Platforms: PC, Mobile
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Dead Mage
Publisher: Dead Mage
Review copy supplied by the publisher.
Usually when I discover a game is actually a mobile port my immediate reaction is to loudly scream, “NOPE!” at my computer screen, possibly while spraying tea across the room, and then try to wipe all knowledge of said game’s existence from my memory with the use of copious amounts of alcohol. Sometimes, however, a mobile port comes along and somehow manages to surprise me, as was the case with this; Shadow Blade: Reload, which has made the transition from its hand-held origins (where it was simply known as Shadow Blade) to PC with some new features, including a story. After checking the game out I was compelled to abandon my own presumptions and give it a whirl. I’m glad I did.
Speaking of the story it is instantly forgettable dross that follows a ninja attempting to locate and rescue his captured Sensei before becoming involved in a larger plot involving three different clans, all told via the medium of some rather nicely drawn comic-book style pages and questionable voice-overs that frequently sound cheesy and phoned-in, not helped by shoddy dialogue. The game seems to hang around in the no-mans land between being a deliberate spoof of classic martial arts flicks where the dialogue and acting were often terrible, and actually being deadly serious about the whole thing. I still can’t decide which it is, but I sincerely hope it’s the former. Still, the plot manages to keep prodding you along through the numerous stages and does have a hokey charm to it, depending on your tolerance level for cheesiness. It’s not like you really need the encouragement to keep playing, though, since the gameplay is more than capable of holding your attention on its own.
In his 2D side-scrolling action-platformer your goal is a simple one; make it to the end as quickly and efficiently as you can. Your tiny ninja of pent up fury is capable of running, jumping, double jumping, wall-running, wall-sliding, wall-jumping and dashing both on land and in the air. All of these moves are ably delivered through a slick and responsive control system that ensures your platforming failures always feel like your fault rather than the game’s – you weren’t quick enough, you weren’t smart enough, you just weren’t good enough. It’s quite honestly flawless in its response times and precision; tap the button and it happens on-screen with nary a delay to worry about. Quite frankly numerous other developer’s could do with playing Shadow Blade and taking notes on how to do a slick control system. As a ninja you’ve naturally got some offensive tools for dealing with the myriad of foes who’ll get in your way, too, including a throwable shuriken which regenerates over time, a standard sword attack and even a brutal chain-spear combination that can yank foes toward you. By sneaking up on an enemy you can deliver a swift takedown, plus you can also perform a slightly over-powered air attack that you can bounce out of and repeat on the next nearby enemy. Finally your handy air/land dash can not only be used for clearing big distances but can also be combined with the attack button.
It all gets tied together by flowing level design which quickly draws you into smooth rhythm. Unsurprisingly timing and quick reactions are key to making it through alive. Meanwhile a grading system awards you a rank based on your speed, amount of deaths and how many of the collectibles you managed to grab along the way. Although on the surface Shadow Blade is a action-platformer, the truth is that it’s actually a speedrunner in disguise, naturally pushing you toward tackling each stage as quickly and effectively as you can. Crumbling platforms, deadly lasers, kamikaze bots, snipers, rocket launchers and the fact that you can only take a single hit before dying all serve to keep you constantly moving and assessing the level, and there’s an incredibly satisfying rhythm to the action and stage design which drags you in and refuses to let go. You can slow down and approach each situation with a bit more caution, perhaps using stealth attacks to take down enemies or even opting to bypass them altogether, but at that point the game becomes far less fun to play. Shadow Blade is at its best when you’re charging through the levels faster than your brain can keep up, reacting to each and ever new threat purely on instinct. It’s built around that idea, and hopes that you’ll be willing to come back to each stage and try to get a bit quicker, a bit better. To this end there’s leaderboards for every stage so that you can constantly push to become the quickest ninja to ever ninja.
The game has impeccable pacing, too, introducing new foes at a steady rate while ramping up the platforming challenge as well, constantly forcing you to up your game or become nothing more than a bloody mass upon the ground. New baddies include flame-thrower wielding dudes, vicious snipers and much more to keep you on your toes. It all begins simply enough, but before you know it you’ll be tackling a series of snipers while leaping up a wall, dodging circular saw blades and bullets at the time. The flow of the levels really is downright impressive, and even more so when you consider that multiple paths and hidden collectibles are included, too, without ever damaging the experience. This is one of the smoothest, slickest feelings games I have played in a very long time, and boy is it a whole lot of fun when you get into the magical zone. Even when you aren’t, though, Shadow Blade is addictive and enjoyable, the bite-sized levels lasting no more than a few minutes apiece and thereby ensuring the, “just one more go” mentality.
In total there’s 50+ stages to work your way through, plus a challenge mode as well that tosses you into some devilishly tricky situations. If that wasn’t enough there’s also two higher unlockable difficulty settings that don’t just go for the cheap option of lobbing more enemies in your direction but also radically alter the level’s themselves, adding in more traps and spiky things in an effort to make your life miserable.
A lovely bonus is the included level editor so that players can toss together new challenges and share them via the Steam Workshop, potentially giving the game a much longer lifespan depending on how much the community embraces it. At the time of writing the Workshop is looking disappointingly sparse with just 24 levels up for download. Hopefully business will pick up, though, as it’s easy to understand, letting you leap into creating stages with minimal fuss, even if the UI is pretty basic looking.
Basic looking also perhaps describes the game best. Though it is by far not a bad-looking title Shadow Blade is still fairly forgettable in its visuals, its varied locations failing to make much of an impression past the initially nice backgrounds. However, the quality of the animations is more impressive, making your little ninja come to life as he leaps and slashes his way across the screen like some sort of hyperactive serial killer with a penchant for parkour. It’s a small shame that the characters often seem to small on the screen, making hard to really appreciate the kill animations. The audio work manages to impress, too. The voice acting might be poor, but the music is brilliant, mixing some traditional, calming sounds with more upbeat techno stuff to create a really engaging soundtrack that is somehow both calming and frantic. It does a good job of complementing the various stages and of helping get you into the flow of the levels. I’m also a fan of how collecting the little glowing orbs adds a series of gentle musical notes to the tune as well. It’s a nice touch.
Special mention goes to the developers themselves who are showing an impressive turnaround rate for patches. Shortly after myself and one other person mentioned a problem where kamikaze drones were frozen a patch was up that fixed the problem. The developers have reacted like this to every problem thus far, and as I put the finishing touches to this review I’ve yet to encounter any more glitches or bugs.
A short review, yes, but Shadow Blade: Reload is a simple game that doesn’t take much wordage to explain, and yet really no amount of writing could capture how smoothly it plays or how enjoyable it is. Repetition can be something of a small problem, after all there’s only so many times you can bounce up a wall or slice up a sniper without it starting to feel very familiar, but the quick nature of the levels makes it easy to just fire the game up, blast through a few levels and then wander off to do something else for a few hours. It’s fluid, fun and addictive, making it one of the most enjoyable and satisfying action-platformers I’ve played in a while, tapping into my innate desire to be faster and better than everyone else, even if I’m actually nowhere near competitive.
Recommended games may either be truly amazing all round, or possess some quality or qualities which make them worth playing, such as a stellar story, amazing graphics, superb gameplay etc. This also means it’s possible for a game that plays badly, looks terrible and sounds horrible to achieve a recommendation if it has, for instance, an amazing story.