Shadow Of The Beast
Hard to believe as it may be, it’s been 26 years since the original Shadow Of The Beast launched on Commodore’s Amiga. In videogame terms, that’s ancient history, Reflections’ bizarre and punishing platformer lost in time. For many, it’s now little but a vague memory, if they know of it at all. For Heavy Spectrum CEO Matt Birch, however, it has remained fresh in his mind since he discovered the game as a 16-year-old in St Helens. So when he had the chance to pitch an idea to Sony’s XDev, the division built for the express purpose of collaborating with external developers, it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
It says much that out of all the concepts he could have gone for, out of all the inspirations he’s had in the years since, it’s Shadow Of The Beast that Birch thought warranted retelling. But how to do that on a new system, in a new era, and for a new generation of players? “There were several things from the original game that really I felt were important and that we wanted to recreate: the world itself and the eclectic nature of it, the fact you had eyeballs floating around, and you had these giant outside vistas and then these contained caves,” Birch says. “That’s something I want to make sure we get into the game, and give players that sense of variety – that there’s a lot going on beyond the edges of the screen.”
The original is enigmatic. Who’s piloting that blimp you see in the background? How did this giant die, and what exactly is it doing underground? So little by way of explanation invites players to do the interpreting, and when Birch was younger, part of the game unfolded in the realms of imagination. “A lot of the stuff as a kid I imagined. For example, the jet thrusters underground, they were
supporting the whole kingdom in that original game. I was thinking, ‘Why have they got them underground? This makes no sense.’ But then I got in my head this system where they were firing them intermittently to keep the whole thing level and all the platforms above it. So we wanted to come up with our own version of what that would be.”
You’ll encounter these mysteries as Aabron, the warped, bestial protagonist from the first game. At an early age, he’s taken by the evil Maletoth and twisted into a gnarled, violent creature with glowing yellow eyes and a thirst for blood. With his childhood destroyed, and having seen his father killed in front of him, players will guide Aabron to vengeance. He’s a fighter, and fighting reveals his ferocious skills. It’s all about managing onrushing groups with blocks and parries, then striking with Wolverine-like bone claws before they’re weak enough to rip apart or pick up and launch into the screen.
The more enemies bleed, the stronger he grows. Pressing L1 and R1 simultaneously triggers rage mode, in which you can target enemies to the left and right and dispatch them instantly with a fist through the gut or a swipe to the throat as crimson rains onto the floor and cakes into the ochre mud at your feet. With decapitations, amputations and eviscerations, this updated Shadow Of
The Beast is more brutal than the comparatively sedate original. The timed ability to single-hit kill enemies in quick succession gives encounters a frantic bent, combat seeming to constantly build and accelerate like a Shepard tone.
These sections are self-contained, with wispy portal-like walls hemming you in as foes spawn. Only after they’re dispatched are you free to explore the 2.5D world. The 2015 realisation of Karamoon’s fantasy setting may lack the dreamy, prog-rock spirit laid out by Roger Dean’s enigmatic cover art, but that’s because this is Heavy Spectrum’s reinvention and the team is endeavouring to stamp its own mark on it. “We wanted to make sure that you had something which you hadn’t really played before,” Birch explains. “And that’s been very important: to make sure that the game offers something new to players and games in general. Because what’s the point in treading ground someone else has already walked over? We want to make sure players get newer, fresher experiences.”
The heavy focus on blood is certainly a new component: after one battle Aabron must drag a corpse onto a pressure plate so that blood fills the recesses and weighs it down. This opens a route into a cavernous stone chamber with a great chained beast kicking up a fuss in the background. A succession of spiked traps and moving platforms provide the peril, proving difficult to negotiate thanks to Aabron’s somewhat stilted jumping and clumsy wall-climbing in this pre-alpha code.
Indeed, Heavy Spectrum is still working on striking a balance between homage and forging its own path, between filling in the blanks and building on top. And when it’s released later this year, perhaps this game will strike a chord with someone like it did Birch, and the cycle will continue. “I seriously would love it if in 25 years’ time somebody played our game and thought, ‘Hey, I had all these ideas when I played it, and this is what I would like to see from Shadow Of The Beast’. I want to play that game. I may be a little old by then, but I will still be playing it.”
Life’s a pitch
After finishing two PlayStation Mobile games, Heavy Spectrum’s tiny team started working with XDev on Shadow Of
The Beast’s trailer for Gamescom 2013. “XDev is actually in the old Psygnosis offices,” Birch says, “so I had this moment when I came into talk about the company I just formed and at the end they said, ‘If you could describe any game you want, what would you do?’ I threw out the idea and said this is what I had as a kid; I’d love to give it to players today. They gave me the chance to develop it and supported me doing that… It’s very much a case of getting a dream to come true.”
It’s still working on striking a balance between homage and forging its own path
ABOVE CENTRE The only environment revealed so far is this burning desert, featuring a bright orange sun and a sea of immense bones. Your view extends far into the distance, recalling the original game’s many layers of parallax scrolling.
ABOVE Blood plays a pivotal role in the game. Currently, it powers your rage meter, and we’ve also put it to use in activating door switches.
LEFT Karamoon is filled with otherworldly sights. With narrative baked into the scenery, not delivered through exposition, it’s up to you to provide your own interpretation for what your eyes are seeing
When the fog walls pitch up, you’re contained until you get the job done. Use bone claws, blocks, parries and throws to dispatch enemies, drenching the screen with vital fluids in the process
The rank and file are easy enough to tear through, but hulking monstrosities like this provide a wholly different challenge. What else resides on Karamoon?
Matt Birch, CEO of Heavy Spectrum and longtime fan of the Reflections original