I have a strange desire when playing twin-stick shooters; to be so fast and so accurate that I could stay completely static in the middle of the screen. The enemies, be they geometric shapes, spaceships, asteroids, or shadow creatures whatever, come at you from every direction, but you are such a master of right thumb-stick accuracy that you never need to use the left thumb at all. I eventually get overwhelmed of course and the dream is over, but it’s how I sometimes want to play them. Towaga Among Shadows seems to have been designed with this idea in mind, because in one of the two modes, you stand in the centre of the screen, and you can’t move, and shit, you better be fast and accurate with your right thumb lasers otherwise you are not going to progress far.
It’s an interesting concept for half the game. The other half is a path well-trodden; a twin-stick shooter where you take to the air and fight. But it’s the one-stick shooter when you are on land, where you remain still, that had me intrigued. At least for a while.
You play as a Lightbearer, which I’ll explain in a moment, armed with a huge laser beam that comes out your hand like you’re frikkin Iron Man. The first couple of levels introduce the right thumbstick shooting mechanic, with your feet firmly centred on the ground, or at the top of a ziggurat temple. It’s all about stopping the waves of enemies from reaching you, but you cannot move. That is the single most fundamental thing to understand about this mode. This is a one-stick shooter, that feels like literal tower defence, and it’s all up to you.
After a few levels getting the hang of this strange tower defence mechanic, you suddenly take off into the sky above and realise you are actually some kind of apprentice God. In these levels the game does away with the tower defence static shooter and banks into the conventions of a twin-stick. You can fly around with the left stick, while unleashing your laser light beams in any direction with the right.
It certainly looks cool, but you’re here to find out how it plays and whether it’s worth your time. So let’s dive on in.
Probably the first thing you’ll notice is the animation is off the charts good. Towaga is gorgeously animated, from the story cutscenes evoking the best of Samurai Jack, and those 2D Star Wars Clone Wars cartoons (before Ahsoka Tano was a thing), to a number of eye-popping laser and power-up effects. It’s not particle effects, its beautifully animated effect-laden 2D lasers. And it’s goddamn cool. I love animation of this quality, and it makes the game shine like a diamond amongst zirconia. However, there are scant few of these story cutscene animations, and each lasts barely five seconds if that. I was sorely disappointed how little of the cool animation I actually got.
When you stand atop your temple, enemies come at you in waves. Some are little flying bats, some are screaming bombs, some are slinky creeping grabby things. They are all shadows, and they creep, run, fly or slide towards you at the centre of the screen. With your laser it’s your job to dispel the shadows, shine light on evil, and purify the temple. Enemies start slow, and there are few enough of them that it’s pretty simple to complete the phases or levels, and move on to the next. Each one is maybe a minute to a couple of minutes long. Eventually they start to multiply in number and really test your quick reflexes and accuracy.
Twin stick shooters and this type of one stick lend a welcome arcade feel to things. Beyond the story this means that Towaga has some amount of replayability in the guise of scoring. There are leaderboards for the two survival modes, be that ground or air based.
The laser effects are certainly striking, but there are no other weapons. Not one. There are five spells, four of which are the circular blast variety (including a time stopping petrify, fire bugs, and a simple wind blast) and one short-lived freezing laser. These are welcome additions and are crucial to not being overwhelmed when there are just too many of the little bastards to burn away, but this seems like a massively wasted opportunity. Where’s the burst lasers, the shotgun-style blast radius lasers, the calling down megadeath deus ex machina lasers? The fact that you can’t move should have meant you got an absolute arsenal to unleash, but sadly, that’s not the case.
And to rub salt in that wound, in the flying phases, you are deprived of the essential magic spells that you have earned and reduced back down to literally just the single laser, making getting through them that much harder. I was so surprised that you are deprived of your backup spells during flight that I tried a number of times to work out if I had tripped a bug, or unequipped them by accident. I could not find a way to turn this on anywhere. The fact that you can shoot bombs in the air, leads we to believe it is deliberate, but I am very surprised by that.
Survival on the ground is tough enough. Survival in the air is semi-ridiculous, especially in the horde-like survival modes. Movement speed is not the lightning-fast zipping about of Geometry Wars (it’s absolutely plodding by comparison) and the slow pace means you have a hard time avoiding enemies. There is no dodge function, so the only real way to avoid the enemies and survive for any length of time is to circle the level space, avoiding the cloud edges that damage you, over and over, shooting into the middle. This got old and boring as fast as a laser hitting you between the eyes.
By the time you’ve gone through twenty or so phases, you will start to really notice the repetitive nature of the game. Five phases to the top of a temple, purify the temple with another phase, a few flying levels and then a boss. Rinse and repeat. I had lost track of the temples by the time I hit thirty phases, but I read that there were five. Every one of the forty-two phases are exactly the same, bar the introduction of a few different enemy types in the first thirty or so. Swapping between flying and ground-based levels does not add the kind of variety I think was intended.
You play as the masked Lightbearer. You’d expect there was some story tacked on to this arcade shooter to justify the grind and to explain the excessively dark aesthetic and characters. And you’d be right. The reason I haven’t covered it first is because the game treats most of the story as an afterthought.
The story of Towaga Among Shadows isn’t all that important to the overall package. It’s an arcade shooter that’s been given a mysterious cult storyline to exist in. To begin with all you have is a cave, a shiny portal and a distinctly freakish-looking master who calls himself Kurro the Bearbird. He looks like a bear with a bird-like mask, and he creeped me the fuck out. I was very very suspicious of him.
The game delivers its narrative via lore clues that you earn as you progress, be they the lost diary pages of your predecessor that reveal information about the Lightbearer cult, or memories of the incident that brought you to this meagre cave and your current predicament. I won’t spoil any of the later information, but your Island home is being ravaged by the Voidmonger (whose name is literally Metnal – which strikes me and just Mental which a letter swap) and his legions of shadow creatures. At the start there is a short cinematic of his armies destroying your stilted village, and I’m guessing, killing your predecessor.
Chimu is an apprentice to the Lightbearers who has only just awoken to his powers, with the death of the previous wielder. After every mission you can return to the cave for choice dark wisdom from Kurro, and he will use his magic to send you back through the portal to the next level. I assume the cave has no actual opening, and the portal is the only way in or out, thus keeping the last of your cult safe from the Voidmonger. I could be wrong; I’ve been piecing it together, and that’s really what you will have to do.
You will venture out of the cave, warp to temples and clear them of the shadow scourge, by standing at the top and fighting off the hordes via the tower defense one stick shooter mechanic. Just as often you take to the skies above and again it’s about surviving and slowly chipping away at the hordes. Then you warp back to your cave, check you upgrades, and do it all over again.
It’s a game where the arcade battles and the story are kept largely separate, and if you want the story you are going to need to delve into the lore and collectibles. Towaga doesn’t even force you to watch the memory cutscenes. It’s all very hands off, which is a perfectly acceptable design choice, it’s worked for many players in Dark Souls and the like, but personally I found it empty. Chimu had no personality whatsoever, and the story is carried by the dead diary writer, and a few quips from that scary-ass bear.
The story mode is also artificially extended. What looks like three acts to the story is not actually the case. What I assumed was the first act consists of forty-two phases, or stages, but then when you reach the end that really is the whole thing – up pops the story complete achievement. Visit and literally stand on five temples, fly up to the boss five times and you’re done. The second act is actually just the same exact forty-two stages with less health and harder enemies, termed the shadow realm. It would be far more accurate to have simply called it hard mode.
The culmination of all of this barely even deserves the term story mode, and the vast majority of anything narrative based is delivered via menus.
A number of these menus are devoted to the large amount of unlockables in the game. You collect shards from your slain shadow foes, and you can spend your shards on upgrades, new spells, health, faster healing, and the damage and spread of your laser beam. That’s all well and good, however beyond the basic set of powers, upgrading the magic spells is almost pointless, advancing the spread just 5% for each level, and there are only five levels. The new outfits you can earn or purchase are basically just colour palette swaps in terms of look, although each comes with something like enhanced health or magic.
It gets stranger though. You spend the same shard currency on lore items, diary pages, artifacts, masks, and almanac pages, all of which work to reveal the lore and story I mentioned, but what player is going to choose to waste valuable upgrading currency on items that only advance the lore? I bought a mask thinking I’d at least get to equip it, but instead, it’s just a bit of lore about its deceased owner. You can’t equip it. I could have spent those shards making my beam wider by 5%.
Using the same currency system means that most players will not buy any lore items (past the first couple as they are burnt) until they have completely maxed the skill upgrades. This consequently leads the player to play most of the game (and even the hard mode) without the lore that would enhance it, or give you any impetus to want to grind through it. Instead you are reduced to just playing for the arcade value.
I can think of two better ways to do this. It would have made much more sense to have two types of shards that can be spent independently. One for upgrades and one for lore items. This would have meant I could freely buy both types and advance my story enjoyment along with the action, instead of finding one relegated while I max the other. Alternatively, do away with buying lore items altogether, and just let me earn them all at the right moments in the story to reveal choice information. The game already does this with the diary pages, so why the different system for the rest?
Music in Towaga is fitting in that the instruments are very tribal sounding, rolling drums and clacks that fit with the assumed Aztec-style of the temples and ziggurats. I didn’t notice that many different tracks, just a few that cycled for battles, and one for the cave.
Towaga Among Shadows is something of a case of missed potential. What story it has is obtuse and hidden away in lore that no one will bother using their shards for. There’s some beautiful animation and smoothly made gameplay. It’s by no means a badly made game. For a little while the two battle modes will seem fun and offer a bit of challenge. But give it a few hours, and the odd design choices, lack of variety and a story that has little to no impact, and those good mechanics crumble under the weight of things that just could have been done better. It becomes stale, and no amount of survival mode score-chasing will entice me back.
It can be fun getting so good at a twin-stick that you can stay static in the middle of the screen. This just isn’t the game where you are going to want to invest the time to hone your skills to the point you can do it. The ground levels of Towaga offer something interesting but are ultimately outweighed by the game’s lack of options and the lackluster flying mechanics that leave you constantly exposed and unable to move fast enough to play in the manner you’d want to. Perversely for a game where one whole mode is devoted to static shooting, the flying sections feel like you have about that same level of mobility.
Towaga: Among Shadows is available now on Apple Arcade and Nintendo Switch is launching on PC (review version) on July 14th.
Developer: Sunnyside Games
Publisher: Noodlecake Studios
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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