Shadows of Adam is a retro-styled indie JRPG that unabashedly wears its influence on its sleeve, while also offering a few signature touches. The field of retro-styled indie JRPGs is an extremely crowded one with many fine entries, requiring any new entrant to be or do something special to stand out and get noticed. Does Shadows of Adam do enough to set itself apart? Read on to find out.
Adam is the name of a village nestled among forests and mountains, well protected from the threats of the world, yet also isolated from it. The story begins with two residents, an impetuous lad named Kellan and his more sensible adopted sister Asrael (affectionately nicknamed Azzy), descending into a massive sinkhole called The Tangle that lies near the village. The Tangle is filled with spiky purple vines that leech off the area’s natural resources and create dangerous monsters. Kellan and Azzy have been browbeaten by the other villagers into entering The Tangle and finding a way to eliminate it. Our two heroes discover that The Tangle is powered by a strange magical tome which makes Azzy’s skin crawl. However, the tome seems to contain the spirit of Kellan’s reportedly deceased father, which only furthers Kellan’s belief that his father is still alive. Despite Azzy’s misgivings, Kellan is all too eager to jump down a rabbit hole beyond The Tangle, and she reluctantly accompanies him on what turns into a world-spanning quest for the truth about his father.
The story is an amalgam of classic JRPG tropes we all know and love and packs a solid amount of content within its 13-15 hour duration. I was perfectly fine with the game’s length. I would rather experience a taut, gripping, heartfelt 12-hour tale as in Panzer Dragoon Saga than a cumbersome 50-hour slog like Grandia which, while a good game, dragged on way too long for its own good and felt artificially padded at times. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as invested in Shadows of Adam’s tale as I wanted to be. The characters have paper doll personalities and their dialogue often reads stiffly. There are plot beats that show potential (e.g. when two characters’ friendly rivalry evolves into a more contentious one), but their scripting rarely feels organic. I don’t mind a good old-fashioned JRPG story, but it needs to be bolstered by compelling storytelling to enthrall me. In the case of Shadows of Adam, I found the storytelling as utilitarian as the story itself.
What Something Classic gets right is the enticing gameplay that keeps you engaged from the start. The classic gameplay presented here is incredibly well balanced and devoid of any needless gimmickry. Exploration is fun, because dungeon areas are neither too simplistic nor too labyrinthine. I also liked how smoothly puzzle elements are integrated into dungeons, keeping exploration fresh. The puzzles themselves are also “just right” in that they aren’t total “gimmes,” nor are they frustratingly obtuse. Enemy encounters can be seen beforehand and only respawn after exiting and re-entering dungeons. Encounters don’t occur often and battles run quickly, nigh eliminating tedium. In addition, progressing through a dungeon without skipping an encounter leaves you perfectly leveled to take on the boss. Boss battles themselves are challenging, but always winnable. My only caveats are minor. One is that I usually found myself short on cash for the next level of equipment upon entering a new town during the early stages of the game, but that worked itself out. Another is that, while the play controls are intuitive, character movement is not the smoothest. Finally, once you get the airship, it’s not a bad idea to hunt for sidequests in order to beef up before the final dungeon. Enemies there hit hard.
Magic/skills are handled using the AP system; characters all have 100% AP and their magic/skills use up a percentage of that AP. During battle, the game’s equivalent of defending restores a percentage of AP, much like how defending in Legend of Dragoon restored a percentage of HP. Ethers to restore AP are not easy to obtain and cannot be bought in stores, so defending is key. Another way to restore AP is to inflict successful normal attacks on the enemy. This system achieves that balance of encouraging magic/skill use while also penalizing spamming. The game also has a few unique takes on status effects, like “soul bound,” where a monster possesses a character’s soul. Hitting the monster hurts the soul bound character, but healing the character hurts the monster. It took me a couple of turns to figure it out, but it felt nice when I did.
The stylishly pixelated graphics resemble 16-bit classics. The game uses colors very well, and I particularly liked the purples used in The Tangle. Stylistic cues from both SNES and Genesis classics can be found in Shadows of Adam’s graphics, as well as some late 8-bit NES and Master System stylings from games like Phantasy Star. The overall visual style makes the game look both uniquely familiar and familiarly unique, though the pixelated nature of the graphics can wear a bit if you’re typically close to your computer screen. Playing while seated further away or in windowed mode helps somewhat, and luckily the fonts are decently sized, so reading them isn’t a big issue. There were also times when, due to the graphics, passageways to the next area were not clearly apparent and I just stumbled upon them. Conversely, there were a couple of occasions when a place that appeared to be a passageway was just part of a wall.
The MIDI-based music compositions take influence from many different genres of music, both classic and modern. The compositions themselves are done well. The atmospheric pieces from the water and fire dungeons stand out, as well as the driving rock theme for the earth dungeon. Some pieces, however, do not always fit their intended scenes as smoothly as they could. For example, the music that plays while exploring The Tangle, while good, sounds more like something I would hear in a sinister cathedral than in a dungeon of evilly sentient vines. Truth be told, most gamers would not take umbrage with the music at all and deem my quixotic pickiness about video game music unwarranted.
Shadows of Adam is clearly inspired by the classics but falls short of being a classic itself. The lovely gameplay, with its exceptional balance and enjoyable exploration, kept me engaged, despite the flaccid story and characters. There is potential in Shadows of Adam, and I would gladly play another game like it, provided its story and characters are more invigorating. I hate to end with a cliché of my own that I’ve written many times over, but Shadows of Adam is another in a long list of games I’ve played that I wanted to like more than I actually did.