Let’s talk about unfinished business for a moment. I’m sure I am not the only one in this crazy world that has that one game where completion has proven elusive, where the subject matter, story and tone resonates so fiercely yet for reasons in or out of your own control the end credits just never got to roll. For me, few other games resemble this notion more than Shadow Man. I originally picked this game up on the N64, back when it was a fresh enough release to warrant an ex-rental purchase at Blockbuster. Vividly I remembered putting the cartridge in and hearing the memorably melancholic tones of the Moonlight Sonata, getting sucked into the dark grittiness of the visuals and tone that no teenage boy from the 90’s could refuse.
The only issue of course, was the fact that my copy just simply didn’t work. Not so unique to my copy or setup, was a crippling save bug that would see me lose progress every time I would start the game up again. Despite this and my better judgement, I would still attempt to play again and again with different memory paks but to no avail. The only way I would be able to see anything close to an end, would be to leave my console on continuously, which of course I attempted, until the dreaded powercut. Shadow Man sadly remained on my shelves since. A game that was tantalising in its offering and review scores, yet impossible to enjoy because of faulty hardware.
Things did not fair much better with ports. The PS1 version was notoriously poor and despite being a Sega fan tried and true, the Dreamcast port passed by. Later attempts to play on PC yielded such hilarious results thanks to the odd way in which the controls ported and the game not liking anything beyond a certain frame rate. I genuinely felt like that was that, Shadow Man would be a game that would be enjoyed by many others, but one that almost refused to be played. With the title being based on a comic book series and a dead studio, it seemed like it would never get the remaster or remake treatment that I felt it deserved.
That was until Nightdive Studios came along. If you have been following anything retro recently, particularly the late 90’s or early 00’s FPS remasters then you should know what this studio is about. Nightdive has made a name for themselves resurrecting lapsed fan favourites with their in-studio Kex engine, in doing so, we have seen the return of classics like Turok, Quake and even a masterful port of Doom 64. Besides simply having the chops to tackle some of these forgotten gems, they often go above and beyond to deliver a full experience, including cut or extended content that is added simply for the sake of completion. The Quake 64 mode in the Quake remaster sticks out as a great example of this and something I am glad to see reflected in Shadow Man: Remastered, where we see the addition of areas that were cut before the original release due to time and budget constraints.
Shadow Man has you playing as Mike Leroi, a hitman that has been subjugated by Mama Nettie, a voodoo priestess. After having a mask weaved into his ribcage, he takes on the mantle of the Shadow Man, a being that can travel between the worlds of the living and Deadside, the place where all things go when they die. Mike is called to Deadside by Nettie after she gets a vision of the apocalypse, which will be brought around by Legion, a demon who has recruited serial killers to reap souls to empower his army of unholy creations that threaten to invade the world of the living.
You can already tell whether you are in or not based on that synopsis. It epitomises the tone and attitude of 90’s comics like few other games can. For me, I found it difficult to not be drawn in, especially as this was a game that had a remarkably darker tone than what I was used to playing on the N64, this certainly was no Banjo-Kazooie or Star Wars: Episode 1 Racer and was one of the few ‘adult’ games available for the console, so naturally my angst riddled teenage self could not resist.
Getting into the thick of the game itself, Shadow Man has enjoyed a significant upgrade thanks to the remaster. Instead of the clunky, yet necessary tank controls of the original we now instead have a solid twin stick control method that should be familiar to all that have played most third person shooters recently. Originally, the control method made the game feel a bit like Dark Souls, where every move had to be considered as the next could mean a quick death. Now, it feels like a breeze to play, with combat feeling far more fluid than ever. Platforming still relies on near pixel perfect positioning and timing at some moments which can frustrate, but there is no denying that this has seen a significant improvement due to the speed at which you can move, rendering those awkwardly slow realignments obsolete.
I would normally apologise for that usually overdone Dark Souls reference. In this case however, the comparison is far more palpable than ever. It doesn’t help that the chief macguffin that you collect in the game is literally called the Dark Souls and similarly to the From Software series is the inclusion of a fully open and congruous world that feels connected with each area of Deadside connecting to another in a semi-seamless fashion. Even now, the world of Deadside is huge and maze-like to explore with a ton of pathways to run down.
The one thing that must be remembered about games from this era is how they came from a time where tutorials were printed in a manual that came with the game and not expressly recited during the action. This is both to the game’s benefit and detriment as it absolutely loves to throw up dead ends or crudely hidden yet vital passages at you, meaning that a fair chunk of the overall playtime can be spent meandering around the world to try and find that one path you missed to be able to progress. Hilariously, this even ended up with me missing the entrance to an early dungeon that for some would be easy to find, but I had completely passed by until I realised that I needed a tool to earn more souls to progress.
This is the kind of game design that just doesn’t happen anymore as everything is either more streamlined and linear or open world with GPS guidance. It’s the kind of design that players have grown to become intolerant of and for good reason. Yet Shadow Man is an example of a game that weaves this into its own core identity as it makes exploration an exercise in discovery, whether that leads to untimely deaths, progression boosting items or weapons or sprawling new areas to shoot through. This can be frustrating at times, especially when you just need one more item to progress that can only be reached through a significant backtrack, but it is almost always satisfying when you figure out the right way.
Thanks to this, Deadside feels less like a location and more like a giant puzzle that needs to be solved. and throughout the adventure the player will encounter countless obstacles or out of reach collectables that cannot be touched without some sort of power up. These are gained in temples or behind locked gates that require a certain level of soul power to open. While abitrary by todays standards, it is none the less enjoyable to find a new weapon or ability along the way which opens up the pathways that were otherwise inaccessible before. There aren’t many games that offer purpose to older stages like Shadow Man does, not nearly as intrinsically as presented here.
What is most odd about the progression is that even though the five serial killers are considered the main villains of the story, it is a considerable amount of time before you are even ready to face them. A good chunk of the game is spent preparing Mike to be ready to get ready to face them, this alone being an adventure as you encounter ancient temples, Asylum wings countless other Deadside pathways. The five are always a carrot that is dangling just out of reach and as a result, when encountered they feel less like content gatekeepers and more like a reward for your hard work.
Of course, we cannot talk about aged design without commenting on the visuals. Despite the admirable remastering efforts, this is undeniably a game from the 90’s. Night Dive have however, done a great job of not only sprucing the texture quality and lighting up, but they have done so while maintaining that dark aesthetic that fans love so much about the original release. Sure character models are stiff, they all have impossibly clenched fists and fish like polygonal mouths, but if you go into this game expecting a polygonal 3D game from the 90s then this shouldn’t be too much of a barrier.
At no point did I feel that the visual fidelity detracted from the atmosphere and genuinely effective horror of some areas and encounters. One such boss fight takes you into a hotel complex which is bathed in darkness. The boss apes you at every turn with a laughably childish voice which could easily take you out of the moment, that Is until you see the killers’ victims and the implied appalling acts that he has perpetrated. It goes beyond the jump scares that were famous back then and instead tries to get under your skin, successfully still after all these years. This is especially true when you remember that the fictionalised killers of Shadow Man are all based in at least a small part on real world inspiration.
This horror atmosphere is helped thanks in no small part to the soundtrack, which ranges from the classic Moonlight Sonata to some frankly terrifying compositions. For those that played this back in the day, I only need to say two words, Asylum Playrooms. A disturbing arrangement comprising squeaky toys, sickening drilling sounds and countless screams. Not forgetting of course, the squelching of brain matter that sets my Misophonia ablaze with fight or flight reflexes.
While initially it was a story of unfinished business, I found myself hooked into Shadow Man more than I ever thought I would be. From the moment I passed the progress I made all those years ago, that desire to discover more just kept me coming back which may or may not be a unique case to me specifically. Whether you are in the same boat or not however, I would recommend Shadowman as they simply do not make them like this anymore and with this masterful remaster from Nightdive, there has never been a better time to venture into Deadside.
+ Immensely more playable than its earlier counterparts
+ Still one of the finest examples of early 3D gameplay
+ They don’t make them like this anymore…
- A hell of a lot of backtracking for minor rewards
- Not the easiest game to navigate