As games and consoles moved into the third dimensions, companies worked to bring everyone’s favourite IP’s into this bold new era of gaming: Mario, MegaMan, Castlevania, Metal Gear, The Legend of Zelda, etc. each with their own varying degrees of success. One franchise that missed out on the first wave of 3-D revivals was Nintendo’s popular Metroid series, which wouldn’t see a transition into the third-dimensions until 2002’s award-winning Metroid Prime on the GameCube from Retro Studios, a team made up of a lot of people who worked on the Turok series that I’ve covered in-depth over the past year.
In my reviews of the original Turok, as well as its sequel Turok 2: Seeds of Evil, I mentioned how in a few respects, Acclaim was trying to emulate things Nintendo were doing in their marquis games, especially Turok 2 with its excessive collecting of trinkets and back-tracking through levels. Shadow Man, the second attempt at adapting one of Acclaim’s purchased comic book properties into the video game space, is an even more obvious attempt at taking a page from the Nintendo play book, and this is something that should not be taken negatively. Though I’m looking at it on the Dreamcast, Shadow Man is the 3-D Metroid game that gamers didn’t get in the N64/PS1 era. It has quite a few flaws that keep it from being a classic and a little bit hard to play in a post Metroid Prime world, but for those with enough patience to overlook its short comings, Shadow Man is a game well worth looking into.
Neither Turok nor Armorines had much in the way of story other than a basic set up premise, however in the case of Shadow Man, there’s almost too much. The game’s instruction manual has pages filled with paragraphs of information about the world, the characters, as well as the history of the Shadow Man legacy. While it’s nice that the developer’s at Acclaim’s Teeside studio went into this much detail, none of this is really communicated that well within the game itself, so I’m going to try my best to summarize what Shadow Man is about to the best of my ability with a little help from the disc’s insert.
You play as Mike LeRoi who after crossing the path of dangerous gangsters sought refuge into the world of voodoo from protection against the assailants who now had Mike in their crosshairs. This plan worked, a little too well, as after a drive by shooting, Mike was left alive while his family was brutally murdered. Not long after that, Mike was tricked by the voodoo priestess Mama Nettie into having the Mask of Shadows forcibly attached to his chest, turning him into the titular hero who not only walks and defends the world of the living, but of the dead as well. When a premonition of a coming Apocalypse that was put into motion in the time of Jack the Ripper, Mike ventures deep into Deadside, the land of the dead, to prevent this from happening.
Much of this detail is found only in the game’s manual, and what you get within the game itself is more or less that a bad thing is going to happen, and you have to stop it, something Mike sums up with a line or two in the dialogue at the start of the game that I want to skip to keep things clean. This game has a lot more voice acting than either Turok or Armorines, and much of it, especially Mike/Shadow Man, is pretty good for its time, however none of the dialogue amounts to much. When entering a new area for example, Mike will recite a long monologue that feels like the developers were going for almost something Shakespearian, but it comes across as the writers trying to be smart and not actually being smart. Mike/Shadow Man has support in the forms of Mama Nettie as well as an Irish snake demon named Jaunty, but unless you go out of your way to speak to them, you don’t learn much about them other than when they’re introduced.
Like the Turok games though, a weak or poorly explained story can be somewhat excused provided the game itself is engaging, and thankfully Shadow Man is. Unlike either the Turok franchise or Armorines which either had levels you progressed through consecutively or separated by some type of hub world, Shadow Man throws you into its world with little to no direction after a brief section that accumulates you with the controls and navigation. Like Metroid, of which this game clearly takes inspiration from, you can more or less go wherever you want however certain areas will be unavailable to you without the correct power-up or unless you collect enough of the game’s Dark Souls, think of gothic versions of stars from Super Mario 64 or jigsaw pieces in Banjo-Kazooie, to destory doors that impedes your progress deeper into Deadside.
It’s when Shadow Man is trying to be a Metroid clone is when it’s at its most fun. The moment you get a Gad, think of a suit power-up in Metroid, that gives you the ability to do things like shimmy across ledges of fire, walk on lava, or swim in acid lakes or collect a weapon that acts like a bomb in Zelda that lets you blow up passages or another that allows you to climb up waterfalls and you get that “a ha!” moment in your head when you realize that area that you couldn’t reach before is now accessible. These moments are not as frequent though compared to instances where you’re stuck because of a Dark Soul gate that you’re not strong enough to break down.
There are 120 Dark Souls to collect in Shadow Man, of which you need around 90 in order to reach the game’s climax. An arbitrary number of souls will level up Shadow Man, allowing you to break down gates that correspond to your current level, making collecting Dark Souls more important than gathering most of your tools which isn’t quite as rewarding. Though it wouldn’t come until over three years after it was released, think of how fun it is to get new guns, visors and power-ups in any of the Metroid Prime games, and then how much of a drag it is to then have to collect keys once you have yourself powered up.
What also holds Shadow Man back is how directionless it can feel at times. I’ve played through a lot of the classics archetypes of this genre of both the 2 and 3-D persuasion but never have I felt as confused as when playing Shadow Man. Though I understand that the openness and exploration is what makes games such as this fun, there still has to be some direction given to the player with a hint of what to do or when to turn back. Too often here I progressed to a certain point and arrived a boss or large room, wandered around frustrated for a long time until I realized, mostly by looking up a the solution on a FAQ, that I had to turn back and go somewhere else. One such instance is when I reached one of the first main bosses and kept dying over and over until I found out I couldn’t beat him. I returned to the starting area and consulted Mama Nettie who told me I needed to get a dagger in order to kill him, as my powers were not effective in the real world. What she didn’t explain to me however was that said weapon came in three parts, so without instruction, you’re looking for one item when in reality you should be looking for three.
Not helping matters is a lack of an in-game map. The only map you’ll find is one that comes with the game, and it’s not a very helpful one at that. Eventually by memorization and crisscrossing back and forth throughout Deadside you’ll learn more or less where you need to go by feel, but a map would’ve also been a great help. Alleviating this frustration is an abundance of warp points which allow you immediately travel to where you need to go, so once you get deep enough into the game, navigation becomes less of an issue.
For a game titled Shadow Man, you would expect things to be more on the dark side and less on the bright and cheerful spectrum, and you would be correct. An issue however is that this often puts the game in Armorines territory where it can often be impossible to see where you’re going. You can obtain a torch item but it consumes magic very quickly, and a flashlight as well, however it only works in the real world and not in Deadside where you spend ninety percent of the game and doesn’t show up to collect until very late into the adventure.
When not being dark to the point of stumbling around, Shadow Man has an impressive amount of environmental variety for a game mostly set in a place referred to a “Deadside”. From the dungeons where you collect Gads that are filled with environmental puzzles like a Zelda game, or the twisted Asylum in which the origin of the evil you’re trying to hunt is located, there’s a lot of beauty to be found in horror, even in a game that’s over sixteen years old. Given the lack of in-game map and the lack of detail within the one that comes with the game, these distinctions between areas help you keep mental notes about which doors are where, or where you need to come back later when you get a new ability.
Both Turok and Armorines were first-person games heavy on action, which Shadow Man is neither, something that I feel works in the games benefit. Armorines was all about shooting a ton of alien space bugs, and while Turok had its fair share of exploration, they didn’t give you such a huge arsenal just not use it. Shadow Man plays from a third-person perspective which works greatly in its favour as there’s more of an emphasis on exploration above all else. Fighting is serviceable and does what a lot of games did back then and placed a lock-on mechanic, reserving fine-aiming to a sniper mode. The ways in which you can dispatch enemies grows greatly as you travel deep into Deadside, from magical voodoo artifacts like a fire throwing skull, a spear and real world weapons like a machine gun and a shotgun. You can wield two weapons at any given time, allowing you to experiment with any combination you wish, however as your magic and ammunition can deplete pretty fast, I did find myself leaning on my mystical Shadow Gun more than any other weapon, especially once you can use it in the few real world areas.
With its lack of a proper map system and often questionable level design, Shadow Man can feel quite primitive in a post-Metroid Prime world. For anyone who enjoyed those games in either the second or third dimension, or even the most recent Castlevania’s, the good far out weighs the bad here, just don’t feel ashamed sometimes when you have to turn to an outside source like a FAQ or video for help. Shadow Man has the same rewarding, exploration based gameplay that people fell in love with back in the NES/SNES days, it’s just missing that final lack of polish that could have made this game a minor classic. Chances are if you’re into games like Metroid you’ve played most of the best ones to death, so do yourself a favor and try a game you may have written off or overlooked. I looked at Shadow Man on the Dreamcast, but it’s also available on the N64 and PS1. For those who don’t have an older console lying around, it’s also available on Steam thanks to Night Dive Studios, those who are also updating Turok: Dinosaur Hunter and its sequel to modern machines.