Flying Wild Hog's 2013 remake of 3D Realms' campy 1997 first-person shooter Shadow Warrior was so successful that the Polish developer has more than tripled in size in the last three years. This swift evolution from a niche team of around 30 to a triple-A developer roughly 100 strong is clear upon spending even a few minutes with its impending sequel, Shadow Warrior 2.
Predictably, this retail follow-up to a digital cult classic has seen an obvious boost in production value (it looks scrumptious enough to rival any blockbuster these days), but that's only the tip of the iceberg for what Flying Wild Hog is up to. It doesn't just want to make a better Shadow Warrior; it wants to transform the Shadow Warrior brand from an acquired taste to a mainstream hit. Based on an hour playing its early build at PAX East, it seems up to the task.
Arguably the biggest game-changer this time around is that the levels are procedurally generated. Designer Pawel Kowalewski told Eurogamer that each stage is comprised of two or three randomly generated 200 meter square tiles. Certain sections will look familiar as you'll see similar themes, architecture and enemy types specific to the stage, but the location of your foes, loot, and more will shuffle with each playthrough.
Having played through the in-development demo twice, it's clear that this makes a big impact on exploration. My first run through the demo concludes in a small village area, while my second contains a labyrinthine system of caverns beneath a remixed version of the village. On more than one occasion I'd fall into this cavernous terrain only for my opponents - including mini-bosses - to relentlessly give chase. Thankfully, movement is one of Shadow Warrior's best features as players can quickly sprint, double-jump, aerial-dash and climb around the colossal scenery. Simply zipping about the decadent districts and glamourous greenery is a pleasure in and of itself.
This focus on procedural generation subtly shifts the genre of Shadow Warrior from a linear shooter to something of a loot game. There's stuff to pick up everywhere in this sequel. The scenery is littered with gems to customise your weapons, new armaments to pick up, character-upgrading relics and more. In a lesser game scavenging for loot can be laborious, but Shadow Warrior 2's quick movement and unpredictable enemy encounters ensure that even these seemingly menial tasks feel fresh.
Shadow Warrior's festive collection of foes is no slouch either. Armoured samurai are fond of blocking, serpentine gorgons snake their way across the scenery, and mini-bosses require slaying their chained minions before they can be attacked. Each type of oni you encounter comes in three sizes too with Superior foes offering a stiffer challenge and Elite baddies being impervious to magic (though they'll still have elemental weaknesses). Whether you encounter these super-sized beasts is completely up to chance, though battling them isn't necessarily a bad thing as they leave behind better rewards.
Of course Shadow Warrior's main draw is its frenetic fisticuffs with a smooth blend of shooting, melee combat, and magic management. This sequel combines these diverse systems into a cohesive whole with a greater focus on melee combat than its predecessor. There's a few different short-range weapons this time around, like katanas or Wolverine-esque claws, though I've not played enough to distinguish between the melee options. They are immediately thrilling to use, though, especially as you can now charge up strikes and block incoming attacks (even from bosses many times your size).
The guns aren't as interesting, but you can carry a lot of them at once. Juggling your melee weapons with a shotgun, grenade launcher, bow & arrow, submachine gun, revolver and more means there's never any shortage of options as your disposal. Furthermore, you can customise each weapons to add environmental damage (fire, ice, electric, toxic) or other perks, further expanding upon the game's combat complexities.
Finally, there's a magic system. There were three spells in the demo, one tormenting nearby foes by erecting spikes to temporarily impale them, another pushing them back with a force-like aura, and my favourite stopping time and leaving everyone frozen in place. This final spell works great as a makeshift stealth option to sneak past foes or simply smoke-bomb your way out of a hairy situation.
It's a lot to take in, and arguably a touch too hectic for its own good, but the spectacle of slaughtering big, bloody demons through such a robust arsenal is a feast for the senses. The grandiose gore is even lavishly detailed with two different carnage effects systems based on whether you're eviscerating a foe or pumping them full of lead.
This bombastic first-person twist on the procedurally-generated dungeon crawler is wildly entertaining, though I'm slightly concerned as to how it will hold up in the long run. Flying Wild Hog is still sorting out what the punishment should be for dying (there's none in the demo - you just get teleported back to a checkpoint with all your progress intact), and that seems important since this early demo is completely devoid of stakes. But I have confidence Flying Wild Hog will figure all that out.
Based on what I've played, there's a lot to like here, and I suspect Shadow Warrior 2 will be a treat for Borderlands fans who aren't particularly thrilled by Battleborn. A sequel to a budget priced cult hit a few years back may not have the same marketing clout as something like Destiny, Doom, or Halo, but one look at Shadow Warrior 2 in action makes it difficult to tell the difference. If Flying Wild Hog can keep it up, Shadow Warrior 2 could be one of those rare sequels that transcends the original to become something unexpected, and something quite brilliant.