Shadow King Review – Stick and Poke

Looking for a quick game to fill an hour of your time? Shadow King by Johan Peitz is a short Metroidvania about taking down the evil Shadow King. Grab your sword and boomerang and let’s go on an adventure.

I previously reviewed one of Johan Peitz’s other games, Hellgineers. Shadow King which has very similar, tongue-in-cheek silliness, but without the tricky puzzles and fire (boo, needs more lava!). In Shadow King, you are a lowly knight bumbling back home to your castle only to find the Shadow King has laid waste to the castle’s inhabitants. Throughout your castle traversals you gain new abilities for range attacks, dash attacks, and the coveted double jump. Bonus heart potions are also scattered around to help you continue your journey, though they are not necessarily needed in completing the game. The story is pretty barebones: a banished evil king has come back again. Most people are not enjoying his return, as it appears he has pushed them over as he passed (rude!). The crystal monks don’t seem to be concerned, however, and preoccupy themselves protecting and staring at crystal beams.

Screenshot 1991
The caverns are pretty cool, unfortunately there’s not much other art variation.

While there isn’t an overwhelming abundance of obstacles, that’s not saying the castle is a walk in the park. The bats and gooey monsters are mostly nuisance that can be taken down in a couple of hits. It’s navigating the spikes and plasma orbs that’s the real challenge. In true Metroidvania fashion, some paths are impassable until the right tool or ability is earned. Each ability is matched to an attack plus directional, making things easy to use. The only challenge is that you’ll have to use a D-pad instead of the joystick because sometimes the game will get confused in which direction you’re pressing. The abilities include a dash attack combo, ground pound, boomerang throw, and double jump. Part of me wishes the dash attack was two different actions. Seeming as it’s the only way to attack enemies from the side, it forces the player to have to move while attacking, making it tricky to weave through enemies. While a boomerang is notably a kind of weapon, it has no effect on enemies. Its only use is to trigger lock panels from far away. A more intuitive design might be to have a special orb, or plasma dart, or just have the boomerang hurt the enemies.

Shadow King has some exploration, but even with the inherent backtracking that comes with Metroidvanias, it still feels too much like a straight line. The map spreads out, but there is little interweaving of the different sections of the castle. There are usually forced linear paths that the player has to do to reach the next special ability, then a shortcut from that location to bypass all the obstacles to get back to where you need to be. Shadow King has the linear paths, but not much in terms of interesting backtracking or avoiding obstacles. Luckily the game is small enough where getting back in a roundabout way isn’t too much of a hassle, but it’s unfortunate where leaving an area right after going through challenges to get an ability is a challenge within itself. Maybe to make the backtracking a more satisfying experience there were different micro-themes for the various areas of the castle. There could be a dungeon with lava, a lush velvet common room (with bouncy couches), and a kitchen area with falling knives. Glass crystals are interesting, but mysticism devoid of explanation falls flat. For being a small game, it can still have more depth and character. Some items are given by people who have collapsed in the castle, but what if ALL abilities were given by people in the castle? There would be more opportunity to give backstory and silly comments, giving some flavor to the game.

Screenshot 1994
Typically no need to find extra hearts as defeated enemies drop some.

In terms of art and audio in Shadow King, they get the job done. As mentioned earlier, having a color for each section or theme could help break up the constant grayness of everything, but none of the art is responsively “bad.” The tiny knight is fun to watch move around the screen and bounce on trampolines. Much like the art needs some more slight changes, the music does as well. It’s the same track that plays over and over and only restarts when you’re revived at a checkpoint. With some spooky silences, mellow themes, or boss battle music it would be more interesting (maybe there was boss music already, but I tuned it out at that point).

In summary: Breezy little game that nails down the Metroidvania formula. Art is nice, but I wish there was a little more variation and the same audio track over and over gets nauseating.

Jordan played Shadow King on PC with a code provided by the developer.

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