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Shadow Madness (PlayStation) artwork

Shadow Madness (PlayStation) review

"Read this game now! "

Read this game now!

Question: Why should you bother playing a game that was first released in 1999, and which was not popular even then, and is even less so now?

Answer: Because it is one of the funniest and most literate video games in the history of RPGs (And there are other very good things about it too.)

Shadow Madness has a strange history, which goes some way to explaining why it is cleverly written and yet ultimately failed to find favour. The game had the distinction of being panned by critics and sneered at by fans of RPGs, who have dubbed it a broken dream or the "worst RPG ever". Sadly, this was the first and last game to be released by Craveyard Studios, the child of Crave Entertainment. It also proved to be the nail in the career coffin of Ted Woolsey, the legendary translator of early Squaresoft RPGs, including such classics as Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana, who, (despite his hopes of developing more such games) disappeared from video game development after the failure of Shadow Madness. It is also, so far as I know, the only Japanese style RPG ever to be made by an American team. Woolsey obviously had high hopes for the game as, in a completely un-prophetic interview, he talked of making a follow up. In hindsight this failure is perhaps no surprise. Woolsey's skills lay in the translation of Japanese into idiomatic English, and although the script of the game shows unusual wit and intelligence, the gameplay is uninspired. It is as though, in the excitement of producing their very own game, the Craveyard team had forgotten the first rule of a successful RPG. Make battles fun.

The game sets out to be a conventional RPG, modelled, in part, on Final Fantasy 7 which had already been released to wide acclaim. It has two discs, takes about 40 hours to complete, and follows the adventures of half a dozen disparate characters in a disease ridden world, as they seek to find the reason behind dreadful events that have occurred in the land of Arkose.

This story is fairly standard RPG fare, though the way it is told is original. The game begins with the main character, Stinger, in a bar telling his tale to the bar-man and regulars. This is a good idea and is followed through right to the end. You play through his story. He is a smart-mouthed young man who has returned to his home town after a night out, and finds that in his absence it has been razed to the ground. The remaining few citizens have gone stark staring mad. As he travels further afield, he meets up with two other survivors of the shadow madness, Windleaf, a bow-toting beautiful spell caster and Harv-5, a scythe wielding harvester robot, who become his companions. Three other characters join them much later in the game. They traverse the land trying to find the source of this madness and discover dark secrets at the heart of the land of Arkose. Different towns have different forms of the madness, and things are badly wrong in the whole of the land. Some of the themes of technology versus magic, the corruption of good intentions, the heroes who will fight to right all wrongs, will be familiar to fans of the genre, but Shadow Madness has a unique spin on all these themes, because of the excellent script. But, the gameplay is bad.

Battles are random, both on the world map and in most dungeons, but (thankfully) they can be avoided by a pressing L2 and R2 quickly when you hear the roar of nearby monsters. Travel takes place often. You leave a town or dungeon and enter the over world map and ..well...walk. There is a lot of walking in this game: no handy teleporting is allowed. However the up-side of this is that the map is cleverly laid out on a grid system, and is dotted with glyphs much like a medieval map, of the "here be dragons variety", which is a nice distraction. The whole world map appears at the bottom right hand side of the screen and a tiny black dot indicates where you are. Towns and other places once visited are also marked so locating yourself is easy. Saving the game is simple and can be done anywhere on the world map and in various inns, where, for a small price, health can be restored.

Although at first the battles seem enjoyable and challenging, especially when you have to work hard to defeat an early optional boss, the excitement quickly fades. You end up using three characters in various groups made up out of the total of six playable characters. Each one has their own specific weapons and skills, and three can use magic for attack and healing. There are also double physical attacks called 'twitch' attacks which allow the character to make two hits instead of one, which sounds useful only the problem is that sometimes the hits miss, even when the character is at the highest level. The initial magic spells are so powerful that sometimes there is no need to bother with physical attacking at all. Actually the animations for these spells are well done, though they can be skipped with a simple press of a button. When the characters level up they get a full heal, which is useful, but by about two thirds of the way through the game most of them will be at the highest level and stop gaining experience. In attempting to select items or spells to use you have to scroll down a list and remember which thing does what as there is no in-battle description of the items or spells. All this can take time while your enemies continue to attack. There is no pause while you search for the attack or item. Most battles are easy to win, though when you do not have access to a healer and there are a lot of enemies it can be tough. Strangely, on the whole, the so-called boss battles are easier to win that the ordinary ones. So, the game-play is not the reason why you should play this game.

The main appeal of Shadow Madness lies in the attention given to the script and to the books that can be found everywhere. Unusually, the whole history, geography, sociology and theology of Arkose is laid at your feet, but in text form. The world is filled with books which detail everything you might ever want to know, and indeed things that you didn't even consider wanting to know. There are books on fighting, enemies, places, religion, magic, history, tourism, fables, warfare, even books on the tax system and, my personal favourite, romantic fiction. Nearly every one of these books is comic. Here is an example from a tax book. titled 'Sec. 59A. Found coin and property tax' : "Each year our citizens find and pick up coins and other property dropped out of the pockets of more careless individuals. This represents, in essence, an untaxed windfall on the part of the finder." So they impose a tax on everyone! Or from the Banori book of Slavedom: " A parent may sell an incorrigible or disobedient child in a public market place or shop. This sets an example to other children." Or the books of war that tell you to "slaughter everything in your path, then club those you have slaughtered just to be sure"...and so on. Truly, the time you take to read them thoroughly is well worth the effort.

The scripting of dialogue is also outstanding, conveying the characters' personalities accurately and humorously. The whole tone is playful and light hearted, though set against a tale of insanity and despair. Only the Shadow Hearts games have managed this juxtaposition of comedy and death so well. The females bitch, the robot has his catch phrase: "There will be death", which finds myriad uses in many different scenarios, and Stinger is just rude. There are some nicely risque' jokes and just about every exchange can have you giggling. In fact, every non playable character also has clever lines and the laugh out loud quotient is high. One of my favourite characters is Sir George, who briefly joins your party until reminded by his nurse that there is pudding for tea. Everyone you meet has a name or at least a function and a character portrait. This attention to the detailed depiction of each non- playable character is something that even today, not all RPGs take seriously enough. It is a feature which greatly adds to the enjoyment of the game, and to the sense of immersion in a real and active world.

For those used to the wonderful work of Japanese video game composers, the fact that an American composer (Brad Spear) produced the same degree of quality rich and varied music is a surprise. The music is always evocative. In the capital city Karillon, it ranges from medieval church type tunes, plaintive and lovely, to smoky bar music. Hightowne music features violins and oboe, giving the right impression of civic pomp and pride. The hall of wisdom has echoey, ethereal sounds, with a wordless singing choir. Map music begins with drums, followed by strings, and is insistent and threatening with a syncopated rhythm. Music in the first mountain location at Brink's cabin is almost like the start of the moonlight sonata, with soft and sad piano arpeggios. The deserts and oases have suitably Arabic tinkling tones, and a Mexican type frontier town has Spanish guitars to rival a wild west film. The battle music is also varied and enjoyable to listen to as it often changes, and is not on a perpetual and short loop. Sounds are effective too, ranging from chilling screams to the roar of near by monsters.

A couple of other negative issues arise from the graphics and management of the inventory. The graphics are a little strange as the character models almost look as if they have been made of plasticine with very few clearly distinguishable features, although the portraits which appear when they speak are a neat addition. Although the villages and towns are distinctive and colourful, some areas look a little like a child's attempt at modelling mud, Enemy designs are quite original, but not very clear to see,

Another very strange decision is to give you lots of items like soap, hammers, saws and perfume which apparently have no use. There is only room in your inventory for 30 items in total including weaponry and armour, so this means that you have to continually make decisions about what to keep and what to throw away. This feature interrupts the flow of the story. There are a few mini games dotted throughout the game which can be returned to if you want to walk back to the location...trudge, trudge, trudge.

Yet, despite these failings, there is an ineffable sweetness about Shadow Madness. This might seem a surprising thing to say about a game that is so steeped in dark themes and that has such a sad history, but the great script, wonderful music, and engaging characters, cast a bright light which helps to blot out the failings of the battle system and the sometimes clumsy graphical style. It may be some years since the game was first released but it can still charm, and deserves its place in the hall of fame for noble failures. Or better still in pride of place for one of the first graphic novels that was in fact a video game.

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Featured community review by threetimes (February 02, 2009)

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