First of all, this is (for reasons I’ll explain later) more of a “first impressions” article than a full review. At the time of writing, I’ve played this game for a few hours and have possibly looked at somewhere between a fifth and a third of it.
Although I’d vaguely heard of “Shadow Man” in the games magazines that I read during my childhood, I didn’t really discover it until a sale on GOG a few days before originally writing this article. Although there were mixed reviews on the site, the fact that it was a late 1990s gothic horror 3D platform game that had been reduced to something like 70p made the decision to buy it something of a no-brainer.
So, let’s take a look at “Shadow Man”:
One of the first things that I will say about this game is that it has one of the most impressive introductory cutscenes that I’ve ever seen. I usually don’t care about introductory cutscenes, but this one really knocked me off my feet. As soon as you start the game, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” thunders in the background and you are treated to an ominous monologue from none other than Jack the Ripper:
Jack laments that his crimes have not produced the results that he desires and that, to continue his occult experiments, he must end his own life. However, before he can plunge a knife into his chest, he is interrupted by a rather suave fellow called Legion who asks him to design a temple to pain and suffering in the afterlife. Gleefully, Jack agrees and stabs himself.
Then, we flash forward to 1990s America where a man called Michael LeRoi is talking to a Voodoo priestess called Nettie. Michael is a “shadow man”, imbued with powers that allow him to cross between the worlds of the living and the dead. Nettie tells him that something terrible is happening in the world of the dead, and it is up to him to stop it.
Although it may not sound like much, the voice-acting, writing and gothic atmosphere of even the intro movie alone is astonishingly good. This is the kind of epic intro movie where you’ll easily ignore the slight clunkiness of the late-1990s 3D graphics because of the sheer strength of the writing and atmosphere.
The game itself is, as you would expect, an action/puzzle-based 3D platform game. You fight lots of monsters and solve occasional movement/item-based puzzles (for example, locked doors require you to collect a certain number of souls in order to open them).
Unlike in similar games released at a similar time (eg: “American McGee’s Alice” etc..), you don’t progress through the levels in a linear order. In fact, there’s a rather large hub level and a fast-travel system.
The only problem with the fast-travel system is that the game will also respawn all of the monsters whenever you revisit somewhere you’ve already been. Given that this is a game from the golden era of gaming, the combat is more on the challenging side of things.
In fact, the earlier levels are actually more difficult for the simple reason that you are only equipped with a weak pistol that requires something like ten shots just to defeat even one low-level undead creature. Yes, when you learn to use some of the game’s features (like the lock-on strafe feature), the difficulty drops slightly, but this is a game where every fight is a tense fight to the death.
But, although this game is a PC port of a console game, there’s a proper saving system which helps to mitigate the game’s high difficulty level. In other words, you can save whenever and wherever you need to. I honestly don’t know how people played this game on consoles, where there were probably fixed checkpoints or something like that.
In terms of the controls, this game is surprisingly (and refreshingly) old-school. Although you can (and should!) customise the controls, the game is exclusively keyboard-only. Even the combat uses a traditional “Doom/Doom II”-style vertical auto-aim system. Whilst this filled me with 1990s nostalgia, the lack of mouse controls might be disconcerting if you’re more used to modern games.
The gameplay and environment design in “Shadow Man” is both brilliant and not so brilliant at the same time. There are some really cool-looking areas in this game and, like all great games from the 1990s, the levels are the kind of non-linear things that actually require you to explore.
However, although you’ll have a lot of fun exploring the game’s world for a few hours, you might get completely and utterly stuck when you start encountering the first two of the game’s five bosses. These bosses reside in the world of the living and, from what I’ve seen, they’re demented serial killers who will often shout cheesy one-liners at you:
From what I’ve been able to gather from walkthroughs, you actually need a specific three-part item to beat these bosses. But, I haven’t been able to find out how to get two pieces of this item. In other words, the main reason why this is only a “first impressions” article is because I got completely stuck.
Yes, although the challenging parts of the game are usually extremely enjoyable, this part crosses the line from “fun” to “frustrating”. For example, the game itself only hints that you need an item to defeat the bosses after a long battle with said bosses. You’ll think that you’ve almost defeated the bosses, only for them to get back up and for Michael to make some cryptic comment about how he wished he could use his shadow powers in the world of the living.
All in all, despite the high likelihood of getting completely and utterly stuck after a few hours, I’d still recommend checking this game out for everything before that part of the game. It’s atmospheric, it’s thrilling and it shows off some of the reasons why the 1990s were such a creative and imaginative decade in the history of gaming. Plus, old-school 3D platform games on the PC are something of a rarity, so this game is well worth checking out for this alone.
If I had to give what I’d played so far a rating out of five, it would get just under a five. It’s almost perfect.