It seems that Nightdive Studios can’t be stopped when it comes to bringing back old games from the dead. Over the past few years, the studio has done a lot of great work in terms of game preservation, and now, the latest title to benefit from such treatment is Shadow Man.
Nightdive Studios have done an excellent job with this remaster. Not only did they vastly improve the game from a technical standpoint, by remastering the soundtrack and sound effects, by vastly improving texture resolution and adding dynamic lighting and shadows, but they also added new levels and enemies. Furthermore, they’ve also improved the gameplay and controls, although I can’t personally attest to that, as I never played the original game. So, having never played the original version of Shadow Man, and after hearing countless great things throughout the years, I gladly embraced the opportunity to check out this remaster.
It’s important to remember that this is a REMASTER, and not a REMAKE (some people seem unable to distinguish between the two). The game has undoubtedly been improved in numerous ways, as mentioned previously, however, the remastered version remains truthful to its original style and design. Even if I wasn’t aware that this was a game that was originally released in 1999, after having played it for just about an hour, I could tell that this was a game from the late 90s, and I don’t mean this in a bad way.
If you have fond memories of the original game and want to revisit it, then I honestly think that you won’t regret purchasing this remaster. Not only do you get the best version in technical terms, but you also get to experience some new content that Nightdive Studios have managed to add.
Now that I’ve finally finished the game, I think it’s fair for me to say that Shadow Man was probably ahead of its time in terms of ambition and scope. At its heart, it’s an action-adventure game with plenty of platforming and exploration. Nonetheless, it could also easily be described as a metroidvania, although a very rough one.
The story in Shadow Man serves as a central driving force for the entire game. The fact that the whole thing is entirely voice-acted also makes the game so much more immersive. In Shadow Man, you play as a Michael LeRoi, the current Shadow Man, one amongst a long lineage of warriors that protect the thin veil between the world of the living (Livingside) and the Deadside. The Deadside is the place where everyone ends up after they die, with no exception, and is also where the majority of the game takes place. It’s your task to put an end to an ancient prophecy that predicts the end of times, by stopping an evil group of individuals that aim to create an immortal army with which they plan to invade Livingside.
Given how dark and grim the game is, both in terms of looks and setting, I must admit that I was quite surprised to find a bit of humour in the game. Although it certainly contradicts the events and mood of the game world, it certainly adds a lot of character to Shadow Man, and I can see how a lot of people remember this game so fondly. The soundtrack also plays a huge role in setting the right tone for the game. It vastly changes between the game’s different areas, but it always manages to remain particularly eerie and unsettling, especially when the game throws a few horrifying sound effects into the mix. I was constantly on edge whenever I got into a new area.
In terms of the actual gameplay, although there is plenty of combat to go through and quite a decent amount of weapons to choose from, I didn’t find it engaging at all. For the most part, I made use of the game’s automatic targeting system, but you can also use a first-person aiming mode to shoot at enemies while remaining still. In spite of that, enemies don’t pose that much of a threat, not only because you can easily dispatch them from a distance with your weapons, but also because the AI leaves a lot to be desired. On top of that, you can always abuse the quick save feature if you find yourself in trouble.
It’s fairly easy to dodge enemy ranged attacks because they’re somewhat slow and you can just easily move out of the way. As for melee enemies, you can just as easily get rid of them before they get within attacking range. Still, some enemies can feel like bullet sponges, taking too many hits to kill until you get more powerful weapons. Besides that, enemies aren’t that smart and have rudimentary behaviour. For example, with enemies that have melee weapons, they simply pose no threat if you’re at a different elevation, even if it’s just tiny enough so that they can’t walk on a straight horizontal line, enemies can’t even make the tiniest of jumps. Also, sometimes there might also be enemies grouped up, but even if you attack one of them, only the one getting attacked starts running towards you. The other enemies nearby will just sit and watch while you kill their friends. It’s also possible to completely cheese enemies by just corner peeking. Likewise, although boss fights can be difficult, they don’t really pose that much of a challenge in terms of mechanics, it’s more of a case that they just have a lot of health.
Despite everything, although this might be a great remaster, I do think that the game hasn’t aged that well. I don’t have any complaints in terms of how you control your character, move around, and fight, it’s more the intrinsic elements of game design that, in this day and age, just feel outdated and rough. For instance, exploration is a big part of Shadow Man’s gameplay experience, but, for something that resembles a metroidvania, it just feels too convoluted for its own good. Sure, it might have been fine back in 1999, but I’m looking at this through the lens of someone that is playing the game for the first time in 2021. Allow me to explain.
The world of Shadow Man is divided into multiple different zones, a lot of which are blocked by these gates that require you to collect a certain amount of Dark Souls to unlock them. In essence, these Dark Souls are just one of two in-game collectables, but unlike most games that feature collectable items, these aren’t optional, as you have to retrieve the overwhelming majority of them if you want to finish the game. So, why is that a problem? This is a problem because they are scattered throughout the entire game, and, in metroidvania fashion, you’ll be forced to go back and forth between areas to collect them. The issue is that, a lot of times, you won’t be able to see or reach Dark Souls when you’re first near them, only later when you acquire specific items or abilities that allow you to retrieve them.
Unlike most metroidvanias where new abilities and items allow you to directly progress further in the game, in Shadow Man, you’re forced to continuously backtrack and search for any missing Dark Souls in areas that you’ve previously been to. The reason why I’m not fond of this system is because, due to the lack of a map, I often found myself having to go through every single section that I’ve already been to, just to see if I could acquire any of the previously uncollected Dark Souls with my recently acquired items and abilities. This not only makes the game extremely longer than it could’ve been, but it also makes the whole process of progressing through the game a lot more tedious.
I had a hard time figuring out if I was actually where I was supposed to be and doing what I was supposed to do. The game doesn’t give you any clear objectives or guidance other than what is said during dialogue. Instead, it lets you roam each level freely, and, in this case, this is both good and bad. It’s good because it gives the player the freedom to progress at their own pace and discover the world on their own, but it’s also bad because you can easily feel lost and unsure of what to do or go next.
I spent a lot of hours wandering aimlessly, trying to figure out where I needed to go next, where a Dark Soul could be hiding. Still, while I found that navigating each area was confusing at first, particularly because there’s no map, I quickly learned my way around. With that said, the amount of backtracking is excruciating, and the sense of getting lost in long stretches of various levels can be overwhelming. This state of affairs, the fact that progression is directly tied to acquiring collectables, makes it so that the pacing of the game is a bit of a hit or miss. There were times when I just got frustrated and had to look at an old guide from 1999 to figure out what I was missing. Although I have 23 hours in Shadow Man Remastered according to Steam, my last save game is around the 14 hour mark. Nevertheless, I feel that without a guide and a map, it would’ve easily taken me 20+ hours to beat the game on my own.
I do want to point out that, although there are a few things that I’m not really a fan of, and even though I never played the original version, Shadow Man definitely feels nostalgic. I say this not only because of its distinct visual style, but also because the way that the game plays reminds me a lot of the old Resident Evil and Tomb Raider games. Now, what I mean by that is that it feels clunky and cumbersome by today’s standards, but it’s still a blast to play once you get past the initial adaptation period.
Shadow Man is a game that I both thoroughly enjoyed and hated at the same time. I hated it due to the multiple reasons that I’ve already stated, but mainly due to the lack of guidance and the constant need to backtrack to previous locations every time that I unlocked a new item or ability just to pick up any leftover collectables. Meanwhile, I enjoyed it due to its grotesque visuals, the old-school level design and platforming sections, as well as the sense of exploration. If you don’t mind being left on your own, then you might enjoy Shadow Man. However, if you like to always have a clear objective in mind, with the game clearly pointing the right way forward, then I’m pretty sure that you won’t enjoy playing Shadow Man. This is undoubtedly one of those games where people’s opinions vary wildly depending on what kind of games they prefer to play.
For the asking price, I think that Shadow Man Remastered is well worth it. This is true both for people who want to revisit the game after all these years and those who were always interested in trying it out but never got the chance. As long as you don’t mind some heavily dated aspects, then you’re in for a pretty cool adventure of the likes you probably haven’t seen, or played, in recent years. Shadow Man is undoubtedly a relic of a bygone era that deserves a chance.