Warlocks vs Shadows is a 2D action-RPG brawler game, cast attractively in pixel graphics. You play as the titular Warlocks, a cast of characters all who wield their own brand of magic (well, four spells of their own magic) to battle the shadows, whilst upgrading your skills and gear along the way in various stages. Each stage is split up into smaller sections – 7 of them – before culminating in a boss battle. It’s very much got a Diablo-like feel to it, in terms of the hordes of shadows that approach and that you must cut down.
As you’d guess from its genre, there’s not much to speak of in terms of story. You get a slide show of images before each stage – it’s a brief attempt at contextualising events but it’s as much as you expect for a game more focused more on being a brawler. After a brief, vague tutorial, you’ve got what you have to fight against the shadows. Well, for the most part.
Each section is, essentially, an arena. You have a varying number of waves to survive in before you’re able to continue on to the next section – where another number of waves awaits. This system’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the repetition quickly unveils a lot of faults. Shadows spawn at specific locations on the map – as you’d expect – but quite bafflingly, enter with a brief period of invulnerability. Especially when the amount of shadows in a wave is light, watching your ability harmlessly pass through a shadow’s white health bar just for it to turn red after is remarkably frustrating, and happens all too often. It interrupts the flow of the otherwise pretty good combat – and given some abilities can have something of a large cooldown early on, makes the decision for invulnerability feel counterintuitive.
There’s more painful aspects to the wave system too, sometimes, and it comes in the form of the arena design and some of the shadows themselves. The arenas can often be quite large – and this, coupled with the limited screen space of 2D, means you’re often susceptible to a random pot shot from a shadow just off screen. Similarly, the arenas can often just end up with some bizarre quirks. The second stage, for example, incorporates jump pads. With some shadows that can also jump, as well as use jump pads, the result is an infuriating mess. You’re waving spells about watching a horde of shadows jump up, and down, and up, and down, and you genuinely feel like your time is being wasted. It’s times like this where Warlocks vs Shadows truly lets itself down, and what fun you might get from the combat feels completely null.
Furthermore, the shadows’ design in general mean that you, too, will be hopping up and down like a magic rabbit. With many of the characters having ranged projectiles that fire on determined, linear paths, the inclusion of flying and jumping creatures can make gameplay truly a chore sometimes. You jump via pushing up on the analog, and often you don’t feel like there’s a reason to stop in combat – especially with certain characters who have diagonal attacks, jumping is almost necessary to make the most out of them. Flying creatures can be a total pain. Some of the early flying shadows can hit you with such precision and you can do absolutely nothing about it. They’re later joined by flying shadows with lasers – which might sound a little more avoidable, if they didn’t raise in an arc you’re likely to jump in. It’s perhaps the biggest detraction to much of the shadow’s designs – they can feel unfair, especially with the tools you have and the tools you lack, since you can only choose between fight or flight.
The culminating boss fight is, however, sometimes worth the hassle through the waves. The music picks up and the bosses are appropriately dynamic and visually a lot more interesting than the smaller shadows you’ve just fought through. They can be a decent challenge – deceptively so at times – and if you run out of health potions, you can begin to find yourself in a real bind. I think they’re balanced well enough – there’s a kind of Souls quality to several of them, as you figure out more of their moveset on each successive try. They’re worthy adversaries, and stand out as one of Warlocks vs Shadows greater features.
The characters, too, are mostly excellent. Each of the 11 warlock has four abilities which, usually, results in a very synergetic set. My personal choice was one of the starters, Anya the Ice Mistress, who’s skills all resulted in the shadows being marked with a part of a snowflake. Regardless of how full the snowflake is – the fuller it is, the more damage you do – Anya can detonate it with one of her abilities for an effective burst of damage. Warlocks vs Shadows excels here; when you set up a string of your abilities and watch a set of Shadows melt, there’s a real sense of satisfaction. The combat, when you’re not bouncing about, can feel very fluent, and this is aided by the item system. Items have stats on them: the usual extra damage, cooldown reduction, and even some unique passives such as one that can regenerate health – which means, with the right item build, you can be hitting hard abilities on a remarkably short cooldown. For all purposes it’s a great system, and there’s plenty of options that you can pick to suit your chosen warlock.
A note on the soundtrack, too – a small looped track is featured on each stage and it can quite quickly become a draining listen. The boss themes are much more anthemic and easier to listen to, but it’s a shame the music you hear for longer ends up a lot less memorable and instead a little annoying.
Ultimately, as a single player experience, Warlocks vs Shadows has the depth but didn’t give me the satisfaction I wanted from its identity as a 2D brawler. I do think there’s a lot good here – the unique characters and the pixel style stand out especially. Many of the detractions, too, can perhaps be balanced by the local multiplayer available, making those occasional large arenas feel smaller, and the combat much more of a fair challenge. However, the repetition of the wave system isn’t always alleviated by the culmination of a boss battle, and better alternatives exist for a single player.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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