Editor's Note: A cautionary note for potential players - one of the effects in the game of the flickering light is probably not a good idea for epileptics. Additionally, as the game is presently only available through a direct download, the game play-time listed in the review is an approximation using the ancient technology known as a "stopwatch." Don't take it as a hard and fast number.
The Consuming Shadow is an adventure game with rogue-like elements in a Lovecraftian-style horror setting developed and published by Yahtzee Crowshaw. This is one with a bit of a history actually, since the preview of The Consuming Shadow was the first preview we had here at Highland Arrow, and one of my first articles as an independent writer when I got away from free-lancing. The game has certainly been a while in the coming, so the question on one's mind no doubt becomes: has it been worth the wait? Well, for the most part - yes, it was - but it has it's flaws, and the graphics are fairly weak. Beyond that though, is a strongly-themed and well-written Lovecraftian adventure with a hefty offering of procedual generation in the vein of rogue-likes. Indeed, it somewhat evokes comparison to FTL, though that's not quite an accurate comparison.
The Consuming Shadow combines
adventure game puzzle-solving well with rogue-like elements
The game essentially flits between four screens: the start screen where if you choose a character, and "birth stars" which change stats if you're on a second or subsequent play-through; your car, where you can travel, heal up, inject narcotics to restore your "sanity" meter, or review notes and spells; town hubs, where you are either able to replenish supplies if the town is still free from the titular shadow, or choose to investigate if the shadow has overtaken; and the various dungeons, which you side-scroll through a room at a time, fighting nasties, uncovering clues, rescuing townsfolk, or closing portals, and the like.
Starting is easy enough when you first begin: you have a single character and a bit of background context to set you on point and you're given a firm slap on the bottom and sent on your way. The customisation and complexity is essentially the meta-game - after completing the game enough times to "level" a character (once for the first level, more for subsequent ones), you gain a "birth star" - basically chosen from a map of various ones available, each one being either in proximity to or part of one or more constellations with distinct effects - for instance one increases health, another increases sanity. This makes progressive play-throughs on one character a little easier, though there's a decently-exponential curve to the progression as it goes on, and getting more than a handful of birth stars is a fair trek and likewise a decent amount of play-time put in, which serves to keep it from balling too much out of control. Later on, after having fulfilled certain circumstances, you can unlock one of three additional characters from the starting one, each of which have different costs and benefits to play, and ergo, lend themselves to different play-styles. They flesh out a pretty interesting motley crew of characters.
The town and car screens are essentially connective tissue - get gear, heal up, and take stock of your notes when you can, though the latter can be problematic since you'll burn an hour each time you scour towns for supplies, and time becomes especially previous. You get a set time to banish the ancient evil that threatens the world, after all (how much varies between characters) - so dallying to get the best items can be costly in more than just money. As to travel, it takes time as well, as you go between procedurally-generated "safe" towns where you can restock, and hostile ones the shadow has already overrun, which are the setting of the final aspect, the dungeons, and essentially the focus of the game.
Those dungeons are each basically filled in on a sort of grid layout, and the layouts are, as one might expect, procedurally-generated as much of the rest of the game. Each screen is one "room", each of which can have a four-direction exit (north, south, east, west), with the starting room obviously having an exit to that blighted outside world. In each of these dungeons - styled after a variety of locations such as houses and stockrooms and the like - you rummage around in bins and filing cabinets for supplies and clues, while fighting off various baddies to obtain an over-arching goal. For instance, one of the dungeons I played had an objective of finding and destroying a nest that was breeding foul creatures. Yet another had an objective of rescuing captured townspeople. There was a good variety of things to do and objectives to obtain that kept them from becoming too repetitive, but as one can imagine, there certainly is a degree of repetitiveness to content generated in such a way as The Consuming Shadow does. It also has the occasional dungeon to which obtaining the objective angers or releases some big baddie, and you're forced to fight or flee - and in some cases, the latter isn't even an option. It does a good job of changing gears effectively, and I am sure the first or second time that happens will at least startle, if not outright scare. All in all it works well, having to piece together from clues (which get recorded in a journal) to determine and banish the correct ancient one and get the pieces to the banishment spell, and the combat has an appropriate-seeming clunkiness that comes from design rather than poor controls.
Spell-casting and insanity bars may not be innovative,
but the way they're played with in the game is interesting
While combat occurs normally with firearm, and one of three munitions that have different functions - normal everyday rounds for your workaday murderer, hollow-point rounds for the more discerning sir, and armour-piercing ammunition for the kind of person who wants to not just kill the bloke in front of him but also those behind him as well, you sicko. You also can pick up spells however - eldritch incantations that combine the runes of the banishment ritual for different effects. For instance, there's one to heal you, or one to kill enemies in a circle around you, which given the nature of the game ends up being essentially 'clear this immediate room' - though one will quickly find their efficacy diminishes against the more powerful eldritch monsters, and there's some against which they are ineffective, but by the by, each spell is quite useful - revealing the map, cleaning a room of mooks, or other such things.
The ostensible mechanic here is that you are playing with fire - every time you cast a spell, you lose a few precious points of that sanity bar, out of exposure to the selfsame eldritch forces you are trying to banish. So there's something of benefit and a cost both to the mechanic, that keeps it from being "over-powered" or otherwise diminishing the game balance. Additionally, you have to discover those spells - either by finding notes that detail them in the dungeons, or by the risky method of trial and error. The latter is ill-advised given the sanity hit is irrespective of whether the cast was successful or not and there all manner of ill effects for low sanity, not the least of which is that you cannot cast spells if your sanity falls low enough, as such spell-casting requires focus, or so it is explained.
Negative effects of a dwindling sanity meter are one of the biggest hurdles towards the end of the game, and they are quite interestingly-cast into the game. From the game reversing your directional controls, to making lights flicker (the reason for that editor's note above), or even making the player themselves disappear from view (while the monsters can still see them), they implement a mechanical form of the intended disorientation and confusion rather well. There were quite a few times when I first started playing where I thought the game was just bugging out, until I realised it was consistently happening as side-effect of a low sanity meter. It is quite crafty, I thought, once I realised that.
Graphics are definitely the sore spot of the game
So I can whitter on about how apt I think many of the game mechanics are in their given context, the 10-foot elephant in the room is the graphics. As you might have surmised from the lead-in graphic, they aren't particularly good. I would however, also argue that they're not particularly bad either.
The problem here is you have what are essentially vector graphics - outlines and shapes and the occasional gradient for the most part - but they're rendered to raster, and rendered quite poorly I might add. Full-screen this on a 1080p or above screen and what you're treated to is an overall exceedingly-blurry and poorly-scaled render. And that's the problem with enlarging raster graphics, particularly those sourced from a lower resolution. There's things like the SuperEagle or even vaunted Photoshop's "Bicubic Sharper" filter but they can only do so much in the best of cases. I'm not sure what enlargement method is employed here, but what I can tell you is it's a very sub-par one. I would actually probably prefer to play it without the fancy resizing that's happening here, as it'd probably look better. I'm well-acquainted with pixel art these days from the endless cavalcade of low-budget indie games on Steam, and as evidenced by the style employed by Another World, there's a certain timelessness to good vector-based art even of the dated variety.
In fact, that's a good deal of the problem here - the options presented in the game are very minimal. You get full-screen or not, and whether or not tutorial messages appear, and that's it. So I couldn't, for instance, decide to disable whatever scaling is happened here to have a pure pixel-based resizing ("Nearest Neighbour" for the Photoshop-savvy in my readership), to speak nothing of the controls, which, while responsive and actually fairly well-implemented on both keyboard and controller, are not rebindable.
With some clean and crisp vector graphics I probably would have been inclined to give the graphics a pass, if perhaps not a recommendation, but as is, I had to wonder on a few occasions if my glasses needed cleaning, because they get quite blurry at points, especially on larger than 1080p screens, such as the one that I game on.
That's pretty much the one big glaring weak spot in the game, the graphics, but that's not to say there aren't others. The repetitiveness of rogue-like games is apparent here, though I find it hard to hold that against the game itself since it's more or less a genre staple and indeed an attractive aspect to the fans of the genre when done well (and the meta-game of TCS is fairly compelling), and a general bugginess. We're not talking a game that is hugely bug-ridden, but there were a couple game-breaking instances where i lost my present "run" to untrapped bugs that appeared to be in how the game generates monsters on the fly. There's an update that diminished them from a "once every 10 sessions" thing to a "rare but not unheard of" thing, so not a large black mark against the game, but worthy of consideration if you're purchasing, especially if you don't manage to grab it on a sale and are paying the full MSRP of 15$ US.