Monkey paw wishes

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This Shadow Tower: Abyss article was supposed to be a straightforward one. It’s the accomplished sequel to a game I fell in love with, a title filled with beautiful environments, an expanded combat system that allows you to lop off individual body parts, and has been rebalanced in the player’s favour. It’s essentially everything a good sequel should be, taking the basic structure of the original and then reshaping it into a more refined but still recognisable version of its former self.

The trouble is I have a huge problem with Abyss: I don’t like this polished player-friendly vision of Shadow Tower half as much as the weird and soul-crushingly difficult original.

It’s not Abyss that’s the issue here, it’s me. I know I should like it more. On paper there’s no reasonable grievance to be brought against any of these changes, there’s nothing new here that’s objectively worse than what came before. In fact you can safely say that anything that hasn’t been kept at least as good as it already was in the original Shadow Tower has been improved upon, to the point where some very specific issues have been addressed in exactly – exactly – they way I hoped they’d be.

So what the heck’s my problem?

My problem is a bit of a weird one: I didn’t like Shadow Tower because it was a good game, I liked it because it was a go- no, I wouldn’t say it was a good experience… more like an enthralling one. The original Shadow Tower is in many ways not a good game at all, happy as it is to leave you to die lost and alone in the dark without any means of attack or any way to dig yourself out of the hole you’ve created. It was by turns brutal and infuriating and obtuse and there was nothing in heaven or hell that could have kept me from seeing it through to the end.

Abyss stands in direct contrast to the previous entry’s digital flagellation: It’s user-friendly, better balanced, and has installed some not-so-subtle guide rails to silently assist you through to the end of your new adventure without having your blood pressure hit the ceiling first. You don’t even instantly die if you step to the side at the beginning in this one, that’s how well-behaved the level design is! It’s also more logical, the maps are more straightforward, and the frequent item shops are fully stocked with a wide range of useful items, pieces of equipment, and refills of every ammunition type – you can even sell anything you’ve outgrown or no longer need for cold hard currency or stash your extras there for later retrieval at any other item point in the tower, much like classic Resident Evil‘s magical item chests.

And by improving itself in those key areas the game loses much of the bottled lightning the first one had and becomes more… more like a regular game, really. Something to be played, understood, completed, and then put away once the credits have rolled – and you will see the credits roll so long as you keep plugging away at it.

Let’s get specific. The original Shadow Tower suffers at times from the lack of any form of compass, map, or means to orient yourself as you bumble around in the dark. In my previous babblings about the game I specifically pleaded for scribbled “You are here” sketches scratched into the walls as a simple but not hand-hold-y way to keep players grounded – and Abyss delivers them, exactly as requested! They’re helpful, accurate, and placed wherever they’re needed. Thanks to this new addition, a feature that shows up in the first major area and then accompanies you through the rest of the game, you never have to worry about getting lost or missing something important.

So how can I possibly have a problem with that?

Perhaps recognising that the original was a little too eager to leave you directionless and with no clue if there even was something worth finding in your current area at all never mind where it was hidden, Abyss’ wall-scrawls not only mark your current position within the surrounding area but add big red X’s for major features as well as smaller dots for shops and save points too. In theory this can only be beneficial to whoever’s playing, giving you some sense of the immediate area and letting you know where you need to head without stumbling around monster-infested caves for hours at a time but the reality is it completely changes your relationship with your surroundings: Knowing where you need to go (these maps are always honest and useful so there’s never any need to question or be wary of the information you’re given) implies everywhere else is somewhere you don’t need to go, tarnishing your exploration of what may have otherwise been curious dead-ends and mysterious passageways stretching away into the dark with the lingering feeling that you’re wasting your time poking around somewhere you don’t need to be. That “You need to be over here” X on the map turns what could have been a helpful way of getting your bearings into a virtual checklist with only one or two progression-worthy tasks on it – there’s no journey, no adventure.

A similar improvement comes from the strictly linear nature of your trip through the tower this time around: Abyss will never teleport you without warning into an area that causes you to suffer life-threatening damage before it’s even finished loading. It will never allow you to survive level after level until you’re literally standing at the final boss’ front door, equipment mostly broken and without any healing potions to your name, and then not allow you to go any further until you’ve walked all the way back up and found then defeated the six other bosses you should have whacked on your first time down. Abyss’ mysterious magical-organic-living-tower-mystery gives you two areas to choose from per floor (and sometimes a smaller third one hidden away somewhere in the back of one of those two) and one of those areas will contain the elevator key you need to access the next set. This makes it impossible to move ahead before you’re supposed to and means you always have some idea of where you need to be going and what you’re searching for. You’re never going to come up against an overwhelming foe, never going to stare across a deadly room and wonder if you should have tried somewhere else first. Again, this is better. There’s structure and logic behind this system… but it also prevents the tower from feeling like an enormous interconnected environment where every step takes you further and further away from the relative safety of that (blocked off) entrance. In theory there is little difference between Abyss’ approach and the original’s – the harder locations are kept further in, and you need to go through most of them if you want to reach the end of the game. But by being so clear on the what and the where (even if the how changes every now and again) steers your progression into the realm of transactional labour – if you do this we’ll give you the prize, pat you on the back, and let you carry on – when in the original it was framed more along the lines of a hard-fought victory against a setting that wasn’t going to willingly give up any of its secrets.

This sensation is not helped by the content of these optional areas, filled as they are with quite literally more equipment than you’re able to carry without getting over-encumbered. The final one places you on a moving piece of rock floating past rooms filled with end-boss-killing equipment and either no or noticeably unimposing enemies guarding them, like a dark fantasy parody of The Generation Game. This all sounds very useful, especially as Shadow Tower had you worrying about running around in your underwear and fending off the forces of darkness with a toothpick only to watch what you did manage to scrape together crumble to dust after a few hits.

And it would be, if Abyss didn’t already have you groaning under the weight of your own greaves before you got anywhere near these bonus chests. I have said it before on these pages and I will say it again here for emphasis – I am a lazy gamer. I am not keen on doing anything more than the bare minimum to survive, and I will not go out of my way even for the shiniest of trinkets. Yet I still found myself regularly dumping or selling equipment all the way through Abyss just because I had more of it than I ever needed, and towards the end I would see a chest and not even bother to check it because I was already overloaded with equipment. This problem/feature is exacerbated by the new tweaks to armour durability as most of what you can wear outside of magical rings is in no real danger of breaking, certainly not before you’ve found a better piece of gear that you’d want to replace it with anyway. There’s no question this all makes it much easier to reach the top of the tower (Abyss has you heading ever upwards, while Shadow Tower had you descending to the bottom) but it effects your decision making: “Do I dare explore this unknown place and hope I find something I can use before my last piece of armour breaks?” to “Can I be bothered to get more of things I already have loads of and can buy even more of at the item shop anyway?”. Finding a yet another corpse cradling a sword or a skull with an axe embedded in it (and on too many atmosphere-shattering occasions, a modern rifle/shotgun/pair of trainers) wasn’t the blessed relief it could have been, it was just some more junk to add to my already expansive collection of things I was lugging around and never needed to use.

FromSoftware were so thorough with their interrogation of the original Shadow Tower that even your relationship with the shadows, once a suffocating blanket of infinity filled with hordes of enemies, has been altered for the benefit of the end user. In Abyss the first thing that happens is your torch fades out on the floor in real time and you’re left in pitch black nothingness for a short while as your eyes take a moment to adjust to the dark – it’s an arresting effect and one I’ve sat and watched a few times just for the heart-stopping pleasure of it. But from that point on there are no torches or portable light sources of any kind available to you (the one that dies on you is completely non-interactive – it’s effectively welded to the floor) which means the dark here is not enveloping you in nothingness, it’s not the place where monsters lurk just out of sight, but your new normal. The darkness here is designed to be something you can deal with all by yourself without effort, not something to be pushed back for just a few precious minutes with a torch you had to fight just to get close to.

As I keep saying: All of these things make the game better. Everything here addresses an off-putting issue in the original, making it easier for me to recommend and more likely that anyone who does buy it will have a good time playing it. This is a positive step forwards, and if anyone asks me to pick between Abyss and Shadow Tower: Abyss is the better game. It’s the one people are most likely to understand and play to completion without help. It’s less punishing than the original. It doesn’t require you to meticulously clear out entire areas you don’t really need to be in just to have the stat gains necessary to stand a chance at not getting utterly obliterated in the next location. You will never be left virtually naked and with no healing potions as you make a desperate bid for what you pray is an item shop. These are all good features, things a good game should have. But Shadow Tower: Abyss loses something for it. What it gained polish it lost in mystery.

Maybe I didn’t want a good game after all. Good games may be hard to make but they’re very easy to buy, and never more so than in an age where anything from ancient Vectrex overlays to the latest limited-edition import are just a few clicks away. They do what they’re supposed to do when they’re supposed to do it, they care whether you like them or not, and they’re built to let you win. By and large they’re the hobby as it should be, really, and I hope there are many more good games in the future.

But they’re not the same as an anything-goes game with a wild glint in its eye and a distinct lack of regard for its player’s well-being, and when pitted against Shadow Tower’s incredibly varied bestiary and deadly scenery I really didn’t know and couldn’t even guess what was coming up next. Heck, some enemies are so unnatural that even after you’ve got a good look at them you’re still not sure what they’re supposed to be (or want to know what they’re supposed to be…). I hadn’t got a clue where I was or what I was doing alone in the depths of that hostile place, and I knew the game wasn’t going to give me any help without a fight.

It’s really only a state of mind that separates Shadow Tower from Shadow Tower Abyss but that chasm between the two feels like it’s a mile wide: In Abyss I always wanted to see what was just around the corner. In Shadow Tower I always hoped I’d live to see what was just around the corner.

Shadow Tower made me feel like a traveller. Abyss makes me feel like a tourist.

7 thoughts on “Monkey paw wishes

  1. Fascinating. And I can understand entirely what you’re talking about here — sometimes that coat of spit and polish takes a game from charmingly flawed (but endearing because of those flaws) to something that doesn’t quite distinguish itself from its peers. Heaven knows I’ve bounced off a whole lot of big-name, big-budget, super-polished games over the years in favour of beautiful, charming, soul-filled jank!

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  2. Yeah, that’s a bit understandable. I’ll say some of your issues didn’t bother me too much, because I’m the type that obsessively explores for stuff. Those maps with the X’s for your destination? That’s totally a “Go here last” marker for me. That’s telling me where I don’t want to go, for now. It’s been a while since I played it, but I don’t remember too many inventory weight issues off-hand, I must’ve been throwing most of my stuff into storage or something. Throwing my soul pods into strength maybe? I dunno! Or… I vaguely remember a ring or something that might’ve let you hold more? That could easily be some *other* game though. I know I looted basically every nook and cranny though. I always try to find ways around inventory limits, really strict inventory limits drive me nuts.

    I can definitely agree with the notion that there’s just something… compelling about the original Shadow Tower. It skirts that fine line between being ridiculously frustrating and obtuse and yet driving you to see what comes ahead. The only other game that I can really think of offhand that is sort of similar is Brandish, even if that’s a different style of game.

    As a whole, it’s not as difficult, though even Shadow Tower wasn’t overly difficult once you got a ways into it, had a bunch of decent gear and a stock of healing potions. And given my explore every nook and cranny nature, I probably ended up a bit overpowered.

    “You don’t even instantly die if you step to the side at the beginning in this one, that’s how well-behaved the level design is!” While it is a lot harder to manage to die instantly in this one, I do think you can manage to get crushed by that falling pillar at the start. Could be wrong though. Maybe it only does damage. Not sure anymore!

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    1. Oh no that pillar at the beginning does instant-kill you if you get caught by it! Happened to me the first time I booted it up and gave me a good laugh XD

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  3. This is a problem I’ve struggled with when it comes to more modern, streamlined entries in some game series. Sure, I want things to be more accessible so more people can enjoy them. It gets very lonely ranting and raving about a game nobody else plays!

    But… I kinda like it when the game can kick my butt or leave me totally clueless sometimes, so I miss things being more “unwelcoming”. I guess properly-implemented difficulty settings could maybe bridge the gap a bit, but there’s nothing quite like a game seemingly designed to punish you. A compelling challenge versus something that… well, as you said, shelve and move on after the inevitable win after XYZ gameplay hours.

    It’s unfortunate that Abyss had this effect on you, but I guess that makes your amazing adventure through the first game that much more meaningful <3 (the screenshot struggles on Twitter were just a joy to follow)

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    1. I’d still much rather have made my way through Abyss than not, even if the experience was far more mild this time around. From should definitely make the setting a trilogy though – some proper low-budget thing they sneak out and unleash upon unsuspecting gamers MWAHAHAHA~

      (I don’t think I’ll ever forget that Twitter thread!)

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