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by Acclaim

Ups: Killer story, level design, sound and score make for vast, non-linear immersive entertainment. 
Downs: So non-linear the game is repetitious at times. Tools/weapons selection and inventory interface is awkward. 
System Reqs: P200; 3D accelerator; DirectX compatible sound, 32 MB RAM and 350 MB HD.
Let’s get one thing straight from the get-go. If you’re expecting to read about Shadow Man as a spin-off from the popular Valiant Heroes comic title, or about the particulars of the Shadow-Man story—that Shadow Man is the heroic alter-ego of the shamed Mike LeRoi, a failed English Literature student and New Orleans hitman, that the voodoo priestess Nettie fused a voodoo mask to his sternum, or that this mask gives LeRoi the power to move between the realms of Liveside and Deadside—then find something else to read. See, I’m only going to talk about one thing in respect to Shadow Man.

Shadow Man scares the bejaysus out of this gamer.

That’s right. Shadow Man has got to be the spookiest game I’ve ever played, and the point is worth noting for at least two reasons. One, ‘tis the season; Halloween is right around the corner, and if you’ve tired of the lame costume soirees and the obligatory movie marathons every cable channel broadcasts on All Souls’, then pick up Shadow Man and lose sleep for weeks. Two, it’s a testament to Acclaim’s potential that they have produced an entertainment in which every aspect of the gaming environment—from the story to the gameplay to the graphics to the sound—is so superb that it, like the voodoo mask fused to Mike’s ribcage, grafts itself to a player’s subconscious and renders certain waking moments—hearing unfamiliar noises, noticing flickering shadows—horrifying.

In brief, Shadow Man is the story about the aforementioned Mike LeRoi, a screw-up who is forced into fostering under- and otherworld connections during his quest for redemption from the guilt he bears as a result of having initiated the deaths of his mom, dad and little brother, Luke. All he possesses from his shameful past is Luke’s teddy bear, which becomes the totem that provides his connection to the Deadside, the "place beyond death, where every soul that has ever shuffled off this mortal coil finds its spiritual home" (Shadow Man Instruction Booklet, 5). During the course of his quest, he becomes the agent and lover of Nettie, a centuries-old voodoo priestess who has powerful stakes in Deadside, but is unable to go there herself. This is where Mike, as Shadow Man, enters the picture, holding the forces of evil at bay on Nettie’s behalf. In exchange, he gets the opportunity to salvage a shred of his damned soul. Time is running out, though, and the infinite, immortal manifestations of evil, referring to themselves singularly as Legion, threaten to overrun Liveside, the realm of mortal existence in all its banality and beauty. It is Mike/Shadow Man’s responsibility to see that this course of action doesn’t come to pass.

As a comic book and game concept, Shadow Man invites ready comparison with popular and familiar commercial mainstays such as Spawn and the Tomb Raider series, not to mention DC Comics’ unique and underrated Deadman (alas, we hardly knew ye!) and Indiana Jones movies. Nettie’s stooge on the Deadside, a skull-headed, tophat-wearing Irish serpent by the name of Jaunty even calls to mind Cassidy, the infamous and hilarious Irish vampire in the Preacher comics. In addition, Shadow Man is only one of several titles that relies on the increasingly popular "otherworldly/beyond the grave hero" premise that characterizes so many anxiously awaited titles this fall, including Revenant and Messiah. Still, Shadow Man stands on its own as a convincingly rendered and engaging entertainment not least on account of the VISTA 3D engine developed by Acclaim’s UK lab, Iguana. While playing this title, some players may find it difficult to believe that Iguana is the same studio that unleashed the South Park Game upon the world, but if Iguana can come up with a 3D environment for a 2D world, then it’s no surprise that they can create a digital environment of endless horizons teeming with detail.

As players proceed through the game, they will notice that every direction, every surface can be explored. Actually, it’s inaccurate to talk about players moving "through" this game because it suggests that Shadow Man consists of logical levels and tiers which players must "win" in order to move on to the next challenge until they get to the game’s "end." There is nothing so predictably teleological about Shadow Man, however. Indeed, perhaps this title’s most compelling feature is its vast non-linear plot and design, both of which seem to be infinite. Shadow Man will become legendary for the amount of game time it provides players alone, which easily exceeds an average work week.

On the one hand, Shadow Man’s non-linearity makes it a remarkably challenging and surprising game—there is no way players can second-guess or anticipate what’s coming next, even when successfully solving puzzles that will obviously yield a certain expected result. Successfully acquiring enough dark souls to access new Deadside portals, for example, does not prepare players for the new landscapes and monsters beyond the gates. Another particularly evocative element to all of this non-linear movement is Luke’s teddy bear, which Mike/Shadow Man must use in order to travel from one realm to another. On the other hand, the game’s relentlessly non-sequential play requires players to traverse the same ground several times over, thus making play at times frustratingly repetitious. While they will find that this recursiveness allows them to acquire items and enter areas previously beyond grasp or inaccessible during previous sojourns in any given realm, players may get frustrated at having to decimate the same zombies, ghouls and other horrors that swarm throughout the game. In addition, demonic malignancies seem to increase in numbers and speed each time players retrace their steps through increasingly familiar landscapes. Perhaps there is a narrative purpose to this proliferation of evil, though, that overrides the frustration of seemingly repetitious play. Shadow Man, after all, is racing against the clock to prevent the nefarious collective of doom known as Legion from acquiring enough dark souls in order to flood Liveside with its burgeoning apocalyptic power, thus claiming the ultimate empire in the name of eternal sorrow and violence. So every time Shadow Man returns to certain points in the game, he witnesses and potentially falls prey to the massing and increasingly overwhelming forces of Legion. Players should note, too, that this repetition occurs in two realms, Liveside and Deadside, and that they will have different capabilities depending on who they are playing. Obviously, Mike is much more vulnerable than Shadow Man, but still retains his smarts, so Liveside play seems more cerebral at times than that of Deadside. Fortunately, Mike figures out a way to tap into his Shadow Man powers on the Liveside, and that’s when players get to tip over the barrel of monkeys, dig?

While the sheer variety and increasingly insurmountable crush of creepily rendered evil creatures are enough to recommend Shadow Man as the scariest PC entertainment ever produced, it is finally the sound and score that make this title so frightening. Reviewing Thief: The Dark Project about a year ago, this reviewer highlighted that title’s sound as the star that stole the show. Shadow Man ups the ante by coupling an eerie soundtrack with a brilliantly paced and edited score that sonically conveys an all-encompassing, chilling sadness that makes Thief’s zombies sound like kewpie dolls cooing "mama." For example, in Shadow Man, zombies don’t simply grunt and moan; they weep, too, reinforcing the idea that these beings are souls somehow sentient of a past goodness that forever eludes them. Other creatures chitter and whisper Shadow Man’s name, and still others mutter enraged curses and threats. These hair-raising pronouncements are woven into a larger, subtle music score that incorporates Middle Eastern-sounding chants and ambient drumming that infuses the game, perhaps deceptively, with a hopeful tone. The cumulative effect of all these aural textures is spine-tingling audio.

Throughout the course of the game, Mike/Shadow Man acquires a number of weapons and talismans (including protective tattoos) that aid him in his quest. In closing, this fact bears mentioning to point out this review’s only substantive criticism of the game. Namely, it’s distracting to have to toggle to the select inventory screen in the midst of a given course of action, be it exploration or melee, in which players will need to use a variety of tools and weapons to accomplish a goal. The fact that Mike/Shadow Man is ambidextrous offers little consolation in those situations when players must, say, slaughter a dozen ghouls and elude another dozen by leaping onto a ledge or up to a rope. Such fluid sequences of moves are often required in Shadow Man, but often end up being impossible to execute because players can not employ or put away Mike/Shadow Man’s weapons and tools at the click of a button.

Well, reader, it’s doubtful that this review even begins to convey what makes Shadow Man such a scary game. There’s a reason for this. I’m not about to start describing all the sounds, sights and notions that make this game so freaking hair-raising, especially since I’ve just begun to get a full night’s worth of sleep after a month. Trust me, though, if you’re looking for a PC game that radically undercuts and challenges digital storytelling and immersive gameplay conventions, then go out and get Shadow Man, which promises to be one of the most talked about titles of this year … and bring enough extra cash to pick up a nightlight while you’re at it.

--Greg Matthews