Game Description: In this third-person action-adventure with multiple views and player-controlled camera capabilities, a voodoo priestess has planted a spiritual mask in the chest of hit man Mike Le Roi. Imbued with the mystical powers of a voodoo warrior, he becomes Shadowman. Armed with conventional and black magic weapons, he walks between worlds to wage war against a cabal of undead serial killers and their legions of otherworldly psychos. The arsenal of awesome and varied flesh-wasting weapons includes the .50 Desert Eagle, the Violator, the Shadowgun, the Flambeau, the Calabash, the Asson, and many more.
Depth in a game that's based on a comic book? Based on past experience, this is not a likely scenario. Since the first comic books arrived, publishers have made every attempt to capitalize on the successes of these properties; licensing them out to anybody and everybody. From this, we got everything from Superman lunch boxes to Iron Man bed sheets. And when TV became popular, the marketing reared its head there too; it seemed only natural that they would someday wind up on the big screen. However, what has remained a constant with all the incarnations of comic book heroes (and heroines) is an overwhelming campiness and shallowness. They were originally aimed at young kids so comic book creators understandably never bothered much with depth, thinking that kids wouldn't care much for such things anyway. It is safe to say now though, in the age of Spawn and Blade, that comics have come a long way since then. They have now taken a much darker tone and with more adult (physically, at least) fans collecting comics than before, the envelope is always being pushed as far as graphic content and subject matter is concerned. In fact, the heroes behave and commit actions once considered to be only in the domain of comic book villains or the rare and unpopular anti-heroes. A perfect example of this trend is the Shadow Man comic book. Here is a hero who is not only dark (no pun intended), but also cruel and sadistic as he navigates worlds that are wholly unappealing. A comic based on this would never have made it to the publisher in the past, but today it is considered hot property. What hasn't changed is the licensing out of its franchise as a commodity and here Acclaim is quick to capitalize. With the popularity of another comic book property, Turok, notched on their belt, they now try to bring the comic book world of Shadow Man to the Nintendo 64.
Upon close inspection of Shadow Man, I see a game that has a lot going for it. It is based on a dark and moody comic book and Acclaim has succeeded in bringing all of that into the game uncensored (anyone familiar Nintendo's censorship record can appreciate this as a huge accomplishment). To their credit, Acclaim pushed for and got a mature rating on this game. And after playing for only a short while, it is obvious that the rating is well deserved: Acclaim didn't hold back the adult content. The cuss words fly from the characters mouths with surprising acidity and regularity. It seems no one in the afterlife knows the meaning of discretion and speaks freely with language that is no holds barred. What was also a bit unsettling was the amount of sheer gore in this game. When enemies weren't exploding around me (they literally went to pieces after every fight), what was strewn about the landscape was clear evidence that I wasn't in a Disney World theme park. Each stage was decorated with an assortment of torture racks, impaled bodies, and pools of blood throughout and it all provided that "welcome to the land of the damned" look so necessary in a game like Shadow Man.
All of this is brought to life thanks to Acclaim Studios Teeside's amazing graphics engines that is easily one of the best I've seen on the Nintendo 64 to date. It's called the VISTA engine and allows huge 3D environments to be done on the Nintendo 64 successfully without resorting to the notorious fogging trick or others to hide clipping and pop-up in the background. In fact, I will go so far as to say that it's proof that, with the 4MB memory pak and a 256 MB cartridge, a developer can create something that rivals high-end PCs or Sega's new Dreamcast (the creators of Duke Nukem: Zero Hour should take notice). I can't stress enough that they've captured the grim worlds of Deadside, where the dead are forced to roam, and Lifeside, which is marginally brighter but still filled with creepy landscapes.
Capturing mood was obviously at the top of the priorities because every possible mood-effecting element was implemented. They started off with a dark story of an apocalyptic war between good and evil, foreseen by the Voodoo priestess, Mamma Nettie. I play as Mike LeRoi, who is endowed with dark powers to stop the five worst serial killers in history from taking over the world. Apocalyptic plot lines can get repetitive after a while, so Acclaim Sports pushed the N64 hardware to its limit by adding some of the longest cinematic cut scenes I've seen on a cart since Zelda. What is even more noteworthy is the amount and quality of the vocals within those cut-scenes. They are long and frequent and there were times when I thought I was playing a CD-based game. Also of note is the sheer amount of potty-mouth dialogue used throughout. It was, at times, jarring and I was sure glad that there were no kids around to hear it. But combined with the creepy soundtrack and cut-scenes, it took Shadow Man to another level aurally and gave the game some much-appreciated depth.
With all this going for it, Shadow Man dies because of, you guessed it, the gameplay department. For starters, there isn't one thing that Shadow Man does that is actually fun. It has always been said that the 3D, over-the-shoulder perspective is horrible for action titles (funny that it doesn't slow their popularity at all), but it becomes terribly evident once I started playing. While firing my gun at the baddies, I could never tell whether or not I was hitting them until I moved aside and out of my own way. It gets really bad when I have to maneuver on ledges and make precise jumps because the perspective doesn't allow me to see what's ahead of me. The lagging controls were just too prohibitive. Want another negative about the game? How about one that has followed Acclaim since its first N64 game (Turok: The Dinosaur Hunter): and this is, of course, save points. It is unbelievable to me that a game with such deep and expansive levels would be released to the public with a save option as inflexible and infrequent as this one is. Many times after busting my butt to get to a certain point, I would have to start an entire section all over because I didn't find one of their miserly save points. Come on Acclaim, its high time that you fix this.
To compound the problems with the interface is bad level design. Getting from point A to point B was unnecessarily difficult because Acclaim was intent on having me run all around the level. In order to proceed, I had to find a certain new path or doorway only to find that it was staring me in the face the whole time, but was obscured by bad camera angles or simply blended in with the surrounding graphics. Sometimes it was somewhere simply out of my reach until I learned another ability or unlocked an area with a "key," but most of the time, it was just placed badly and left me with nothing but unnecessary work. It lacked all of the skill and creativity I found in Mario 64 or Zelda. As an aside, maneuvering through this game was akin to running through molasses. If an enemy surprised me, I couldn't do much but shoot wildly while (very slowly) backing away or struggling to get to higher ground. In cases such as these the graphics acted as a hindrance; while they looked spectacular from afar, I ran into problems when I got a closer look. There were times when I couldn't even tell what I was looking at even if it was just a few feet in front of me. Sloped ledges looked straight, but it was not until I got right up close to them that I found that they were actually slanted and couldn't be climbed. Again, it all led to needless work on my part and lowered the game's score immensely.
With its dark content and overall cryptic nature, the Shadow Man comic license is worked to perfection here. There is very little in Shadow Man to remind me of my parent's comic book heroes of days long gone. The dark and sometimes overwhelmingly grim nature of the license is not lost here and I appreciated it. Such faithfulness is rare because of the strict standards of console manufacturers and the differences in mediums (comics and interactive games). What is ultimately at fault is not the property (Shadow Man), but the game itself. Lacking in basic things like control and player interaction, Shadow Man is ironically a shallow incarnation of a property that came to the table with a lot of potential. I'm sure there was a lot left in the game for me to see and deal with, but I was too turned off by the game's flaws to go any further. Acclaim Studios was successful in recreating the look and feel of the comic, but as usual with an endeavors such as this, they failed to take advantage of the video game medium. So as in this case with Shadow Man, all the pretty environments and special effects are simply wasted.
Few games, in spirit, actually live up to the famed ESRB 'mature' rating. In attempts to capture a more adult mainstream market, developers often dump in extreme violence, profane language, and sexually risqu content in order to achieve that 'mature' status. This kind of mentality has resulted in games that range from being dangerously exploitative (i.e. Kingpin) to dumbfoundly laughable (i.e. Duke Nukem: Zero Hour), but all the while not the least bit 'mature' nor 'adult'. Fortunately, Shadow Man offers a hopeful sign that better things are to come because this game doesn't fall under the same guises and actually lives up to that oh-so controversial rating.
Through its splendid graphics, ominous audio, and its well-scripted and well-acted dialogue, Shadow Man delivers a package that's respectable to the over 18 age group (but not by much). There's still plenty of bloodletting and overt cussing, but the majority of it is done within the creative context of the game and doesn't feel overly abused or cheaply implemented. Don't get me wrong though, in spite of the tight aesthetic control, this game is as dark and nihilistic as anything I've played in recent years (all the doom and gloom started to bother even me in that David Fincher kind of way). It's just that all the savagery and profanity effectively permeates through every aspect, including the most important one: the gameplay.
However, even with the successful integration of controversial elements into the gameplay, Shadow Man still comes up short in the very same topic. Like Dale already mentioned, the game lacks vitality when actually playing it. And that's not a slight on the controls, because I didn't share the same difficulties as Dale did, but rather on the primary objectives. The bulk of the game involves exploring through huge sprawling landscapes in search of artifacts, which is not the problem in itself. The problem is that there isn't a sense of ingenuity in locating these objects. After extensive days of hunting with little reward to show for it besides the opening of more expansive areas so I can repeat the whole process again, tedium, frustration, and boredom start to rear their ugly heads. Of course it doesn't help that what the instruction manual describes as an open-ended adventure really meant that I would never know where I needed to go or what artifacts I needed in order to get there.
Even with those major complaints, Shadow Man is still a very competent and solid game that delivers in almost every other aspect (especially visually). I can imagine those looking for this type of an action game or fans of the comic book will find, more or less, what they are looking for and I wouldn't be the one to discourage them. For me, however, Shadow Man remains a tease. Its opens up some possibilities for games that truly should be considered mature, but falters slightly by not making the gameplay every bit as innovative as the content.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Nintendo 64 version of the game.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Animated Blood & Gore, Animated Violence
First off let me state that parents should know that this is not a game for kids. There is explicit language, lots and lots of blood, and horrific sights throughout the game.
Secondly, if you don't have the 4MB memory pak, you'll hardly get anything out of this game because without it, Shadow Man becomes a blurry mess. Though, I guess, a huge big-screen TV would help and your eyes will indeed thank you for it.
If you're looking for a better time in the afterworld and already own a PlayStation, then I suggest you get Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. And speaking of PlayStation owners, the game is identical except for the usual: better audio.