Shadow Man

Shadow Man is played from a third-person perspective using a robust new engine that visits two worlds: the real world from Louisiana to New York, with their distinctive architecture, and the dark shadowy realm of Deadside, an industrial version of hell where our "villain du jour" is assembling souls to bring about an apocalypse, using five serial killers as his apostles.

Though used mainly for corridors in Shadow Man, that engine does a great job of conveying considerable distances. You begin the game in plain view of a hilltop church that other engines would have to render with a bitmap, but in Shadow Man you're seeing the actual church that you eventually enter. This engine isn't as refined as Heretic II's adapted Quake engine, but it does just as good a job at creating dramatic levels, using widely varied palettes, smoke and fire effects, rippling transparent water, moody lighting, vivid sky textures, and excellent ambient sound.

The character models are equally impressive. The movement animation isn't exactly fluid or realistic, but it fits in with the game's weird style, from the gruesome thrashing of a dying soul to the way Shadow Man's limbs splay in every direction as he dangles from a tightrope.

Any programmer can do a swaying pony tail, but I can only imagine developer Iguana's dismay when they were given specs for Mike LeRoi, Shadow Man's real-world form. "Can't he tuck in his shirt?" they must have groaned. No such luck. Shadow Man is the first game to give us what the option screen calls a "dynamic shirt": it flaps around and trails behind LeRoi as he runs and jumps.

As a whole package, Shadow Man's strongest point is the imagination of its developers. Not only is their level design clever and stylish, but they use spooky low-tech artwork to fill in the backstory. For example, early in the game, LeRoi receives a dossier on the serial killers he's tracking.

In another game, this would probably be a throw-away inventory item, but in Shadow Man it's a tiny packet of well-drawn fiction.

Like a Frankenstein monster, it's easy to see the seams where this game is sewn together from a mishmash of cultural influences: the Grand Guignol of the Hellraiser movies, an eerie Hieronymous Bosch nightmarish-ness, a dash of Anne Rice's banal bayou eroticism, a tired fascination with serial killers, and an assortment of voodoo totems, fetishes and tattoos. It's essentially a comic book, complete with purple-prosed cut-scenes and a stock contemporary comic book protagonist: the underdog loser turned irreverent super-anti-hero.

It's too bad this rich milieu is used in gameplay that amounts to little more than a platform game set against a creepy adult backdrop. Shadow Man doesn't so much tell its story as just force you to jump through hoops. It's ultimately an expansive Easter egg hunt set on vast levels.

You have your typical find-the-switch challenges, key hunts, and several jumping puzzles. And the heart of all this is little more than a Mario-esque coin chase. Collect souls to unlock doors to find more souls. At least it's all non-linear, which is at once its saving grace and its biggest drawback. While it's nice to be able to roam freely, there's potential for a lot of directionless wandering through-out these sprawling levels. A map or some similar guidance would have made the game a lot less tedious.

But you do have a healthy dose of combat with varied monsters and a nice arsenal of weapons with which to smack them. Lives aren't limited, so the frequent deaths you'll suffer will only send you to the beginning of a level. And you can save your game at any time during play.

The end result is an action game with a lot of vividly realised levels. And that beats most Tomb Raider clones any day.

Product: Shadow Man

Publisher: Acclaim


Shadow Man tips

Take advantage of LeRoi's ambidexterity: Keep a different weapon in each hand so that if you run out of ammo or Shadow Power, you'll have a backup immediately available.

Since there's no map, consider taking notes. You'll have to come back to certain places, so note the doors you can't get through yet, the high ledges you'll later climb with the Poigne, and the fiery areas you'll be able to cross when you get the Toucher Gad.

Having trouble opening doors? Just use your gun.

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