Shadow Man

Does anyone remember Acclaim comics? Admittedly, I wasn’t much of a comics nerd at the time this game came out, but I don’t ever recall seeing them on comic shelves or hearing anyone ever so much as mention them during their existence. Most anyone who owned a Nintendo 64 back in the day, though, knows the name Turok, as in the dinosaur hunter. Did you know that it was based on a comic? I have a feeling that almost no one else did either, at least when it was actually relevant.

Shadow Man, it seems, was also based on a comic that few even knew existed. Or rather, I’m fairly certain that almost no one knew of it after Acclaim overhauled the Valiant comic. In doing so, they added a space to the name and then completely changed the theme, character, and (it appears) nearly everything else… which surely couldn’t have much helped reader loyalty, or so I’d imagine. The gist of this new series, as much as I could gather, is that it’s pretty deeply tied to Voodoo mythology. The main character is a black dude  who can walk between the planes of the living and dead, and the plot hinges around your character mopping up a bunch of serial killers whose dead souls form the big bad evil.

So, in short, this game is sadly not based around this
plot from the 1993
 incarnation of Shadowman. 

Or something like that. I don’t have the manual, and I’m certainly not going out of my way to pick up a few issues of the comic to get a better grip on it. I mostly just chose this one as a third and final game to review for the spooky Halloween season, because it seemed to fit the theme. The game doesn’t start at the character’s origin or anything like that, so anything that I’ve figured out is what I’ve slowly pieced together. If this were Turok, where the plot is pretty much extraneous to the alien/dinosaur killing action, this would be kind of whatever. However, Shadowman is very much plot driven- it begins with a 10-ish minute intro, and cutscenes seem to be pretty frequent from there on out, so a little more context from the get-go would have been nice. What  it lacks, though, in early game character development and world-setting and generally giving the player any idea what the hell is going on, it almost makes up for in early game razzle-dazzle. Acclaim as a company never had the best reputation, but in the N64 era they actually did pretty well for themselves in terms of pushing the hardware to pretty impressive heights- and Shadow Man  is no exception.

Not just for the cutscenes, which are fully voiced and contain amounts of spoken dialog that you’d more expect to see in a Metal Gear Solid title than any game on a cartridge.  It’s also pretty damn good looking (albeit often very, very brown; no racial), with long draw distances, complex geometry, fairly complex character models,  uncommonly diverse textures, and generally a decent amount of visual variety. Furthermore, the characters ACTUALLY OPEN AND CLOSE THEIR MOUTHS TO SPEAK. Or, at the least, they did a pretty good job of faking it. I only bring it up since it’s something that you almost never saw in non-rendered cutscenes in 3D games on Pre-Dreamcast/Playstation 2 consoles. The syncing is still terrible, as it often was back then, but not for lack of trying.

Actual moving mouths to dialogue AND a black main character?
This had to be the most progressive  console game in years.

Genre-wise, it’s a bit of an early (pre-cover systems) third-person shooter mixed with Zelda-like semi-non-linear exploration-y elements. Like Zelda, it also has a fair bit of item progression that grants you exciting new abilities here and there that will help you both find new places to explore as well as give you a reason to backtrack to places you’ve been before. Unlike Zelda, your progression is primarily gated by your current number of the collectible primary chotskies rather than unique items- of which the game has 120 of, a number that you may recall from Super Mario 64’s number of primary chotskies. The collectibles in this case are dark souls, which in turn increase your weapon power(s) as well as the expected unlocking of new levels. It works with the plot and mythos pretty well, I think; or at least, much more so than a lot of N64 platformers. Take the jigsaw pieces in Banjo-Kazooie, for example- we’ve come to accept them as part of the games, but they don’t really have any real direct connection that I can recall to either the protagonists or the antagonists. They could realistically be jacks or playing cards or top hats or french fries or all the DVD’s necessary to house all 635 episodes of Gunsmoke. Having something that unquestionably relates to the character is kind of refreshing, honestly.

So, how does it actually play? Well, decently enough. It controls well, as a game that came out this late in the N64’s lifecycle should. Something kind of unique at the time is that you can equip and use items in both hands separately, so that’s kind of neat. Your character can slip between the worlds of the living and of the dead at will, and the default weapon you acquire once you’ve entered the dead side is some kind of soul-bullet gun with unlimited ammo. Which is good because it takes a seemingly infinite amount of bullets to kill even the most fodder-y on enemies. Actually, it’s partially horrible- the noise the gun makes is among the irritatingly-high-pitched shrill noises I’ve ever heard a game (Adventures in Rad Gravity’s intro music excepted) make, and is really even more bothersome than the endless stream of bullet noises you’ll hear in games like Doom 64. Combine that with the tortured screaming of said fodder enemies, and I can’t exactly say it made a great first impression. It was, to me at least, the video game equivalent of listening to Jingle Cats except performed exclusively by Jingle Cats in Heat.

Doing this isn’t all that optional, no pun intended.

Worse impressions were made as I completely failed to figure out how to progress in the game beyond the first 30 minutes or so of play, due to my inability to find the first dark soul chotzkie- meaning that I ended up wasting around an hour or so after that completely unable to figure out how to progress. I’d figured that I was just missing a tiny hallway or something that was more or less hidden because of the game’s overwhelming brownness, or that perhaps I was supposed to get stuck and return to one of the 2 friendly characters that the game had presented me with up to that point. Amusingly, there actually are full-on cutscenes when you return to them empty-handed of souls, where they chastise you for being too stupid to find even one. However, that’s really all they do, leaving me once again confused about how the heck to progress.

These doors, or rather the feeling of being squished by them, more or 
less sums up how I felt about this game. At least, initially.

Eventually, I figured out what I was missing- the aforementioned barriers to progress based on the amount of souls you’ve collected are gateways made out of a coffin surrounded by scary symbols. There’s a fairly nondescript wooden pulpit type thing in front of it, and pressing the Left-C button while in front of that thing is what causes it to activate. The first one you encounter takes no souls to activate, not that you’d ever know that. Or the manner in which you activate it at all . You see, up until this point, you’ve never needed to use that button at all, since what few doors you’ve encountered before this point have opened automatically for you. There’s no real purpose that it served for anything else at all, either. This would kind of be the beginning of a trend with this game- it lacks either opaque guidance (like modern tutorial screens) or smart transparent guidance (like 1-1 in Super Mario Bros.) to clue you in on what exactly it is that you need to know as a groundwork for the way the game works.

These somewhat vaginal looking fleshy coffins are the gateways to adventure, it turns out.

After overcoming that hump, and after I had a few souls in me to help make the default weapon do damage quick enough to reduce the amount of aural irritation it was causing, the game started getting a lot better. I wasn’t really sure what to expect going into this one in terms of game style, and a Metroidvania-esque experience was definitely not what I expected to find. However, it’s very difficult for me to honestly recommend this one unless you’re playing it with some kind of guide to help you both get going and stay going. When I initially played this game for this review, my internet was in the middle of a three-day outage, meaning that I was forced to figure out all of the game’s early quirks through a lot of backtracking, wasted time, and trial-and-error. The impression I’d had was such that I pretty much just wanted to write a review utterly slamming the obtuse design of Shadow Man, based purely on my first 2 hours of experience with it. Considering the game apparently has about 40-60, I couldn’t really see myself dipping my toes in its river Styx much longer than I already had. It does, however, eventually get better.

It’s probably worth mentioning that this is one of those games that tried to earn a hard-M rating- not just for gore, but also for (mostly tasteful) use of profanity, adult subject matter, and just generally being pretty macabre in tone. Surprisingly, it’s also one of the first console games I can think of that actually does a pretty good job of having its mature content actually be mature. It’s not just gore and a punch of anatomy-related double entendres ala Duke Nukem: Zero Hour. This is especially true of the in-game flavor items, comparable in nature to to the journals/text items in Resident Evil in that they’re all unspoken text and illustrations that provide (often grisly) story insight while also occasionally providing hints, which are actually really impressive. The text is dense and relatively well-written, and the illustrations are shockingly lavish.  I’m sure plenty of kids under the M-rated age played this one because of the rating and the warning on the box, but I doubt more than a few truly appreciated its adult depth.

These tarot-inspired paintings do a fantastic job of adding bouillon cube
levels of flavor, and there’s plenty more of them. 

Shadow Man’s reputation at its release was pretty decent, but it seems to have faded a bit in time. Whenever I’ve seen this game brought up, it’s usually the butt of a joke- often one related to the advertising campaign that Acclaim attempted for its PS2 sequel that involved advertising on tombstones. Thus, my expectations were about as low as the common denominator that Acclaim seemed to want to attract. However, it’s not actually that bad.  In fact, despite the slow and fairly annoying  early hour or so that’s likely a big part of what’s kept the game from getting the reputation it (still) deserves, it’s actually pretty darn good! Thematically speaking, it’s honestly not my cup of tea, but if you’re into zombies, voodoo, and all that jazz… well, I think you’ll find a lot to like here. Certain elements of it have aged about as well as you’d expect for a modestly stylistically experimental (in both gameplay style and theme) 3D game that’s over a decade old, but rarely anything so intolerable that it should turn you off from enjoying the game. Just at least consider playing alongside some kind of guide… and, uh, definitely consider turning down the sound effects after going to the land of the dead for the first time, unless you find the thought of playing a game that frequently features the aural equivalent of living next door to a 24-hour nonstop construction site palatable. It really is that bad.

Voodoo It or Pooh-pooh It?
Voodoo it to it, friends, if you’re in the mood for a Zelda/Metroidvania-esque experience that’s dripping in mature themes.
Pooh-pooh it if you’re looking for a fast, action packed experience or a game that’s immediately accessible, because it isn’t.

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