Deft swordplay more fun than even the excellent guns.
Secrets and hidden homages all over the place.
Story bogs down in the middle.
Submachine gun might as well shoot spitballs.
Shadow Warrior is a surprisingly successful reboot of a problematic ’90s shooter that captures the essence of an over-the-top ’80s action movie.
Let me tell you the moment I was sold on Shadow Warrior.
I was sitting in an air-conditioned trailer in Los Angeles, during E3, and the opening cutscene was playing. Lo Wang, dressed in a well-pressed suit, cranked up the radio and blasted Stan Bush’s “You’ve Got the Touch.” Then he…started singing along. Horribly. Spouting off short lines like, “Oh yeah,” whenever there was a break in the lyrics.
And then he lit up a cigarette, settled back in the driver’s seat, and kept singing.
This is the type of dumb I like.
Shadow Warrior is one of those ’90s video game relics—so emblematic of a certain time and attitude it’s hard to imagine the game getting remade, especially in the current, more socially-conscious environment. The original Shadow Warrior was, to put it bluntly, more than a bit racist, so when Flying Wild Hog announced it was rebooting the franchise the primary question was, “Why?”
The narrative around Flying Wild Hog’s remake of the cult classic shooter Shadow Warrior has been, “Oh, it’s exactly like the original game, but with all that pesky casual racism and stuff taken out!”
After playing the game I can say that’s…not quite true. In fact, I struggle to think how you could make a politically correct Shadow Warrior. It’s a game that takes a pastiche of Chinese and Japanese stereotypes as its launching point.
Rather than strip the problematic material out, this game does the opposite: leans into it, acknowledging where Shadow Warrior was—and is—problematic.
Early on in the game your character, Lo Wang (named solely to make dick jokes), drives out to a remote estate. He’s supposed to purchase a sword off the estate’s owner, but the owner isn’t selling. Wang murders a bunch of people while spouting off sarcastic commentary, demons are summoned, and then the game begins for real.
But the key point here is that when Wang shows up to the estate and sees the rolling hills, placid lakes, and cherry blossoms, he comments on it. “I was hoping for a more cliched setting. I guess koi ponds and cherry blossoms will have to do.”
There’s a scene in the film Looper where the two main characters sit in a diner and one brings up a question about the logic of time travel. Bruce Willis’s character responds, “I don’t want to talk about time travel, because if we start talking about it we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.” Imagine that line delivered from Rian Johnson, the writer, directly to the audience, acknowledging that some parts of the story might not work but he’s aware of it.
Shadow Warrior is the game equivalent, acknowledging what’s problematic briefly before moving on. As a result it becomes more like a dumb action movie than anything else, like a Big Trouble in Little China. Or, if you prefer a video game equivalent, like a more self-aware version of Prey.
Also, there are no Fu Manchu moustaches in the game, as far as I know. What a relief. Wang is just a normal guy in a business suit. A guy who really likes comic books. And Stan Bush.
Wang handles his sword
Shadow Warrior’s tone aside, it’s hard to quibble with the quality of the action. The game plays excellently. So damn well. So. Damn. Smooth.
Strip away the setting, the story, and this is one of the most mechanically-sound shooters in a long time. What’s more, it achieves that distinction by minimizing the amount of time you spend shooting.
Shadow Warrior starts Lo Wang off with (what else?) a katana. Other shooters feature swords, of course; what sets Shadow Warrior apart is that it’s sword combat takes precedence for me over any of the gunplay.
And that’s not a slight on the guns. Flying Wild Hog outfits you with an entire armory by the end of the game, and with the exception of the underpowered SMG the developers did a good job making guns feel right. Upgrading the pistol so Wang could fan the hammer, cowboy style, is just one of the many “I feel badass” moments I had with Shadow Warrior’s guns.
The katana, though—it’s so satisfying. Sprinting into the fray, flailing left and right, spinning in a full circle with the blade outstretched, hacking those dastardly demons limb from limb—I played probably 90 percent of the game with katana in hand, and sighed whenever a hulking boss or flying foe forced me to swap to my guns. Even when I was mobbed by foes and a single rocket could take them all out, I stuck by my sword; it’s the best unique weapon I’ve seen in any recent shooter.
To make swordplay more feasible when you’re facing hired guns, Wang can be upgraded with a variety of supporting powers. The first you unlock allows you to heal a certain amount of health at any time—a compromise between the health packs in the original Shadow Warrior and the recharging shields found in most modern games. The other three powers are primarily about crowd control—tossing foes into the air or shielding Wang from damage.
Pulling off these special moves requires you to double-tap one of the movement keys and then press either the right or left mouse button (depending on if it’s a sword move or a magic spell). While initially cumbersome, this allows you to have access to the full suite of powers at all times, which keeps combat fluid and fast-paced. There’s no need to pause or dig through a menu when you need to heal in the midst of a battle, no awkward spell selection wheel when you want to cast a shockwave from your hands.
There are also gamepad-specific controls, but trust me—you want to play this game with a mouse and keyboard. While not as fast-paced or chaotic as, say, the Rise of the Triad remake, this is still a ’90s shooter at heart. This is still a PC game.
Shadow Warrior is smart-stupid. You might say it has the touch; you might even say it has the power. It’s the type of dumb action fun that Arnold Schwarzenegger would be proud of, and I really enjoyed it despite acknowledging that parts of it are still incredibly problematic.
As far as the game itself, the middle third of the story drags a lot. The game abandons the cliché koi ponds and cherry blossoms setting for an even-more cliché string of industrial warehouses, and it’s all pretty rote. Still, the combat keeps things interesting and some of the later boss fights are visually spectacular. Like, seriously, some of the most awe-inspiring setpieces of the year.
I haven’t even talked about the incredible secret areas (many of which use textures from the original Shadow Warrior) or the surprisingly decent story. It’s just an all-around fun game.