Shadowgate (2014)


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Review by · September 19, 2014

One of the forebears of adventure games, Shadowgate has long resided along its NES brethren as a classic. Known for its odd layout, haunting atmosphere, and punishing difficulty, Shadowgate was met with sequels on future consoles that dimmed the brand. Creators of the original and current founders of Zojoi, Karl Roelofs and Dave Marsh have successfully passed the torch on to the remake. And yet, just how does a 25-year-old classic translate to modern gaming expectations?

At its onset, Shadowgate welcomes young Jair, our protagonist, with a door lined by skulls. For reasons not entirely clear to him, Jair has to venture into Castle Shadowgate to prevent a menacing evil from threatening the world. Most of the story is told through books or scrolls littered throughout halls and catacombs, but is never entirely clear. In fact, Shadowgate seems to prefer mystique and a lack of clarity. For some, this may be understandably frustrating, but the lack of information accents the foreboding atmosphere of the dank, creepy, and abandoned fun house of puzzles and death. In what feels like surveying the landscape of a previous civilization now extinct, Jair doesn’t run into many people, which adds to the sense of isolation. While odd for an adventure title, Shadowgate is less about the story and more about the experience.

Though it is atypical of how I organize my reviews, I feel that I have to focus on Shadowgate’s biggest stumbling block first: the controls. A brief tutorial with Jair’s cleverly named companion, Yorick, explains how players interact with items, rooms, and command list. The command list will be familiar to players, but that doesn’t make the system intuitive. Offering a whopping nine commands, players will use three or four most often. Amongst them are the Use, Open, and Look commands. Unfortunately, rather than opting for a system players can seamlessly integrate with, the developers required obtuse utilization of this system to interact with rooms and items. For example, one cannot simply “Use” a telescope in a room. Rather, I had to “Use” myself (denoted by Jair’s portrait in the top right) on the telescope. Whether this is the fault of myself for constantly forgetting or the developers for creating an awkward system, I see no reason why someone can’t “Use” the telescope. In real life, when I take a drink of water, I do not use my hand on the glass, but I use the glass to drink; in my mind, I do not add an extra step to drink. In addition, one cannot simply “Look” at a corpse to retrieve goods. Instead, I had to “Open” the corpse, which seemed odd to me, but I suppose I am opening the pockets and cloak. Also, this was in the tutorial, but when playing a game as difficult as Shadowgate with creative puzzles and a multitude of variables to analyze, unusual controls take away from what’s most important. If readers can get past this criticism and view this as a fault of myself, then please regard the game more positively than I will in the rest of my review — the score reflects the hours of frustration I experienced as a result of this complication.

Shadowgate should have rather been named: “Shadowgate: A Red Herring Adventure” or “Shadowgate: Your OCD Will Make You Pick Up All of the Skulls That You Know Are Useless.” In my interview with Karl Roelofs, we discussed the intuitive nature of the puzzles, the depth of design, the focus on feedback during testing, and what went into making an logical, yet challenging, puzzle. Previous control complaints aside, Shadowgate housed several noodle scratchers that furrowed my brows repeatedly, only to be met with face-palms as I discovered the solution after randomly clicking. Sometimes, I discovered the solution through notes and analysis, which created a wonderful sense of satisfaction. Since most of the puzzles are logical, I had only myself to blame when I overlooked something in the environment and resorted to smashing items against the environment over and over. Similarly, genuinely solving a perplexing riddle always made sense in hindsight.

Players will have to use everything at their disposal: riddles in scrolls, observations of the beautiful environments, the daunting multitude of items littered throughout, spells (make sure you “Look” at the spells…), and Yorick. Yorick accompanies Jair to offer hints or harass from time to time. As I set out on my journey, I told myself I wouldn’t rely on Yorick at all. Boy, how that changed! For the most part, Yorick offered perfect hints that didn’t give anything away but also led me on the right path; at other times, he wasn’t as helpful. My fear is that players who have softened since the NES era will not be up to the challenge. Rather, they will scoff at the puzzle design in an attempt to preserve their egos. This game is hard, but not unfair (except for the controls).

What a beautiful adventure. Almost as if painted with oils and sweeping strokes of the brush, every room in Shadowgate is absolutely memorable and a wonder to take in. I could probably map out Shadowgate’s entire layout from memory, aside from the latter part of the game. This isn’t simply because I spent a great deal of time with the game, either: everything is vivid and pops off of the screen. For years, gamers have criticized the grayish brown nature of graphical design in modern games. Though Shadowgate does much the same, the colors couldn’t be more appropriate and strangely inviting. Some might find fault with the stiff animations of murderous goblins, but a part of me finds this archaic design endearing and uniquely Shadowgate.

Consistent with its ancestor, the current Shadowgate’s music haunted me long after I closed the game. Even now, sitting here as I write this, I can remember exact tunes and instrumentation. This, coupled with the artwork, creates an addicting eeriness that I can’t recall experiencing in years. Fans, especially, will love the credits music. Even though I loved the music as the creators and contributors names scrolled up my screen, I couldn’t help but laugh: the best music is here, after beating the game! That said, the music throughout Shadowgate is almost reason enough to open the game after hours of sulking over the five puzzles one can’t solve.

I couldn’t help but feel simultaneous relief and satisfaction after completing Shadowgate. Relief overtook me due to the frustrations I felt with the controls — I found it quite difficult to enjoy my experience in the latter quarter of the game simply because of these faults. However, I felt satisfaction almost because I knew I should: after all, the rest of the game was excellent. Is Shadowgate for everyone? Certainly not. Point-and-click adventure titles alone don’t garner huge sales, but one as punishing as Shadowgate? Well, if you’re looking for a challenging adventure title, look no further. As for me, I’m taking a break before I even think about tackling the Master difficulty with its even more cognitively demanding puzzles.


Atmosphere, music, gloomy charm.


Odd controls, some obtuse puzzles, niche.

Bottom Line

If you can learn the system down to your bones, then this will be a fulfilling adventure.

Overall Score 76
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Bob Richardson

Bob Richardson

Bob has been reviewing games at RPGFan since 2009. Over that period, he has grown in his understanding that games, their stories and characters, and the people we meet through them can enrich our lives and make us better people. He enjoys keeping up with budding scholarly research surrounding games and their benefits.