Birth of Shadows is one of those small, easy-to-miss indie RPGs. In fact, Google the name “Birth of Shadows” and you'll come up with a Warcraft III campaign before you even hit the Precision Games website.
Birth of Shadows is essentially a hack-and-slash title that’s sort of a distant cousin to Diablo. I say distant cousin because it sheds a number of typical hack-and-slash elements and takes a novel approach on a few others – most noticeably in that there's no hacking or slashing from the player character’s side, as it is a “magic-only” approach in which your character can only cast spells to attack. Birth of Shadows has an online component, in which you skirmish with others on developer-released maps, but for the sake of this review we are considering only its single-player component.
Quests & Story
The game's story is basic to the point of being uninspiring; at the start of the game you name your character and your character's fiancée, who obligingly disappears so you can chase after her, saving the world along the way with the assistance of the mysterious Majdarix. Hack-and-slash games are generally not known for their strong storylines and this one isn’t going to change their notoriety.
There are an enormous number of quests, ranging into the hundreds, though this number is really inflated as “go to this point and talk to this guy” is considered a quest, as is “pay the merchant a copper for a gem”, strangely enough.
All quests are of the fetch or kill variety. There is some variation in what you have to kill or how many monsters are between you and what you have to fetch or deliver, but that’s about it. The game's mechanics do not realistically allow for more variety; the player has zero input in the game's “dialogue” as your character's lines are picked for you and there is no inventory system, meaning items can only have functions for quests. Aside from having the choice to accept or decline certain quests, there really isn't a lot of freedom of movement involved here.
In fact, this lack of freedom is the biggest flaw of the character system. You are a shadow knight with a range of 16 spells that you will learn throughout the beginning of the game from a number of NPCs. The player has no real input or choice in this, so you'll always end up with the same 16 spells and de facto zero character customization. To compound this problem, level-ups always give you the same bonuses to your damage and offensive ability.
The only variation between different characters comes from how much grinding they've done. Each time you kill a number of enemies, you learn more about them, gaining ranks against them. The higher your rank, the more efficient you are in killing them. You can't get experienced at killing by destroying creatures weaker than you, but other than that this system is pretty supportive of roaming through a forest going through as many fights as possible.
The final element to the character system are gems. Gained by defeating fortresses or single enemies, gems are upgrades either to your character’s abilities, resistance against certain elements or – again – ability to kill certain NPCs. Much like the above, these gems do not appear to be randomized much, and every player will get pretty much obtain the same gems in every playthrough.
As mentioned above, there's no inventory. You carry the same armor and wand all throughout the game. Healing doesn't happen by healing potions but by spells during combat, and by regeneration between fights.
Graphics & Music
Birth of Shadows' graphics won't win any contests, but they're pretty effective at telling the player what's going on, which really is enough for any independent RPG. Aside from the protagonist’s really silly walking animation, they're fairly good if simple two-dimensional isometric graphics.
The music and sound effects are a notch above that, and really are pretty good. The music is a bit intrusive and overly orchestral, but sets the atmosphere well and is generally well done. The sound effects are pretty standard, but there's not an annoying one amongst them. They're slightly repetitive but just to the point where you can learn to recognize spells or attacks made against you by sound, which is only a plus.
The focus of the game is combat. Opponents are pre-placed on the static map so you'll always meet the same adversaries at the same spot. Once they're dead, they’ll respawn after awhile, so if you run to a fortress to kill its inhabitants you might even have to kill the same opponents going back as you did going in.
Simply put, combat pacing is of the Infinity Engine school. There's a 2-second timer on actions, but it runs in real-time over that. The similarity ends there, though, making the rest of the game’s combat system fairly unique: you select an enemy by clicking on him, then in those 2-second intervals of action you select the spell you want your character to use on the enemy next.
As I mentioned earlier, there are 16 spells in total and, as you progress, it becomes increasingly more important to combine them properly. In particular, there is one element of combat called “rage”. As you attack NPCs or cast non-damaging spells on them, they will gain in rage until they become enraged for about 5 seconds. With the proper spell, you can tap into that rage to give it to your character, which he in turn can use to support spells like life-draining or a special harm spell that does more damage depending on how much rage you’ve acquired. This is not to be confused with mana – as the game has none of that – but rather has a vitally important supporting role.
If you don't balance spells like summoning a pet, fear (which petrifies the opponent), attack and life-leech properly, you'll soon end up dead (though dying has no direct consequence except sending your character back to the start of the level). As you progressively face more and tougher opponents, choosing exactly the right action on exactly the right adversary becomes vitally important. To ensure that you can make the right choices, the game sports a pause function. While paused, you can check how long your opponents will remain frozen if you used fear on them, check who is closest to being enraged, etc. and calmly plan your next step.
However, because all character builds are identical, this is slightly less “tactical” than you'd imagine. Based on my experience, the game's creator had a certain tactic in mind and if you want to win battles you're going to have to follow it closely. There is some elbow room, but you’ll most likely fall into a similar routine during specific areas of the game. For example, early on you'll always want to freeze a couple of enemies, summon a pet on the third, and then draw rage to kill them as quickly as you can. From then on, you can simply rinse and repeat - the same tactics work for every fight with only slight variations depending on what kind of immunities the monsters on the other side have. Combat becomes steadily more complex, but doesn't really lose this repetitive feel until you're a ways in.
Particularly complex and challenging fights are the fortress fights. Fortresses are basically locations that spawn monsters, and as you approach they'll send out groups of creatures for you to fight in waves. You can't run away too far or the fortress will reset to its first wave, and the same happens if you die, which means you have to fight the fortress' waves in one go with no pausing in between. This makes fortress fights deliciously challenging.
An Incomplete Experience
Birth of Shadows takes some really novel approaches to several typical hack-and-slash ideas. Despite this, the game has an unfinished feel to it. Not because it is bugged or lacks polish – the balance is pretty good and the interface is pretty intuitive – but because some design decisions simply don't seem very well thought out.
A major gripe is that the game is too long. This seems like an odd complaint to make, but it's a natural consequence of the designer choosing to clearly go for quantity of quests and maps rather than quality. This means the main storyline and the sidequests end up playing as if it's an MMO – only it isn't, and there's really no strong appeal to keep going once you're a ways in. The story isn't that interesting, the quests basically stay the same, and your character doesn't feel like your own since he's not customizable. This makes character progression a fairly uninteresting prospect. Tauter quest design with more variation would have helped here, but the character progression really is the biggest problem.
Precision Games tosses out hack-and-slash basics like loot-hoarding and branching, class-based skill trees and I applaud them for it, as there is absolutely nothing wrong with killing off some tired, overdone ideas. The problem here is that those ideas actually work in other games and if you're going to remove them, you're going to have to offer something to replace that part of the experience. Birth of Shadows doesn't do that, thus you end up feeling like your character isn’t progressing enough – an appeal that was made in Diablo and its clones mostly by character customization and statistic-laden loot that simply doesn’t exist in Birth of Shadows.