The Consuming Shadow is a 2D rogue-like survival horror game by Yahtzee Crowshaw. In it, you play as a character known only as “The Scholar” who is tasked with stopping an invading “Lovecraftian” god by discovering and completing a banishment ritual at Stonehenge. Game-play is split between plotting courses across an overland map of England in your car and exploring various “Dungeons”.
I chose the title “Minimalism Maximized” because the game executes a dizzying level of subtlety and complexity using only the barest of bones. One of the first things you notice when opening the main menu is a rather simplistic 2D art style. I would argue that not only does this not take away from the horror experience, it actually can and will add to it. Here in the main menu you see a silhouetted player character hunched over a desk in a nearly pitch black room giving a basic summary of plot details. Within the menu itself you have the option of beginning your journey or killing yourself.
This is a masterfully crafted execution of both the games tone, and one of it’s central game play mechanics. Clicking on ‘Kill Yourself” starts a mini-game where you frantically tap the mouse to keep a silhouette of your character from putting a gun to their head and pulling the trigger. After you begin your journey you find in yourself in your car with a map of England and a variety of procedurally generated towns. You will notice a sixty hour timer on your screen. Time management is a vital factor here. If you fail to die within sixty hours, the invading god will do what he does; which is to say invading, and killing you. You have a health, sanity, and ammo count meters to contend with. Also here is another great moment of subtlety. In your rear view mirror is a post it note with the words “Don’t look back” written on it. At first it seems almost whimsical, but as your sanity wanes, you start to see it as a call for clarity in a world going mad. Your car is where you can heal from a refillable med-kit, and take narcotics to temporarily restore sanity (albeit with diminishing returns).
You can also find your book of clues and a spell book. Clues will be logged as you find them. They are integral to completing the game. They are randomly sorted each play through to always keep you guessing. Your main concern is to discern the identity of the invading god and the correct runes needed for his banishment ritual. This segues nicely into your spell book. Here you keep all the spells you have learned. You can use a variety of spells that can heal, illuminate areas and highlight your goal in a dungeon or damage enemies.
Using spells saps your sanity: there is a steep risk/reward aspect at play here. You will also receive texts from time to time in your car. They run the gamut of job offers from your employer, The Ministry, family texts that can add or subtract sanity and random numbers or threats from cultists. Also, you can sort through equipment you find in dungeons and purchase from towns. While not necessary, they can be extremely useful. This section of the game has a somewhat Oregon Trail feel with traveling from town to town in a non-linear fashion while coming across a variety of random encounters along the way. The texts and encounters only occasionally have a massive impact on your playthrough.
Most of them exist to add flavor and immersion to the game world Towns themselves will consist of either friendly towns or towns that have fallen to the shadow. Friendly towns give you the option to scavenge for supplies and a hospital for mending wounds, refilling med-kits and buying more drugs. All of this is conveyed through a simple but effective images of towns with accompanying text. Fallen towns are where the meat of the game-play is located. Here you will find “dungeons” consisting of various realistic settings like hospitals, parks and warehouses. Objectives will be rescuing a hostage, closing a dimensional rift, defeating a large creature or finding an important artifact.
I am going to leave an important note here: imagine it as a Post It note on your rear-view mirror. You will die. You will die a lot. It is not simply a Dark Souls combat style of masochist difficulty; it is a central game-play mechanic. Completing dungeons, killing monsters and piecing together clues about the impending gods arrival all give you experience. The difference here is, you only level up when you die. Every level unlocks birth signs, which are used to boost your stats at the beginning of each new journey. Birth signs are placed in the sky near astrological symbols which confer health and sanity bonuses, to other things like loot drops, research buffs, spell effectiveness and larger ammo capacity. Combat consists of using your 9mm pistols for ranged, or pistol whipping for melee.
Here lies one of my favorite aspects of Consuming Shadow and one of my favorite types of horror game combat in general. Combat in horror usually falls into one of three categories. On one extreme you have the Outlast/Amnesia style horror combat, where there is basically no combat. You’re a wet paper bag lost in the wrong side of town. You stealth about and run when you realize you suck at sneaking. On the other end is the Doom 3/Dead Space style combat. You’re a sentient oil drum filled to the brim with whoop ass. You mow down all sorts of monstrosities and neer’do’wells with gleeful abandon.
The Consuming Shadow falls into that happy medium between the two, a’la Resident Evil 1-3 or Zombi. A wonderful chunk of corned beef and sauerkraut between two slices of wholly different loaves of bread. You have means of defending yourself. Sometimes it is the better option, other times it is not. The dungeons are procedurally generated, making each play through fresh and new. Here you will encounter various ghastly creatures and occasional cultists; human foes who cast profane magic at you. Taking damage or leaving rooms with enemies in them result in sanity loss(among other ways) While sanity mechanics have been implemented in other games, I find Consuming Shadow executes it almost to perfection. As your sanity drains, a whole host of uncanny visual effects begin happening.
Translucent black blotches appear on the screen, a grain effect fades in an out. Sometimes the silhouette of your character will disappear entirely, doors will shift about and enemies that only exist in your mind will appear. Despite the fact that some of these effects are being cribbed – to some level – from Eternal Darkness, there are other sanity effects that nail the atmosphere and horror like a professional sniper. One in particular is when the objective text at the beginning of a dungeon is replaced with “kill yourself” “die die die” etc, only to seamlessly transition back into the normal text while your reading it. The other major one is far more sinister.
Various commands in the town and car sections will randomly be replaced with the “Kill Yourself” command for a few moments. You will accidentally hit this. If you succeed at pulling the gun from your throat, you have a high chance at recovering some sanity. But it gets progressively harder every time you enter the mini-game. While It is never stated in any way, a lot of background storytelling is at play here. For example, it will infer that even when you are completely out of ammo, you still have one bullet left. It is a great reinforcement of the despair and morbid atmosphere in this game. Even when your character’s head is held high, they still know in the back of their mind the only fail safe way to save themselves from the darkness is to simply end it all. The endgame of all this is to discover enough clues about who the invading god is to form the correct banishment ritual.
The place of his summoning will always be found at Stonehenge, the farthest point from where your journey begins. When you die or complete the game (you lucky bugger), you’re presented with a rundown of your characters actions. This is one of many moments where Yahtzee really flexes his writing chops and, despite their random nature, I found all of them compelling and enjoyable. See, you only get one life in Consuming Shadow. A hallmark of the rogue-like genre is “Permadeath.” Basically, when you die, it’s game over, start over. For most games in this genre it works to make a steep difficulty curve. In The Consuming Shadow, it allows for a multitude of great stories to emerge. For example, within the lore it is stated that there are multiple parallel universes. That means, that every single play through is a canon play through. Neat huh? I believe I covered most of the meat that is Consuming Shadow.
Now I am going to move on to the even meatier bits. The filet side of the T-bone steak if you will. When you die, you will find a bestiary tab unlocked in the main menu. Here is a list of all the enemies you encountered and a percentage of your knowledge about them. While this is hardly new in games, the way it is executed is. The writing on them is unveiled piece by piece, sometimes ending in the middle of a word. For me, this created an almost addictive sense of going back and raising as much hell across England as possible just for a few more lines of lore that were denied to me. Also you will discover diary pages giving background info leading up to your characters involvement in the plot. With the Insanity Edition now out for sometime, you can play a number of challenge modes including an endless descent version of the Stonehenge dungeon.
You can even unlock three hidden characters with their own unique stats and abilities. (Minor Spoiler warning) One of them MIGHT be one of the main characters of previous Yahtzee games. While this game does have a lot of variables left to random number generation, they fit to together cohesively and lead to some truly unique and horrifying scenarios. One in particular for me was when I had reached the bottom of Stonehenge. I collected all the clues and prerequisites for the proper banishment ritual, found the summoning room and cleared it of all opposition. Sounds good so far right? Well, By this point my narcotics wore off and I had lost every last bit of my sanity. With no sanity, you are unable to concentrate enough to use spells. I had no options left, I had no time left.
I was a madmen running around in the Stygian catacomb under Stonehenge with every last piece needed to put an end to the machinations of the invading god, and with it’s altar right before. Alas, I was to far gone to complete the ritual. I died a broken man with the key in my hand, and the lock at my feet. Other standout moments include being chased by various death-less beings after completing a dungeon objective and being forced to escape. At first it seemed a simple jump scare, but combined with low visibility, sanity effects and the need to overcome regular monsters still lurking about, it became a rapidly rising scene of nail biting tension. In moments like this the simple art style really brings adds to the horror. The monsters are detailed enough to give your form, but vague enough to let your imagination fill in the rest.
The soundtrack like any good horror sound track, gives the atmosphere weight and depth. Somber piano melodies with haunting synth inspired sections remind me of the classic Resident Evil games with a touch of the Silent Hill franchise. The Consuming Shadow is a brilliantly executed game. It’s simple art style is deceptively sinister. The sound track sends chills up my spine at all the right moments. The combat is beautifully clumsy. While some may not like it, it does reinforce the notion that your character is just as meagerly equipped to deal with absolute horror like any person existing in the real world. The writing is top notch, and one of the greatest strengths of this game.
Now that I have finished gushing on about a game whose developer I admit to be a fan of most all his content, I will finally quit dragging my feet and get into the flaws. I do this in order to maintain a thin veneer of objectivity. My first nick-pick would have to be the near uselessness of lock picking. You start with three lock-picks, finding more is scarce. I accept that. The problem arises when the chance of picking a lock starts at 15% and only goes up by 5 for every failure. While you can up your lock picking chances by placing a birth star near the proper astrological sign, nearly every single dungeon has a set of keys to be found making it practically useless.
Especially when you can just beef your health and melee damage like me and become a insane gains-bro running around in body armor pistol whipping the ever-loving shit out of H.P. Lovecraft’s rogue gallery. Another nitpick would be the birth sign leveling system. It changes the placement in the sky with some signs not appearing at all. While I understand the merits behind it, I find it most displeasing when I am unable to be a hulked-out maniac. Sometimes you are forced to a playthrough with a load-out you are not familiar with or not really wanting to play with. One major gripe I do have is lack of any ability to hold more than a single clip of the three ammo types for your 9.MM.
I understand and prefer for horror games to have an inventory management mechanic, but any ammo you find that is over a full clip just disappears. On the same note of inventory, money is incredibly scarce, which is fine in and of itself. The problem is when you find yourself lucky enough to have more equipment than need be, but nobody on a whim to sell to for some badly needed scratch. There have been plenty of playthroughs for me where I found myself staring at a syringe full of that sweet, sweet, drug-stuff and scratching the skin off my neck but no money to buy it.
Even though I did have a garbage barge full of ammunition. Apparently the concept of bartering is the first thing lost when cosmic terrors descend from beyond the stars. The Consuming Shadow was developed on the game maker engine By Ben “Yahtzee” Crowshaw.
The sound track was composed by Mark Lovegrove. I would recommend The Consuming Shadow to anyone who enjoys a good horror game and has no problem with occasionally putting a bullet through their own throat. I give it 4/4 banishment runes. It is available on Steam for the low price of 10 American dollars. (Value of American dollar is subject to change on a moment to moment basis. …Sorry I didn’t vote for him.)