Shadow Man (Dreamcast)

Yes, this is for the N64 version, but it’s the same game.

Maybe I should have written this before I chose to start playing The Ocarina of Time: Master Quest again. Still, here I go anyway.

Back in 1999, I rented Shadow Man for my N64, got a little way in and then had to return it. This was, of course, back when I could play N64 games without my eyes shutting down in protest. Last year, when I got a Dreamcast from eBay for a criminally good price, I saw Shadow Man for about $5 and decided to finally finish it.
What’s more, I played it back in February. A game from 1999, on a system from 2001 that I bought in September 2005 played in February 2006 and am now writing about in August 2006. For the launch of this aspect of my site, I’m nothing if not topical.

Shadow Man is notable for the fact that it was made when Acclaim was in its heyday, churning out games of questionable quality based on licences of popular things that they really messed up (South Park) or that they effectively made up (if anyone had heard of Turok before the game was released … they’re a liar). Shadow Man is one of those made up titles. It was made in the days when people actually cared about Nintendo’s reputation as a “kiddie” system*, and so it broke the mould with novel concepts such as “blood” and “grey skinned people”.

It is a game of decidedly mixed qualities, starts and stops, and an almost non-existent story that it would have been better off without.

The instruction manual of this game is vital for understanding the story that is allegedly being presented to the audience, as without it you’re clean out of luck in even beginning to understand the task laid out in front of you.
Mike LeRoi is, by night, Shadow Man, lord of Deadside. He fights off demons and saves wayward souls for the benefit of voodoo priestess Nettie. The game finds Mike tortured by the death of his brother, and contracted to solve some sort of plot engineered by Legion (“for we are many”) to gather several serial killers led by Jack the Ripper to … um … build an asylum that is powered by tortured souls. To be honest, I can’t remember it that well, but the story is as irrelevant as it is vague.

Yes, Shadow Man is a game that boasts that it features darkness and cutscenes with full voice. That translates to “self importance” in a game that would have done equally as well in the majority of the game play department with a lick of colour, or at least graphics bright enough to see.
The over world of Deadside is an unfortunate grey maze of identical looking areas, and is where many gamers would give up. Finding the first dark soul is an unforgiving task of wandering around until you stumble upon it, which is the game’s biggest flaw: it operates as a series of fits and starts. This creates an intensely frustrating game that can be immensely rewarding. If you’re playing without an FAQ, there will be many instances when you’re stuck on one thing, and then the solution comes and you’re on a wave of progress.

The problem with being stuck like that the obstructions are caused by the game’s obtuseness rather than legitimate difficulty – in one instance, you have to progress by shooting through walls that I had assumed were just walls … but in some ways it is more dynamic than Ocarina of Time simply because there’s a lot less pushing and pulling. That does not make Shadow Man a better game by any means.

The puzzle solving and exploration elements are fun and interesting, but the combat sucks. The Z trigger targeting system of Zelda is taken and used in a much less effective way. The enemies are ugly grey blobs that you couldn’t care about if you tried, or fiends with hooks that will kill you as soon as they touch you. The one mercy is that if you kill something, it won’t respawn until you’ve left the area and loaded another. As such, I spent ages wandering around the Play Rooms devoid of enemies trying to figure out what the hell I was doing (solution: shoot the red blob to progress).

Contrary to that mercy is that places that you have already been in the over world will become packed with faster, stronger versions of previous enemies. Due to the aforementioned dull combat, I simply run away. Certainly, their catching up with me and killing me is annoying, but they simply don’t deserve my attention, and I don’t deserve to have artificial difficulty injected into my adventure games.

While Dead Side as an over world is a mighty boring looking place, the traditional “theme worlds” fare much better. The Asylum built by Jack the Ripper (evidently a sensitive, caring, bloodthirsty architect) is pretty to look at and gives a genuine sense of foreboding. It is split up into several sections, almost all of which make sense. The only place that can’t conform to its theme is Play Rooms, which features a charming soundtrack of children laughing and crying, the sounds of drills and cracking bones, and a squeeze toy being squeezed to bursting point. Despite the soundtrack and the name, the Play Rooms are mainly full of water and a lab! Only a few rooms look interesting, and that’s mainly because they embrace the stereotypical expectations that one has of video games. The Play Rooms, despite one insulting puzzle, are fun to work out, but they’re boring to look at.

These settings all bleed naturally into the story which – and I may have already mentioned this … sucks. Rather than introducing the story to the gamer through progressive cut scenes and dialogue, the gamer is furnished with a 25 page dossier at the start of the game. If you want to know anything about the people that you’re up against, you have to read that. Even then, good luck getting a feel for any of these people: rather than showing the killers overrunning their prison, or taking an apartment block, or wandering about the London Underground, you get scenes that amount to Mike (or Shadow Man) showing up, being insulted by the killers (“Ha! Your brother’s dead!”), then threatening them. Then it’s on.

In the instances where you’re up against the serial killers you’re allowed to use weapons infinitely stronger than your pointlessly weak standard issue shadow gun, so all of the battles (except against Jack who, as it turns out, had the ability to crawl on ceilings) are easily won if you’ve got even a bit of ammunition.

Then, when you shut down the engine that, I don’t know, eats the souls of children or some crap, you embark on the most boring boss battle in human history: point and shoot without falling to the ground far below. If you do fall, you just get back up and point and shoot some more. The boss doesn’t have phases or show that he’s receiving damage, so you have to hope that he’ll get hurt. When he does: anti-climax! The ending is literally an explosion and Shadow Man giving another of his wanky soliloquies that amounts to “I am Shadow Man.”

I played this game to 100% completion in twenty hours and all I got was this lousy soliloquy. Still, the puzzle solving is fun enough to overshadow the terrible combat and totally lacklustre storyline. It was certainly worth the $5 I paid for it.

*The spelling of it as “kiddie” annoys me more than anything else.

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