At chapter 5 of Shadow Warrior 3, I was met with my toughest challenge up until that point, the ‘Ancient Cock’. It was a boss so big, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Yeah, the fight offered its fair share of humour with its enemy’s design and the ridiculous second stage, but at its core, it worked because the gameplay held up its end of the bargain. It was intense and the creativity behind the enemy design was striking, demanding a high level of skill from the player and plentiful use of the movement and weapon options available to them. That’s the game in a nutshell.
The experience never shies away from the fact that it’s more than a little preposterous and instead, does one better by capitalising on it with self-referential jokes and mechanics that make no sense whatsoever. As an example, one of the early finishers grants you boosted health for crushing an enemy’s head… with your bare hands. Protagonist Lo Wang spends much of the gameplay and cutscenes cracking one-liners, including some absolute gems like “This is what I call a Power Point presentation! I point – you die!”. The ratio on hits to misses in regard to the one-liners is safely on the side of hits, which stops their constant presence from becoming grating. Wang himself is supremely likeable, thanks to the aforementioned witty writing and actor Mike Moh’s bewitching performance. The game’s more memorable set pieces are beneficiaries of his portrayal, whether it’s a shocked reaction to a situation going sideways or rousing proclamations of victory, Moh’s charming contributions to these moments cannot be understated.
The story itself is admirably straight-forward. The main motivation is established early on and revolves around slaying a dragon, an easy enough explanation to the fantastical nature of the world and enemies. This premise benefits the experience immensely, as the designers are allowed to let loose with their creativity in level design and combat, without having to contend with a plot heavy narrative restricting the scope of gameplay.
To its credit, it does establish a series of fun dynamics between Wang and the other characters, where the banter feels organic enough to work despite their shared outlandish goals. The best of these dynamics is with a character who comes as a surprise to those who have played previous entries in the series. This character’s interactions with Wang are hilarious and back up the themes of friendship and loyalty underpinning the narrative. I also enjoyed the ending, which was satisfying and oddly wholesome, wrapping up the story on a distinctive high note.
Shadow Warrior 3’s presentation is great. I didn’t experience any major frame drops even when the action got intense, with loads of enemies and particle effects from my weapons in play. It is worth noting that I played this on a PS5 via backwards compatibility so your mileage may vary if you’re on the base PS4 or Pro. Partially as a result of the solid framerate, the controls are responsive and the animations on both the enemies and players are consistently smooth. The visuals are splendid, the environments are dense and colourful, making them quite pleasing to look at.
I similarly enjoyed the visuals on the enemies, which were markedly creative, from creature designs that are inspired by the likes of a Jack-in-the-box to a demon chef with a cooking pot integrated into its back. A gameplay benefit of these wacky designs is that each time you use a special finisher on certain enemies, they will spit out powerful weapons called gore tools, to aid you in combat. For example, finishing the ninja ‘Hattori’ will give you a large blade, which does massive damage and automatically pulls you towards the enemies you target. The gore tools are a welcome addition that reward the use of finishers and introduce an extra layer of variety into the run and gun gameplay loop with their unique characteristics.
Outside of the finishers, gore tools and enemy designs, the main strengths of the combat stem from the impactful weapons and ammo scarcity. The seven available weapons are distinct and fun to use in their own ways. The ‘Dragontail’ katana is an exemplary melee option simply due to the incredible satisfaction you receive from furiously slicing the enemies to pieces. On the other hand, something like the ‘Shuriken Spitter’, which can fire multiple shuriken that will bounce off the walls and cut through multiple targets, provides a similar level of satisfaction but over a longer period of time, as you watch the individual shuriken dice up your opponents with ease.
The ammo scarcity is what brings it altogether as players are forced to frequently cycle between guns to stay alive, which ensures they learn to use all the available weapons, especially since their favourite option will rarely hold the required ammo to clear individual encounters. There are ammo and health pickups as is natural in an arena shooter and the combat is at its best when there is a sea of enemies between the player on low health or ammo and the pickups they desperately need. Do they use a finisher on an enemy to acquire a gore tool and blast a clear path to them? Or do they slice their way there with the katana, while backing their reflexes to dodge projectiles? Its situations like these where having multiple viable combat options pays off and also, where the true quality of an arena shooter can be gauged. Luckily, Shadow Warrior 3 brings the variety and is an enthralling experience as a result.
It’s worth noting that the humour presented here won’t appeal to everybody, so I would recommend checking out some gameplay, where Lo Wang’s quips are often in full flow, to surmise if the experience is one you would appreciate. Personally, I have a few minor issues with the game and the first is simply the length. Considering that it can be completed in less than 6 hours, it is noticeably short and that may bring its value into question for some people. My reasoning for this being a minor issue is that I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it and the rapid pacing, which meant the 6-hour runtime was a major factor in that enjoyment.
A more pressing, albeit not game-shattering issue, is the lack of New Game+. The shorter length makes Shadow Warrior 3 a prime candidate for multiple replays and the lack of NG+ may discourage players from doing so, as they will be sent back to square one as far as collectibles and character upgrades are concerned. Another potential problem I planned to discuss was the lack of chapter select but thankfully, patch 1.09 introduced the feature, a great addition for players who missed a collectible or two and can now venture back into the relevant sections of the story to acquire them, without having to start a fresh playthrough.
Summary: Lovingly crafted and unpretentious, Shadow Warrior 3 is equal parts hilarious and thrilling, thanks in no small part to its exceptionally charismatic protagonist.