Review: Shadow Gangs

So here we are, halfway through 2022, a year that seems to have come around exceptionally fast, probably due to the disorientating effects of the grim COVID-19 pandemic which has been looming over us. 2022. That sequence of digits, whether typed out or spoken aloud, sounds spookily futuristic, and so perhaps it is fitting that phenomena which were hitherto safely contained within the realms of dystopian fiction are now not too far from reality. Somewhat less foreboding, but still hard to believe, is the fact that the Dreamcast has just received its fifth commercial indie release of the year (not to mention numerous re-releases on top of this). If you are disconcerted by signs that Google’s AI may be taking inspiration from the eery “It’s Thinking” Dreamcast slogan, then what better way to soothe your nerves than to immerse yourself in a game for an oh so familiar console?

Shadow Gangs, developed by Isle of Wight-based JKM Corp, and published by the increasingly prolific WAVE Game Studios, has long been anticipated by those in the know. Since the first hints of a potential Dreamcast port surfaced in 2016, the community has been regularly updated on progress by the game’s lead developer Ali Jakamy via the Dreamcast-Talk forums. It has not been smooth sailing from there on out though - an initial Kickstarter campaign launched in 2021 failed, most likely due to the setting of an overambitious six-figure funding target. To their credit, JKM Corp dusted themselves off and returned with a realistic funding goal of £25,000 which was met in March 2022. The fact that the developers have persevered through to the point of delivering the game into the hands of Dreamcast owners - and have done so within the space of three months since the close of the successful Kickstarter campaign - is no mean feat and is worthy of our kudos.

All this backstory is a little tangential to the main issue at hand though; what can Dreamcast enthusiasts expect from the game itself? Shadow Gangs is essentially a side-scrolling beat em’ up with platforming elements. You take up the role of ‘Master Dan’, one of a cohort of international agents whose purpose is to operate in the shadows, maintaining the global balance of power, and thereby ensuring peace. With world peace secure, Dan gets his P45 in the post, leaving you to direct him around his house as he traverses the punishing job market and mooches on the couch eating Pop Tarts...

Alas, that probably wouldn’t be much fun, would it? Of course, the fragile global order maintained by Dan and his comrades is under threat from the dastardly ‘Shadow Gangs’; groups of rogue ninjas who have destructive aims. It’s your age old good vs. bad, save the world scenario, where righteous protagonists have an excuse to beat seven bells out of hordes of despicable enemies. 

Shadow Gangs takes a mammoth dose of inspiration from the iconic Shinobi, and this shows in the fundamental gameplay mechanics. The player directs Dan across 10 more-or-less linear levels, making liberal use of ranged and melee attacks (get ready for sore thumbs) to vanquish his opponents, and precise use of the ducking and jumping functions to avoid incoming fire and hits. 

Your arsenal is spiced-up by the inclusion of powerful but sparsely numbered landmines and ‘ninja magic’ attacks (imagine the screen-clearing special attacks from the Streets of Rage series), as well as occasional power-ups that switch out Master Dan’s shuriken for a much heftier combo of samurai sword plus sub-machine gun. Six boss fights are interspersed throughout the regular levels, as well as shooting-range style bonus stages, providing a decent amount of content in all.

Although I lack the technical know-how to test it, I have no reason to doubt the publisher’s claim that Shadow Gangs runs at 60 frames-per-second on the Dreamcast. The silky-smooth performance certainly seems to bear this out, and the customisable controls feel tight, responsive and map nicely to the standard Dreamcast controller. The large, detailed sprites and varied backgrounds, with colour schemes that pop without becoming too garish, look gorgeous outputted over VGA. Shadow Gangs is well polished when it comes to its audio features too.

The music is well composed, catchy and suits the character of the game down to a tee, and although the voiceover (which sounds like it was recorded by a stereotypical classically trained British actor) is undeniably cheesy, it brought a smile to my face which can only be a good thing. A word of warning though: avoid taking a big slurp of tea just before ‘COLLIN!’ is blurted out of your speakers, unless you intend on redecorating in the near future. In sum, the porting of Shadow Gangs from the PC to the Dreamcast has been executed extremely well—something which is perhaps not too surprising considering the who’s who of experienced Dreamcast programmers that are thanked in the game’s credits. The care and attention that has been afforded is evident throughout, from the VMU icons and rumble pack compatibility, through to the four language options. 

However, despite this, I don’t think it would be fair to say that Shadow Gangs will appeal to absolutely all audiences. Most Dreamcast owners will surely be able to squeeze a dozen or so enjoyable hours out of the game, but the sheer difficulty may mean that only those who are up for a tough challenge are likely to persist with it through to the end. No doubt this characteristic will be welcomed by a sizeable chunk of hardier gamers who are likely to have a very rewarding experience after mastering the controls, honing their reflexes, and memorising the ebb and flow of the levels. 

Those of us whose capabilities have been softened up by altogether more forgiving games in recent years may struggle though. I can’t help but feel that this could have been addressed by implementing an easy mode that strayed further from the normal and hard modes, thereby making the game more accessible without denying a full-throttle experience to those who desire it. As it stands, the ‘rising ninja’ mode does go some way to fulfilling this need, but the fact that it comes with 99 continues (as opposed to the 15 on the normal ‘ninja’ mode) seems like a subtle recognition of how difficult many will still find this iteration.

Nevertheless, despite this caveat (which is after all highly subjective), Shadow Gangs is a sterling first-effort on the Dreamcast from JKM Corp. The developers have kindly made a downloadable demo available, and another demo will feature prominently on the forthcoming Dreamcast demo disc that will accompany Issue 5 of Sega Powered magazine

I would encourage readers to make use of these opportunities to dip their toes into Shadow Gangs. In my eyes, the physical game is well-worth it’s £29.99 price tag, and WAVE Game Studios are now also offering a digital edition for a very reasonable £19.99. Fingers crossed each extra sale will increase our chances of receiving a sequel somewhere down the line, something which JKM Corp have already signalled as a distinct possibility.

Have you played Shadow Gangs? If so, what are your thoughts on the game? Did you also feel the need to swap the jump and attack button controls? Let us know in the comments!


pizza hotline said...

A cracking review of a freshly new game to the Dreamcast! I just recieved my Sega Powered Issue 5 with demo. There's something so novel about the process of playing a demo from a magazine, then buying the real deal based on the strength of that!

Janino296 said...

Great writing as Always...Hope i will Receive my copy asap as it seems to be stuck somewhere between great britain and Germany since a Month:(

SegaSen said...

I haven't received it yet. So I hope I will soon!