Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Path of Shadows

The title Screen

Created by students at the Pompeu Fabra University, Path of Shadows is a third person, action-stealth game released independently in 2013. It features a singleplayer campaign only and is available free to download from their website: Path of Shadows

The First Thing
Taking into account the price and student developers, I was really impressed by the visuals to the game - in particular the model for the playable character. There are paid games from professional design studios that look significantly worse than Path of Shadows. Maybe not the first impression of a triple-A release, but one of passion and budding skill for sure.

Plot & Devices
The soul of a ninja is brought back to life and imbued with powers over shadows by a mysterious female entity. She informs him that he is there to serve her, and to release her the temple where guards have her imprisoned.

The Ninja
Other than that, there is nothing else to the story. The game is only 15-20 minutes long and the story is simply tool to frame the gameplay. But like much of the game, it's indicative of the shape the game would take if the developers were given got the chance to work on it professionally.

The Game
Path of Shadows consists of three zones: graveyard, village and temple. The objective of each zone is simply to get to the end. The gameplay is never especially complicated, but is more about what it represents: many of the traditional ideals of the original stealth games like Thief. Clear indicators of shadow/light and open levels that give the player choice about how to proceed.

Shadows and light play an important role in most stealth games, but in Path of Shadows they are even more central. The ninja possesses certain magic powers that cost energy; energy which is only regenerated when in shadow. Being outside in light diminishes this energy so a careful balancing act could exist. Despite the short gameplay the compliment of powers is quite extensive. The player can teleport to shadow, create pools of shadow on the ground that slowly shrink (this poo does not recharge energy), summon a raven to show the direction to travel and see the world in a form of x-ray vision. There is no combat, but enemies can be slain if attacked from behind and bodies can be made to dissolve with pools of shadow. Alerted enemies will go for help/pursue you, but can be lost by intelligently hiding in shadows.

Sneak sneak sneak

In a Dead Space style the UI is displayed on the playable character, with the brightness of the glyphs indicating when in shadow and the glyphs on the scarf representing how much energy is available. There is no ability to save and Esc will close down the game. There is a checkpoint system of sorts, in that you can return at any time to a recent check point with backspace but it is inconsistent what this does. It seemed to me that alive enemies would reset, but dead enemies would remain dead (a bug I think).

The art-style is reminiscent of a graphic novel, with vibrant colours and over-inked edges. Shadow is black, and other pools of brighter light are shown quite clearly. Special mention should be made to the ninja, who is drawn and animated exceptionally well for what is essentially an amateur production. The music is not particularly memorable, but appropriate. The voice acting is about the level you would expect from a production like this.

As a PC exclusive I found that frame-rate was consistently way above 60, and mouse control was without problem. There is no in-game options menu (a small pre-game launcher does exist) and the developers do warn that there is a possibility the game may not run on some set-ups - but was fine for me. I did encounter bugs, but nothing too game breaking.

Get back to the shadows

Wrap up & Negatives
This is a student effort and is free; which means that expectations should be lowered, and leniency given. There are quite a few bugs and the length of the game is very short. The voice acting is a little suspect and one wonders whether some of the effort spent in making some of the ninja powers could instead have been put elsewhere like another level...

...but it was free! And made by students. So all this gets a free pass.

This is a very promising title. You should play it because it costs you nothing and takes 15 minutes of your time. It's even a good game (brief as it is) with nice mechanics and art style. I am not exaggerating when I say it has one of the best looking main characters I've encountered, and mechanics I would love to try out in a fully fledged game. I look forward to playing a bigger release from these devs if they get the chance. Try not to look at Path of Shadows for what it is, but more of a demo of what it could be.

The student team behind Nitronic Rush (my review) went on to launch a successful kickstarter for a spiritual sequel called Distance. They raised $161,981 and from the pre-alpha footage of Distance (YouTube) it looks to be good. This outcome was unlikely to happen without support, and with it brought new talent and content to the gaming scene.

Give the same to the Path of Shadows guys and let's bring their potential to gaming too. Play it. If you like it, recommend it. I definitely do and will be supporting a kickstarter from this team if we are lucky enough to get one.

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