This post is part of the Keeping Score series about games and their soundtracks. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
I recently wrote about Shadow Warrior, the 1997 follow-up to Duke Nukem 3D. I’d heard that it was racist, and it very much is. Which is why I was surprised to see it get a remake in 2013, and even more surprised that it earned praise from critics and was successful enough to become a whole new franchise, with a well-liked sequel in 2016 and a third game planned to release this year. The positive reception to these newer games was what inspired me to play the original for comparison, and now I’ve also played the 2013 version of Shadow Warrior, by Polish studio Flying Wild Hog. It’s certainly better than Shadow Warrior, but doesn’t escape some of that game’s problems.
Shadow Warrior still stars Lo Wang, an enforcer for Zilla Enterprises in Japan. Lo Wang is still played by a white man, Jason Liebrecht. And he is still affecting a Chinese accent. It’s not nearly as egregiously caricatured as John William Galt’s performance as Lo Wang in the original game, but it’s still weird. Everyone else in the game just has an American accent, even though it’s set in Japan. Why was it so important that Lo Wang have an accent? And if it was that important, why not hire a Chinese actor to play him? Although I wouldn’t blame Chinese actors for not wanting to participate in a remake of a game so infamous for racism, made by a team of mostly white men. Given the controversy around the original Shadow Warrior, I was expecting the team to be more mindful of cultural appropriation, being careful to write an adventure that avoids cultural and racial stereotypes. Their efforts in this regard don’t go as far as I’d hoped.
The writing is definitely better, if not perfect. Lo Wang cracks jokes often, but none of those jokes are based around his accent (unlike the original game) and some of them are even pretty funny. And this time he spends a lot of time talking about other stuff too. The original Shadow Warrior was almost devoid of story, but there’s a surprisingly involved story here. Lo Wang is a kind of modern samurai, armed with nothing but a sword as he heads to a potentially dangerous exchange on the orders of his boss, Orochi Zilla. Zilla is the head of Zilla Enterprises, a huge and wealthy corporation, and he has tasked Lo Wang with purchasing a sword called the Nobitsura Kage from a collector. This doesn’t go as planned, and Lo Wang finds himself mixed up in a much larger conflict, as demons pour through portals into our world and start killing everyone.
Soon, he’s learning about ancient conflicts between immortal demons who are all searching for the powerful Nobitsura Kage, the only weapon that can truly kill one of their kind. Lo Wang finds himself unwittingly allied with one of these demons, Hoji, who rides around in his head offering guidance or criticism. Much of the time, Lo Wang is conversing with Hoji as they figure out what to do next, so he has ample opportunity to be serious alongside his mid-battle wisecracks. This does wonders for his character, letting him actually care about the people and events in the story, so he’s not defined solely by his clever (or not so clever) one-liners.
This striving for a new tone, however, is undercut by constant callbacks to the original game. Each level is packed with secrets, and some of these lead to faithful recreations of places from the original, with the same blocky architecture and low resolution textures. Lo Wang occasionally encounters video arcades full of other games from publisher Devolver Digital, as well as the original Shadow Warrior in cabinet form. Standing close to a Shadow Warrior arcade machine lets players hear John William Galt’s Lo Wang spout the same awful lines from that game in his absurd accent. If Flying Wild Hog were trying to move past the stupid and juvenile tone of that game — and honestly doing a decent job of it, with Lo Wang’s dialogue at least — then why is this here? Why reference the original racist caricature?
I was also troubled to find one of the “anime girl” sprites from the original Shadow Warrior hidden behind a waterfall in an early level, bathing in the nude. Fortunately, I wasn’t able to spout rude and sexist comments at her like I could in the game from which she was taken, but I was left wondering why she was here at all. Surely the original Shadow Warrior’s tendency to include scantily clad or naked women as scenery in its levels is not something to be celebrated? Unfortunately, while Lo Wang himself is an improvement in this game, the treatment of women is very much not.
There are exactly two women in the game: the Kyokagami twins, who also work as enforcers for Zilla. They wear matching body-hugging leather jumpsuits, one black, the other white. They speak only in bizarre, flirtatious tones, every word dripping with sexual innuendo. They even refer to each other as “honey” or “dear”, as if they are lovers rather than sisters. Their walking animations are absurd, like an exaggerated parody of a fashion model on a runway. Lo Wang manages to not say anything too overtly offensive to them, but Hoji has no such reservations, happily commenting on how he likes their sexy, badass style, and asking if Lo Wang ever tried to get romantically involved with them. This comes just after Hoji explained his distaste for the human world, because it’s full of icky humans. I guess he finds all humans gross, except hyper-sexualized women? In short, the female characters are awful, and I was relieved that they only appear in one small section of the game.
Shadow Warrior is something of a disappointment, then, in terms of addressing problems with the original. Fortunately, its a lot more imaginative in its action design. When writing about the original Shadow Warrior, I discussed how its kung fu and ninja themes were a poor fit for its first person action, with Lo Wang rarely using his sword when he could just blast enemies with twin uzis or a missile launcher. Here, Lo Wang’s sword is his most important weapon. The first person slashing feels great, with the lesser demon soldiers recoiling perfectly from Lo Wang’s strikes. Aim cuts properly, and these demons will be dismembered or even beheaded, falling into pieces along the lines drawn by the blade. It’s remarkably reactive and makes the sword feel powerful and deadly. And those are just the basic attacks; Lo Wang learns several power moves that can be charged up and unleashed with devastating force. All of this is facilitated by Lo Wang’s multidirectional dash move that helps him zip around and cut down different foes.
In fact, Lo Wang’s guns feel weak in comparison, especially early in the game. Even the weakest of enemies takes many shots to go down (although shooting them in the head will hasten their demise), and I often felt I was emptying uzi clips into a horde to no effect whatsoever. The arsenal gets better later on, but until I found the shotgun I was decidedly underwhelmed by the ranged weapons. Upgrading them with money that Lo Wang finds in the levels helps, but that takes a while, and I only found myself relying heavily on guns in the second half of the game. This made the larger demon enemies a chore to fight, as they dish out damage alarmingly quickly when Lo Wang closes the distance with his sword, and absorb nearly his entire stock of ammunition if he keeps his distance and shoots instead. My first encounters with the necromancer demons, who constantly spawn more skeletal minions, were particularly frustrating.
I don’t know how much this was exacerbated by my choosing a difficulty setting one notch above the “normal” setting. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so audacious. But I think a bigger issue were my choices for upgrades. In addition to upgrading weapons, Lo Wang can acquire various skills and ki powers. The latter I never found much use for, beyond the starting healing power, and I should have just upgraded that straight away instead of exploring the others. Likewise, certain skills are far more useful than others, and I would have benefitted from unlocking them earlier. In the beginning, for example, Lo Wang’s dashes are severely restricted by a tight stamina meter, but with the right skill investments he’s able to dash around nearly constantly, dodging attacks and cutting down demon foot soldiers.
All of these things make Shadow Warrior’s fights feel very different to the original game. This is despite the development team specifically aiming for a more old school feel to the action, ignoring modern trends like cover mechanics in favor of rapid movement amongst hordes of enemies. The result, however, feels like its own thing, rather than a throwback to the shooters of yore. And this extends to the level design too. The nonlinear levels with actual floorplans and vertical structure were my favorite things about the original Shadow Warrior, but for all the love that Flying Wild Hog show to that game, they haven’t tried to recreate those kinds of levels here. The levels feel decidedly linear and flat, with invisible walls blocking the way if one veers off the main path. Later areas get more interesting, but even those are more sets of paths to follow than real spaces. Lo Wang does sometimes need to find a key card or a set of padlock keys, but these are just cheeky references to the original game, not a meaningful attempt to replicate its open layouts.
What the levels are good for, however, is facilitating battles. There are a ton of convenient open spaces — courtyards, large rooms, parking lots — in which Lo Wang faces off against huge hordes of demons. Explosive barrels or other hazards are strewn about, and when the fight is over, Lo Wang is graded on his performance. Using a variety of weapons and tactics (and killing efficiently) grants a high score, netting bonus karma points for upgrading skills. During the fight, messages like “shredder x3” and “massacre” pop out of dead enemies in response to particularly stylish violence, amidst fountains of blood and gore. One thing Shadow Warrior absolutely nails is updating the original’s penchant for over the top grisliness, its splatters of viscera silly rather than horrifying and offering plenty of spectacle. Once I had a larger arsenal and a good set of skills, I was really enjoying these fights, switching between my sword and my heavier weapons while dashing around like a maniac. There were still a few annoying enemies and difficulty spikes mixed in, but my opinion of the second half of the game was much improved over the first half.
The places I fought through look pretty, too. The art direction is impressive, whether exploring city streets, bamboo forests, temples, or shipyards, with a ton of incidental detail. Where the original Shadow Warrior haphazardly mashed together Chinese and Japanese influences, this Shadow Warrior is all about Japan, full of cherry blossom fields and Japanese gardens. Many of the demons are modeled after oni, and the story of Hoji and his siblings is told through cutscenes styled to resemble illustrated hanging scrolls. Exploring the levels, I was simultaneously struck by the care that went into the art, and the rather distracting visual effects laid over the top. Shadow Warrior makes liberal use of color filtering, which tends to sap scenes of their vibrancy. Sometimes the screen even tinted before my eyes, taking on a greenish or reddish cast as I entered a new area. Lighting is also odd, with many corners left in a deep gloom even when under the beam of Lo Wang’s flashlight. Although perhaps this is because Lo Wang wears sunglasses for the entire game, complete with visible dirt spots when they catch the light from the right angle.
There are more things I could nitpick about, like the awkward boss fights, or the occasionally unclear objectives which sometimes left me searching aimlessly for some tiny interactable object that would make the story move forward, but I don’t want to be too negative. The fighting at the core of Shadow Warrior is good fun, and the sword especially is a triumph. Slicing up demons is a good time throughout, especially with a full set of power attacks, and while the weak early arsenal can be annoying, it teaches players to rely first and foremost on the sword. Everything else is just there for support. The core swordplay is good enough to carry the whole game, and I can see why it spawned a new franchise.
It’s just a shame about the ugly sexism. And the cultural appropriation. Sure, it’s a game about dumb action, and I’m certain the development team approached it with good intentions, eager to show their enthusiasm for the setting and lore. But the fact remains that they’re a mostly white team making a game about Japan starring the equivalent of a white man in yellowface, and while I could sense the team’s excitement, I didn’t sense their respect. Both Japan and China have a thorny history with imperialist Western nations, something to which the developers turn a blind eye. Given the problems with the original Shadow Warrior, there’s really no excuse for not being cognizant of this.
There’s a lot to like about Shadow Warrior despite these issues, however, and I’m not arguing it should be skipped over or shunned outright. Just be aware of its problems. Shadow Warrior is still a lot better than Shadow Warrior, and I hope that things continue to improve in the sequels.
My copy of Shadow Warrior came bundled with the original soundtrack, composed by Krzysztof Wierzynkiewicz, Michał Cielecki and Adam Skorupa. Wierzynkiewicz and Skorupa also composed music for the Witcher series, and I was struck by just how similar the Shadow Warrior score sounds. It has the same distinctive, dense construction, with layered symphony, choir, booming percussion, and a few synthesizer flourishes. If it wasn’t for the fact that the Celtic instruments from the Witcher soundtracks are replaced with koto and shakuhachi flute, I would be hard pressed to guess whether a given piece was from Shadow Warrior or The Witcher 2.
My favorite pieces from the Witcher games are the more sedate ones, which play during quieter moments. The louder, brash pieces that accompany combat are fine while playing, but less interesting to listen to on their own. Shadow Warrior, of course, is almost entirely about fighting, so the majority of the 20 tracks (spanning nearly an hour of playtime) are of this high intensity variety, and I don’t find them that memorable. There are some brooding, tense pieces as well, to accompany those moments when players are expecting the next battle at any moment, but only a few pieces that are actually calm. “Incompatible Feelings” gives the koto space to shine, and the mournful “Risen From the Ashes”, which accompanies the game’s ending, is a highlight.
The game’s main theme recurs throughout the entire score, its simple melody easily recognizable. But overall the music didn’t leave much impression on me. I found Lee Jackson’s sparser compositions for the original Shadow Warrior to be more interesting to listen to on their own merits. Wierzynkiewicz, Cielecki and Skorupa’s score works fine when chopping through an army of demons, but take away the swordplay and — much like the game itself — it doesn’t have much to stand on.