Review: The Consuming Shadow (Insanity Edition)

Recommended: Sharpened by the addition of the new content for Steam, the Consuming Shadow is a pretty complete and fun game.  Its previous edition was fun but a little repetitive, and the inclusion of the new monsters and challenge modes more than sufficiently adds variety to this horror rogue-like.  If you are a fan of rogue-likes, the Consuming Shadow is definitely one to check out, because there's nothing out there quite like this weird and compelling mash-up of FTL travel with events, side-scrolling platforming, horror themes, and adventure-game puzzle-solving.  The art is still the weak point, as are some technical bugs, but beyond that is a quite interesting game that easily grabs me for hours at a time.

Review: The Consuming Shadow (Insanity Edition)
Date published: Nov 24, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Editor's Note: The above play-time includes both the original edition and the new Steam edition.

The Consuming Shadow: Insanity Edition is essentially the Steam edition of Yahtzee Crowshaw's rather unique procedurally-generated survival horror game now having come to the popular digital distribution series with a bevy of new additions in terms of monsters, a few new events and the like, and achievements, as well as fixes for some previous problems - and some new bugs.  In the balance, however, it adds to what was already a good game, to make it a great game.  This is the kind of game that merges genres in such a way that it becomes its own beast, and even if you don't quite like it, I'd still recommend it, because there's really nothing quite like this one.  It's not without flaws, but they're not of the variety that in my opinion detract from the game experience - things that could be improved upon rather than things that break stuff, in other words.  But enough with the waffling introduction, let's get into it shall we, dear reader?

Elementary, my dear Watson

Searching for a core mechanic in the fusion of genres and mechanics that this game represents, probably the heart of the matter is the deductive puzzle-solving in deducing which one of the five ancients are invading, and get enough information to banish them back to beyond the veil of time and space.  This takes the form of various clues you receive, while doing the various dungeons, and additionally from completion of the various procedurally-generated "missions" it tasks you with.  These clues usually give you two interconnected facts.  For instance, that the ancient associated with fear is identified with a certain rune, and the trick from that, is to piece them together into enough information to tell you definitively which ancient is invading, and what their rune is.  Additionally, you will need to find clues that tell you the four-rune banishment ritual that will seal away the ancient.

I say "need" here, but that's wrong - part of the brilliant part of the game, is it's not necessary.  You can, if you so choose, simply drive straight to Stonehenge, wherefore the chamber to banish the ancient resides at the bottom of a dungeon, and try right there, with what amounts to a random guess (or if you're very lucky, clues you find in the dungeon leading that chamber).  This has it's own risk though - banishing the wrong ancient isn't something you can just try over for, and you'll fail if you do.

As the dungeons get tougher and tougher progressing through the game, resource management, including keeping a hold of limited sanity, becomes a real concern, and it becomes something of a race to the end and there is some acumen and intelligence in deciding when to call it and head for that final encounter.  Very rarely did I have a run where I had 100% of the information in confidence, and that is very much part of the tension of the game.  With the proverbial sword of Damocles above your head with the impending countdown to invasion, the mark of a good player becomes knowing that moment to pack it in and do what best you can, and I quite appreciated the tension and skill ceiling both this adds to the game, since you have to make some logical deductions and educated guesswork more often than not, and hope you'd done so correctly.

The game doesn't leave you needing a whole notebook worth of stuff though; it thoughtfully provides one of it's own, where automatically clues you find are placed, complete with the ability to mark them as read (and as unread again if you realize after a particular clue your conclusions were wrong), as well as a table on the second page with rows for each of the three ancients that will be active in the world - the invader, an ally for them, and an enemy of them.  You can use that table to go through their colour, rune, portfolio, and such, and it helps keep that deduction element a matter of your actual ability and not a test of your memory or note-taking ability.

To take the Scenic Route or Not

The connective tissue between dungeon and investigative modes is the overworld map of sorts, populated with a few handfuls of procedurally-generated cities that you travel between with a FTL-style map screen.  Each town will either be free from the ancients' influence, and a place you can stock up on medical supplies and bullets from, or overrun by the ancient's minions, and a place with a dungeon you can investigate.  This could very easily make some FTL-style scrub plays where the random number generator just yanks on your chain, but I have to say, it's obvious some care has been taken to ensure this does not occur, because I have never had a run where it felt like I was just continually being thwarted in that regard; an easy pitfall for rogue-likes to fall into.

In towns that are still free from the shadow's influence, you can pick up medical supplies - refilling a medkit you use to restore health, or replenishing a stock of narcotic drugs you can use to temporarily restore sanity (emphasis on the temporary there, but I'll touch on the sanity mechanics in greater depth below).  You can also heal status ailments if you receive them in a dungeon, such as broken bones, bleeding, and the like.  You can also choose to spend one of your precious hours searching the town for ammunition and items, which gives you one or two ammunition types you can buy, and a special item at random that gives a benefit, for instance, there's a stab-proof vest that prevents the bleeding status ailment - but with the timer ever ticking down, those hours lost looking can be vital.  This does, however, give a very important lever to influence the random generation - if you're not finding special items in the dungeons, you can always go to a free town and pick one up.  It's costly and you have to consider if it's worth the time sink, but it turns runs that would otherwise be impossible, into those that are merely quite difficult.

Time ticks by on the road too, and travel times are a consideration.  There's upgrades you can come across, by way of the meta progression birth stars, or certain events, to increase the speed of you car, but it's not an instant teleport.  Additionally, while you are travelling, you can have random events occur - some of which are to potentially help people in various bad situations on the side of the road at risk to yourself, for instance - but you will also receive occasional text messages from a variety of sources, which can both help and hinder.  You're given the choice of opening or ignoring them, and it basically comes down to a gamble.  This is a classic gambler's risk/reward scenario here, though aptly implemented - some callers, such as the Ministry, are usually quite safe, though not with large rewards, whereas on the other end of the spectrum are unknown callers, which can have some significant losses, but also inversely, strong gains, such as large amounts of cash, or rare tips.  You can also get missions from them, which are trading time for often appreciable rewards, so again, trade-offs.

Indeed The Consuming Shadow is a game about hard choices and trade-offs, but deviously, that choice is almost always in your own hands, and it is an ingenious way to keep the procedural generation in check.  Whether you take the longer route to get that coveted special item you haven't been able to find, or rush straight to the final confrontation, or all manner of "in between" - the game quite deftly thrusts that choice into your hands, and leaves it to those decisions and the player's indefatigable skill as to whether they succeed or fail.

Into the Dark...

Of course, you can only drive for so long before you will have to delve into one of the games many dungeons, be it in an overrun town, part of an errand you run in those missions, or simply making a bee-line for the final dungeon, there's at least one you will have to brave, and likely more.  This mode of the game is sort of a side-scroller, but a very deliberate and methodical one.  Each screen is one "room" in a procedurally-generated labyrinth, with a variety of themes, from office spaces, to warehouses, to parks, and so forth.  I was actually impressed by the variety here, most games just stamp out two or three "tilesets" and call it a day, but there's a good handful on offer here, and there's variances between them as well.

When you first enter the dungeon of choice you're given an objective, and save for the Stonehenge dungeon which serves as the final encounter, these two are procedurally generated from a list of possible ones, of which there's a decent selection: saving a missing townsperson (or finding their remains), clearing out a place of monsters that infest it, or defeating a boss beastie that's leading the local incursion, are all examples, and hardly the breath of it.

Along the way, in classic survival horror game tradition, you'll be rifling through every loose drawer and other container you can find for ammunition and healing bits, but moreover, this is your primary mode of gathering clues as well - minor ones among the main refuse, with a guaranteed major one when you complete the object (that guarantee again helping to keep the generation in check).  So again there comes that balance of choice - when the objective is clear, do you stick around and try to find more clues, risking being jumped by the many beasties that lurk in the shadows, or do you just make a break for the exit?  Of course, sometimes, again in classic survival horror tradition, the game will make the choice for you - that 'return to the car objective' barely faded from the screen before it proclaims 'RUN FOR YOUR LIFE' as one of a handful of essentially super-boss monsters chases after you.  You can stand and fight - there isn't a single one I found I wasn't able to defeat in some manner, but it's usually very ill-advised, because you'll deplete precious resources quite sorely doing so.  It's best at that point to make a break from it, and while I can't say the game scared me per se, it definitely was a harrowing experience to be immediately engaged in the game, eyes and mind glued to the screen as you try to ensure your escape and survival.

That's not to say the other, much more minor beasties - of which there are many - aren't a threat, and indeed, the game does a good job of ramping up the challenge as you progress.  None of them are unthreatening, however, so you do have to be careful, especially if you don't fancy melee, since bullets are a limited and precious commodity.  Compared to it's previous edition, there's quite a few new monsters, and also modifiers to existing ones.  There's one modifier that phase in and out of vision for instance, making them more difficult to detect, and some that emit noxious fumes that harm you if you get too close, dissuading melee with them, and while a game that has many enemies and variations thereof can often start feeling cluttered and the enemies too similar, the Consuming Shadow does a good job of mixing it up.  It also keeps those rare enemies close to it's chest - giving rare, fleeting glimpses of them to keep them from becoming too familiar.  After all, its when an enemy is unfamiliar that it is both more challenging to defeat, and scarier in the horror sense.  Again, I never really found the game scaring me per se, but it did startle me good a few times, and the escape sequences can be quite compelling.  Those whom follow me know that as it comes to horror growing up with Silent Hill 2 and System Shock 2 made me of pretty stern stuff however, and I imagine there are a few moments where I was just startled a few of my readers would find genuinely scary.

That Which is Not Dead May Eternal Lie

Particularly potentially unnerving are the insanity effects in the dungeon.  The light flickering and static effects are pretty bog standard as far as that sort of thing goes, but as that mind unravels and your sanity meter declines, the game escalates effects, as one might imagine.  One that particularly intrigued was the game switching exits around, literally, and giving false hallucinations of enemies, representing the declining grasp on reality a character would have as they slowly became undone.  Obviously keeping it up is a good idea, and there's a few ways to do that.  Positive text messages often increase it in small to moderate increments, one of the text messaging's chief appeals, and certain special encounters do as well, from the reassurance of knowing you made that difference to the bystander's life.  But as you have to flee from certain enemies because your resources or low, which degrades sanity, or take damage from those creatures, which also does, it will slowly and inevitably dwindle, making there more than one countdown to - though while the time mechanic is a hard one, you can still go on literally completely insane, you're just going to have a hell of a time of it, and I appreciate that the game lets you still win in that manner, if you are really really good - you're going to have to work for it, at that point!

The sanity mechanic is tied to the spell-casting as well.  Save for one character you can unlock that I won't spoil for my readers, every spell you cast degrades your sanity.  Each spell is quite powerful, more than enough to be a temptation - for instance a 'mass death' spell does exactly what it says on the tin, and can be quite a literal lifesaver in hairier situations, but rely on them too much (or some would argue, at all) to your own peril, because that sanity isn't coming back, and you'll want to save at least some of it for that final dungeon, it's hardly easy.  Finding spells - and you must find them, except for one of the characters, aforementioned - is a function of the clues too.  So you might not even find many of them, though I never had a run where I didn't find one or two at the least.

As I you may recall from earlier in the discussion of the sort shops system in safe towns, I'm kind of lying when I say that sanity isn't coming back, and kind of not at the same time.  There's drugs you can take to restore your sanity, however, the game doesn't forget your "real" sanity level when you take them, and the plus to sanity affects that original amount as well as the restored amount from drugs, as do negatives in turn, so if you think you can just cast spells and then take them drugs to make up for it, well, you can, but you're only delaying the inevitable, when the narcotics wear off, you're left just dealing with that original sanity amount until the cooldown clears, and you can take another.  I did find it interesting and amusing that this in a perhaps-unintended way quite well simulates the trap of addiction, as you can easily become dependent on those drugs to not have to deal with the adverse effects of sanity loss.  It feels a natural part of the game design than an intentional one, but nonetheless quite at home, as it were.

Upon These Here Pages...

Along with the clues and resources you can find wandering and scavenging the dungeon like the good little pack-rat I was, additionally were little journal pages you could occasionally find, all part of a sort of ongoing affair you can read in between runs, which detail the back-story leading up to the events of the game in a rather neat little fashion.  It does a good job of telling you just enough to titalate and want to find more of the journal, without spoiling or diminishing the actual game itself.  In short, it doesn't forget it's a framing device, and so keeps things to the build up, explaining not what's happening now per se, but what happened in the events leading up to our protagonist's actions.

The journal, and indeed the text blurbs in the game to begin with, are written in the sort of clinical, intellectual sort of tone and voice one would expect out of the sort of Lovecraft-inspired, occult investigation story that The Consuming Shadow ultimately is.  The writing is one of the strongest points in the game, as well as theming in general.  Whether the theme appeals or not in and of itself is a subjective taste, but at least a little less subjective is that for what it is, it's done very well.  The jumble it becomes as sanity declines is also quite apt as well, as is the lore itself.

It's difficult to get too heavy into discussion of the lore without spoilers, so I won't, but it's praiseworthy as well that it's quite internally-consistent when you put things together through repeated play-throughs.  While the game itself leaves a lot of unanswered questions, quite intentionally so I imagine, everything feels like it belongs in the context of the setting and there isn't anything that stands out as unneeded, or as breaking theme or immersion in some way.  I quite enjoyed the way the game slowly revealed more details of the monsters you fought in the bestiary which, again, you can read in between runs, and it also was a good way to make failures something I looked forward to in a backwards sort of way.  Or more, perhaps, that failure didn't bother me if it did happen, because I would have more of that to read through and consider.  Each failure was literally a learning experience of more of the game's quite well-composed lore, and as such, I didn't mind it.

Bugs Lie in the Shadows

So while we're on the topic of that ongoing lore, let's switch gears only slightly to discuss one of the larger problems I had while playing the game, and that's of bugs.  While the general gameplay is pretty resilient now - I didn't encounter any of the occasional crashes I did in the previous review of the original version of The Consuming Shadow - the game has inherited new issues with the Steam release.  Specifically, of the achievement variety: the ongoing achievements which should be accumulating over time as of time of writing this review don't update properly, so while the game smartly saves the things that are needed for unlocks locally, the achievement hunters in my readership will be disappointed to know that until this gets fixed, they won't be 100% the game.

That's the big thing, and for many I imagine it won't be a show-stopper, but it's not the only issue the game has.  While it wisely now only marks clues as read rather than deleting them, something I didn't really consider until I saw the difference in comparison, the backpack interface remains fiddly and somewhat clumsy, so equipping and managing special items is a bit of a chore.  Hardly something that really got on my tits, but nonetheless something that needs looked at, and moreover, really quite an odd thing to have issues with, since all you're doing is assigning items in an inventory pool to one of three slots.  The wonders of programming, no doubt.

That said though, those two bugs are pretty much the only I came across in many hours of play, so it's a pretty solid game by the by, and if people put off by some previous bugginess and crashes were waiting for fixes, well, I'd say they're mostly here now, save of course those two.

It's Dangerous to Go Alone

The interesting add over the previous beta I played back as my first preview back when the site was still covered in birthing fluid (and isn't that a great image) is the meta progressions, and there's a few beyond the lore stuff I previously mentioned.

First are two we're already familiar with from the previous edition - birth stars, which you essentially accumulate slowly over repeated play-throughs and allow you to give yourself different starting bonuses, and the unlockable additional characters, each of which has a unique play-style with different advantages and disadvantages.  Won't spoil them for you, but they're all quite interesting, and the event to unlock the female one of the lot is no longer as frustratingly rare, thankfully.

There's a new game mode introduced in this edition however, and that builds on top of the different characters you have available: challenge modes.  For each of the characters you can unlock different challenges which, when completed, grant achievements, and it adds a lot of replay and longevity beyond the standard play mode.  Additionally are seeded Daily Challenges, with a handful of randomly-generated conditions which can be both positive and negative to mix things up, and an "Endless" mode which is basically what it says on the tin - an endless version of the final Stonehenge dungeon, which introduces different conditions from that daily pool upon each level, to keep things relatively fresh.  It does eventually get repetitive as any endless mode does, but it does a fair job in keeping things interesting, I found.

The Blackest Black

So with most of the mechanics thus out of the way and speeding onto something vaguely conclusion-shaped on the horizon, I saved the most obvious bugbear for last, because while I don't think it diminishes from the game significantly enough or I wouldn't be putting that "Editor's Choice" label on it, it's still worth considering, and that's the graphics.

Let not mince words here, the graphics are something you'd expect out of a Windows 95 game.  Now, to be fair to Yahtzee, this is pretty much a common theme in his games and it's obviously the thing he'd be employing someone else to do had he the income for it, nonetheless, it's hard to avoid the fact the game certainly suffers a bit for the graphics in some ways, and there's going to be people to whom this level of quite elementary graphics are simply not acceptable, and that's fine.  Take a gander to yonder screenshots and see what you think, but if they and the couple of bugs don't turn you off, I'd say it's well worth a look.

Accessibility Notes

  • Game has a built-in options menu, but it's very rudimentary - full-screen on and off, tutorials on and off, a quick driving mode on and off, and a volume control.  That's it.
  • Flickering lights in one of the sanity derangements probably not a good thing for epileptics.
  • Works on both keyboard/mouse and controller, however neither features rebindable controls.
  • Both visual and audio feedback for important events.
  • No voice acting, so text/dialogue can be missed.

<p><strong>Recommended:</strong> Sharpened by the addition of the new content for Steam, the Consuming Shadow is a pretty complete and fun game.  Its previous edition was fun but a little repetitive, and the inclusion of the new monsters and challenge modes more than sufficiently adds variety to this horror rogue-like.  If you are a fan of rogue-likes, the Consuming Shadow is definitely one to check out, because there's nothing out there quite like this weird and compelling mash-up of FTL travel with events, side-scrolling platforming, horror themes, and adventure-game puzzle-solving.  The art is still the weak point, as are some technical bugs, but beyond that is a quite interesting game that easily grabs me for hours at a time.</p>