shadow Warrior 3 from being both a literal and figurative blast.
At a time when Sony and FromSoftware drop GOTY candidates within a week of each other, the last thing I thought I would be doing is extolling the virtues of a game I’d never even heard of. If Horizon: Forbidden West and Elden Ring are the meat and potatoes destined to keep millions fed for months on end, Shadow Warrior 3 is the appetizer that reminds them why they come to the restaurant in the first place. With lightning-fast gameplay, relentless pacing, and an upbeat, humorous storyline, this is the sequel to DOOM I’ve been waiting for. Where DOOM Eternal fell victim to over-analyzing the core loop, complicating it with excessive cooldown timers and rigid structure, Shadow Warrior 3 skims just enough off the top to retain what made the formula so addictive and fun in the first place. If money isn’t an issue and you don’t mind the short length, this is a class act from top to bottom.
There won’t be a shortage of games to celebrate in 2022, but if you get the chance to rock out with your Wang hung Lo then by all means, take it! And if local law enforcement shows up to ruin the festivities, remember the Taoist parable of the Bare-Assed Bandit: it’s a far more unpleasant task to detain a naked person than one who carries shame and regret. Such are the burdens of a public servant, who has taxes to pay his salary.
This review is based on a digital copy of Shadow Warrior 3 for the PC, provided by the publisher.