Shadow Sorcerer – PC Review

What’s player to do? After battling against overwhelming
forces in the temple of Xak Tsaroth, then risking injury
and death in pursuit of the mystical Disks of Mishakal,
Champions of Krynn were able to both recover the magical
Disks and restore faith in the True Gods of Legend. After that,
the “Champions” journeyed from Xak Tsaroth to the fortress of
Pax Tharkas and rescued hundreds of peaceful men, women and
children who were being held captive by the evil Lord Verminaard
and his vile Draconian guards. After such incredible adventures,
what can a player do for an encore?
In Shadow Sorcerer (Shadow), an action game that continues
the DragonLance series set in the world of Krynn, players who
are not predisposed against action games should find their opportunity
for a successful encore. Continuing the storyline established
in Heroes of the Lance and Dragons of Flame, Shadow
adds a completely new graphics style and control system that
represents, in this reviewer’s opinion, a big step forward in
playability for AD&D action games.
The More Things Change…
Like the earlier action games and unlike the role-playing “Gold
Box” series, combat occurs in real time. In contrast to the earlier
games, Shadow allows the player to control not one, but four,
on-screen characters simultaneously. Through the use of an
iconic interface, players can quickly and easily issue commands
to their on-screen surrogates with a mouse. Keyboard and joystick
input are also supported, but using the mouse is so intuitive
that Shadow seems to have been specifically designed with a
mouse in mind.
Shadow’s graphics represent an equally radical departure from
previous efforts. During play, the game operates in two modes:
wilderness view and tactical view. The former is a rather standard
hex map showing roads, hills, mountains, forests and the like for
the lands between Pax Tharkas (to the north) and Thorbardin in
the south. A small golden icon (which, strangely enough,
resembles nothing so much as the Oscar statuette of Hollywood
fame) represents the player’s party, while a similar silver icon represents
the refugees’ party (or parties, as we’ll see later). Players
move along through the wilderness view, slowly crossing the
countryside. Then, when an encounter occurs, play switches to
W the tactical view.
The tactical view employs isometric graphics to simulate a
realistic 3-D perspective for both exterior and interior/dungeon locales.
(For readers unfamiliar with the term, the screen is “tilted”
at a 45-degree angle — this effect has been used skillfully in
games like Zaxxon and the more recent Zany Golf and The Immortal.)
The tactical view graphics, in VGA mode, are lush and
colorful, and manage to impart a realistic sense of “being there”
(albeit from a fly-on-the-wall viewpoint). Characters (both the
party and NPCs) move smoothly, and some of the special effects
(especially Magic Missile and Fireball spells) are impressive.
Realistic sound effects (from this reviewer’s AdLib card) also
add to the realism of the game environment, and are worth
…The More They Stay the Same
While most of Shadow makes sense and contributes to an enjoyable
gaming experience, there are some aspects of the game
which are infuriatingly illogical. By far the worst of these is the
matter of the player’s interaction with the refugees from the
fortress of Pax Tharkas. In the fiction of the game, players are
asked to believe that the role-playing characters have just escaped
from this fortress of death, against awesome odds, and
that an army of deadly, bloodthirsty creatures is hot on the
party’s (and thus the refugees’) trail. In short, the only logical action
to take is to flee.
Yet players will often find themselves contending with refugees
who, through an impromptu governing Council, may decide to
give up on Thorbardin altogether and high-tail it back to Pax
Tharkas, where certain death awaits! The manual concedes
that the refugees can become more than a minor irritant to the
player and offers rationalizations for their often bizarre behavior.
However, the game is won and lost upon the refugees’ safety
and having them suddenly turn against the player makes the
game needlessly frustrating.
Combat in the tactical mode often hinges upon character placement
and this is another sore point. The iconic interface allows
the player to easily command characters to move to specific
places on the screen. Usually, the characters act immediately on
the command and move to the indicated square. Quite often
during a heated battle, however, the characters may be bunched
together and/or blocked by rocks or plants which prove to be an
insurmountable challenge for them to navigate around. So, the
characters stay put, often with fatal consequences. After witnessing
this Al failure a few too many times, one cannot help but
think that some more programming time on the character Al
routines would have geometrically improved player satisfaction.
Words of Wisdom (Hints)
Readers wishing to avoid hints please skip ahead to the next
Time can be one’s greatest enemy in Shadow. While the
Draconians leave Pax Tharkas 48 hours after the party’s departure,
the wilderness is very large and there is much to do. There
simply isn’t enough time to figure out where everything is, perform
all the necessary actions and lead the refugees to Thorbardin
in one fell swoop.
Clever gamers will take advantage of a few “false starts” to
map out the wilderness and the various dungeons before actually
playing the game and giving it full effort. After all, the players
are already supposed to know something about this wilderness,
according to the fiction. Then, once the maps have been made
and notes have been taken, it is much easier to “sweep through”
to a successful conclusion.
There are some time-wasting elements in the game’s overall
design. For example, in order to reach Thorbardin, the Companions
must pass through Skullcap, a large dungeon located at
the southernmost edge of the map. Before they will be able to
make it through Skullcap, they will need to make the acquaintance
of a certain wizard (only with his physical presence in the
party is Skullcap passable). Unfortunately, his hangout in the
wilderness is somewhat off the southward path one feels compelled
to take. In short, it pays to explore everything ahead of
time so less time is wasted when it really counts.
Remember that the refugees’ well-being is the key to success in
Shadow Sorcerer. At the start of the game, the refugees have
enough food to last a couple of days and after that they’ll need
more in order to continue the journey. (Lack of food is a major
contributor to the refugees’ contrary behavior mentioned above
and is to be avoided at all costs.) There’s plenty of food around
in the wilderness, but you’ll have to find it. Too bad rations don’t
grow on trees….
Gamers should also avoid making a habit of switching back
and forth between the wilderness and tactical displays, since
each time the tactical display is exited, a half-hour of game time
passes (whether anything actually happened in the tactical mode
or not).
Of course, one should always keep an eye on the party’s health
and well-being. Healing is only possible when a cleric is in the
party and, in turn, the party is in tactical mode. So, it is a good
idea to keep a cleric on hand. It is not, however, a good idea to
heal too often. Healing eats up precious time.
Final Observations
Shadow Sorcerer is apparently aimed at garners who are new
to fantasy games in general and the DragonLance milieu in particular.
The storyline presents a welcome change from (to borrow
a phrase from one particularly well-regarded writer) the overplayed
“Kill Foozle the Mad Wizard” scenarios. Graphics and
sound are top-notch, with a style and flair that holds the player’s
interest and keeps him or her wondering just what is around that
next corner.
New and moderately-experienced players alike should enjoy
Shadow Sorcerer, although the refugees and combat movement
difficulties may be more than some novices may wish to contend
with. Experienced gamers will probably find little challenge here,
but might find the game enjoyable as a diversion from the
greater challenges of the “Gold Box” series. Small problems
aside, Shadow Sorcerer is a welcome improvement to the previous
action releases in the series and yet another refinement to
a gaming system that is showing remarkable versatility.