Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Shadowgate 64: Trials of the Four Towers

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Released on May 31, 1999, by Kemco (and developed by Infinte Ventures), Shadowgate 64: Trials of the Four Towers features hours of first-person puzzle-solving action in The Castle Shadowgate, as the halfling, Del Cottonwood, attempts to use his wits to stop the resurrection of the evil Warlock Lord.
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The Personal Story:
During the Nintendo 64's heyday, I never took much interest in Shadowgate 64. The reviews were average, and the screenshots were not inspiring. However, the title kept popping up, particularly when I looked at EBay listings by people selling their Nintendo 64 and games. For whatever reason, many seemed to have Shadowgate 64 in their collection. The game certainly filled a niche: the Nintendo 64 didn't exactly feature a lot of puzzle-heavy graphic adventure games. Eventually, curiosity got the better of me, and I picked up a copy from the very location that had piqued it in the first place. 

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Graphics: I hope you like brown and gray. That's what Shadowgate 64 gives the player in spades. Granted, the game takes place in a medieval castle, but the grainy, blurry, low-resolution graphics do Shadowgate no visual favors. Considering there is very rarely anything moving onscreen, and that Shadowgate 64 was released more than halfway through the Nintendo 64's run, this is inexcusable. This game should look sharper. Movement is at least quick and smooth, and once the player has gotten used to Shadowgate's visual style, it works well enough. The game's autumnal atmosphere is decently conveyed. W
hen the player finally begins to run into other people, the models and design are not bad, though certainly nowhere close to the system's best. Shadowgate 64 does do a great job of saving its better graphical moments for last, though. Rumors of beasts and warlocks are payed off quite well, as Shadowgate shockingly gets its stuff together, and delivers. Yes, that is a dragon hovering high above the castle in the photo below, but if you want a closer look, you've got to play the game and earn it.   

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Sound: Shadowgate 64's soundtrack is like a 64-bit cross between Chrono Trigger's and the Legend of Zelda's, though not quite up to the level of those two(and few if any games' soundtracks are). Where Shadowgate 64's graphics are lacking, its soundtrack creates that relaxed feeling of medieval mystery the developers were shooting for. It's fun to hang out in certain rooms just to hear the lovely music in the background. The sound effects and overall sound design aren't quite up to that level, though, as there simply aren't many (a splash here and a crow calling there), and the sound quality isn't that great. Despite coming at the tail end of the Nintendo 64's second generation, Shadowgate 64 features absolutely no speech (excluding a brief chant near the end). As Shadowgate 64 does not feature a great quantity of character interaction, character voices would have helped enhance immersion into the game's world. Instead, everything is handled via text box. Considering the amount of reading the player already has to do, thumbing through the castle's books and observing its surroundings, a break from text boxes would have been nice.  

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Gameplay: Shadowgate 64 starts off slowly--very slowly. The player begins the game stuck in the castle jail, slinks out, and gradually makes their way from underground caverns to the castle innards, to the castle grounds, and back and forth through all of them again and again. During the game's early portions, not much happens. For quite a while, the player wanders around the castle alone, exploring aimlessly, and with no character interaction. This may be the point where some players call it quits, and they cannot be blamed. Lousy graphics and unexciting gameplay give little reason to think the game will get any better. However, as one gets deeper into Castle Shadowgate, something strange happens: Shadowgate 64 gets under your skin. This isn't a great game. Some of Shadowgate 64's puzzles are logically ridiculous and sometimes the player is just running fetch quests...the graphics are muddy and mostly unappealing...the soundtrack is good, but the player never hears a human voice...and somehow these elements all come together to create an enjoyable product. This is only because, as slow and aimless as the game begins, it really starts to come together in its second half. Del finally begins to run into other humans, and finds an item that drastically changes the dynamic of the game: a ring that allows him to see and speak to the dead. As Del meets the castle's past denizens, Shadowgate's history is slowly revealed. This is the reason to keep playing. Finding and retrieving items for the deceased to give them closure is highly enjoyable and gives Shadowgate 64 pathos. The game builds on this, adding in cooler elements and environments. This all builds to an epic,final 30-minutes that is absolutely euphoric. Despite how satisfying the ending is, it doesn't change the fact that getting there is not an entirely smooth experience. This explains why Shadowgate 64 holds a dedicated cult following to the present day (and why this gamer has already played through twice), yet seldom finds itself on any best of lists.

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Lasting Value: A first play through of Shadowgate 64 may take anywhere from 8-12 hours. Playing through a second time, knowing all the castle's secrets, the game can be beaten in under three hours. There is nothing to earn, and only one difficulty level. The only reason to play again is listed in the gameplay section: the castle gets under your skin, and once you understand why things are the way they are, you want to visit it again. Knowing all of Shadowgate 64's secrets actually makes the experience more enjoyable--and that's not something to be said about many games.

Muddy, low resolution castle, but the game handles its big moments well.
Music and Sound
Sparse sound effects and no voice-acting, but the soundtrack is excellent and evocative.
A sluggish start, featuring non-intuitive puzzles and little action, eventually gives way to more involving gameplay and interactions.
Lasting Value
Only takes ten hours to beat, with nothing to unlock, but Castle Shadowgate is a comforting place to revisit.