Some of you may remember the original Shadowgate for the NES. Some of you may know of it from more modern reviews only. Either way, the general consensus is that it is basically an exercise in futility, what with all the set-piece deaths and puzzles with the most esoteric answers possible, but the concept wasn’t terrible and you could make a case that the designers’ vision just wasn’t able to be successfully portrayed on an 8-bit console. So, skip ahead about a decade or so, to a time where full 3D environments and more majestic settings were easily doable, give the old IP a new, free-to-explore interface, leave the heinous traps in, and there you have a pretty rough synopsis of today’s game, Shadowgate 64: Trials of the Four Towers.
You play as Del Cottonwood, a halfling (whatever the hell that is, but I suspect it lies somewhere between a human and an elf) working on a trade caravan that is on its way to Castle Shadowgate when it is set upon by a band of raiders. Del survives the raid and is brought to Shadowgate to be imprisoned and tortured (which should give you an idea of the logic you’ll be up against here, considering YOU were the one who was attacked and now YOU are in prison for it). You find a sorcerer in the cell next to yours who was also imprisoned who explains your situation, the giant man-beast guarding your cell brings you some sketchy looking meat, and then it’s on you to figure out how to get out of this mess.
Eventually, you’ll wind up in one of the castle’s towers, where the spirit of a legendary wizard named Lakmir reveals to you that Shadowgate is basically being controlled by an evil wizard who is Up. To. Something. Sure enough, you become The Only Man For the Job™, and your escape attempt becomes a quest to save the world (so to recap, you were imprisoned for being a victim of crime and the castle’s soldiers seem to have no objection to the fact their boss is apparently evil). However, it’s not just that easy. You’ll have to prove yourself worthy of Lakmir’s favor by solving the myriad puzzles in the four towers surrounding the castle that Lakmir himself used to test his wizardry students. And because this is Shadowgate, that means a lot of searching for esoteric items, trying to glean what importance they may hold, if any, and figuring out where and how you’re supposed to use them to take your next baby steps through the castle.
For example, one of the items you will need to obtain on your quest is the Ring of the Dead, which allows you to converse with the deceased. To even reach the room where the ring is located, you will first have to solve a puzzle where touching the busts of armored knights will warp you from room to room with little more (okay, nothing more) than trial-and-error to guide you along the way. Assuming you manage to grope your way through that, you’ll then have to figure out another puzzle to unveil where the lock is for the door where the ring is waiting. Not to unlock the door, just to find where the lock itself is. After you’ve jumped through that hoop, you’re presented with three rings, the actual Ring of the Dead, a ring that will reverse your controls (which actually DOES serve a purpose later, although you’d never guess that at the time), and a third ring that will just kill you.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, death doesn’t just lurk around every corner here, death is the landlord that owns every property on the block. The shift from the old method of navigation to a 3D, free-roaming engine, while a nice upgrade, also allowed the designers to implement traps like pits, bodies of water you can fall into and drown, and God help you if you make the mistake of not using a ladder to go down a level. In fact, to reach the tower where you have to go through the aforementioned rigmarole to scoop up the Ring of the Dead, you have to maneuver across a bockety rooftop riddled with holes, which is extremely fun to navigate when you can’t see where your feet actually are, and is made more complex by the game’s control scheme of using the C buttons for movement and the Control Stick to look around (a system I never actually liked when it popped up in N64 games). On the upside, unlike the original Shadowgate, you’re not tasked with keeping lit torches on your person at all times, nor is there any actual combat here, which is a blessing, because HOOOOOO BOY I would not have liked to see how hamfisted a combat system would have been on this engine.
This is, of course, assuming you insist on bulling through the game at all after some of the pain-inducing fetch quests and pixel hunts you’ll be subjected to along the way. While I wouldn’t call the graphics here bad, per se, they’re definitely not detailed enough to serve some of the purposes it needs to here. Some of the items you’ll be required to hunt down along the way include a handful of small coins and the hair of a giant. Allow me to repeat that, you are asked to locate a HAIR on the ground as rendered with 1999 Nintendo 64 visual quality. You would at least think/hope in this case that there would be a system like Resident Evil where important items flash, or some sort of cue that something worth collecting is nearby, but there is not, leading to a lot of looking down and sweeping entire rooms in the hope that something of merit happens to be lying around.
The trial-and-error approach and the prevalence of searching for very small, easily missed items is kind of a shame, because the atmosphere here is excellent, and to me, quite possibly the one saving grace Shadowgate 64 has going for it. There is no on-screen heads-up display, which helps the immersion, and the environments all portray a sense of bleakness with a patina of mysticism. The castle interiors are very much dark, drab, and forboding, the exterior is awash in an almost sorrowful gray, and the various NPCs (at least the ones that don’t kill you for committing the sin of trying to interact with them) give the impression of a doomed group of people trying to make the best of the last days of Shadowgate Castle. There’s even a pretty good bit of lore to be discovered about the universe you’re in, mostly picked up through the various and sundry books, parchments, and pamphlets strewn about the castle, and while almost none of them provide any discernible use in terms of progress, they do make for a nice diversion and provide a fairly interesting history of the castle, its inhabitants, and the inner workings of what went on during Lakmir’s time. The music is largely minimalistic, as are the sound effects, which might be disappointing on some level, but I kinda felt that it added to the feeling of loneliness and decay.
I wondered, when I went into this review, if I was going to be unnecessarily harsh on Shadowgate 64 because of some foul childhood memories of it (mostly from playing it without a Controller Pak and therefore, a way to save my game, which is super fun for a game where you can die lickety-split), but it really didn’t redeem itself years and years later. I have a much greater appreciation for the presentation and the aesthetics at work here, but the gameplay is still clunky at best and an exercise in frustration at worst. I could easily get down with an atmospheric, fantasy puzzle-solver with a healthy chunk of self-contained canon, and indeed, the bones of something interesting are here, but there’s not a lot of meat to speak of on these bones, and what meat is here tastes a little spoiled. I wouldn’t really recommend this one unless you’re an absolute mark for the original Shadowgate and want to see how the original was evolved or you’re someone with a lot higher tolerance level for shenanigans than I am. Just remember, behind the walls of Shadowgate Castle, violins are REALLY expensive.
Excellent atmosphere and presentation, even despite being somewhat limited by the capabilities of the platform it’s on.
Insta-death is highly possible, and an atrocious lack of signposting combined with pixel hunting makes for a less-than-pleasant experience.