Monday, 10 October 2016

October Nightmares II #10: Shadow Man: 2econd Coming (2002) - The Second Coming of Christ No

And thus we transition from looking at one of the best horror sequels ever made to one of the worst. The original Shadow Man was like the sort of nightmare you have if spend all night eating donner kebabs and watching the Hellraiser boxset. It was mean-spirited, twisted, and bloodier than the female only Yoga class the day their periods synced. Shadow Man: 2econd Coming, however, is more of a deflating experience – like coming home on your birthday to find your wife shagging the postman. I will categorically state that the first game is superior in almost every aspect. If I hadn’t already reviewed Shadow Man I’d be reviewing it here. Instead Shadow Man: 2econd Coming can serve as a learning experience, an exploration of Acclaim Entertainment’s great folly. It’ll be like a father in a Seventies film making his kid smoke an entire packet of cigarettes to punishing him for smoking.

2econd Coming starts off well enough, opening in a manner akin to The Horror at Red Hook with a police raid on a burning apartment that’s also a gateway into Hell. Christ, the letting agent for that place must be shovelling Don Draper levels of bullshit. Things quickly become iffy once the game actually begins and you’re thrown back into the shoes of protagonist Michael LeRoi, aka Shadow Man. Disregarding the redesign of Michael’s Shadow Man form - now a sinewy skeletal figure which actually looks pretty rad – 2econd Coming’s main problem is that it’s just so bland. The introductory level is set in Deadside, the afterlife where everyone goes regardless of whether they’re good or bad, a believer or non-believer. In Shadow Man, Deadside was a wretched hive of misery; packed with wailing souls waddling through pools of their own blood and filth. 2econd Coming doesn’t really have anything to offer to raise the bar except pulling down its pants, bending over, and proclaiming “look at my shadow, man.”

Essentially 2econd Coming is a poor man’s Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. Both games have a non-descript fantasy-horror visual style (Gothic temples, otherworldly landscapes), a dark ambient soundtrack, and gameplay style that's best described as action-adventure. The thing is, Shadow Man distanced itself from the niche Legacy of Kain had carved. It had a setting made from a cocktail of the worst religion has to offer, and of human suffering on industrial scale. Anyone who played the game will likely never forgot the horrific ‘Play Rooms’ level which cemented the insanity of Shadow Man’s setting. 2econd Coming doesn’t engage with any of the heavy themes that its predecessor relished in. It’s about stopping Armageddon at the hands of the some celestial winged beings called the Grigori. But it’s played out in such a half-arsed way that the player never really appreciates the stakes. It feels more like an episode of Scooby-Doo in which Old Man Withers finds the Necronomicon.

This isn’t to say that 2econd Coming doesn’t have its moments. The atmosphere is consistently morose throughout, and I particularly enjoyed the New Orleans levels which juxtaposed the  civilised setting with ultra-violence. Punching the human thugs until they exploded into bloody chunks was certainly Cronenbergian. Also the soundtrack for those levels was pretty sweet: jazz-infused ambience for the level set in and around the bar, creepy sounds of the wilderness for those levels set in the Louisianan bayous. But the few good elements of 2econd Coming (i.e. melee combat, day and night cycle) are outweighed by the many shit parts. Imagine making a Frankenstein's creature that's 10% Debbie Harry and 90% Donald Trump. The biggest bugbear for me was the removal of the need to return to old areas once you had progressed sufficiently enough to explore them further. I know people didn’t like that the original had more backtracking than an incorrectly solved Chinese Postman Problem, but I felt that this added an almost ‘metroidvania’ feel to its gameplay.

2econd Coming’s regression to the type of dark fantasy you’d expect to read in a forty year old wiccan woman’s debut novel, is regrettable. I was half expecting Michael to get nobbed by a pretentious vampire-wannable who calls himself Orion on Vampire Freaks. But what’s more regrettable is how phoned-in the game feels. Acclaim did a pretty shoddy job overall with numerous graphical glitches and audio that’s, at times, poorly synced. It’s not as bad as Shadow Man port for the PS1, that was downright unplayable, but then again the PS1 had less processing power than my microwave.
Acclaim clearly wanted to take advantage of the graphical abilities of the PS2 to compensate for the fact that everything in Shadow Man was as ugly as a game of cock or ball. But they ended up making it another one of those ‘indefinably’ bland games that seemed to pop-up in force during the PS2 generation. All of the game's temples look almost identical for example. But Acclaim’s oddest choice was in the marketing of 2econd Coming. They wanted to pay people to display billboards advertising the game on the graves of their loved ones. A strange strategy, yes, but perhaps this was intended to garner good will for what they knew would be a poorly received game. “Yes your family died in that horrific car crash, but it could be worse – you could be playing this fucking game”.