Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms Review—Greatness Dragged Down By Bad Combat

When it comes to RPGs, whether they be real time or turn based, the combat system is the one thing that can make or break it. Brag about your stunning narrative and complex character interaction all you want, no matter how amazing every other facet of the game is, the end product’s longevity is determined by the quality of its combat. After all, when you aren’t talking to an NPC or solving a puzzle, you’re spending that remaining 50% of the game hacking away at monsters. If that half of the game is tedious, then the entire game suffers for it.

Sad to say, Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms is one of those games. As good as most of its parts may be, the quest as a whole is turned sour by the inclusion of a combat system that can best be described as the digital equivalent of watching paint dry; a one-sided and fairly hands-off affair that is both an exercise in patience and a giant brick wall separating players from the deliciously well-written center.

Before I rail on the game’s anemic combat mechanics, I should mention what Shadows excels at. Chief among its positive aspects would be the visuals, which are absolutely peerless in both detail and animation. The graphics are so good that it easily eclipses what even the higher budget studios, like Blizzard, have been able to do. The detail in the environments, as well as the animation of the enemies you are forced to smash into goo, are all rendered in the absolute highest DirectX 11-powered quality that modern technology can produce. So high in fact, that many users on the game’s official Steam forums complain their PCs can’t handle it. Thankfully, my i7 CPU and 16GB of RAM didn’t have a problem, though I can most certainly see why some do.

Accompanying the spectacular visuals would be a very solid and enchanting soundtrack. Although it does borrow a lot of songs from other European games (Risen, Gothic, Spellforce), I was informed that the developers bought the rights to these tunes legally. Whatever the case, it seems to have worked well, since the music is perfect. Every area has a fitting tune that comes with its meticulously detailed backgrounds, making Shadows look highly polished and professional—at least as far as the aesthetic side of the game goes.

Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms tells the tale of a demon called The Devourer who, after being summoned to fight a secret cabal that rules the world, must choose a soul to be his avatar in the physical realm. Dwelling both in the shadow realm as a demon and the physical world as a resurrected hero, The Devourer finds themselves caught up in a confusing war between various extremist factions that are all vying to fill the political vacuum that has been at the root of the world’s problems since the end of the previous game.

The story unfolds at a nice clip, with plenty of treachery and villainous exposition delivered by the wizard who summoned you. Voiced by classic Dr. Who actor Tom Baker, this anti-hero of a mentor pushes you through the plotline with clever manipulation and trickery. What makes this all the more interesting is that several of the game’s quests have multiple outcomes, and these outcomes really do change your world to some extent. Rat a merchant out to the guards and wonder if he’ll come back to sabotage you, or go along with his plan to hide his wife’s body and feel guilt as her spirit curses you from beyond the grave. Moral checks like this are common throughout the game and give you quite a bit of replayability.

While this all sounds great, the problem with Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms is that the combat is so embarrassingly slow and uninteresting that it drags down the rest of the game. No matter how fun those dialog-based quests are in town, you know that eventually you’ll have to leave the gates and trudge through the most boring and uninspired real time combat seen since 2005’s Dungeon Lords.

The biggest issue I had with the game’s combat is how slow it is. No matter what character you play, no matter what weapon you use, and no matter what skill you initiate, your attacks will be so slow that fighting even normal enemies often takes a half minute of holding down the attack button. When you have a system where missing is so common and combine it with extremely slow attack and projectile speeds, then pair it with a rule that states any subsequent movement of your character will cancel their already ridiculously sedate swings, you end up with a recipe for frustration if ever there was one.

This isn’t to say the game is hard, since it isn’t … but when you spend two hours just walking from the end of the first act of the game to the start of the second, you begin to question your devotion to even the most exciting of plotlines. It got so bad that every time a huge new mob popped up, especially in the even slower and more densely populated shadow realm, I just sighed and shook my head. That’s a very bad sign.

The combat isn’t very fun, since it also lacks the feeling of heft you’d expect from such a detailed game. When enemies get stunned, they immediately crawl back upright again. When you use a special skill and get a critical, nothing different happens in the animation or attack delay of the enemy. Everything feels so anemic and unimaginative. Every attack feels and looks so similar that combat just becomes a case of how much HP you have left to spend and how fast the enemies can whittle it down. There’s no strategy beyond picking the biggest area of effect skill and spamming it endlessly while kiting enemies around the map during your cooldown period.

Which leads me to another problem, the lack of diversity in your attack skills. Just about every skill for every character follows the same exact method of progression and effect. You have one circular AoE skill, one “straight line” AoE skill, and a “Cone” AoE skill … and they all do roughly the same amount of damage with the same cooldown and cost. I even kept alternate saves at various points just so I could spend 5 points in every skill in order to test my theory that they were all the same. Sadly, I was correct.

Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms is a fabulously written game with peerless visuals, a great soundtrack and some of the best voice acting I’ve heard in years … but that combat really killed it for me. For many, it seems, that is not an issue … and I envy their patience and ability to overlook the slapdash nature of the game’s battle system. For me, however, it made the game feel like a painful chore that I was being forced to carry out at gunpoint. Yes, the towns where I could speak to NPCs and solve quests were all captivating and had me begging for more, but whenever I was shoved out into a combat zone, that feeling of satisfaction dissipated quickly.

Those who are used to the slick action RPG combat of Diablo, Titan Quest or Sacred will probably come away with the same assessment I did, while those who are more interested in Planescape-style questing will find the patience necessary to trudge through the combat to get to the game’s tasty dialog-saturated center. Since I am firmly in the former of those two categories, I walked away feeling very disappointed with Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, and wish more than anything that I could be a member of the latter group.

Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms  was reviewed using a code provided by BitComposer Games. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.

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Carl is both a JRPG fan and a CRPG'er who especially loves European PC games. Even with more than three decades of gaming under his belt, he feels the best of the hobby is yet to come.

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