The Swedish-American developer team DeadMage has followed up their mythology-based melee-explorer fantasy-adventure debut Garshasp: The Monster Slayer with a fast-paced platformer called Shadow Blade, which is more concise in every way. The paper-thin plot centers on Kuro, a lone ninja who must slash his way through a cyberpunk cityscape to warn his master of a rival clan’s uprising. The faceless Kuro is defined only by this mission, and his master is just as anonymous as the rival clan, which puts no boss fights in our hero’s path. In spite of these paper doll characters and the flimsy narrative, which is only a preamble to a more exciting-sounding clan war story, Shadow Blade is absolutely riveting for each of its 50 or so stages. Its gorgeous imagery and pulse-pounding action more than make up for the absence of climactic battles, or even much of a script.
This sidescrolling action game offsets its simple story with a fistful of excellent features. The first one you’ll meet is the game’s real main character: its lavishly detailed metropolis. Kuro descends into a multi-tiered labyrinth of rooftops and alleys lit with paper lanterns, Bladerunner-style LED billboards, and neon lights swarming with gnats. You can play it straight and sprint from the beginning of each stage straight through to the end, closing the distance between you and your master as fast as possible to focus on beating your best time. Or, you can explore alternate routes through the city’s underbelly, smashing through ice walls and braving beds of oversized blades, deadly electrical fields and circular saws to gather up gold coins and maximize your final score. Luckily there are save points scattered around each stage, because some obstacles require razor reflexes and relentless retries to figure out how dominate them.
Shadow Blade’s many challenges are so diabolical, in fact, that the game would be prohibitively frustrating if it weren’t for its beautifully responsive controls. By tapping left and right arrow buttons on the left side of the screen and the jump and attack buttons on the right, Kuro slices through leather-clad thugs at a run, dashes through the air and divebombs them with his sword, or lashes out with a grappling hook and pulls them onto his blade if he catches them unawares. Bad guys come at you with swords, guns and flame throwers, and explode into perversely beautiful geysers of blood when you chop at them. They’re easy to kill but can be hard to spot, so keep your eyes peeled. It’s a good thing the techno soundtrack stays in a somewhat downbeat mood, or the tension might be untenable.
Another way in which Shadow Blade supplements its simplicity is by having so many different stages to play through. The game is divided into 5 chapters, each of which has between 10 and 12 internal stages that have slight visual variations and different times of day. After you have beaten the game by bringing your master the bad news (one hopes the currently locked “Coming Soon!” chapter icon portends a progression in the story), you can play through again to beat your previous performance on each stage. You can see how well you did in each segment by looking at its thumbnail icon, which displays between 0 and 3 gold throwing stars to indicate your level of success. At the conclusion of each stage, a typically beautiful score card screen shows your time and what percentage of the available gold you picked up, through gently wafting steam from a hot bowl of ramen.
Criticizing Shadow Blade is less a matter of isolating its flaws, than imagining what would make a very good game into a perfect game. At times, the tricky acrobatics required by different situations can feel stiflingly frustrating. In particular, your wall-climbing ability is dependent on rapid tapping of the directional and jump buttons, and it can be hard to direct your ascent away from flanking walls of spikes. This can trigger a device-throwing tantrum – unless you stick out that extra turn that brings on the “eureka!” moment in which you suddenly understand the technique’s subtlety. Since you are limited to an unchanging set of moves and you never level up, the fun could be enhanced by bringing some power-ups or items into play. There is also room for improvement in the plot department – boss fights might alleviate the sensation that you’re just playing through an inconsequential prologue to something more – but of course, storytelling complexity isn’t really a mandate of this kind of game.
All that said, it’s possible that Shadow Blade is fine just the way it is, with its vacant premise and frustrations that will be familiar to any old platformer veteran. After all, sidescrollers are two-dimensional by nature. No game can be all things to all players, and this one offers most of what you could want from a nail-biting rampage of this type. And in any case, it’s still possible that the promise of future unlockable chapters will allow Shadow Blade to level up to something even better.
Shadow Blade’s breathless action outweighs its surprisingly slender and anti-climactic story, making it a perfectly good platformer that encourages multiple playthroughs.