There was a time, long ago, when an obscure home computer called the Commodore Amiga was the greatest and most technologically advanced gaming platform in the world. Huge in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s in Europe and the proper successor to the Commodore 64 (which may still rank as the most popular home computer ever), the Amiga was a 16-bit computing monster that could do graphics on a level unseen on both the gaming console systems of the time (like the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis) and DOS/Windows-based PCs.
If you were an Amiga lover, the game developer Psygnosis was a known commodity. Psygnosis would later get swallowed by Sony to create amazing games like hovercraft racer WipeOut for the then brand-new PlayStation platform, but they cut their teeth on creating games for the Amiga. The most beloved and renowned of these games was Shadow of the Beast.
It was a technical marvel for its time, with layers and layers of scrolling backgrounds, gorgeous character designs and a vast gaming world. It was the side-scrolling equivalent to the modern day Dark Souls.
Shadow of the Beast was just as known for its punishing difficulty level as graphical acumen. So when Sony quietly announced last year they were bringing the series back, old school Amiga players like me felt equal parts excitement and trepidation. As it turns out, this return to one of the most obscure but beloved series ever is likely to cause a rift between those who wanted an experience akin to the original and players who never really lived through the trappings of the era.
For longtime fans, the PlayStation 4 exclusive is the culmination of an undeliverable promise from 1989. Psygnosis frequently hired Roger Dean to create the box cover art for their games. Dean was famous for beautifully surreal record cover art for 70s bands Yes and Asia (among many others), which helped defined that era’s musical atmosphere. His organically-themed art gave a mystique to Psygnosis games like Shadow of the Beast, but while the game was cutting edge for the time, it couldn’t quite live up to the awesomeness of the cover.
Fast-forward to today, and Dean’s gorgeous design work is vividly on display in Sony’s Shadow of the Beast. You’ll see it best in the incredible giant airships and walkers, the monolithic architecture that melds with a stark natural backgrounds. Everything we dreamed the visuals could be in 1989 has turned into a reality. Even in its brutal and ugly violence, Shadow of the Beast looks fantastic, moody, and evocative of a dream that moves between wonder and nightmare in equal measure.
This new version sticks close to the themes and concepts of the original. It’s still a side-scrolling beat ‘em up with exploration and puzzle solving. Where the Amiga had simple one-button controllers, though, the PS4 offers more options and the game uses all of them. It’s focused almost entirely on expanding the combat system to something far beyond the simple punching and kicking of the source material.
As the beast—a poor, tortured, and victimized soul named Aarbron—players take control of one of the most relentless, remorseless killers in gaming. The game doesn’t flinch from Aarbron’s purpose as an enslaved murder machine who plows through soldiers, monsters and even priests without hesitation. He manages to free himself from his evil master near the beginning of the game and regain some of his memories of how he changed from a human child into a monster. Thus begins a quest of revenge.
Aside from his brutal non-human qualities and beastly looks, he uses the permanently grafted claws on each wrist to cut through anything that crosses his path. The game’s focus on visceral combat is heavily bent on exact timing—much like the recent Batman Arkham games or Dark Souls. You’re rewarded with more points for perfectly timed blows and points enable Aarbron to be upgraded with more skills and power.
Still, even mindless combat can get old, so developer Heavy Spectrum Entertainment added layers to the world and reasons to really scour the landscapes for hidden goodies. Many of these secrets are memories and narrative passages that go into detail about just how vile the big bad guy—a wizard name Maletoth—is. Others tell us more about each of the various realms in Shadow of the Beast and their rulers and creatures. Fans of old Heavy Metal magazines will totally be entrenched with the world built here.
Those points you earn can be used to purchase more than just upgrades. You can unlock the original Amiga game, its soundtrack, and other cool bonuses. More interesting is the way the game uses language. Each race you encounter speaks a different tongue—and they’re all subtitled in their own language. For an immense amount of currency (around 2 million), Aarbron can unlock the secrets of a language, enabling those subtitles to be readable. It’s an intriguing addition that adds a surprising amount of replayability and lore to the overall game.
Shadow of the Beast is one of those games sure to slip under most gamers’ radar and hinges its enjoyment factor largely on the player’s sense of obscure gaming nostalgia. Sony has barely publicized the game and that’s a shame. This is an excellent example of how to take a classic game and revitalize it. Beast manages to obsess over classic tropes and elements of the genre—weird level design filled with nonsensical environment traps (who puts giant smashing pistons in their castle, really?), murderous platform jumping, and 2D battles—and builds it up with absurdly violent combat, stunning visuals, huge boss battles, and superb storytelling elements.
So, by all means, power up the PS4, download Shadow of the Beast, and indulge your dark, beastly side like it’s 1989 again.
Jason D'Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.
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