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Platform: PC Publisher: Emurasoft, Inc.
Genre: PC RPG Developer: Denusha Co., Ltd.
Format: CD-ROM Released: December 10, 2002

Review
10/08/02
Brian Cavner
Brian Cavner

Episode One | Episode Two | Episode Three

Episode One

Born October 2001 in Japan, ShadowFlare became an instant craze among young, Japanese gamers. One year later, the game makes a trip to the United States to see how it will fare with American gamers. Despite the difficulties faced when re-releasing a year-old game when others are already taking advantage of more modern technology, ShadowFlare will, in my opinion, be able to hold its own and compete to be one of the better action-RPGs in the current timeframe. ShadowFlare will be released in four different parts, and RPGFan has been able to acquire Episode One in order to predict how it will fare in the current world of games. And it is my opinion that the series has a good chance of standing strong in a difficult field.

Human Frailty and Demonic Conquest

On a seemingly quiet day, from a black crack said to be a door to a different world, a horrific demon appears and nearly destroys all of human civilization. Since that fateful moment, the world has become a battleground between the two opposing factions of human and demon, with humans all the while becoming weaker and more depleted.

Meanwhile, in a small, remote town, mercenaries and their kin work to sharpen their fighting skills in order to, one day, stand up against the demons that threaten to take the earth from the humans. Eventually, word begins to spread about a new kind of demon, more powerful and despicable than the kind that has been ravaging the lands of humans for years; they call the new creature the gargoyle.

You take the role of one of the young mercenaries of the village. Your goal is to embark on several different missions assigned to your by your commander in order to slowly begin to improve your fighting prowess. Once you have done this, you may begin your assault on the gargoyles. But before you can even hope to take on these dreadful creatures, you must work on focusing your currently limited abilities.

Episode One centers around you in your quest to build power and eventually take a stand against the hideous demons that threaten the land of humans. You begin in the small village of mercenaries with your commander, who will be your source of quests. His orders, which range from simple fetch quests to great epics that require you to clear an entire area of an offending monster, will be what guide you to your eventual strengthening.

Now let your journey begin before the entire human race lies in defeat before the mighty gargoyle...

Diablo clone or stand-alone?

Character Advancement

In ShadowFlare, you begin as a simple mercenary, with very few skills outside of basic combat and magical abilities. As time progresses, you will extend your magical energies to include other, more powerful spells in addition to acquiring newer and better attack skills.

At a certain level, your path splits and you may become one of the three other classes available; the melee-competent warrior, the magic-inclined wizard/witch, or the snipping hunter. All three classes have their strengths and weaknesses, and the one you choose to play depends entirely on your playing style.

Unlike typical character advancement found in games like Diablo and its kin, ShadowFlare does not allow you to distribute points to your different attributes upon leveling. Instead, the game automatically calculates your character growth and allocates skills and spells depending on the profession you had gained your level in. This takes a bit from your ability to customize and replay, and, at times, seems to create a completely one-dimensional character, but also creates a different level of strategy as you determine the most beneficial class to play at a specific moment. Obviously, attempting to become a warrior after spending a long time as a wizard will make it very difficult to excel in the new profession. Slowly alternating between all the classes will create a much more well-rounded character, but will keep you from becoming very specialized.

Combat

ShadowFlare plays exactly as most action-RPG, Diablo-esque games do. As you walk over the screen, various enemies will begin to approach you (or perhaps heave stones or magical spells in your direction). You must walk up to them and swing your sword by clicking as rapidly on them as you can. As time passes, you will gain a right-click skill where you can swing your sword several times in a given direction to increase your damage output. Careful placement will also allow you to make a wide sweep with your sword and take down multiple enemies at once. A quick mind and a quick index finger will be required in order to perform well in combat.

However, excelling in both will often not be enough to take down difficult enemies. Indeed, the difficult found in ShadowFlare is quite high, and it is not unusual to find yourself outclassed by several stronger demons. To help alleviate the difficulty, you are given a faithful companion who will stay beside you at all times. Your companion, a dog in Episode One, can be used to deal out extra damage during combat, and can also be useful in tripping switches or picking up various objects from the ground. If you find your pet is being killed, you can switch him to inactive mode, where he will walk passively by your side and regaining his hit points. At earlier levels, your dog is invaluable and will often be the difference between instant death and a temporary reprieve from it. Even at later levels, a companion beside you to absorb a few extra blows and throw out more damage is incredibly helpful.

And if you ever hit a situation where your faithful companion cannot provide enough aid, there is also a power mode that you can enter after having fought a certain amount of battles. Activated by pressing a small button on the interface, your character is surrounded by an aura of light, at which time he or she will be faster, stronger, will hit harder, and be able to cast more powerful spells. If ever a fight is too difficult, you can always retreat to try to enter power mode before trying to tackle the tough opponent again. While it may not seem that this will be that much of an aid, trust me when I tell you that it sometimes ends up being a life-saver.

You can fight using either close range, melee weapons like swords and daggers, long-distance bows, or magic spells. Early spells (save teleport) are not incredibly useful, but slowly you will begin to gain a wide range of extremely powerful arcane abilities capable of taking down even the strongest demon. In addition, you also have access to mines which you may drop on the ground. Once an enemy character steps on it, or a set amount of time passes, it will detonate causing area-effect damage to all non-friendly creatures. These weapons can be incredibly helpful when dealing with a large group of opponents, as you do not necessarily have to risk damage in order to hurt them. Merely drop a mine and try to lure the monsters over it. If need be, you can also drop several mines at one time in order to cause extra damage. Be careful, though, the amount of mines you can carry is limited.

Unfortunately, there is not a great deal of variety when it comes to monsters in Episode One. For the most part, you will only encounter the basic goblins, bats, golems, and gargoyles. Of course, there are variants of all four, but there really is not too much that will surprise you. Despite the disappointing lack of enemy racial variety, I found the different classifications of each to be very unique and have their own specific strengths, weaknesses, and AI. This helps to give the illusion that there really is an abundant amount of different enemies that will haunt you in your journey.

Enemies do not respawn in the typical sense. Instead, you will find that enemies only reappear when you exit the game and return. Like Diablo, you cannot save your game when you are out hunting monsters. Instead, your game is only saved when you decide you would like to quit. And unless you can make it to one of the specially designated warp points (also like Diablo), upon returning you will find all the monsters that you had previously killed to be born again. This can either be a blessing for the warrior who is on a rampage for violent experience point gathering or a curse for the intrepid adventurer who just narrowly survived several brushes with death against powerful opponents. Either way, this simple fact is sure to change your playing style.

All in all, ShadowFlare is a game that simply seems to play well. Combat is fun and challenging, rather than boring and one-dimensional as often found in a typical action-RPG. At several instances, I was forced to retreat and regroup before I was able to take of more difficult packs of monsters that appear so frequently in the game. This added a whole new level of thought that is sadly lacking in many action-RPGs of today. While I am not typically a fan of the more action-based side of the RPG world, ShadowFlare did a wonderful job with keeping me interested with its pleasing gameplay. And though, at times, ShadowFlare felt like nothing more than a Diablo-clone, it plays the part well and manages to still remain fun and fresh despite its growing similarities.

Old but appreciated

One of the major things that identify ShadowFlare as a year-old game is its dated graphics. While I have heard some people complain over their quality, I personally found nothing too bad about them. Yes, they do not quite reach the level that many other RPGs are able to provide today, but they do get the job done, and they fit the profile well.

The scenery is, at many times, quite pleasant to observe. Large, steam driven machines vent smoke into the air as you walk by and copper pipes line the walkways. Trees, though too static to be presented as lifelike, had realistic textures that helped to make the overall look of the game better. Dark and foreboding catacombs, as well as other designs helped to set the ambiance for each of the different locations. In the long run, there are places for improvement graphically, but nothing too bad.

Characters and monsters look and animate well. Nothing is noticeably blocky or choppy in movement, and in fact are pleasing to watch. While animations are fairly simplistic and do not vary much, they are done well and look good. On top of that, your character avatar changes with the equipment that you are currently using, a common but well-appreciated way to add some realism into the game. You can also change the color scheme of your character, allowing you to create many, many looks for your character based not only on what he or she is wearing, but also on the color of his or her garments.

Magic spells are pleasing to watch, and they really do not seem to have suffered after a year. Auras of magical essence circle your character, bolts of plasma rocket from the sky, and flares of magical fire sizzle with strength. Even if the play of a warrior suits your style, you may want to play as a wizard for a while if only to gaze at the wonderful graphics that each spell possesses.

While a game functioning on year-old graphical technology always suffers a disadvantage in the ring with other more up-to-date games, ShadowFlare is certainly able to hold its own in the graphical department. Though there is quite a bit of room for improvement, nothing is particularly distracting. Even older graphics can end up being perfectly functional even if not a visual marvel.

Repetitive...but in a good way

Sound effects are mildly repetitive and boring, but not annoyingly so. While there is very little variety in terms of the grunts, groans, and growls that you will hear as you progress through the game, none particularly stand out as distracting to the over all experience. Thus, I could not justify weighing the lack of variance to greatly against the overall score in this area.

On the other hand, game music is MIDI-based and varies greatly. Tracks seem to fit the mood quite well, and do an excellent job at setting tone where ambient effects may have failed. Boss battles feature upbeat, fast-paced tracks, while evil caves play a more deep and melodic tune to reflect the atmosphere of the area. While the tracks of the game are not of amazing quality (they are MIDI-based, of course) they do sound good given their limitations. They also fit the most important niche that sound must fill in the world of RPGs; to enhance the game, not detract from it.

Difficult to learn, easy to master

ShadowFlare features a wonderful interface that leaves all the commands directly at the tips of your fingers. While it took me a little while to become proficient in the navigating of the menus (which one might contribute to my failure to first read the instructional document), once I became familiar with them, they were quite easy to use. If menus are a hindrance, the game becomes nearly unplayable. It is far too common that action-RPGs fall into this trap. Fortunately, ShadowFlare avoided it completely.

Also important in an action-based game is accurate and easy control. While some may enjoy rapidly pressing a multiple-button combination attack in order to deal any significant damage, I am one who definitely prefers not to. Instead of this, ShadowFlare awards higher damage and a greater sweep of attack when you smartly place your character and use the best attack for the situation. While you still do have to rely on a fast clicking-finger, one could still get by with being a little slower, but a little smarter.

Due to the difficulty of ShadowFlare, you will find yourself needing to replenish your health, or in the case of wizards, your magic points, quite a bit. Because of this, ShadowFlare implements a sort of a quick bar, with your healing pills and capsules available without having to search through your inventory first. If in a dangerous situation, it is quite helpful to be able to pop a healing pill as quickly as possible with as little time spent away from the action.

Also helping to rapidly arrange battles, ShadowFlare allows you to set up two separate weapon arrays that can rapidly be switched. Through a single button in the inventory menu, you can automatically shift to a new weapon or shield without having to drag and drop the item from your inventory to your equipment slots. This can save precious time when finding it necessary to move from bow to sword for a rapidly approaching opponent.

A good control and an easy interface is important in any game, but especially so in the action-RPG genre. It is a pleasure to see that the developers realized this fact and responded accordingly with an easy-to-master layout and control scheme. You will lose battles, of course, but at least it will not be because the controls fouled you up.

Not an epic, but a diversion -- and a great one at that

ShadowFlare seems to have been inspired quite a bit by Diablo. And while some may view this as bad, I do not find it to be that much of a problem. Yes, it may seem that ShadowFlare is nothing more than another Diablo-clone, but I think you will find that Episode One has a spirit all its own.

While there are faults that will keep this game from becoming an epic, it is my opinion that this game will do quite well nonetheless. At a price of only $15 and an episodic release, ShadowFlare is an excellent game to use to pass the time between your longer, more classic RPGs, especially if you are a fan of the action-RPG genre. And at such a low price, there is very low risk to downloading Episode One and determining if you would like to continue with the other three. Based on my experienced with Episode One, I will certainly make sure to give Episode Two a whirl when it is released.

Though ShadowFlare appears slightly shallow at the moment, there are many new things that will be appearing in future episodes such as new companions, new equipment, new enemies, and even a side-quest card game that will appear at the end of Episode Three. The promise of an even better game in future episodes only serves to entice me even more.

Thus far, ShadowFlare is fun and a worthwhile gaming experience. And at $15, there is really nowhere that you could go wrong. It will make a wonderful diversion, and will provide hours of enjoyment to newcomers and fans of the genre alike. Even as one who has never been a huge fan of the action spectrum in RPGs, my only advice can be: get this game.

Update: As of January 21, 2003, Episode One is available for free on ShadowFlare's official website

For information on purchasing and downloading ShadowFlare Episode One, please visit the official website at http://www.shadowflare.us.

Review
01/09/03
Brian Cavner
Brian Cavner

Episode Two

The second quarter of the ShadowFlare series is much like the first. It is important to note that this and all other releases of the game are not sequels, but are merely extensions that give more gameplay to what is essentially the same game.

Nothing in Episode Two is different so much as it is new. Players coming from Episode One will be delighted to discover the appearance of several new enemies, equipment, and spells in the second quarter. It is my belief that the designs for these new objects are of a significantly better quality than those found in Episode One. While both have the same basic art style, the graphics of Episode Two’s objects seems to be a great deal more diverse and complex. Much like one would expect, the monsters have begun to look more menacing and the equipment has started to transform into things that appear to be more formidable. While this is not necessarily an improvement over Episode One, it does reflect the typical RPG-style progression where objects that appear later in the game seem to become more intricate.

What I find to be an improvement, however, is in the size of Episode Two compared to Episode One. Whereas the first installment was fairly linear and allowed for only minor exploration outside of a single path, Episode Two seems to give many more options to the player. Once can explore for many screens in one direction only to find increasing numbers of monsters that will provide a difficult challenge to an adventuring hero. Episode Two helped to balance off the increased size of the world with an increased variety of monsters and more of them to make the land appear to be teeming with life. Also, the monsters are a great deal more interesting to fight. While Episode One featured only battles which could be easily won by a character who runs in swinging and allows their companion to deal the majority of the damage, the second release of ShadowFlare will force players into battles where a direct assault may not be the best option. With a host of magic using creatures, the player is forced to keep a closer eye on his or her resistances as they have become increasingly more important. In addition, one can no longer hide behind his or her companion anymore. Your canine partner is, unfortunately, no longer powerful enough to turn the tide of battle in your favor. Instead, he is used more as a tool to trigger switches, fetch items, or distract your opponents?attacks away from you. Battles are much more fun with the difficulty raised and demand a variety of smart assaults in order to continue winning. Skirmishes are almost always weighted in the favor of the monsters as you could be surrounded by as many as a dozen monsters at one time.

In addition to the enlarged landscape and more opponents, the player will be pleased to note that there is an emergence of new towns in Episode Two. These towns, each with a distinct appearance unlike what was found in Episode One, all feature lively NPCs who may tell a tale to the player in order to further the story or assign a quest for the player to complete. This helps to make the game seem a bit more diverse and distracts from the monotony of continuously returning to a single captain for the assigning of missions which are essentially only glorified fetch quests.

Aside from the minor advances in the areas that I have already mentioned, there have been no significant alterations to the gameplay of ShadowFlare in Episode Two. The controls remain the same, and this installment continues the quality of graphics and music/sound found in the first. The story has not been significantly altered in any way, and this episode only aids in further telling the story that has begun in Episode One. It should be expected by players of Episode Two that nothing new will be found in this release; it is only an extension of the game already begun in the first episode.

Despite the fact that Episode Two is only more of the same things that were found in the first release, I find that this extension plays well and should be enjoyable to all those who found pleasure in Episode One. While this episode will only take you to the halfway point of ShadowFlare, it should provide for several hours of quality gameplay that will be enjoyed by fans of action-RPGs. Episode Two can be downloaded from ShadowFlare’s website at http://www.shadowflare.us for the price of $15. Players must already have Episode One installed on their machines. Including the cost of the first release, the total cost of ShadowFlare has now risen to $30. Still under the average for many boxed games found in local retailers, ShadowFlare is a game worth checking out especially for those who enjoyed the first release.

For information on purchasing and downloading ShadowFlare Episode Two, please visit the official website at http://www.shadowflare.us.

Review
02/15/03
Brian Cavner
Brian Cavner

Episode Three

While most of the twists and turns of Episode Three are familiar from the first two quarters, there are plenty of new additions that make this release worthwhile to those who enjoyed the first two. Being that there is only one more release after Episode Three, I expected it to widen into approaching climax once the end of the episode drew near, and I am pleased to say that I was not disappointed.

I am finding that my character has gained quite a bit of diversity since play in the first episode. One of my major complaints was the seemingly small amount of diversity between each of the three classes, but it is great that the differences are starting to become even more apparent now. More powerful spells are available for those on the wizard path, and magic is starting to become quite a useful asset when facing off against multiple enemies at the same time - a condition that has become even more common in Episode Three. In addition, two-handed weapons are far more widespread in this episode giving the warrior class an option to choose high attack power with a lower defense over a more balanced approach. While many games that include two-handed weapons often fail to balance them properly with the rest of the weapons, which make their use either too much of a bonus or too great of a hindrance, ShadowFlare seems to have them balanced properly. Using the convenient button that allows the player to switch between a set of weapons and armor (something that I had often used to swap between a crossbow and a sword), I now find that proper utilization of a two-handed weapon along with a sword/shield array provides for diverse and clever combat. Whereas it is typical of hack and slash games to simply use the most powerful weapon to slice your way through the opponents, ShadowFlare makes the player think and plan their strategy before launching themselves into the middle of combat.

Much to my disappointment, I could not find much use for my animal companion in this episode. It was quite a shame that it was not until episodes two and three that the animal companions became diverse and interesting while, at the same time, obsolete. I tried many different companions in an attempt to find one that worked for me, but in the end I often kept it disabled and tagging uselessly along with me. It is fortunate that your companion is not targeted in battle unless it is directly participating because I think I would have to brave many trips back and forth between towns for healing supplies if the enemies decided to slaughter my helpless animal.

In any case, the difficulty level is still quite steep, and even with a dazzling array of powerful magics, weapons, and armors, it is likely that you will still suffer at the hands of the enemies. Careful planning is literally the only way to survive. Had my animal companion been a bit more useful in battle I may have been able to incorporate other strategies using it, but unfortunately it simply was not enough of a help.

Despite the obvious improvements made from one episode to the next, I continue to find it difficult to get excited at the prospect of a continuation. While it is true that many role-playing games are late bloomers, ShadowFlare seems to be slower than most. It took until Episode Three for the series to start doing correctly many of the things that were done wrong in the first pair of episodes. And while this quarter of the game is a vast improvement over the previous installments, it still does not give quite enough of a boost to make the entire series worthwhile. Seeing what I have thus far, it is difficult for me to recommend the game to someone who has not already played and enjoyed the first few episodes. Someone who is already having fun with ShadowFlare will undoubtedly enjoy the improvements to be found in Episode Three, but I cannot give high praise to nor recommendations for a series that took this long to pick up. If you found the first two episodes of ShadowFlare to be particularly enjoyable, then purchasing Episode Three is an obvious choice. In addition, even if you found that the first half of the game left something to be desired, but are willing to take a chance with the new improvements to be found in the beginning of the latter half, it is likely that you will want to give this episode a try. However, those who did not enjoy the first two episodes at all probably will not enjoy this one either despite the improvements. In addition, starting the series now in hopes of finding enjoyment by the third episode is simply too much of a long shot.

ShadowFlare is pretty fun, there is no denying that, but it is mediocre fun. In an era where Diablo clones are becoming trite and clich? it is hard to find much to praise in a clone that is only moderately good. While it may have been a huge hit when it first appeared in Japan, ShadowFlare just does not have the explosiveness required to revive a tired concept.

For information on purchasing and downloading ShadowFlare Episode Three, please visit the official website at http://www.shadowflare.us.



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© 2002-2003 Emurasoft, Inc.
Graphics: 82%
Sound: 82%
Gameplay: 76%
Control: 91%
Story: 80%
Overall: 75%

Click to Enlarge
While some of the graphics show their age, magic effects are often quite cool to see.

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The ability to customize the color scheme of your character greatly enhances your individuality.

Click to Enlarge
The inventory system along with the ability to store items allows for a great deal of treasure hunting

Click to Enlarge
It is not unusual to face multiple enemies at once

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