Monday, 8 April 2013

Obligatory Retrospective Review of a Beloved Childhood Thing #1: Shadow Man

The year is 1999, the cultural apex of human society if The Matrix (which you've just seen) is to be believed. And what a glorious time to be alive it is: the much feared machine apocalypse is mere months away, David Copeland is busy playing GTA London: Real Life Edition, Boris Yeltsin is being Boris Yeltsin and the 921 earthquake has laid waste to Jiji, Nantou (Taiwan). And even if we do survive to see the new millennium: will we be faced with more pointless decades that lack a cohesive sense of cultural identity and purpose? The money says yes on that one. 

Of course, if you're Lars Ulrich you won't care about any that, or the countless terrorist attacks and natural disasters; because the human race is about to commit its greatest atrocity (presumably solely just to piss you, Lars Ulrich, off): launching Napster

Lars: Fuck you Napster, da derp dee derp.
But I was eight in 1999, so there were only two things that mattered: that the Power Rangers defeat Scorpius, and video games. The video game industry ended the 20th century on a high note, seeing the release of: Silent Hill, Shenmue, System Shock 2, Persona 2: Innocent SinSuper Smash Bros., Sim City 3000 (pauses for deep breath), GTA 2, Resident Evil 3, Jet Force Gemini, Shadow Man, Medal of Honor, Counter Strike and Final Fantasy VIII (passes out from lack of oxygen). Today we'll be talking about the tenth game on the list (let's see how many mathematically challenged people think the review will be about Medal of Honor or Jet Force Gemini).

The General Consensus:

Shadow Man - alongside the only two Turok games, Dinosaur Hunter and Seeds of Evil -  is often described as Acclaim Entertainment's finest hour. Critics and fans alike praise its macabre story, Gothic soundtrack, interesting setting steeped in Voodoo lore and non-linear gameplay; viewing it as Tomb Raider for horror fans. The game's titular protagonist is regarded as the most important black character in gaming's history. 

After Final Fantasy VII, Shadow Man's likely the next most requested remake. It's also known for being almost unplayable on 50% of its platforms; with the Windows version presumably being the most superior, the PC being gaming's equivalent of Miami -the place where the Old Guard go to die- after all. 

How I Remember It:

Wow, that's impressive looking asylum, I'll head over there; OH GOD. WHAT IS THAT CREATURE WITH HOOKS FOR HANDS!? WHEE! I CAN HAVE SHOTGUNS AKIMBO! OH NO: CHAINSAW WIELDING MOOK! I was a strange, friendless child. 

Back in 1999 I was a little too young to fully appreciate the more cerebral themes and symbolism. All I really remember clearly is the over-the-top gibbing, insane amount of backtracking and the absolute pant wetting terror of the Play Rooms' soundtrack. But still, alongside Silent Hill and Resident Evil, I hold this game up as an early example of my emerging interest in the horror genre - long before I moved on to the written works of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. 

"Poe you."
Does It Hold Up? 

I last played the game eight years ago (2005), so a few things instantly became apparent to me. First and foremost though: like the most vehement fan of Twilight, I'm going to hailing the story (a lot) regardless of the quality of the actual product.

The game's purportedly based on the Valiant Comics series. I don't know how closely the game follows the storyline of the comics, and I don't really care; its lore and setting is so rich and macabre  that it could serve as the loosest ever adaptation of Death of a Salesman, and I'd still be praising its incredible story. 

You play as Michael LeRoi, a former English Literature student and prophesied Voodoo warrior, who interestingly serves as the Barack Obama of his time: a likable character whose cool factor is accentuated more from him being well developed, instead of being a stereotypical black dude. Whilst the story of how Michael came to be Shadow Man is harrowing, it serves mostly as background and is independent of the main plot. Michael is merely our conduit through the afterlife realm of Deadside; simply another in the long line of the Voodoo gods' chosen. This story is Deadside's story: an exploration of unchecked pain, suffering and evil reigning over good; like daily life in Harpurhey, Manchester. 

Now that I'm no longer a snot nosed child with the attention span of an energy drink advert, I can appreciate the more cerebral themes and aspects of the game's world.  Personally, I feel that the most interesting aspect of Shadow Man is the concept behind its afterlife: a place where everyone ends up, without exception. It's a genius idea, truly personifying the notion of death being this great equalizer. But more than that, Deadside is an utterly frightening idea; a perpetual, nihilistic existence that can't be avoided - regardless of moral standing or faith. From the very first moments when Michael arrives in Deadside it becomes clear the place is tainted by depravity and sadistic indulgence: the rivers flow red, flesh and bone appear to be the primary building material, and most of the inhabitants are terrified, malnourished humanoids. This highlights the inherent problem of an afterlife where serial killers are free to roam alongside their victims for eternity; I'm looking at you Catholicism. 

Speaking of serial killers: you'll have to fight a fair few as you progress - specifically five - in order to stop the powerful demon Legion's plan to bring about the apocalypse (think Dexter, without the constant deaths of black supporting characters). Whilst Legion is busy introducing Deadside to the industrial revolution, with his monolithic, steam powered Asylum, his four murderous henchmen are cutting a bloody swath through the world of the living. The five killers assigned as vanguard of the apocalypse (Jack the Ripper, Hannibal The Lizard King, ex-solider The Video Nasty Killer, club-rep like Marco Cruz and The Home Improvement Killer) are actually quite disappointing; with the Home Improvement Killer (the decidedly Oedipus complex suffering, Avery Marx) being the only one to display sadistic tenancies with his human flesh furniture and unsettling recordings. When you consider Legion would have had a near endless supply of flayers, slashers and stranglers to select, the killers feel anticlimactic and uninspired compared to the rest of the game's cruel ideas. 

Replaying the game after all this time has brought me rather mixed emotions. The main problem with Shadow Man is that it's as old as Demetrius' Helepolis siege engine - and handles about as intuitively as one. I've lost track how times I met an unpleasant end trying to make a tricky jump and missing due to a camera that's as sensitive and reactionary as the average Daily Mail reader. The Tomb Raider comparisons made at the time of its release seem somewhat unwarranted, because Shadow Man's platforming can only dream of reaching the lofty heights of the former title. Apparently Michael is perfectly capable of duel wielding bulky, oscillating Violators and fighting off hoards of bloodthirsty madmen, but ask him to jump across a 5ft pit of lava, and more often than not he'll interpret that to mean he should just Harlem Shuffle to a burning, sulphuric death. I've seen more will to live at a Romeo and Juliet LARPing session.

When the game was released Acclaim rather ridiculously claimed it'd be a 75 hour adventure, even I had trouble believing that (and I was once so terrified after catching a glimpse of The Rocky Horror Picture Show I couldn't sleep for days). But looking back it's not exactly a falsified statement: the amount of backtracking and collecting would put the Lord of the Rings edition of Hoarders to shame. It's not exactly a bad thing, you only need to collect about 90% of the 120 'dark souls' to complete the game, the rest of the collectibles (weapons, cadeaux, remaining dark souls etc) are there for completionists/to increase the player's power - Shadow Man can offer the cadeaux to Deadside's Voodoo gods, the Loa, in exchange for additional health units. The game also features one of the best upgrade systems I've seen; you are tasked with scaling three ancient temples and receiving 'Gads', a form of tattooing that grants Michael the abilities of fire walking, or being able to swim through lakes of lava for instance, allowing exploration of previously inhospitable areas; it's a rather unique take on Metroidvania gameplay - one were you actually feel stronger, as opposed to simply stumbling upon the latest McGuffin.

The combat is actually a lot easier than I remember; back in 1999 the enemies seemed to fight with the ferocity of a Slipknot gig in a wind tunnel. And whilst they certainly do charge you with flailing hooks and power tools, they do so with the insouciance of the Home Office Identity and Passport Service. You get a variety of weapons to assist you - some standard (shotguns), some supernatural (calabash) - but the only one you'll really need is the Shadow Gun; it's the only weapon that increases in power as your soul level increases and each successful kill provides you with health. There are around seven enemies in the game (not including bosses), and most of them have been introduced by the half-way point; but with no difficulty scaling in Shadow Man once you've mastered fighting a new enemy it's only going to become increasingly easier as you grow stronger. A strong new enemy class (the gigantic Trueforms) is introduced toward the end of the game, but your soul and voodoo level is around seven or eight at that point so it becomes as pointless of an exercise as pitting Superman against Slender Man. The same applies to when you're finally able to face off against the serial killers.

That being said: Shadow Man has a genuinely oppressive atmosphere and manages to earn its scares legitimately; quite remarkable for a game that's fourteen years old. You're required to plunge through the unknown, dank corridors of the Asylum, scale deadly monuments to Voodoo gods and even fight through a Liveside prison engaging in a brutal riot. The diversity of the locations is nothing short of excellent and whilst a select few stand out more than others, each are, in their own way, memorable. Cageways and Playrooms are the levels that are the most effective at building up Legion's followers as this indomitable force; two Asylum levels which showcase two different sides to the depravity of its inhabitants - the former exploring the full-scale industrial effort being employed to ferry their victims around (sound familiar?), whilst the latter...well just listen. And just when you think you've seen all the tricks Shadow Man has to offer, it throws are curve ball; sending the player to track down the Home Improvement Killer in a "regular" derelict Liveside building. Aside from Avery's lurid artefacts (including a waterfall of blood), his hotel lair is a mundane skeleton, the type you'd find in any urban environment; for a game about supernatural and religious horror, Acclaim really nailed down the whole evil of man shtick 

If you celebrate the High Holy Days and keep a kosher table, then I'd recommend avoiding Shadow Man: the voice acting for the majority of the cast is hammier than Hammy the Ham eating a Ham sandwich at a West Ham match. The distinct lack of recognised voice actors was never really a problem in during its initial release - games didn't really have expensive professionals until the last generation or so - but now it's a little jarring. Voiced by the Movie Trailer Guy, Michael LeRoi is absolved (more on that later), but the rest personify cheesy video game voice acting; except for Mama Nettie perhaps, but seeing as how the only two things she contributes is sleeping with Shadow Man and ordering him around, I think voice acting is the last thing we need to talk about when discussing her. The Five are voiced as essentially exaggerated versions of the various tropes they embody, case and point - Milton Pike: a Vietnam vet, who sounds like his day consists of reminding people "they weren't there," and picketing abortion clinics. Of course, I can't finish a paragraph about cheesy voice acting without mentioning the skull headed giant serpent - Jaunty. He's essentially the Irish comedy relief; though his origins are horrific and guaranteed to best any "you'll never guess what happened to me last night" stories; I won't spoil it, but it's worse than waking up with  a hangover that's like having a thousand miniature Captain Kirks in your head, all doing the Wrath of Khan scream.

The version I replayed was the PlayStation port, considered by many to be the absolute worst way to experience the game; even worse than being forced to watch your neighbour across the street play it from your bedroom window, whilst having your nipples clamped by Perez Hilton. It was pretty much the Mickey Rourke of gaming when released, but the PlayStation version compounds the issue, adding to the mix: graphical glitches, poor frame rate, naff textures and tinny audio. The Dreamcast version handles far better with well refined textures and character models, and superb AAA quality audio. It's most definitely the way to go. Redd Pepper's turn as Michael is something that absolutely must be experienced in crystal clear audio definition; his lines almost entirely consisting of bellicose villain baiting and haunting poetry and every single recorded line is legendary: "As a god I step forth upon the writhing, suppurating surface of the Deadside serpent. What sleep is here? What dreams there are in the unctuous coilings of the snake's mortal shuffling. Weapon in my hand. My hand the arcing deathblow at the End of All Things. The horror. The horror. I embrace it..."

So all in all, it's a very flawed game; one that I'm afraid is destined to remain a largely forgotten cult classic. It manages to survive by the skin of its teeth; just barely propping itself up thanks to a beautiful morose story and nostalgia points. If we take nostalgia out of the equation then it's mostly bad than good. And yet, I cannot bring myself to condemn Shadow Man to the type of hell depicted in the bloody corridors of its Asylum. Like I said, I have Mixed Emotions.

Finally relevant in 2013.
I suppose the reason why I'll always be fond of Shadow Man is because it is one of the few games in the industry's sixty year history to have transcended the trappings of the medium. Alongside Silent Hill 2 and Amnesia it achieves equilibrium of gameplay, story and player involvement. The game lets the player remain firmly in control, whilst always telling the story it wants to tell; but it also does something not often seen in the medium - it allows them to use their imagination. You see a lot of explicit, grisly happens in Shadow Man, but at the same time the developers utilize implicit imagery and symbolism, as well as unidentified off-screen noises and suggestive scenarios. We see and are told just what kind of place the Asylum is, but we are ultimately left to formulate our own ideas about exactly what goes on in there. The human mind can become a very unsettling place when introduced to even the smallest seed of darkness. Acclaim brought the type of storytelling usually reserved for books and (more rarely) movies, and built upon it using the levels of interactivity unique to the gaming format. And it is for this reason why I will always return to Shadow Man. Perhaps I will return in another eight years; when the numerous flaws are ever more apparent, and the ancient game begins to resemble Manic Mansion. But you know what? It'll be worth it.

Because what else am I going to do, play Shadow Man Second Coming?
The correct response is: "I'd rather spend a week at the John Wayne Gacy College for  Clowns.