Saturday, March 23, 2024

Game 507: Shadow Caster (1993)

Just about every site has the title as one word. There is no support for this on the title screen, box cover, or manual cover, all of which have it as two words.
Shadow Caster
United States
Raven Software (developer); ORIGIN/Electronic Arts (publisher)
Released 1993 for DOS, 1994 for PC-98
Date Started: 16 March 2024 
This is one of those games where I appreciate what they're trying to do, and I don't want to discourage them from thinking outside the box, but it's just not for me. I don't know why. In addition to soft-serve ice cream, heat pumps, free jazz, anime, and Cheetos, I just have a Thing about playing animals. I also have a Thing about shapeshifting; in the rare game that I play a druid, I almost never use the ability. 
The manual and opening cinematic (very well done, incidentally) tell the story of Kirt, a young man living in the big city with his grandfather. One stormy night, his grandfather sits him down and explains that neither of them are from Earth: they're actually from another dimension, from a race called simply the People, some of whom have the gods-given ability to shapeshift into creatures from still other dimensions (who in turn gain the ability to shapeshift into people, benefiting everyone). Long ago, the People had a thriving civilization, but the gods didn't favor everyone, and thus a caste system emerged. 
A fireplace in a high-rise apartment?! Does this city have no code enforcement?
Malkor, an outcast god, rallied the lower-class, non-shapeshifting malcontents and gave them shapeshifting powers--but only if they sacrificed the animals they wanted to change into. One of Malkor's followers, Veste, killed the People's Holy One, Riodn. A civil war ensued. The good shapeshifters won, but only after the destruction of nearly their entire civilization. Most of the gods, disgusted that the People had used shapeshifting to stratify society, abandoned them. One god, Tovason, stayed behind and warned the People of a future in which Malkor would return and their shapeshifting powers would be needed again. Apparently, that time has come. Kirt is some kind of prophesied hero, his choices so open that he "casts a shadow" on the gods' abilities to read the future.
So they went with a literal name, then.
As grandfather finishes up his exposition dump, a gargoyle, awakened from the side of the building, comes crashing through the window and drags the old man away. Grandfather has time to fire off one desperate spell, hitting Kirt and sending him to another dimension.
It was a time of darkness; it was a world of fear.
The game begins with no character creation, in a random alleyway, with a grotesque enemy charging down it. You better have read the manual. Kirt can activate punches with either hand or a kick by clicking the appropriate icon and then right-clicking on the screen itself (or hitting SPACE). This particular enemy (the manual calls it a "slobbering beast") dies in a few hits.
A tough beginning.
With the first enemy gone, we can catch our breath and note that the interface makes use of a near-identical raycasting engine as the previous year's Wolfenstein 3D from id Software. Indeed, John Carmack is credited as the "engine programmer" for Shadow Caster. The same year, Carmack would use another update of the engine for Doom. Shadow Caster proved that it could work for games without firearms, and Raven Software (who before this had only produced 1992's Black Crypt) would apply it accordingly to Heretic (1994) and Hexen (1995). 
Hey, that guy looks a little familiar.
You might notice that none of these other games are RPGs. Is Shadow Caster? It's a tough call. I require character development to include more than just increases in health; here, as you gain experience and level up, you increase maximum health and energy, so technically that's more than just health. I'm not sure if there's some kind of underlying power that also increases. There's also a type of "character development" in your ability to acquire new forms to shift into. I also require that character development involve some level of player agency--you should be able to control the rate or type of development. Games in which development occurs at fixed intervals (usually because the game is completely linear) generally don't qualify. I don't know if Shadow Caster passes this hurdle or not. Certainly, the beginning feels very linear, and enemies do not respawn, suggesting a closed system.
At least the enemies aren't derivative.
Since ORIGIN published it, one cannot help but compare it to the 3D engine that Blue Sky Studios built for Ultima Underworld. As an RPG, I would say that the Underworld engine is better. Underworld let you look up and down and explore a truly three-dimensional space, with bats flying overhead, rivers running under bridges, and jumping spells propelling you to the highest reaches of enormous caves. You could also do more in the environment. It was an explorer's engine. id's engine is perhaps a better shooter engine, particularly if you like to play with the keyboard exclusively. Its turning is fast and smooth, and there's no question whether you're aiming accurately as long as you're pointed at the enemy. There's no way to get confused about your plane.
Aside from the graphics, the interface works fine. There are keyboard backups to everything, which I always prefer, although attacking can involve some targeting for which you need the mouse. There's a very nice automap.
Given that it's an Origin game, it's a wonder that they didn't try to shoehorn the Avatar into it. (The character on the box cover by Denis Loubet even looks like the Avatar.) In fact, MobyGames quotes designer Brian Raffel as saying that it was going to be an Ultima game for a while--after it was going to be Black Crypt II and before it was going to be Bard's Tale spinoff. The shapechanging aspect was apparently a late addition to the project.
But here, they couldn't help themselves.
Getting back to the game: As I wander through the small area, I find a Wand of Fire and a health potion. An obelisk grants me my first animal form: a six-limbed, six-foot-tall bipedal feline called a "Maorin." They apparently have special sight, powerful jumps, and devastating claw attacks but they "dislike water and drown quickly." At the same time, there's a message from my grandfather, encouraging me to accept the form. "Destroy the 4-armed guardian in the tomb to reach the temple." After that, there's nothing but the portal to the next area of the level.
A commenter had warned me some time ago to download the cluebook--not for hints, but because only there do you get any background information about where you are. Apparently, I'm in the "Garden Ruins," which used to be lush with blossoms but was destroyed by Veste. I'm not sure whether this happened recently or whether they're talking about the distant past. I transition to Maorin form as I go along. It turns out that each form not only has its own attacks on the bottom (my hands become claws and my kick attack turns into a "cat sight" ability) but its own inventory. The wand and potion remain with the human form. But my inventory soon fills up again with "float seeds" from carnivorous plants that roam the area. Other monsters include blue beasts that shoot lightning or something.
This cat has claws.
At some point, I enter an area with a chest floating in the air, shooting fireballs at me. Underneath it is a pedestal with triangle symbols on the side and what looks to me like a giant throne. I can't seem to reach the chest, so I turn back into human form and blast it with my wand. It breaks apart, spitting out a "triangle key." The key looks like the symbols on the pedestal, so I fiddle with it until it takes the key, which causes the "throne" to slide aside, revealing a teleporter underneath it. So we're going to have puzzles.
The new portal with the "throne" in the back and the (solved) puzzle to my right.
Being in beast form drains energy constantly, as does using special abilities. Even though I "level up" (the game says that I "feel a surge of life and power") a couple of times, I switch back to human form a couple of times and work on this entry while my health and power slowly regenerate. It looks like maybe the game tracks a separate score for each form, so perhaps they level up at different rates? I'm not sure. The manual is a bit confusing in this area. 
The purpose of the "float seeds" becomes clear (well, no it doesn't, but I figure it out) when I reach a swamp. Trying to cross the swamp causes you to sink and take health damage. Using the seeds on the swamp creates patches on which you can cross safely.
I'm curious about the specific mechanism at work here, but we'll let it go.
In the northeast corner, I find an area where fireballs go shooting left to right when you try to cross through. I run through, sucking up the damage. On the other side, I find some floating heads above patches of fire. Fortunately, there's a Wand of Fire nearby that lets me shoot the floating heads. When they all die, the fire disappears, letting me pass through and find a "statue head." On the way back, I can't get through the fireballs without dying even at full health. I start messing with my options, and it turns out that the "cat sight" ability lets me see the pressure plates that set off the fireballs.
On the other hand, it makes everything else look like a hellscape.
There are two teleporter pads out of this area. I take the one that appeared when the throne moved. I'm dumped immediately into water, where I'm poisoned and killed by something on the ceiling.
Cat's don't like water! I just got it.
I reload and try the other pad. I appear in an outdoor area with more interesting graphics than anything the game has shown so far. There are tall pillars and a misty quality to the air. Gnarled trees rise out of the fog--as do skeleton warriors and these little one-eyed things with spears. The automap shows that I'm on Level 4.
He's so cute!
There's a water area in the northeast part of the level, but it turns out that the human version of Kirt can swim just fine. In the center, I find an island with an obelisk in the center. The obelisk has statues in its recesses, and four of them are missing their heads. I restore the head I previously found, and a second that I find on the island. I go off hunting the last two.
I assume the puzzles eventually get harder.
In a wide open area, I see a key on the ground. The moment I pick it up, a ring of stakes pops up out of the ground, surrounding me, and those little one-eyed minions appear around the perimeter. Not very clever since they die in two hits from my claws. Soon after this area, I find the third head.
You want to make the spikes come up under the key, morons.
I found a shuriken at some point. I test it, realizing that it's a magic shuriken that automatically returns. I decide to morph back to my human form for a while, since the damned cat is getting all the experience and leveling. In addition to the shuriken, I also have plenty of wands--fire, ice, acid, and a "tri-wand." I'm already doing what I do in most RPGs--hoarding wands. 
Killing a skeleton with a shuriken.
I can't find the fourth head, so I assume it's in that water area I explored before. I return through the teleporter pad to the first area, go to the other pad, and get dumped back in the water. I try to kill the enemies on the ceiling with wands and the shuriken, but they don't seem to die. Eventually, I find a chain that drains the water, and they leave me alone.
I find a head hovering over a pedestal in one room. At first, I think it's the fourth stone head, but it's dead and withered, not stone. I soon find a "throne room" with a headless corpse sitting on a chair. I restore his head, and he rises and attacks. He dies in half a dozen blasts from my ice wand. His death opens the way into a treasure room, where I find the fourth stone head, a power potion, a magical sword (no more hand attacks for Kirt), and armor intended for Maorins. I didn't know you could find armor in this game. I can't figure out how to put it on. Is having it in the inventory enough?
This felt like a mistake, and it was a mistake.
Back in the main area, I forget where I am and wander into the fireball corridor again, taking damage. Coming to my senses, I find the teleportal pad that returns me to the misty area. I make my way back to the obelisk, put the heads where they belong, and a stairway opens into the darkness. 
Onward and upward.
The stairs bring me to a blue-walled area with minions everywhere. I force myself to use my wands, then kill them with my sword. A chest holds a power potion and a strength potion. A room has a lava floor, but there's some kind of orb floating above it, and by killing it, a bridge appears to cross the floor. I round a corner and see a tall guy with four arms and a helmet--the "four-armed guardian" that Grandfather warned me about. Fortunately, he gets hung up on a corner and doesn't bother to attack me. My shuriken does nothing to him, but the magic sword kills him in a few hits. I gain another level as he dies. A chest beyond him has a "dragon horn."
Thank the gods for bosses with lousy pathfinding.
Beyond that, I get my next form at another obelisk: Caun, the Healer. He's a little pointy-eared guy with tiny fists, but his special attack is to rapidly convert energy to health. 
"Through the door to the north is the temple," Grandfather said. "There you will find the way to the castle." A teleporter inside a gaping maw awaits me.
That looks inviting.
At the end of this first session, I find Shadow Caster . . . okay. It's certainly a contrast to NetHack. I wouldn't mind more RPG elements, nor a more standard RPG inventory, nor--if I'm being frank--if the protagonist was just a regular human hero exploring the ruins of a castle or something. But I'm enjoying it more than I expected. It moves along at a good clip; this is one of those rare games that takes longer to write about than to play. Commenters have told me that it isn't very long, so I'll be happy to see where it goes.
Time so far: 2 hours


  1. That returning shuriken thing is probably meant to echo the glaive from Krull.
    Amusingly, I read the caption about a literal name before the text in the image and assumed you meant that the protagonist was named Kirt because he (and his momma) were decked out in kirtles.

  2. Are these little one-eyed things with spears ancestors of Mike Wazowski of Monsters, Inc. or did Canageek manage to sneak into one of the blog games?

    "Maorin" for the strong warrior sounds like they were using New Zealand's Maori as inspiration for the name.

    Whether or not you qualify it as CRPG, I find the whole shapeshifting thing an interesting mechanic here and something different from the usual fare. Maybe think of the different forms as akin to party members where you also often (have to) use specific strenghts or abilities of one individual for specific tasks or encounters? You'd just have to get over the 'animal' thing ;-) (I guess if you'd ever get to Gladius AND decide to play it in spite of it being console-only, your gladiator school won't have beasts then...).

    1. PS: He, I assume that Caun caption is a Star Trek II reference.

    2. Or perhaps "Maorin" is derived from the Mandarin word for cat, "mao"?

    3. Hah, my avatar is a monodrone from the Planescape D&D setting (and one of the few things I like from that setting: I'm more of a Spelljammer person)

  3. More action than rpg but it is a milestone in some aspects.... Take what you want from comment

  4. Later on the shape-shifting forms in and of themselves become intertwined even more with the puzzles. My brother bought this game from Radio Shack back in the day, along with Daemonsgate, and while I finished this one I don't remember if I ever finished that game

    1. yeah after many years what I remember the most a out this game is the shapeshifting puzzles.

      Puzzles consisting on magic, they always work (Death Gate, Kyrandia 2)

    2. The devs didn't finish Daemonsgate either.

  5. Re Leveling: My understanding is that the forms level up individually (depending on the XP earned in that form), but XP level-up thresholds are the same (more or less?) for each. At least that's my reading of the manual's "Score is tracked separately for each. Because of this, it is possible to concentrate on a metaform and make it disproportionately powerful." If the latter was just due to specific forms having lower level thresholds, I'd expect to see this fact show up in the manual or cluebook somewhere.

    This is also supported by the game's TV Tropes page: "forms that the player uses more often will tend to become more powerful than forms that the player uses less often". I guess you could / will find out through observation in your playthrough.
    Unless you've already seen it, it might be helpful to know that in addition, the Human form gets 10% of XP earned by others (according to the cluebook).

    If leveling indeed works this way, then technically this could tick the box of player agency for character development - even if some enemies, tasks or puzzles require a specific form, I understand there is still some choice as to how to approach other encounters / fights and thus the speed and timing of leveling for each. Don't know whether that's enough for you to fulfil the spirit of your rule, though.

    Re Armor: According to the manual: "Things such as armor provide benefits to your metaforms as soon as they are placed in your inventory."

    Remembering your recent complaint on The Shadow of Yserbius, If you want to see statistics and powers/effects for each form and item in a table (more complete and compressed than the manual and cluebook for those even in there), you can find that on the game's Stategy Wiki page.

    1. I think most of this is basically right, though I can't be too sure about the percentage of XP. Secondly, very little requires a specific form, but it's a heck of a lot easier if you do use that form, as seen with the fireball wall.


  6. In the screenshot you post, the character's name is a single word, "Shadowcaster." In the manual I found online, the section with instructions on installing the game similarly uses a single world to refer to the game: "Shadowcaster."

    Are you sure it's supposed to be two words?

    1. It depends on what your standards are, I guess. What's the more authoritative source for the game's title: The title screen, box cover, and manual cover, or the text inside the manual? If I have to choose, I favor the former.

    2. Would the developers themselves count as authoritative?
      No real interest in it either way, it's just that it seems intended to be fairly consistent outside of the logo, which I imagine was chosen that way to look nicer.

    3. However the logo artist styled the word, going by the legalese at the bottom of the floppy disk sticker, Shadowcaster is the trademark they wound up with.

      The reference card likes to have it both ways:

      Less ambiguous on the CD-ROM release:

      (and the ad for the clue book:)

      We have these kinds of debates over on Mobygames not infrequently (eg. is Valve's famous FPS actually named "Hλlf-Life"?) and I think the trademarks are kind of argument-settlers.

    4. There are two registers at the United States Copyright Office and both of them are for a single word: (,25&Search%5FArg=%22shadowcaster%22&Search%5FCode=FT%2A&CNT=25&REC=0&RD=0&RC=0&PID=BuUsXMNB0qSvhlQCGLUmVZO9061j&SEQ=20240325105851&SID=2), (,24&Search%5FArg=%22shadowcaster%22&Search%5FCode=FT%2A&CNT=25&REC=0&RD=0&RC=0&PID=BuUsXMNB0qSvhlQCGLUmVZO9061j&SEQ=20240325105851&SID=2)

  7. You have to give a credit where it's due: enemies are amazingly original and unlike most of what you see almost everywhere. For me personally, this nicely adds to the feeling of the uniqueness of the setting itself, even if it's STILL labyrinths, castles, dungeons, etcetera.

    1. I don't know about "amazingly original," but sure, they're a bit different than the norm.

    2. Wait until you see those in Anvil of Dawn (1995)

    3. I don't know, I mean, what even IS this thing with clawed lizard-like (but purple!) legs, toothy jaws, complete lack of eyes and some sort of energy field instead of brains? It's not only not something I've never seen in games - I've never read about something like that in fantasy. How is it even alive? Does it use its energy field instead of a brain as some sort of "hive mind" through electromagnetic wave-based telepathy with others like that? What is it even named?

    4. The two-legged lizards are called Boleths, apparently. The one that shoots is a Super Boleth, the one that doesn't is a jumping Boleth. (This is from the cluebook, btw, which has the names of all the enemies)

    5. Oh. I hail from the country that arrived very late to the free-market economy (and to copyright laws as well), - so, this game, as many others, I had chance to play through more of "yo-ho-ho and the bottle of rum" way if you catch my drift, so, there was no cluebook for me... ^_^'
      I guess if you have a cluebook, it's different. Is there only a name in cluebook, or is there also some kind of Monster Manual-like description of what the heck this even is? =)

    6. I'm not sure if it came with the cluebook or if the cluebook was a separate purchase, because I only ever had a loose CD. The CD, for it's part, had the manual and added cluebook bits for the two new levels on it. And unless there's something in the cluebook in the level description, you only get the name.

  8. Shapeshifting is one of those mechanics that sounds cool on paper (and likely is cool in pen-and-paper games), but doesn't really work in actual CRPG gameplay. The shapes' abilities either end up doubling the abilities of other classes (particularly spells), or get unique abilities at the expense of other classes (particularly spells). I guess building the game principally around shapeshifting is one way to make it interesting, but as you've said that makes the RPG credentials rather suspect (Lands of Lore II has the same approach and the same problem).

    One can argue for Hexen being kinda RPG-ish since it has character classes with different stats and different ways to use items. Its character development, however, is purely equipment-based IIRC. Hexen II, on the other hand, adds experience and character levels, so technically qualifies as RPG under your rules. So it may or may not make sense to put Hexen on your list so as not to start the series from the second title.

    1. You know what, I don't care. For two games that actually get deep on shapeshifting puzzles, I don't care that they are not pure authentic seal of approval crpgs.

    2. I'm playing through Baldur's Gate 3 at the moment and I think the druid shapeshifting there is pretty great. There's enough utility to make it worthwhile, but also enough tradeoffs with any specific form to lead to some interesting decisions about when/how to shapeshift back and forth.

  9. "Hey, that guy looks a little familiar."

    Todd Howard, is that you?

  10. Seems like it fits your criteria as an (action-)RPG but just barely so. Nevertheless from the short time I played it but didn't finish way back it seemed like a decent enough game. I'm curious, are you playing the the CD version which is the one I have in my boxes collection also and according to wikipedia is "featuring two additional levels with new monsters, and replacing text boxes with FMVs and spoken narration through CD-DA audio tracks" or the floppy one? I think you might be slowly entering the stage where a game's CD version was wider distributed than the respective floppy disk version.

    1. Honestly, the CD version adds nothing. The new levels aren't very fun and the FMVs tell you less than the text boxes, which is a problem with a game that already has a bit of a scant story.

    2. I'm playing the disk version but I'll check out the CD version for the final entry.

    3. Yes, I cannot think of many instances where the CD version ends up being worse than the floppy one, but this is one of those. The pixel art cutscenes have aged much better than the awkward early prerendered 3D ones of the CD version.

    4. Might as well play the floppy version then when I ever get back to it

  11. "A commenter had warned me some time ago to download the cluebook--not for hints, but because only there do you get any background information about where you are."
    That would be me. I'm probably the closest thing to an expert on this game, less because I know all that much and more because nobody else really knows much. I've beaten it, 4 times I think, three on the CD version, which I'm glad you don't seem to be playing, and one on the PC-98 version. There's little difference between the PC-98 version and the floppy, mostly language and that getting the music to work isn't a nightmare. Incidentally, I also warned you that the game has a save bug, I hope you're using all your save slots.

    Regarding the engine, I think Carmack just imitated more elements of UUW into the Wolf engine. Unlike Wolfenstein it has dynamic music for instance.

    Regarding armor, yeah, just in the inventory. Elsewhile, just remember that pretty much any creature can use any weapon.

  12. I was looking forward to seeing this! I played it a bit back in the day but I never finished it. I liked the shapeshifting and the puzzles though, but as you've said I'm not sure you can really call this an RPG.

  13. Wait, so all of the different forms have seperate inventories and experience totals? It sure seems like the game was originally meant to have six different playable characters, and then they threw in the "shapeshifting" mechanic at the last second.

  14. Oh, I tried to play this off one of those 200 games shareware CDs! I am not sure what I was doing wrong as a kid, but I didn't wind up playing it; It would load but I couldn't figure out how to do anything. (I was very young at the time). Don't know if it was some technical issue or I was just bad at it.

    1. Chet sort of glosses over it, but the game is a bit unfriendly to a new player. The first monster has just enough health for the first fight to be tricky if you know what you're doing, if you don't know how to fight, you will die. Dunno what the demo was like though, since that's apparently different than the finished product.

    2. It's not that worse than Ultima 6's beginning.

      It's definitely a "Read the F*****g Manual" start, as Chet points out, though.

  15. This is one of the few games I actually played somewhat close to its release. I remember having a good time with it, and I'm pretty sure I finished it which probably means it's not too difficult. (Also, hi! I've caught up again. )

    1. I also played this when it first came out, and found it refreshing from a something different perspective in the CRPG realm (not that it fits the criteria here, but at the time of release....that's another story I think). I enjoyed it and played multiple times, leveling different shapes to see how the game played...but definately enjoyed this game.

  16. When it comes to FPS games with RPG elements, Bungie's Pathways Into Darkness has a lot more of them. It's also a 1993 game so it should come up soonish.

    1. ...I don't think PiD has XP or character growth of any kind, outside of items...?

      It's been a while since I last played it, but my recollection is that it's a pretty standard FPS, just with fantasy elements rather than primarily contemporary or sci-fi.

    2. It has a more extensive inventory system, some basic dialogs, more interaction with the environment.

    3. More to the point, you get weapon skills which improve said weapons as you use them.

  17. I gotta ask: what's wrong with heat pumps? Are you just in a climate a bit too extreme for them to be able to properly moderate the temperature of your place?

    1. They just always struck me as kind of gauche.

    2. So a quite clever, environmentally friendly heating/cooling system is....tacky? o.0 Don't they look exactly like every other generic box outside your house?

    3. I got a mini split before winter. Did way better at heating than the old boiler I had. Looking forward to seeing how well it cools the area down in summer.


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