I know what you're thinking: we've been here before and it's not frightening in the least. We've battled through fantastical dungeons and tight corridors, chopping up dozens of orcs, goblins and giant spiders along the way. We've ventured down this hallway dozens of times without realizing how terrifying it could be, mainly because we're so enabled. As such, we are accustomed to wielding a sword, blocking oncoming blows, casting destructive magic, and laughing in the face of danger with every level we gain. Take away those capabilities, though, and a "warrior" wouldn't stand a ghost of a chance. In other words, forget the embellished avatar you've created and instead thrust yourself into a hero's situation and you will understand how truly frightening a fantasy world could be.
In Shadowgate, you're not so empowered. Despite your heroic heritage, you aren't a veteran combatant armed to the teeth with fine weaponry and quality armor. Rather, you're an average citizen with an impressive pedigree, and you're vulnerable, unarmed and alone.
There are no RPG elements like turn-based combat or level-building, as this is a graphic adventure rather than a role-player. As such, the rewards for victory against what few snarling beasts wander Castle Shadowgate's halls differ from the standard experience and gold. Some prizes are more tangible, like access to new areas and obtainable items needed to advance, but one other reward is less tangible and more appreciable: survival.
This isn't to say that Shadowgate's small game world is crawling with ravenous monstrosities. Rather, there's only a small handful of foes, but that's all the game needs. After all, it doesn't take much to end a life. In some cases, as in Shadowgate, it only takes one false move. For instance, misstep against a troll and find yourself hurtling down a chasm. You could also have a momentary lapse of intelligence against a dragon, which earns you a quick incinerating death. Those deaths are nothing compared to those suffered at the hands (claws?) of various demons who promise a most gruesome end. While this may sound like you're completely powerless, you aren't without an out. Each situation is like a puzzle, requiring the use a certain item or spell to subdue your opponent. Fail to solve the puzzle, though, and you could become a bloody corpse or smoldering pile of ash.
While it's refreshing to engage in a title that utilizes puzzles in place of combat, it's also where the game turns sour. This is because you can solve nearly every puzzle through trial and error or process of elimination. Let's say, for example, that you've run afoul of a cyclops and see no logical means to defeat the beast. You might fear dying, except that being able to save and reload at any time renders death of little consequence, serving only to remind you of your mortality. With your file saved, you can then experiment with various objects in your inventory until one happens to fetch you the results you're looking for. In the case of the cyclops, you have to knock him out with a sling and stab him with a sword. You might realize once you've accomplished this that there's no rhyme or reason as to why you need to use those two items and not a spear or an arrow, both of which are useless here. This robs the game of some intelligent puzzle solving and reduces it to selecting items and praying.
While this aspect sounds like a flaw, it can also work in your favor when you're in a bind. If you're stuck on a certain puzzle and it's driving you insane, trial and error can rescue your project from the boredom that results of being unable to advance. All you have to do is tinker with the right stimulus or use the correct item and you're on your way.
Unfortunately, puzzles are not the only victims of trial and error. There are numerous scenes where you can easily screw the pooch and not realize it. Take a laboratory about halfway through the game as an example. There are a couple ambiguous perils there, such as a small cage holding a mutant puppy that instantly kills you. There's also a mysterious vial you can drink that, big surprise, instantly kills you. This seems to be the case with a lot of stimuli in the game, as you'll encounter plenty of doors and portals that instantly kill you in various interesting ways, ranging from being sucked into a void to becoming an enormous white demon's midnight snack. You have no way of knowing where perils lurk, as there's no warning or hint telling you that certain doors or stimuli are dangerous. In order to find out what's dangerous and what isn't, you have to experiment and die a few times.
[cue metal song]
Not that dying is uncommon. One rather impressive and somewhat troubling aspect of Shadowgate is that the developers actually took the time to program tons of death descriptions, some of which involve committing suicide. While being torn to bits by a mutant puppy is unpleasant, it may not be as horrible to some as voluntarily shoving a sword into your chest, crushing yourself with a hammer, setting yourself on fire, or lapping up acid that eats through your throat. It's practically a side quest in itself finding different ways to end your life just so you can read the morbid texts that accompany them.
This might cause you to wonder why the developers didn't put the level of attention into Shadowgate's puzzles that they put into the many multiple ways to die. I like to think it's because the game wasn't meant to be a major piece of interactive fiction like some graphic adventures, but was intended to be more of a light quest that teaches a valuable lesson. I see Shadowgate as a morbid reminder of how fragile and fleeting life can be, not to mention easily manipulated in our favor at times--a modern day "memento mori," if you will. It tells us that sometimes small mistakes can end our lives and lucky guesses can improve our situations. Brute force and intelligence don't always equate victory; especially not in the world we live in, where bullets can fell heroes and dementia can seemingly erase our minds. Chaos reigns, and sometimes it likes to remind us that.
Despite that little pearl of wisdom, Shadowgate still isn't an excellent title. It's a decent rainy day project for anyone who appreciates simple old school adventures, especially those that call to mind just how easily life can break you.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.