When talking about N64 games, Shadow Man is not one I hear oft mentioned. But the few I've known who have dared venture into its dark and twisting world highly recommended it to me. That, and the fact that I got a free memory pak with it, is mainly what motivated me to purchase it. The experience of Shadow Man is unlike any other I've had; it's probably the most psychologically atmospheric game I've ever played. While Shadow Man doesn't quite blow away the boundaries of great gaming standards, it does set an example of how 3D adventure games can be done right. Shadow Man mostly takes place in the world of Deadside which, according to the story, is where all things go when they die. As Mike LeRoi, aka Shadow Man, you will travel to Deadside and a few locations in the real world (Liveside), in search of five serial killers under the control of the demon called "Legion" and the Dark Souls that he craves.
Shadow Man begins in the Louisiana Bayou at sunset, where immediately the graphic quality is apparent. You have a 3D view from behind Mike LeRoi in a polygonal environment. The extensive use of texture-mapping, although not quite on the level of Banjo-Kazooie, is pretty amazing. Check out the gorgeous cloudy sky, the rotting wood of an old ship, and paintings and details inside the church. Even the rottweiliers running around the church grounds look fairly realistic.
Whenever Mike "dies" or uses a special magical teddy bear (!) he becomes "Shadow Man", and is transported to Deadside, a very dark and dismal place. Full of barren gray mountains, like a wasteland, and the occasional moaning zombies, Deadside is all at once dreary and enthralling. It is not a place for bright colors (with a few notable exceptions), but this is fitting with the game's theme. The massive amount of detail and varying architecture combines to form a huge, impressive, if not psychologically disturbing, world that seems to be enveloped in a serene aura. There were many times in Shadow Man when I felt I was treading holy ground. Huge temples are filled with flowing lava, arcane wall designs, life-size statues, and waterfalls of blood. Lighting effects, such as the beams shining through the cathedral's stained-glass windows and the spotlights outside the massive Deadside Asylum, are very well-done. And speaking of the Asylum, it is home to some of the freakiest and most bizarre interiors: everything including blood-splattered walls, padded rooms (with very good texture-mapping), a ghostly black train, and even a bizarre cell painted like a child's bedroom, where a huge stack of toy blocks cleverly spell out "HELL".
Yes, Deadside is Hell. Before I played Shadow Man, the freakiest place I had ever been to in a game was Shamsuk's Tower in Aidyn Chronicles (maybe someday, I'll explain that in a review of Aidyn, but for now, let's just say it's pretty damn unnerving!) But Shadow Man's environments easily have that beat. But guess what? Deadside isn't the part of Shadow Man that scared me the most. Maybe it's because, no matter how scary it may get, I'm always aware that Deadside is a fantasy creation. No, the part that scared me the most was an area in Liveside, specifically the abandoned and very run-down apartment complex in New York. Even though there were very few enemies here, it was enough to make me fear dark places!
Enemy and character designs and animations in Shadow Man are also very decent. Watch as the elegant "Sisters" spin and glide through the air. Let one of those fat guys in the asylum get close to you and check out his scary mask!
I guess if I had to nitpick anything, it might be that many objects and enemies are "obviously" polygonal (ie, no rounded edges). Sometimes, in cutscenes, during closeups of people talking, you can see breaks in the polygon lines that make up their bodies, particularly in their faces, which looks kind of bad. Lip movement isn't always synched perfectly with the voices. I've also noticed some minor detail glitches, such as a window that has blood stains on it when viewed from one side, but looks perfectly clean when viewed from the other.
Also, I should note that I played Shadow Man with the N64 Expansion Pak and have not played it without it, and nor am I willing to, since that would involve figuring out where I put my N64's Jumper Pak and putting it back in the slot. I have heard from various sources that some areas of the game are very dark and hard to see without the Expansion Pak, and I could understand that, since some places were rather dark even with it (although once I found the torch and flashlight, that wasn't a problem anymore.)
There are some areas in Shadow Man, such as the bayou where you start, that do not have any music at all. But areas that do, like Deadside and the Temples, have haunting melodies with soft, ambient music. The chants and other quaint vocals in some of the music really drilled into my inner psyche, again evoking that sense of being in a holy area. Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata is even used as a background piece in one very appropriate area, as well as during the opening cinema.
Shadow Man has an extremely impressive amount of voice acting. And it's pretty good voice acting at that, especially Jaunty (a snake-like being with an Irish accent) and Shadow Man. The sound effects are also well-done, but the Shadow Gun's blasts are awfully loud, so I often found myself turning the effects volume down in the menu options.
The first thing I noticed about Shadow Man was the excellent camera control, as it always stays right behind your back. Very rarely are you given a bad camera angle, but in the case that it happens, you can rotate it with the D-Pad for a different view. Running and jumping controls are very fluid, which is so important for 3D games (few things are worse than a 3D game with sloppy controls). There are a variety of actions, but it doesn't take long to learn and get used to them all. Mike LeRoi is also ambidexterous, so you can assign items to both his left and right hands (Z Button and B Button), and even use both at once! Shadow Man automatically aims his weapon at enemies, and when you strafe (using the L and R buttons), he will "lock on" to the nearest target and run around it in a circle. This intuitive control is part of what makes Shadow Man so enjoyable and puts 3D adventuring a step in the right direction. Basically, there's no excuse for almost any 3D adventure released after Shadow Man to have horribly complex controls or bad camera angles (ahem, Tomb Raider series.)
There's a lot of story behind Shadow Man, and some of it can be a little confusing if you don't know the backstory given in the game's manual. Mike LeRoi is a college dropout who ended up getting involved in a seedy, underground world of crime and magical voodoo. His family was killed in a drive-by shooting, and only he survived. He was found by the powerful voodoo priestess, Mama Nettie, who implanted the Voodoo Mask of Shadows into his chest, making him a slave to it and to her. The mask has effectively made Mike immortal, turning him into Shadow Man, the walker between the Liveside and Deadside.
But now Mama Nettie has had a dream that prophesied the end of the world. Five serial killers have joined up with a demon from Deadside called "Legion" and are planning to bring the forces of Deadside into Liveside to conquer it. To do this, they will need to find the many "Dark Souls", which are powerful, immortal spirits hidden throughout both worlds. So, it is now up to Shadow Man to find these Dark Souls first, defeat the five serial killers, and confront Legion. During the course of his travels, Shadow Man will meet up with several characters who will offer advice, such as Mama Nettie, and Jaunty. Jaunty is a snake with the head of a skull who guards the gateway to Deadside, and much of the conversation with him is not only informative, but also very amusing!
The story is original and interesting, and has a very mature and dark nature. There are some very graphic descriptions and coarse language. But it's the psychologically chilling atmosphere that really shines. The gothically horrific Deadside's aura is equally matched by the few Liveside areas. I really felt like I got a glimpse at how scary it is inside a high-security prison. There is an area below the apartment complex where there is something written all over the walls, and even though I couldn't read it, I got the shivering feeling that a madman had done it - and I was going to be facing him soon. Little details like those really add up to enhance the overall visual and atmospheric experience.
Shadow Man's gameplay style lies somewhere between a disguised "treasure hunt" game (Super Mario 64) and a 3D Zelda game (Ocarina of Time). The basic idea is to find and collect as many of the Dark Souls as possible, hence the "treasure hunting". You'll need these to open doors to deeper areas of the game, where you will find items, learn new abilites, and fight bosses. However, the method of finding these Dark Souls is closer to that of a true adventure game than the treasure hunt variety. In games like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, finding the items you seek is usually a matter of performing very specific tasks, ie, finding all the coins in a level or giving something to a character who wants it. But in Shadow Man, you will find Dark Souls in your travels; some will be easy to get to, and others will require you to run, jump, climb, and fight through gauntlets of obstacles or enemies to get to them. Sometimes, you will need a special item or ability to access certain areas. For example, you will eventually find an item that lets you climb waterfalls. Once you have it, you can return to previous places that had waterfalls and climb them. You will also obtain many other abilities that will open up parts of areas you've already been to, thus meaning you will do a lot of backtracking. This, in many ways, is reminiscent of the Metroid series of games. Shadow Man even becomes very non-linear at times. It's not unusual to have several different areas of the game open and available for you to explore at once (though how far you can go in each may be limited by what items and abilities you've earned thus far.) I even came to an area where I could reach several of the game's bosses, but chose not to fight them right away.
So, it's apparent that most of the challenge comes from trying to find the right items that will let you progress through the game's many areas. However, there are also several temples that contain of bevy of traps, and these I found to be the hardest part of the game. I had to do most of these areas several times to master them. In one sequence that particularly stands out in my mind, I began by precariously leaping across ledges where a missed jump could result in plunging to a lava lake below. From there, I leapt to and shimmied across a narrow ledge by hand, which eventually leads to another lava-filled room. Here I had to leap past swinging pendulums and over columns that rise and fall, then carefully run past blocks that pop out of the wall, and make some giant leaps of faith over boiling pits of lava. Finally, I nimbly jumped across sinking floor tiles to another narrow ledge, this time edging along past whirling blades that go in and out of the wall. And that's just the first part of that area! Other challenges involve finding and hitting switches to make objects move and doors open.
It's best to focus on the adventuring aspects of Shadow Man's challenges, because the enemies, especially bosses, are not as difficult to dispose of as I would've liked. Damage done to enemies is cumulative, so long as you don't leave the area. In other words, if you shoot up an enemy, and get killed by it, but then return to where it was, it will not have regained its health points. This is even true of bosses, meaning that no matter how many times you are defeated by them, you will eventually beat them if you just keep going back to them and wearing them down. Though I don't know if that is true of the final boss, since I beat it on my first try, and with very little effort. Definitely, I would've liked a harder final boss. Minor enemies often take too many hits to be defeated, even with a powered-up Shadow Gun.
Despite its shortcomings in challenge, Shadow Man is a very mesmerizing game. Its strength lies not in its enemies or its boss fights, but in its great atmosphere, puzzle-solving, and exploration. It's always fun discovering enough Dark Souls to raise your power level and open up new doors to new areas and challenges. The game held my attention; held me enrapt to the very end. I stayed up really late some nights playing it. There's just something even more fun about playing it at night! I was impressed by the variety of tasks and enveloped by the non-linear play style. Unlike many 3D games, especially those of the first-person variety, the play wasn't limited to running down corridors and finding keys. In one room, you may have to make jumps across platforms that move up and down along a slanted wall. Missing one means that you could slide down the wall, into possible danger below. Other areas may require you to leap past or swim through whirling blades, search through darkness with the aid of a flashlight or torch, hit a switch in one room to raise the water level in another, or work your way across a rope by using a hand-over-hand maneuver while elements in the room seek to make you fall off.
If the size of Shadow Man's game world seems intimidating, it's made more accessible by way of the teddy bear item. For those of you unfamiliar with Shadow Man who may be wondering about the teddy bear, it's an item that used to belong to Mike's now-deceased younger brother, Luke. Because of its connection to Luke, by focusing on it, Mike can use it to transport himself to many locations in both Deadside and Liveside. Therefore, the teddy bear can be used to warp to key locations around Shadow Man's world, provided that you've visited them first. One thing I would have liked the game to have included is an auto-mapping feature. There is no in-game map at all. The game does come with a map that vaguely outlines Deadside, which I found useful. If you don't have this map, you may have a much tougher time getting through the game, but truth be told, I didn't find it all that difficult to memorize areas. It's probably because there is so much unique architecture that it's easy to remember "landmarks".
Shadow Man, like many other modern games, has "cheats", but they aren't entered as codes. Instead, they are hidden in special locations around the game. You will automatically activate them if you walk into the correct areas. Once you find your first cheat, a "Book of Shadows" item is added to your inventory, from which you can turn cheats on and off, a la Goldeneye. I found about six of these cheats on my own, without even really trying. Most of them aren't really "cheats" at all, but just let you change Shadow Man into other things, like turn him invisible, into a zombie, make him appear on fire, and my personal favorite, make him a rottweiler walking on its hind legs!
I've often heard of complaints about the many bad games Acclaim has produced and/or published, but Shadow Man is an exception. It was obviously made by people who had real talent, and the world of 3D gaming could take a lesson from them. Because of Shadow Man's overall "Metroid-like" feel, I think that if a 3D Metroid game were to utilize the basic idea of Shadow Man, and improve on the combat system and boss battles, it could very well work!
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