Shade: Wrath of Angels is a blend of Tomb Raider and Die by the Sword from the studio that brought you Alpha Prime.
Originally penned as a freeware isometric title built on the Quake 2 engine, Nefandus began development in 1997 for PC. Not much has been preserved of the title in this form, but development would continue until the project attracted the attention of various distributors at the turn of the millennium. Following these events, the game was altered to become a multi-platform release between the PC and the original Xbox. Nefandus was the debut effort from Czech development studio Black Element Software, who would later go on to create the underrated sci-fi FPS Alpha Prime in 2007. Announced in mid-2002, and slated for an early 2003 release, Nefandus did not manage to garner a lot of traction after its announcement.
ShackNews reported on the announcement in May 2002, informing the potential consumers that the development would be overseen by Operation Flashpoint studio Bohemia Interactive, and that the game would feature ‘Real Weaponry and Unreal Enemies’. Not long after this announcement, the title was changed due to copyright reasons, losing the Latin phrase in favour of the much more generic Shade: Wrath of Angels.
The project was finished by late 2003, a third-person shooter with a Heaven vs Hell storyline and an emphasis on melee combat. At the time, Shade was also being eyed up for a port to the newly released Nokia N-Gage, and it seemed that the game was destined to make a splash on the action-adventure market after its recent disappointment from Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness. Genre fans were looking for the next big thing, and Shade’s 2003 incarnation could well have been that. Alas, the developers did not share this vision, and the game was put through yet another overhaul, this time being re-purposed as a hack and slash with multiple view perspectives and a shapeshifting demon mechanic similar to that in Surreal Software’s The Suffering duology.
This incarnation of the game saw Black Element through to release, with Polish publishing house CENEGA handling its distribution. Marketing was directed primarily towards countries in central Europe, and despite the game being fully playable in English, the marketing campaign was very limited in English-speaking countries. This didn’t stop the title from being reviewed by a number of well-renowned critics, but reviewers from the likes of IGN, PC Gamer and GameSpy all settled on low scores ahead of the game’s release. Shade’s control scheme took a verbal battering, as did an apparent lack of polish and originality. The game currently holds a 50/100 critic score on MetaCritic, and I believe that to be fairly inaccurate.
Shade itself is anything but unoriginal, though the nameless, yet not silent protagonist is devoid of any personality. The game opens with the player on a train, having received a letter from his archaeologist brother that raised concern. The player arrives to find the town empty, and upon encountering a mysterious entity he is tasked with not only saving his brother, but also saving the world from eternal damnation. The entity bestows the player with the power to turn into a demon and is given a divine sword with which to cut down his enemies. The story has a large number of twists and turns along the way, and is tied together brilliantly with some riveting gameplay sections.
The gameplay consists of sword-fighting combat, but its more than just spamming the left mouse button and hoping that you’ll manage to defeat your opponent through sheer willpower and persistence. Blocking plays a huge part in the swordplay, and you’ll need to learn how to read the attack signals of your foes quickly if you want to survive long enough to save your brother. Initially, you only have access to your divine sword, but each attack with the imbued blade drains your magic meter, once you start taking out armed enemies though, you’ll be able to claim their fallen weaponry. Through this, you’ll be able to smash your enemies with maces and morning-stars, or keep them at a distance with pikes and halberds.
Playing through Shade, you’ll also gain access to several magical abilities. Fireballs, telekinesis and more are available via the protagonist’s demon form, and you’ll need to keep using this sub character to move heavy objects to assist with navigation and platforming. I didn’t find myself turning into my demon form for much of the combat segments, but that was at no fault of the demon – it was simply because the blade combat was so exhilarating. The platforming, however, is a completely different and not-so-exhilarating story.
Personally, I am not the biggest fan of games within the platforming genre, but I am usually able to stomach it when the platforming is shoehorned into other games, and no other genre seems to feature it more than action/adventure. Tomb Raider has obviously always featured a heavy focus on jumping from platform to platform, and Shade is no different in that respect. Early on in the campaign, you are navigating an ancient tomb, and it could be considered ever so slightly derivative here. The quality of the platforming is incomparable to Ms Croft’s, with some difficult camera angles plaguing a game where most jumps are leaps of faith. Unfortunately, this emphasis does not disappear further into the game, and only becomes more complex due to the inclusion of movable blocks in the latter half of the game, slightly reminiscent of the frustratingly difficult platforming sections in Visceral Games’ Dante’s Inferno. The majority of deaths during my playthrough were due to this, and I was left feeling like this heavy emphasis on the mechanic was perhaps a little misplaced.
Whilst inevitably falling to your doom, you’ll still be able to check out some pretty interesting scenery as each chapter takes you to a new realm. Kicking things off in the medieval realm was a cool choice, as it feels familiar to genre fans, but still has a modern twist due to the overarching story, and the fact that your character is in a simple black tee and jeans, he’s also the kind of guy who wears wristbands – take that as you may. It all feels similar to Painkiller in tone whilst in the medieval realm, but the game goes full Serious Sam once you reach the Egyptian-inspired realm. The change in setting is more than enough to keep your attention as you chop your foes down, and a really great aspect of the game.
Shade: Wrath of Angels did not get the praise it deserved upon release, and this is not the first time I have discussed it in length. The earlier incarnations of the project also sounded spectacular, and it would be fantastic to see the N-Gage port surface at some point in the future. You won’t find Shade on Steam, EGS or GOG currently, but it’s worth seeking out a physical disc. The game comes with a pretty thick, beautifully coloured manual which and makes getting a copy all the more worth it.
Know of any other underrated, obscure, or forgotten games? Let me know, and I’ll be sure to look for a copy and potentially cover it in the future!
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