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Shadow Man (PlayStation) artwork

Shadow Man (PlayStation) review

"Never before have I been so depressed and disappointed by a Playstation game for which I had high expectations as I was in the case of Acclaim's Shadow Man. "

Never before have I been so depressed and disappointed by a Playstation game for which I had high expectations as I was in the case of Acclaim's Shadow Man.

In the eye of my personal tastes, this game had almost everything going for it. We begin with my favourite genre, the third-person action adventure. Now start to throw in horror elements (my favourites) - voodoo, serial killing, grisly dread, the ability to move between 'liveside' and 'deadside'. This game is even partially set in one of my favourite places to which I've never been, New Orleans. They even named a bar in this game after my favourite film, which was set largely in New Orleans (Wild at Heart)!

Yet within just forty minutes of playtime, I already knew that I'd never muster the desire to finish this painful and daunting clunker, let alone persist with it. Days later, having struggled through some five levels, I smacked my hands melodramatically against my skull and mentally gave up.

The Shadow Man himself is a wasted ex-crim named Michael Le Roi who spiralled through bad luck in life, lost his family to gangsters after ripping off their money and finally became an undead slave to an immortal witch named Old Nettie. (Sort of puts your everyday problems into perspective, doesn't it?) As the game begins, an apocalyptic war between liveside (our world) and deadside (the undead 'other dimension') is about to commence, and Nettie dispatches her mouldering servant Shadow Man to collect Dark Souls and stave off the end of the world.

Great story. Great ideas. Great themes. Potentially a great atmosphere. Now we start falling over. Let me take you deadside to explain why Shadow Man becomes so unpleasant so fast...

From the first moment when Shadow Man - a truly unlikeable character with half-rotten flesh, awkward hunching gait and a dirty shirt to cap it all off - appears onscreen in a muddy canyon, and you try to steer him around, you know you're in trouble. He handles like a brick. He's slow, awkward and snags on everything to a buggy extent. Stand next to a fence or wall and odds are you won't be able to walk away from it without jumping. Controller configurations are abysmal, too. I tried them all and could never find one to make me happy even five levels down the track. Strafing is obnoxiously slow, and you can't use shoulder buttons to strafe. This means you can't turn and strafe at the same time, a sorely neglected feature which comes back to kick you in the head during combat.

The framerate is atrocious. I mean consistently atrocious. When a game gets choppy in places, I don't care, but Shadow Man is stuttery 24/7. Animations are sucked in on delay with alarming bleats from the Playstation which I can hear from across the room, while I stand there and wait for Mr. Non-Corporeal to do whatever the hell it was I asked him to do. Maybe it's the huge worlds that cause this, but whatever it is, I can't tolerate it.

I anticipated something amazing from this ability to switch between Michael Le Roi in the real world and Shadow Man (who is actually immortal. Really!) in the dead one. Shadow Man has better moves and weapons and looks a little like Spawn, not to mention that he's negotiating fantastic environments such as blood-filled lakes and spooky temples as opposed to a New Orleans graveyard filled with dogs and chickens.

But the level divisions are completely strict and boring. You never get to cross worlds in a parallel universe kind of way. If you die in the real world, you get tossed into an entirely separate deadside level. If you die deadside, you restart the deadside level. That's all there is to it.

These worlds are enormous free-roaming affairs. They're also bleak, samey, sparse and dreadfully boring. This is the death of the inquisitiveness you're expected to conjure up to be able to explore them and not get hopelessly lost. When everything is the same shade of brown, who can remember where they've been? Now throw in those godawful controls, and you find that trying to move about, jump and climb on the bland rock formations is a truly hateful experience. Even the game's more innovative features backfire in this context. Shadow Man is genuinely ambidextrous, so you can place weapons in either hand and key them to different buttons on the controller. This would have been cool except he can't climb on a damn rope with even one thing in his hands. So you have to hit Select, load the inventory screen, empty your hands, swing slooooowly across, then reload the inventory screen, put everything back in your hands...

The enemies are indistinct against the muddy backgrounds and fighting them is a chore. Why do even the meekest undead have enormous hit points? It doesn't prove anything that I can shoot the dismembered torso eight times with my slow-firing shadow gun when he's not putting up any resistance. Airborne enemies are so hard to hit you'll grow weary of even trying and just press on. Then, if you meet a fast enemy who can get behind you, well it can be quite deadly because the only way Shadow can face behind him is by slowly turning on the spot. No strafe and turn for this boy. Lock-on targeting is hopeless because if the enemy moves around, you lose your lock anyway.

Survive a battle like this, then out of the blue you'll enter some temple where the challenge level skyrockets out of all proportion to what's preceded it, and one easy-to-make false move means instant death in a pool of 'bloody' lava, complete with close-up cut-scene of your flaming death. Horrible.

The cut-scenes here are acted with gusto, I'll give them that much, but it's often misplaced gusto, and the didactic rants about hell and the apocalypse get tedious real fast. The Alone in the Dark documents syndrome is also on hand. When Nettie wants me to read about some serial killer, she gives me a file with over twenty screens of information to slough through and expects me to take it all in at one sitting. I don't believe anyone has that much patience, especially in the context of an action-adventure. A page here and a page there would have worked infinitely better.

Music is of a bleak ambient quality that I normally like, but when the game experience is so painful on the whole, the soundtrack passes over to deadside where it just outright depresses me. Not to mention that all CD-based operations in this game are so stuttery! The music lurches in and out, animations lurch in and out... Acclaim should have really tightened the nuts and bolts here.

The huge bleak worlds, boring and painful combat, lousy technical qualities, savage difficulty (for all the wrong reasons) and wasted life/ death themes combine to make Shadow Man a poisonous entity which made me deeply unhappy in a short space of time. The effect was only enhanced by the fact that I got this game as a birthday present! But I rarely react so badly to any game, and I advise you to never even give Shadow Man a shot at ruining your week. For a brilliant voodoo action game on the Playstation, chase up Akuji the Heartless. Alas, Playstation Shadow Man is a depressing mire of great ideas squandered on an unplayable wreck.

-- Shadow Man -- 3/10 --

P.S. - An interesting production footnote. Quite often the spoken word and the subtitles in this game's cutscenes don't match. The most entertaining example is when our evil friend Jaunty makes a serial killer joke. Onscreen, it's been scripted as Ed Gein (Who? That old serial killer from the sixties - source for Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but on the spoken track it's been changed by someone with a more contemporary outlook to Jeffrey Dahmer!

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Community review by bloomer (March 08, 2004)

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