Ginger Nuts of Horror
"...a twisted, Clive Barkerian hellscape,
it is a place of the most twisted sadism, the most sublime torture,"
One of the more obscure and less well regarded early releases on the original Playstation, Shadow Man was a loose adaptation of the comics by the same name; a strange, sprawling, metaphysical adventure that borrowed heavily in terms of its mechanics from the likes of Tomb Raider, as all third person, action adventure style games of the era did, but was structurally more akin to Soul Reaver, which it is often compared to, quite unfavourably.
Whilst it's true that the game itself is nowhere near as polished or as coherent as that title (nor does it boast the truly amazing writing and voice work that made Soul Reaver such an unusual beast of the era), there is something uncanny and ineffable about the tone of the game; the feeling that it evokes.
A mythology derived from a hodge podge of voodoo lore and occultism, Shadow Man is based around a central premise of metaphysical nihilism: the more Lovecraftian, cosmic horror of the game derives not from any particular encounter, but the perpetual impression that death is far from the end, and that what follows is horrific beyond imagining.
All who die in the Shadow Man universe are condemned to a kind of purgatorial existence within the wastes of “Deadside;” a sprawling mass of great canyons, broken plains, subterranean caverns and ancient temples that stretch seemingly forever, where they gradually degenerate and fade into the mindless, weeping and invariably insane entities that populate the landscape. What one does or believes in life is utterly meaningless; it makes no difference: all are condemned to Deadside, all suffer the same.
The eponymous Shadow Man is not a singular entity, but a succession of guardians chosen to wear or carry the mythic “mask of shadows,” that enables them to operate both within Live and Deadside ; to protect the ancient and sacred places in both realms and ensure that the cycle of life and death continues.
Within the game's storyline, the current bearer of the mask is Michael Lerois, a man who saw his younger brother murdered and was almost murdered himself in the same encounter, were it not for the intervention of the voodoo priestess Mama Netty, who magically grafts the mask of shadows into Michael's chest, ensuring his immortality.
Able to pass between the realms, Michael becomes Netty's avatar; the purveyor of her will in this world and the next.
But things are not right in Deadside; Netty is perpetually plagued by feverish visions of apocalypse, whilst Michael himself is visited by the blood-mouthed spectre of his murdered brother.
Whilst investigating the phenomena, Michael learns of the Asylum, a great, impossible eruption of architecture at the heart of Deadside that is part lunatic asylum, part abattoir, part cathedral and surgical theatre. It is from this place that the darkness that disturbs both of their dreams emenates, and to which Michael is drawn by some dim but irresistable summons.
The game itself is mechanically nothing special; echoing any number of adventure and platforming titles of the era. But the aesthetics and design, even crudely rendered as they are by current standards, exercise a particular power: Deadside is a dim, tempestuous, oppressive and polluted place, its canyons rising into sick and heaving skies, its great cliffs and streams running with blood. Certain areas are redolent of organic or biological structures: caverns and temples that resemble rib-cages, intestinal or womb-like caverns, great lakes and rivers of blood. Others are fantastically architectural: the temples of ancient voodoo loa and previous Shadow Men, all of which are elaborate and insane as only video game architecture can be.
Then there is the Asylum, one of my favourite environments in all of video games: a lunatic paradise, a twisted, Clive Barkerian hellscape, it is a place of the most twisted sadism, the most sublime torture, perpetually echoing with the screams of the tormented, much of its interior given over to images of utmost disturbance: great dungeons and surgical theatres, engines lubricated by pulped bodies and pulsing blood, its design alone is noteworthy; portions resembling gothic and Victorian architecture married to great industrial and processing plants, others akin to twisted surgical theatres, abattoirs and Catholic cathedrals, it is a place where murder and pain and mutilation are holy artifacts, a place described as a haven for “...misbegotten and misunderstood souls,” it is a place that is terrifying to traverse, not only for the in-game threats it provides, but because one is never sure what one is going to find in the next chamber, around the next corner. The place seeps and drips atmosphere as readily as it does blood, the soundscape, the musical cues, the ragged, claustrophobic nature of its interior...everything conspires to create a sumptuous and sadistic bounty; the kind of Hell one might imagine H.R. Giger wandering during some fugue state or drug-dream.
The relative crudity of the graphics, which were far from amazing, even at the time, actually enhances the atmosphere rather than diminishing it: one cannot help but feel that a smoother, more polished rendering of Deadside, the Asylum and various other environs would somehow diminish them; make them too “clean” and certain. The grainy, hazy, faintly distorted nature of the original Playstation's graphics makes the various settings more impressionistic and nightmare-like, not to mention somehow dirty and jagged, the Asylum in particular having a feeling of being pieced together from shards and scraps of metal; rusted knives and archaic surgical engines, as though the player might cut themselves, the wound rapidly festering, just by witnessing it.
As for the game itself, as already mentioned, it plays in a fairly formulaic manner for this style of adventure: Deadside is split into various zones and areas that can generally only be accessed after a particular item has been found or a number of “dark souls” have been accrued (the “dark souls” being both the central conceit of the game and also the means by which the Shadow Man “levels up”). In that, it resembles very much the Legend of Zelda style of RPG that were familiar to previous generation consoles, not to mention the likes of Soul Reaver, Ocarina of Time etc. What sets the game apart is not its style of play, which is fairly basic and comes with its own set of flaws and frustrations (precision jumps over “instant death” obstacles, endlessly respawning enemies, a camera that can be more of a hindrance than a benefit, at times), but its aesthetics, design and atmosphere. Unlike the aforementioned Soul Reaver, the game cannot rely on its script or voice acting to carry the day, as they are both fairly standard for the time (that is, awful, for the most part), but the general ethos of Deadside is wonderful; bleak, oppressive and nihilistic, it is despairingly beautiful, contrasted to the more intense disturbia and sadism of the Asylum, which is often so fraught and unpleasant to experience it leaves the player quite breathless.
Returning to the previously mentioned “dark souls,” that are part of the game's progression and levelling mechanic, they essentially consist of a set number of “pick ups” scattered throughout the landscaper, sealed away in “govi;” distressingly fleshy, pulsating containers that burst when shot by the Shadow Man's weapon, revealing within a maggot-like entity that shrieks and bleeds darkness. Within the game's mythology, these “dark souls” are the essences of the most evil, corrupt and sadistic human beings to have ever lived, sealed away by Mama Netty's voodoo ancestors over many centuries, which some force within the Asylum is attempting to harvest for its own dark purpose. Absorbing the “dark souls” increases Shadow Man's power, making his weapon stronger and allowing him to traverse the great gates that block certain areas of Deadside from access. Wandering the Asylum, the player eventually discovers “The Play Rooms,” an area whose soundtrack is arguably the best in the game and one of the most evocative in video games full stop, where they will witness great surgical theatres in which immense, demonic bodies are being pieced together from the leavings and remains of those slaughtered on the upper floors, great engines housing dark souls that have been harvested and which are ready to be implanted. This is the plan of the dark intelligence behind the Asylum; to unleash the most twisted, diseased souls ever to have existed en masse upon both Live and Deadside, hosted within the twisted, tormented flesh-vessels he has made for them. They are entities of the most unspeakable corruption, the most lunatic horror, and, despite being relatively crude in terms of their rendering in game, are still absolutely terrifying.
Perhaps the most contentious factor of the game, and certainly the part of the mythology that seems to excite most fascination from its fans, is that of The Five: serial killers, sadists and monsters who have become lionised within the Asylum; lunatic saints whose Liveside butcheries are redolent of certain historical serial killers (you will find shades of Bundy, of Gein, of Zodiac and various others within their backgrounds) as well as fictional entities such as Hannibal Lecter etc. The background for each is compelling in and of itself; police files providing fairly detailed descriptions of their actions and modus operandi, but, even more compelling is the consistent symbolism that surrounds each one (“...for we are many!”). These five are key to the Asylum and its creator's plans, each one acting as its representatives in Liveside. Amongst them is a reincarnated Jack the Ripper, whom, it is revealed in the game's intro, is an architect responsible for the design of the Asylum and its engines. Whilst terriblty characterised in game (the awful voice acting and script diminishes them hugely when Michael Lerois and/or his alter-ego finally meets them), the suggestion of them, the myth that they trail, is fairly terrifying and excessively macabre; chiming with what many players will recogise as accounts of “real life” serial killings, the “Ed Gein” stylings of Avery Marx in particular fairly overt, Avery himself being the only one of The Five who is genuinely terrifying when he is faced in game.
The game eventually builds to an encounter with the terrible intelligence behind The Five, the Asylum, the harvesting of the dark souls, and also Michael Leroi's visions of his dead brother: a creature that calls itself Legion, claiming to be the inspiration for the biblical entity of the same name, which has manipulated everything from the very beginning, as a means of bringing the dark souls together; an effort it could not have achieved on its own.
As to how the game ultimately concludes, that depends on how many of the dark souls the player harvests: the bare minimum will result in the darkest (and most common) ending, in which the Shadow Man becomes Legion's unwitting dupe, the dark souls he has take into himself siphoned out to fuel the demon's unholy army, whilst greater numbers will provide successively more “positive” outcomes (not that any can be called particularly happy or hopeful in this universe).
Deadside itself is the heart and bleak, bleak soul of the game: exploring its vastness is addictive, compelling, its caverns, its temples, its wastes, utterly breathtaking in scale, design and twisted beauty. The game requires patience, as much of it consists of traversing Deadside's many environs after picking up particular items or upgrades that allow previously inaccessible areas to open (for example, the Shadow Man can visit a number of temples within the game in which the completion of particular puzzles will see him branded with magical tattoos which allow him to walk on fire, swim in lava etc). The sheer size of Deadside, the Asylum and their neighbouring realms is insane, the game originally coming packaged with a crude map which provided some clue as to which direction to take. Even after initially completing the game, there are numerous secrets, unlockables, extras etc, as well as different “modes” of play that enhance replay value.
Not a perfect game by any means; occasionally frustrating, long-winded, with a style of camera that was part and parcel of third person action titles of the time, but which now seems crude and ill implemented, the game also features some atrocious voice acting and dialogue, which often contrasts tonally with the nihilism and bleakness of the subject matter. “The Five” who are built up throughout the game as the worst manifestations of human evil, are generally underwhelming when finally encountered (exceptions being the reincarnated Jack the Ripper and Avery Marx, both of which use environment to excellent, horrific effect).
Also, do not play the Playstation version. For reasons lost to the mists of time, the Playstation version of Shadow Man is a buggy, broken mess, riddled with slow-down, graphical bugs, glitches and numerous other issues that make the game next to unplayable. General consensus places the PC, Dreamcast and N64 versions at the very top of the hang-man's tree, all of which are fantastic (though the N64 version does not boast the best soundtrack and has some content missing owing to the storage limitations of the cartridge format).
Shadow Man; a game of nihilistic and ineffably dark soul, fondly remembered these days in certain, niche circles, and a franchise that could potentially have gone on to equal the likes of The Legacy of Kain, Silent Hill or Resident Evil, given the chance.
George Daniel Lea