Nightmare fuel for nightmare fuel

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Shadow Tower, FromSoftware’s 1998 PlayStation exclusive first-person horror die ’em up released long before we collectively “got” the tense dark fantasy themed games they’d been trying sell us since the original King’s Field, is referred to by my son as “The staircase game”: It’s not because you spend a lot of time trudging up and down them – there’s only one of any real significance, a plain stone path winding its way deep down into the bowels of the titular tower with a few broken segments along the way – but because that unassuming piece of scenery is the first thing you see, the first thing you stand on, and…

…there’s a very good chance it’ll be the first thing to kill you too.

It was my own fault. Whenever I start a new game I instinctively jab every button just to help warm up my ageing digits as well as see for myself what the basic controls are – I am the sort of person to read the manual before heading out (when they exist, grumblegamesthesedaysgrumble) but practical experience is always the best way to go if you ask me. During this quick familiarisation routine I learned Shadow Tower maps strafing to L1 and R1 – all standard sensible stuff, and something you’ll need to master if you want to survive your tussles with the varied denizens of the game’s depths – and also something that’ll immediately take you right off the sides of the very narrow stairs with no guard rails and down into the abyss if you happen to be the sort of person – and we’re not naming any names here – who thoughtlessly prods every button when they start a brand new game for the first time. Not even htoL#NiQ dares to kill players off that quickly, and that shadow-puzzler’s design emanates nothing less than raw hatred for its users from every one of its otherwise beautiful pixels. Under normal circumstances a death that swift and stupid would get a game put back into its case and left “For another day” (read: probably never) but even then I knew, mere seconds in and with no idea of what trials lay ahead or how the heck I was going to approach any of it (my brushes with FromSoftware’s library can be broadly summed up as “Little bits long ago of nothing that’ll help me here”), that I couldn’t blame the game for this unceremonious return to the title screen. The game doesn’t stop you looking to the sides (left and right on the d-pad) or up and down (mapped to L2 and R2 – you do get used to it) and if I had taken the time to check my surroundings instead of having a little waggle I’d have seen very clearly that there was a fatal drop into nothingness everywhere around me except dead ahead and directly behind. [sigh]

These first few tentative steps down into the dark (or straight off the edge, in my case) form a brutal and highly educational lesson; perfectly encapsulating all of Shadow Tower’s core design philosophies, three simple rules that provide the framework for everything that follows:

  • All of the skills and tools you need to accomplish the tasks before you will be made available for you to use.
  • You will always be given fair warning of the dangers around you – but it’s up to you to notice them.
  • The game is not going to do anything to protect you from the consequences of your own mistakes or poor judgement.

And this is the reason why every step in Shadow Tower’s dark domain feels so thrilling, this is why the game had me utterly enthralled with it long before I understood anything about the gameplay or how to fight without ending up with nothing but a broken helm and a sliver of health to my name (and that was when I won!). It feels like a tense and almost dreamlike experience as you catch sight of fragmented messages written by unknown authors talking about events long since passed, find strange new enemies in rooms you swore were empty the first time you passed through them, and are given keys for locks you may never find. Item pickups come in all sorts of unusual forms – mysterious shapes suspended in brightly coloured liquids, delicate glass bottles tucked away behind crumbling pillars, and consumables that honestly wouldn’t look out of place as decoration in Silent Hill‘s “Otherworld“. Everything you encounter invites a sort of morbid curiosity and inevitably brings up more questions than answers: Where did that noise come from? Did somebody just speak? What’s draining my health at an alarming rate? Why is the floor here squelchy and poisonous? The game places just enough breadcrumbs along your path to make exploration and natural inquisitiveness feel like a worthwhile use of your time, but never so much that you feel like you’re in control.

And if you do start feeling cocky regardless Shadow Tower’s expansive bestiary can always be relied on to quickly cut you down to size. Beyond the familiar and visually impressive sword wielding skeletons the rest of your opponents are a hideous mash-up of body parts and assorted fauna, perfectly hitting that nightmarish mark of right-wrongness as mundane animals and organic matter are twisted into disturbing new shapes. Headless apes will leap at you. Floating nautilus will turn to show you vestigial human faces. Balls of muscle and imperfectly stretched skin will spill clouds of poison out of their exposed too-broad mouths from above. What’s especially impressive is how almost all of these horrors are restricted not to just one “world” (the tower is divided up into several distinct themed areas – fire, water, illusion, er, “death” and the like), or even one area of one world, but single rooms within one area of one world. Some enemies are rare spawns in one secret room, and only if you’ve completed another task beforehand. Apart from being genuinely life threatening all the way through – the difficulty is tuned in such a way that carelessly approaching an enemy or not realising one has slithered up behind you before it’s too late will lead to a crushing blow that would do serious damage to even the most well-equipped adventurer – the sheer number of possible encounters and all of their bizarre forms mean you really, truly, can’t even begin to guess how many eyeballs whatever you’ll face next has as you timidly inch forward in the dark.

And Shadow Tower is so relentlessly dark. Your initial reaction to that news might be something along the lines of “ugh” – in modern games low visibility is often nothing more than a petty annoyance, something artificially preventing you from seeing things you know for a fact are right there in front of you. Today’s monsters are rarely hidden by thick shadows and murky corners but more often with the calibration of a black-on-black icon during the game’s initial setup phase – the thing we all ignore because who honestly wants to get killed by something they know they could have avoided if only they’d slightly increased the brightness on their TV or nudged a slider just a little further to the right? Nobody, that’s who. Shadow Tower’s darkness is nothing like that at all – Shadow Tower’s has weight and texture, an impenetrable inky black barrier surrounding you and stretching out into infinity. We all know, and have always known, that this effect is actually nothing more than the draw distance tastefully clipping away distant scenery to prevent the original PlayStation from grinding to a halt under the weight of all of those textured polygons, the practical trade-off that occurs when technical limitations butt up against developer ambitions. At the time this was seen as a bad thing, an all too clear and constant reminder of hardware weaknesses placed right before our eyes – but we were wrong. Shadow Tower’s darkness feels so claustrophobic precisely because it’s not simply an absence of sufficient light but literal nothingness – everything you can see is all that there is, like being forced to walk through someone else’s terrible nightmare. So when a monster comes into view it doesn’t feel like a tedious non-surprise, something that could have been mitigated with the TV remote, but more like your enemies are bleeding in to reality from the shadows themselves and taking form only when you draw near.

As strange as the enemies may be with their multiple tentacles and chilling screeches taking them on always feels deadly but fair: Attacks are clearly telegraphed, even the most disgusting blobs have clear “front” and “back” ends to give you a good chance of avoiding their poisonous spittle or unnatural quantities of teeth, and powerful teleporting sorcerers can be tracked by their shadows on the floor if you’re quick enough to spot them. When these abominations are out of view you have to rely on your hearing to detect them: The game is completely devoid of music and uses only the bare minimum amount of ambient sound effects – the odd snippet of ghostly laughter, blazing torches, or in one memorable section the sound of the wind rushing past your ears as you carefully traverse an uneven rocky platform suspended in the dark – so when you do hear something you know it’s going to be more than some spooky noises coming from a shadowy corner for the sake of it but useful information for you as a player, as anything that isn’t coming from you is going to be something more sinister lurking nearby. All enemies have specific cries and movement noises attached to them and as unsettling as it is to hear something breathing heavily in an empty cavern or shuffling around nearby these unique sound effects do at least give you some warning of what’s lying in wait just around the corner even if you might not get to hit it before it hits you.

With all of these deadly falls and rooms filled with an ever-increasingly dangerous selection of creatures you’d imagine the constant tension would eventually give way to tedium as difficulty erodes into punishment and trials become torment. I’m as surprised as anyone when I say I never felt that happen with Shadow Tower, because it always felt fair. Even when I was ankle-deep in acid or being pelted by fireballs from across the room there was never a sense that these enemy placements were done out of spite, or that the game resented my progress. Even in its toughest moments it always feels like a game made to be enjoyed and completed in full (finishing the game unlocks a “New Game+” mode that places you back at the top of the tower with no other changes, allowing you to mop up all of the secrets you missed the first time around), even when you know from your fatal experience with those first steps that there’s no safety net for you.

There may be no safety net but the game does give you some room to breathe… if you carve it out for yourself. Enemies don’t respawn once defeated, so once you’ve exterminated everything in an area it really is clear and while not completely safe – all of those searing acid baths, rivers of lava, and gas-spewing orifices will never go away – you are at least free to hunt around at your leisure for any pickups you may have missed, venture back to a warp stone or item shop without getting attacked, and check suspicious walls for secret doors.

However this is Shadow Tower, and nothing here comes without a price: Limited enemies means you have a finite amount of stat gains (rather than a traditional level system you have a range of statistics that increase as you battle) and items dropped by defeated opponents – that aren’t guaranteed in the first place – are in limited quantities too. There’s no way to grind your way into godhood here, and no helpful items to farm until you can carry no more – you have to press on with whatever you’ve got to hand and try to make the best of it. And even then what you do have can’t be relied upon too much as getting hit or exposing yourself to an environmental hazard not only damages your health but the integrity of your equipment too, and raining down blows on ghosts, demons, and squelchy whatever-the-heck-that-is will eventually make even the most powerful blade useless until you find someone to fix it. At their most unforgiving areas might not even have a save point let alone somewhere to stock up on health potions (which are themselves in limited supply). When you do find a repair shop you’ll discover they accept nothing less than your very life as payment for their services – do you have enough healing potions to recover after repairing your gear? Is it worth pushing on just that little bit further as you are? There are shops that work in the opposite way too, places happy to permanently remove equipment in any state of disrepair from your inventory in exchange for healing potions… you do have enough equipment to keep moving forward now, don’t you? Are you sure you didn’t need that mace?

So with everything in such short supply and crumbling away as I used them on my first go I tried playing Shadow Tower as if it was a survival horror title, and that meant running past enemies wherever I could and trying to get through each area as quickly as possible. I thought conserving what I had and keeping myself out of harm’s way was the right sort of stance to take – and it did work, in a way. It wasn’t easy but by skipping as much as possible I found myself standing before the final boss door in record time and with a few pieces of precious equipment intact. The door was magically sealed, of course. To gain entrance you need to defeat six bosses, one for each of the themed areas of the tower. Walking back up, or even tackling it in reverse order, was a possibility (much like a good Metroid or later Castlevania title you are by and large free to approach the game however you wish) but I knew the best thing to do was start afresh and see how the game played out when tackled from the beginning with a more cautious mindset. For my troubles I had not one but two surprises here: The first was finding that I really didn’t mind starting over at all – always a good sign – and the second was how much easier the game got when I engaged with monsters and explored every nook and cranny. The stat increases you gain are significant even if enemies never stop being incredibly intimidating, and while you’d never say you had enough of anything the items they drop – when they drop them – are always immediately useful and will help you live a lot longer. The fascinating knock-on effect of these rewards is realising how it changes your own behaviour – fighting demons and the undead is never easy, but when you know for a fact it’s the best course of action in the long run you find yourself seeking out life-threatening trouble and clashing with slimy horrors you could otherwise avoid because you know if – if – you’re good enough you’ll come out of it stronger than you were before, and perhaps with a shiny new pair of boots too.

It would be easy to view Shadow Tower as little more than a prototype “SoulsBorne” game and leave it there – it is after all very easy to draw a line from this game’s unforgiving and loosely freeform area exploration with it’s dark horror stylings and plot that has to be inferred from scattered wall scrawls and enemy data to FromSoftware’s modern offerings, but it deserves better than to be thought of as another title’s rough template. It has its own agenda and ideas and pursues them relentlessly, whether you’re up to the task of keeping up or not. Speaking as someone who has never been able to really enjoy Demon’s/Dark Souls (Bloodborne is absolutely my kind of thing though – I’ll happily die with a threaded cane in my hands until my PlayStation 4 controller needs recharging) but I found Shadow Tower to be all-consuming – I just couldn’t put it down, and even when I could I didn’t want to.

None of this means Shadow Tower is a flawless treasure or has been untouched by the passing of time – the complete lack of any maps (either to keep with you or even just a “You are here” sketch pinned to a wall) or any form of compass in a game that has multiple vertically connected levels and doesn’t conform to the rigid grid format familiar to old dungeon crawling fans at times teeters dangerously on the edge of being frustrating rather than immersive (at one point I was staring at the repeating floor textures, wondering if I could use those to keep myself orientated), and mapping the look controls to shoulder buttons is an awkward reminder of a time when analogue inputs were considered optional luxury extras rather than standard-issue hardware. But in spite of these issues and the false sense of familiarity the screenshots here may give fans of FromSoftware’s later works Shadow Tower stands apart as an absorbing, rewarding, and thoroughly unsettling trip through the dark.

8 thoughts on “Nightmare fuel for nightmare fuel

  1. This sounds simultaneously fascinating and nightmarish. I love it. Absolutely agreed on your point about technologically limited “darkness” — I’ve actually been thinking about this sort of thing quite a bit recently, albeit with even older hardware in mind. I actually *miss* the fact that different platforms had different technological limitations to them; it made the same game on a different platform feel like a unique experience — and made games specifically designed for a particular platform feel like a special experience, too.

    I’ve been playing a Switch game called Saboteur! recently; it’s a remake of an old ZX Spectrum title that initially insists that you play it with low-resolution, seven-from-fifteen colours on screen visuals and unashamedly *plays* like an old Spectrum game too — weird jumping, sluggish handling, jerky movement. And I absolutely *love it*. Weirdly, I think these kinds of technologically limited experiences, while they could be frustrating back in the day, are actually all the more fascinating to enjoy today.

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    1. Oh yes! When a port of an older game decided to look at the target hardware’s strengths (and limitations) and run with them you could get some really special results, even if they weren’t strictly speaking authentic – fun times!

      That Switch remake sounds incredible! What a brave way to go about it :O

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  2. I will always applaud old FromSoft games for being interesting, intriguing and atmospheric. They are very special and niche and I’m still surprised so many in the PS1/2 era got picked up for localisation. But I don’t think I can get into any personally that are pre Dark Souls. I once tried the very first King’s Field, got horribly lost for ten minutes, the low poly gfx and constant first person camera movement started to give me motion sickness, and I stopped there xD I do like the Echo Night games, though. As walking simulators they give me the nice FromSoft atmosphere but without the awkward gameplay from their other games. Alas, every once in a while I ponder at least giving Eternal Ring a shot, since it is supposed to be King’s Fieldy but shorter and considerably more easy.

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    1. It’s odd now I think about it because I’m normally the first to get motion sickness but it didn’t happen here – maybe I was just too busy worrying about getting killed to notice! Eternal Ring’s one I’d like to try myself – I avoided it at the time but now I have some idea of how to look at them it’d be interesting to see if I got on with it

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  3. Shadow Tower is a game I had trouble getting into at first, even after enjoying King’s Field a LOT, but when everything clicked… it’s pretty darn good. I’d love to see your thoughts on the sequel, Shadow Tower Abyss, which did get a fan translation a number of years after the official localization got cancelled, after it was basically complete, due to Sony’s policies at the time. It’s *really* good.

    I enjoyed Eternal Ring for what it was, but the game is a bit rough at times. It was a PS2 launch title, which kind of shows. Not as good as some of the other games, but entertaining if you want more of that King’s Field goodness. The Ancient City is miles better though.

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    1. Abyss is literally in the post as I type this (from the other side of the world, but hey…) – I knew as soon as I got stuck in to the original that there was just no way I could pass on it 😀

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  4. Happy to hear you’re going to try Abyss!! I played it recently and died very early, but I could see the potential. I’m going to give Shadow Tower a try because it sounds so thoughtful designed, even if not necessarily ‘considerate’ to the player.

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