Usually, when you have an extremely cliché premise, chances are that whatever creative work you try to build around it will be schematic, boring and soulless. Rarely, the team heading the project is so adept and incapable of restraining their vast reserves of Creative Juice ™ that they take unoriginal premise and craft something wonderful and awe-inspiring around.
You know what I’ve never seen before done with a cliché premise? Something just a tad above average. When you jump into a game which can be summed up with “an ancient evil threatens to consume the world, you need to stop it in time”, you know you’re either getting into something atrocious or something unforgettable.
In The Consuming Shadow, an ancient evil threatens to consume the world, and you need to stop it in time. As in the powerful magical beings of the game’s lore are literally just called “the ancients”, and there is an in-game timer. There is also a evil magical shadow called “the Shadow” which is causing all sorts of gruesome trouble in small-town England, and happens to be one of the three ancients currently active in the world.
If I’d have to nail down the game’s genre, it would be a roguelike 2D side-scrolling survival horror action adventure game with RPG elements. Quite a mouthful, no? In The Consuming Shadow, you play as an operative of the Ministry of Occultism, and you have 60 hours to find out all four runes of the banishing incantation needed to prevent the incursion of a malevolent lovecraftian horror into our world through a portal at Stonehenge. Between missions, you are in the relative safety of your car, where you can set your destination, manage your inventory, check your notes and spells, heal yourself provided you have the necessary supplies or shoot up some drugs to restore sanity (logical, right?). When you set your destination, you are presented with a very FTL-like map with randomly generated small British villages. You start out at the northernmost town, somewhere in Scotland, and need to make your way to Stonehenge, down south.
The goal, however, isn’t to rush to Stonehenge as quickly as possible, as you need to discover the correct runes needed to banish the Shadow. Along the way, you occasionally receive text messages from the Ministry, pointing you to towns which may be of interest to you, or from cultists or family members, which either decrease or increase your level of sanity. As you drive along the countryside, sometimes you’ll hit random events. Though these usually are a simple case of a marauding pack of beasties crossing the road in front of you, sometimes the event has you choose between various options leading to different outcomes, and sometimes you can make use of various inventory items. For example, if you happen upon a church where a distressed Priest was forced to kill someone possessed by the Shadow, you can either be honest about the situation or try to comfort him. However, if you’ve picked up a Rosary in your travels, the game allows you to make use of it. Whenever you reach your destination, you can enter the town. If the town in question is safe, then you can search of black-market ammo and items, however this takes an hour, or you can visit a hospital where you can buy drugs, medicine, or treat your wounds.
If the town is infested, you will enter one of six dungeon types, where you’ll need to perform one of 10 mission types. Here the game switches to a 2D side-view shooter/brawler, but don’t expect it to be action heavy. You have a single pistol with you throughout the game, which can be loaded with either regular, hollow-point or armor piercing rounds. The hollow-point bullets do more damage, while the armor piercing rounds go through enemies, damaging all those in the line of fire. You’ll encounter 20 different enemy types that range from “slight inconvenience” to “insta-kill eldritch horror”. By default, you’ll only encounter the simpler enemies while clearing the dungeon, but sometime when you complete your objective, instead of saying “well done, return to your car” or somesuch, you get the objective “GET OUT” or “Run for your life!”. These mean that a special enemy spawned somewhere in the dungeon and you are most definitely ill equipped to deal with it. In these dungeons, you will happen upon notes and runes that will identify the three active gods, their colors, runes, aspects and intentions. Piecing together the clues in a table in your notebook will allow you to identify which of the Ancients is invading, which is important as one of the runes of the banishing incantation is the rune associated with the god. The runes are also useful in the dungeons throughout the game, not just at the end, as you can discover various spells that you can cast in combat.
Now, since this is a horror game, I’m sure you’re all asking whether or not it is actually scary. While the game nails the creepy lovecraftian atmosphere, and the music/sound effects are sure to send a chill up your spine every now and then, I’d hardly call the game scary. You won’t be jumping at shadows or turning on all the lights in the house after playing this. You’ll feel somewhat uncomfortable while playing, but once you exit the game, its effects are gone instantly.
When we get down to it, The Consuming Shadow is fun to play to some extent, but where this game shines is the writing and lore. As we’ve said, the basic premise and main thread is uninspired, but the fluff and flavor text is a joy to discover and read. It should be pointed out that the game was made, in its entirety, by one guy, who happens to be a writer. Ben “Yahtzee” Crowshaw has made some freeware games in the past, but he is most known for his video content on the Escapist. On a side-note which has no bearing on the final verdict, it was somewhat amusing to discover some features or issues with this game that Yahtzee has been an extremely outspoken critic of.
With average gameplay, solid writing The Consuming Shadow is certainly worth some of your time and money. Provided you go in with the right expectations, this game won’t disappoint, and will provide you with a subtly creepy experience.
The Consuming Shadow was developed by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw. It is currently available for PC, Mac and Linux, and will later release for PS3, PS4, PSVita, and Xbox One.
A digital copy of this game was provided to Save/Continue for review purposes.