The Binding of Spreadsheets
The Consuming Shadow is a proceduraly generated 2d action sidescroller, time management sim, and game of deduction rolled into one Cthonic, atmospheric experience. A lot of people have compared it to FTL but I find it to be a more contemplative Binding of Isaac… or at least it tries to be. The game does a lot of really interesting things very intelligently, and when it gets something right it’s done brilliantly. That being said The Consuming Shadow makes as many missteps as not. Is it a net positive? Let’s find out.
So there’s no delicate way to put this; The Consuming Shadow is kind of ugly. Visually it’s slightly more sophisticated than what you would normally see on Newgrounds ten years ago. That being said, style alone can make up for a lot. The silhouettes for all of the character models work surprisingly well and are both cool looking and well differentiated. The dark gray skies really reinforce the gloom and impending doom of the world. Even the primary colors of the the text messages stand out nicely even if in a purely utilitarian way.
So I would normally give the aesthetics a pass considering how stylish and atmospheric it all looks. I can’t, however, because of one issue; the animations for melee combat. That sounds like nitpicking but it isn’t. Melee is a pretty important part of combat and when you’re fighting multiple enemies at multiple elevations having a (rather weaksauce) single attack animation doesn’t work. If you have enemies coming at you from a high middle and low point, a high middle and low attack animation is essential. Combat animation is maybe the most essential thing to get right graphics wise, and the fact that it’s subpar really stands out.
Speaking of combat, it’s actually not as bad as it looks. In fact it has a pretty nice balance. There are three types of combat; guns, magic, and melee. Guns are the safest option but since you have to pay for each bullet it can get pretty costly. Magic is far and away the most powerful with large, satisfying area of effects that kill almost everything the first time, but it’s rather rare(you can easily get through a game without seeing any combat spells) and it costs precious sanity to cast(more on sanity later). Melee is the most common, most skill based and riskiest way to fight. It technically costs nothing, but since you have to get right in a monster’s face(or other orifice) there is a real tax to health and sanity unless you’re lucky or observant. Observation is pretty important since all of the 20 monsters have distinct attack patterns and movements. If you do get to know the monsters’ patterns, melee tends to be the most rewarding, crap animations notwithstanding. One of the big themes of this game is a more cerebral approach to things, and this rewarding of observation as well as the cost/reward analysis in combat is certainly one of the better examples.
This would probably be a good time to mention the sanity mechanic. Aside from health and money, you have to manage your sanity bar. Running away from battle, picking the wrong answer during random encounters, certain hits from monsters, certain text messages and casting spells reduces sanity. As your sanity decreases the game gets harder. Illusions of monsters appear to drain your resources, your vision is obscured, doors move and disappear, and options randomly cause your character to try to commit suicide. If your sanity is low enough you can’t cast spells either. You can conceivably beat the game without sanity, but it’s pretty rough, and you’ll want to do what you can to keep it up. Maybe the most impressive balancing act in the game is that this doesn’t come off as frustrating. Sanity is something you definitely want to keep, but when it (inevitably) disappears it’s not(necessarily) the end of the world
The Consuming Shadow’s gameplay can be divvied into thirds; dungeons, mystery, and the map. The dungeon part of the game, where almost all of the combat actually happens, is set up like a side scrolling Binding of Isaac, with procedural generation of grid maps, monsters and treasures. There’s a pretty decent diversity of each, and traversal is equal parts rewarding and nerve racking.
The main thing you’re usually looking for in these dungeons, even more than the main objective, is clues. Clues are the second third of the gameplay pie and probably the most clever. The purpose of the whole game is to learn. An elder god is coming to our world in sixty hours (24 for one of the characters) and you have to learn the ritual of banishment; a series of four runes, one of which corresponds with the identity of said god, so you also have to learn that god’s identity. Complicating matters further, there are five possible gods and three which are directly involved in our world; the invader, the invader’s ally, and the enemy of the invader. You have to parse through several clues like “The god of pain is yellow” or “the god identified with the AGN rune is not the invader”. Applying these snippits on an in game spreadsheet and working your deductive muscles are the key to learning the ritual and beating the god. Honestly, this is my favorite part of the game and the one part that feels really special. This deductive aspect is better than the mysteries in LA Noir or Heavy Rain combined. Of all of the convoluted “detective mode” mechanics in all the games I’ve played, this is the only one that just trusts the player to use simple deductive logic and figure things out for themselves. I respect that and really wish other games would follow suit.
The last third is more of a classic rouguelike/Oregon Trail world map where you travel across England going from exploring dungeons to stocking up in safe towns. All the while the clock is ticking down the hours so you have to plan your routes carefully. Also, random events will occur in which you can choose a pair of risky options (unless you have a certain item that automatically gives a right answer). You also receive text messages at random from friends, family, the Ministry of the Occult and strangers that can give you money support or a bucket of crazy. You can also just not answer them. Sections like this are made or broken on their quality of writing and, thankfully, the writing here is excellent. The writing is legitimately gloomy, stoic, and unnerving with just the right amount of dark humor.
It’s really the writing that saves The Consuming Shadow from becoming a pretty mediocre Isaac/FTL/The Curious Expedition/Darkest Dungeon clone. Aside from the mystery mechanic, nothing here really stands out. In fact, The Consuming Shadow has less longevity than any of the aforementioned games running out of steam relatively quickly. This leads to the biggest flaw in the game. When you beat the Binding of Isaac, it just gets bigger harder, and meaner. The extra options you win are just enough to keep you afloat but the important thing is you see new things all the time. Every time you win or lose at the Consuming Shadow the game becomes easier. After you unlock the four characters and the (really cool) journal entries there’s not much left.
The Consuming Shadow is a really deep and interesting game. It’s far too short for it’s ambitions, however and comes off feeling shallower and less polished than it deserves. It’s still a strong game and I would recommend it. It just really makes me long for an expansion.