Shadow Man Review

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I’m not the one who’s so far away…

Night Dive Studios, one of my favorite developers, seems to specialize in taking old N64-era games and cleaning them up for modern consoles—video game preservation, but in HD. They already have an impressive portfolio, and much of their content is available on the Switch: Turok, Turok 2, DOOM 64, and Quake (which we don’t have a review for…I should remedy that) are all extremely impressive and enjoyable. I must admit I was surprised to learn that Night Dive would be tackling the old Acclaim game Shadow Man, largely because I can’t imagine it has much of a fanbase. This is an ancient 3D platformer from 1999 that released on the N64, Dreamcast, and PlayStation, and was rated “M”—one of the few N64 games to be given that rating. Praised for its dark tone and ambitious design at the time, I was curious to see how this forgotten gem has aged over the last twenty years.

Like Turok before him, Shadow Man was originally a successful Valiant Comics title. When Acclaim Entertainment bought Valiant in 1996, it relaunched Shadow Man and began developing a video game series based on the character. Shadow Man is the alter-ego of Michael LeRoi, a former college student who became indebted to a voodoo witch after his family was massacred. LeRoi was rescued by Mama Nettie, a voodoo priestess, who sewed the Mask of Shadows to his chest, which allows LeRoi, as Shadow Man, to venture into the parallel world of “Deadside.”

It’s difficult to discuss Shadow Man Remastered without getting into the philosophy of game preservation. On the one hand, this game is an extremely faithful remake—which includes a lot of cut and restored content—of a 1999 3D platformer/adventure game, warts and all. Clearly, Night Dive did an extremely impressive amount of work here, restoring previously cut areas, unused dialogue, unused animations, cut or censored character models, enemies, and bosses, and various other additions. The control scheme has been modernized as much as possible, with a new weapon wheel, localization improvements, and changes to the control scheme (no more tank controls). Of course, they’ve also added a lot of toggle-able audio and graphical options, including a film grain filter, which I adore.

What Night Dive has not done (and rightly so, I think) is fix the game. Think of Shadow Man Remastered as a Director’s Cut, something closer to Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence than to Spyro Reignited.

The removal of tank controls doesn’t change the fact that combat is laughably simplistic.

The new lighting effects don’t change the fact that Shadow Man’s map is overwhelming and difficult to navigate. Sometimes infuriatingly so.

The new bosses aren’t necessarily good bosses.

On its face, the gameplay of Shadow Man Remastered is surprisingly barebones: you explore a profoundly confusing (but impressively massive) world looking for Dark Souls and little red masks. The more Dark Souls you find, the more powerful Shadow Man becomes, and the more doors he can open, leading to more areas of Deadside. He can trade in 100 of the little red masks for an extra heart container. At virtually every turn, Deadside is filled with death-defying obstacle courses and frustrating corridor mazes, and Shadow Man traverses this hellscape with what amounts to Tomb Raider controls: jumping, grabbing ledges, shooting, and dodge rolling. You’ll find new weapons, but none of them significantly improve combat. You’ll find items and “tattoos” that allow you to find new paths through old areas, but they’re few and far in between. Most troubling, though, is the lack of any sort of referrable map, and Deadside’s labyrinthine structure will confound your efforts to make your own.

There’s a fast-travel system, but it’s limited in scope. You have unlimited lives, but checkpoints only exist at the beginning of every major area, leading to frequent re-traversal (my solution: save often and reload that save when you die).

All that said, Shadow Man Remastered does hold a lot of appeal for me. Viewed through a historical lens, this game is ridiculously ambitious for 1999. To have such an enormous map with varied environments (well, as varied as 1999 graphics could muster) and so much freedom to move through them was, at the time, essentially unheard of. Shadow Man’s tone and aesthetic, while somewhat quaint now, was deservedly lauded at the time. Deadside is a creepy, macabre, but beautiful place—a weird combination of Silent Hill (released earlier that year) and Clock Tower. Granted, it sure does look like an N64 game with better textures and cleaner character models, but that’s what Shadow Man is.

Sure, the gunplay is nothing special nowadays, but the various firearms—both traditional and mystical—were inventive for the time, and Shadow Man’s ability to duel wield would have been a nice surprise.

Yet I daresay that you must be of a certain mindset to genuinely enjoy Shadow Man Remastered. This is not a game you can rush through, both by design and by virtue of its age. It contains zero handholding, and in fact I had to download the instruction manual for the N64 game to figure out what the items were and what the control scheme was. I think Shadow Man Remastered will appeal to a subset of a subset of the gaming populace: those who were alive through the transition from 2D to 3D gaming and the bizarre experiments it engendered, but also those who have fond memories of those rough-around-the-edges games, whose reach exceeded their grasp.

You may recall that I was pleasantly surprised by how ahead-of-its time Turok: Dinosaur Hunter was while playing Night Dive’s excellent remaster, but I’m equally surprised by how of-its-time Shadow Man has turned out to be. Still, I’m happy that Night Dive didn’t try to fix the game for a modern audience. This is game preservation as it should be—keep the wrinkles, warts, and missteps; add cut content wherever possible (as it informs the game’s original intent); let the strengths of the original games speak for themselves. Shadow Man is not a great game in 2021, but in 1999, it was ambitious and inventive, and being able to experience this game as it was meant to be released and played is valuable and enjoyable.

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