To understand the genesis of Shadow Man, you must first understand why Acclaim suddenly became so interested in comics. Shadowman was a title of Valiant Comics, that Acclaim pretty much bought up to convert into a video game – same trick they pulled with Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. Why? Not sure; part of wanting to branch out “Acclaim Entertainment,” I suppose. Mind you this was the game and the time for which they made the monetary offer if you’d agree to a Shadow Man advertisement on your tombstone. I think it’s fair to say they were desperate.
Now the Vailiant version was doing pretty well, even got Frank Miller involved, but very little of it was used as the basis for the game. If you’re expecting a Shadowman (there’s a difference apparently; the comic title is one word) videogame, you’ll probably be disappointed, as the two seem to have only voodoo in common. That doesn’t mean that the game’s unique plot is a throwaway.
The game follows Mike LeRoi, a regular fella living in Nawlins, who gets involved with voodoo. I won’t get into details because the game will certainly do that for me, but it ends in Mike having a bony Mask of Shadows implanted square in his chest. The mask forces him to be slave to a clairvoyant voodoo priestess (not Miss Cleo, but that would have been fun) by day, and the undead god of the netherworld otherwise. I don’t know how much of this is based in actual voodoo lore, but the game is divided into Liveside and Deadside worlds. Liveside is “reality,” while Deadside is sort of a land of purgatory where restless spirits dwell in the form of zombies and demonic creatures.
Your main power, besides immortality, is the ability to travel between the two worlds at will. You are guided by your priestess keeper, and in this particular hair-raising episode, must stop a growing threat in Deadside from creating an immortal army to invade Liveside and ultimately destroy both worlds.
The game does not function like other “walk between worlds” games – Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver or SNES Zelda are good examples – in the sense that Liveside and Deadside do not coexist in the same level. Instead you will use an inventory item to travel to specific Liveside or Deadside levels. If you really want to make comparisons to other games, it would be more appropriate to call this a voodoo Metroid. To combat the ultimate threat, you first have to travel ALL around Deadside, finding and picking up dark soul energy. With more energy, you are able to blast open more doors previously locked to you. Behind these doors are voodoo items that you use to open yet more sealed doors, or that provide abilities that allow you to reach previously unreachable areas. So pretty much just like Metroid, you have to travel and examine every single inconspicuous corner, jot down copious notes of areas you can’t get to yet so that you can remember where they are when you finally acquire that needed ability, and ultimately spend hours looking for that one fucking soul you missed before you’ve earned enough to unlock the next path.
The levels are fortunately smaller and more distinct than those in Metroid, but hand-drawn maps are still pretty much going to be a requirement. If you don’t believe me, believe the game itself – Acclaim includes a basic map in the packaging that gives you a sense of how areas are connected, and what items you will need to unlock doors at certain points. They did so because there are no maps or directional guides inside the game itself a’tall. The provided map still won’t help you find the dark souls, however, and this got to be a point of serious annoyance for me. First, I don’t like playing amateur cartographer when I’m trying to enjoy a game. Second, I’m not a fan of spending more time looking for a single, hidden, game-stopping soul/item/key than I’m spending actually playing the game. That’s not fun, and Deadside has plenty of places for important items to hide.
That being said, being held up by the 59th of 60 souls becomes even more of an annoyance because the game’s plot isn’t half bad, and you want to see it through to conclusion. Five extremely depraved individuals in Liveside have been visited by a man claiming to represent a greater evil known as Legion – yeah, that Legion. In the opening cinematic (a pretty long in-game one at that, but which does indeed tell you all you’ll need to know) Legion visits Jack the Ripper – yeah, that Jack the Ripper, and convinces him to ace himself so that he can commence the building of a magnificent temple of evil in Deadside. Later, in the present day, those five criminals are preparing to transcend to Deadside themselves where some dastardly something will happen in Jack’s new digs and the world will end. You’re going to have to find out exactly what as you go along. Still, the setup is fantastic, even going as far as to give you a case file for each of the Five, listing the nasty deeds they’ve done and some clues as to what part of Legion they are intended for. Acclaim has certainly got the dark tones and psychological thriller parts down right.
Adventuring through the two worlds isn’t much of a chore either. You move, you jump, you have keys assigned to your left and right hands which ambidextrously activate whatever you put into them. Liveside is moderately lame, but as Shadow Man in Deadside you’ll get to swim lakes of blood without coming up for air, walk through fire (with the proper upgrades), and have bitchin’ blue-glowing eyes. You’ll also be able to imbue your shadow power into a .50 caliber Desert Eagle, shooting out bursts of energy that will rip undead spirits into bloody, and slightly cornball, chunks. The benefits of all the souls and items you’re collecting are also not limited to opening doors, and you will obviously grow stronger as the game progresses. You might also, if you’re very good and eat all your peas, be able to remain Shadow Man in Liveside with the proper voodoo tools. And then those five ponces are in for a world ‘a hurt.
Though I don’t want to give you the wrong impression; the game is really about 20% combat and 80% exploration, with the combat sort of just existing to give you something to do on the way from A to B. To further break that down, the exploration is about 30% poking through new areas, and 50% wandering around lost and aimless. But no matter how you break it down, your character will be up to the task of forging ahead to new and uncharted areas – be they a sinew bridge over a lake of fire, or a tent made of skin looking over majestic twin blood-falls.
Shadow Man is a 3-D platformer; two things which usually never go well together. Thankfully, the requirements for precision jumps and perfect landing zone awareness are pretty lenient here. You will also automatically catch the edges of ledges if you miss slightly, which elicited a number of “OH THANK GOD”s from me. You’ll also get some hand over hand rope abilities, and some never-used ducking/rolling moves, but jumping and running will be your mainstays. When the time comes for battle, as said before, you can equip weapons to either hand slot and activate them with that button. It’s a reasonably nice system allowing you to shoot out Shadowgun bolts with one hand and sling fire from a voodoo stick with the other, though such coordination is rarely required. There’s an auto-target ability, and never enough enemies in front of you at once for it to get hopelessly confused. You can precision-aim, or charge up shots, if you desire to do either. All the controls can be reconfigured, with support for gamepads and meeces, but I found the two-hands-on-the-keyboard approach to work the best.
The Lord of Deadside himself looks a little skeletal in either world. Perhaps its meant to be a result of his enslaved immortal status, but the man still needs a sammich. Otherwise, the game and engine are pretty solid, and get the dark tone of the plot across well. They also do a nice, subtle job of making the two ‘Sides look distinct, without relying on palette swaps (Nightmare on Elm Street). It’s a post-Tomb Raider engine, but not too far post, so the camera behaves about the same, and some seams show up from the low numbers of polygons. You should expect to see some empty spaces on the edges of corners, or around Shadow Man’s elbows or waist, and should probably forgive them. Every other game at the time had these same problems anyway. The texture work is pretty decent as well, though sometimes quite low-res. This game made it to a number of consoles, so I suspect the PC wasn’t the design system ‘o choice. If you understand that you’re playing a console port, it won’t get in the way, but the textures certanly don’t look as good as they could for a PC original.
The game’s notable sounds are its voice-over work. Each character is personified nicely by its actor, and each line is clear and well-delivered. I wouldn’t call the cutscenes a joy to watch, with their rudimentary camera angles and awkward pauses, but they get the exposition across (and brother, there’s a lot of it) in a manner that doesn’t seem too drawn-out. About the only eye-rolling moments come in the opening cutscenes introducing a new level. Mike was a former English Lit teacher, and damn, does he let you know it, with soliloquies like: “As a god I step forth upon the writing, suppurating surface of the Deadside serpent. What sleep is here? What dreams there are in the unctuous coilings of the snake’s mortal shuffling!” …sure, sure, whatever. These sorts of musings somewhat set the mood, but are probably excessive, especially if your mindset does not naturally match T.S. Eliot’s.
The rest of the sounds go to predictable effects for predictable enemies and hazards. Zombies, fires, bats, all sound as you would expect. About the only sound that caught my ear was the supernatural report of the Shadowgun, which apparently shoots out howling souls or something that spin around enemies. After enough souls are attacking the creature at once, they tear him asunder. The screeching of the flying souls and the cannon blast of the gun itself give it an intended menace that wouldn’t have come across otherwise.
It’s not a kid’s game, though the nastiest transgressions will only be read about in case files. It’s also not a game you should expect to breeze through. I love adventure and free exploration games, but really start to despise “forced exploration ’cause you haven’t found the last of the twelve keys” kinds of games. You will have to do a whole lot of retreading ground and reassessing ways to get to places you haven’t been yet. The levels aren’t enormous, but you will almost certainly need a map to track all the paths you cannot yet take. Or, you should prepare to get a strategy guide and be ordered around through the game from start to finish – but where’s the fun in that? Still, I struggled through this one, and despite not enjoying repeated hours of backtracking, I did enjoy the plot and its resolution. It’s worth playing, if you know what you’re getting into.
Since it’s not from the comics, I suppose the world created here is an Acclaim original. That said, it’s pretty cool, got some great characters, and an engaging plot.
Need to chart your own maps unless you’ve naturally got a mind for this sort of backtracking. More of a dark, voodoo Easter egg hunt than an adventure game.