Shadow of the Beast is widely recognised as being the first of the Amiga’s moody, atmospheric showcase pieces. Stylistically mesmerising, it broke new ground both aesthetically and acoustically without necessarily menacing Mario’s tranquil sleep pattern with threats to his gameplay championship belt.
Nonetheless, it wasn’t the only system-selling contender to grace the 16-bit home micros. Following in its wake, albeit two years later in 1991, Jason Kingsley – of Captain Planet fame – single-handedly delivered the sword and sorcery, fantasy slash ’em up adventure, Blade Warrior.
Visually striking owing to its adoption of the shadow puppet art style popularised in Southeast Asia -Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia especially – the nocturnal setting featuring a protagonist and opposition force comprised entirely of silhouettes set against a crepuscular, desolate forest-swamp backdrop and pale pastel-hued contrasting sky certainly makes you rub your eyes with incredulity.
Fear not, your monitor isn’t faulty, it’s an art style preference rather than a malfunction, although I suppose how effectively this ‘acquired taste’ works is open to debate. Quite a novelty back then, today it’s not uncommon to see games constructed entirely from featureless, black outlined shapes superimposed over disconsonant, lucent backgrounds. Take Limbo, Crow in Hell, or Lunnye Devitsy for some fairly recent examples. Other games – such as Climax Studios’ Sudeki – have embraced the shadow play chic by way of an introduction to their core 3D first person engine through which the bulk of the narrative plays out.
In Blade Warrior, slim rations of critical colour have been permitted to penetrate the macabre canvas to allow you to identify and gather collectable artefacts such as lightning bolts, spiders’ webs, live frogs and rats, skulls and potions, and to establish when you’ve hacked a chunk of flesh from an enemy’s defiled carcass, though – menus aside – you can expect to be squinting like a pit pony for the foreseeable future. SpecSavers must have been rubbing their grubby mitts together!
Originally scheduled for release in October 1989, Blade Warrior languished in developer stagnation for a year under the pre-release title, ‘Palladin: Lord of the Dancing Blades’ before the baton was passed to Jason and some progress was finally made. It eventually broke free from the crypt in September 1991, published by Imageworks, later to be re-released as a budget title by the people who brought us Edd the Duck and Santa’s Xmas Caper, Zeppelin.
Ironically for such a doom and gloom laden harvest of squalid melancholy we join the story situated in the ‘land of Joy’ where life has taken a radical turn towards the dark side courtesy of the unwholesome influence of the maleficent demon, Murk… he was never the same after he lost touch with Mindy. She was his rock.
With the arrival of his royal loathsomeness came plague, death, thunderbolts and lightning. It was very, very frightening by all accounts. An almighty battle raged between Ginti – “a wise and wizened magician” – and the sun-stealing wretch causing his ancient mystical tablet of stone to be shattered into an unknown number of fragments… which in effect turns out to be seven – it says so only two pages later in the superbly comprehensive manual illustrated by talented fantasy artist, Simon Bisley.
And so begineth ye olde arduous quest to scavenge all the pieces of the iPad, calling upon the expertise of a potent mage to superglue them back together again, to be used to enchant your sword. For legend has it that only an enchanted sword has the gumption to vanquish the domination of Murk, thereby emancipating the now miserable populace of Joy who have been “condemned to an eternity of torment and forced to live off each other”. They embraced cannibalism as a last resort means of survival? That’s grim. Murk can be confronted and seemingly slain – his arrival heralded by a crimson backlash of the environmental climate – without a necromancy-enhanced doohickey, yet will always return to fight another day unless you can fulfil your prime objective.
Somehow the seven scattered shards of tablet – everyone’s favourite magic number seemingly – have come to be in the possession of seven sorcerers who in light of recent wrathful events have retreated to the sanctuary of their towers. Coaxing the respective pieces of the jigsaw from their gnarled grasp demands bartering deftness of the highest order – they aren’t just going to hand them over to any Tom, Dick or Blade Warrior who asks.
Each is looking to trade wisdom, potions or ingredients – acquired by scouring the landscape during the hack ’em up stages – that will aid your progression towards the final encounter with the dark destroyer. Ingredients are stored and amalgamated in a cauldron selected from the core elements of wind, fire, air, earth and water within the relatively vibrant inventory screen symbolising your home tower. These spell concoctions are then activated via the function keys, giving you a range of ten to choose from, and sixteen of the same variety in each slot.
Combat, the element of the game which occupies the bulk of your time is simplistic in a similar vein to Prince of Persia; it’s rather stilted and your repertoire of manoeuvres is limited to an overhead slash, low slash, high thrust, and low thrust.
It’s not absolutely necessary to kill everything that goes bump in the night, yet dispatching Murk’s monstrous minions does serve duel functions: useful ingredients are often dropped when they croak, and strength – known as ‘life essence’ – can be conferred from the deceased through the mastery of your sword-craft. Your current calibre is represented by stars displayed in your inventory, accessed with the ‘i’ key. Similarly, your accumulated defensive capacity is indicated by glistening bands of colour.
Continuing this innovative trend, no indicators or traditional GUI items can be seen on screen during battle mode so as not to break the immersive atmosphere. Instead your vacillating energy level is delineated by the waxing and waning of the moon’s phases. Hopefully we won’t have to find out what becomes of us in the event of a lunar eclipse!
Music seems to have been an afterthought… that was then re-thought and dropped entirely, leaving only the clinking and swishing of your broadsword and ambient weather effects to accompany the brutal melee. As you lay waste to Harry Hauser’s stop-motion animation skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts, giant bipedal hares armed with clubs, trolls, werewolves, vampires, banshees, wraiths and goblins, all of which metamorphose into a frantic cloud of bats upon delivery of the final killer blow, the medieval armament orchestra enumerates the death toll.
I’m not entirely sure if this lack of aural stimulation detracts from the eerie, brooding aura, dovetailing neatly with the monotony of the predominantly monochrome, bleak visuals, or if – on the contrary – it actually enhances it.
Taking a backseat acoustically, the presentation diverts all our focus towards the optical feast on offer (or famine if you’re in a glass half-empty mood); the imposition of looming, multilayered parallax scrolling assuredly offers welcome depth to the otherwise bland scenery, somewhat mediating the lack of detail of the sprites themselves, fleshing out the 2D locale to bring it to life (or death rather).
Areas of the terrain are navigated between by way of passage through ancient stone archways, and a map is always a touch of the ‘m’ key away to inform you of the terror-stricken wizards’ whereabouts. Prior to your arrival, scrolls discovered on the ground provide clues as to the ingredients required by one spell or another so as to eliminate any guesswork from the hermetics. Recipes can also be picked from the bulging brains of the shamans themselves and the components accrued on the spot if they’re in stock.
Journeying back to your tower homestead to deploy your new procurements is facilitated through the loan of the wizards’ dragons, at which point the action switches into shoot ’em up mode and volitant harpies become your most pressing concern rather than shopping and bartering.
Blade Warrior then is an RPG adventure, hack ‘n’ slash beat ’em up, fantasy shmup with ambitious, artsy aspirations, making it one of the Amiga’s lesser known yet most intriguing curios. It never really makes its mind up what it strives to be or achieve, and so doesn’t in effect do justice to any of the three genres it straddles. Hardcore RPG fans will find it lacking in depth, substantial grinding and statistics, whilst anyone craving a more immediately rewarding action game will be disappointed by the clunky, plodding pace and repetitive mechanics.
Released alongside Shadow of the Beast as originally intended it may have been forgiven for its light and frothy approach to gameplay, and even set to run on a loop in computer shop windows. Two years on, however, gamers expected more than impressive tech demos with which to wow their console owning friends, thus the peculiar title was swiftly relegated to the budget bin before fading away into obscurity.