Friday, April 4, 2014

Review #107: Shadow Madness

 One of your party members is a disembodied head. Let that sink in for a minute.
 Ah, Shadow Madness, Craveyard's first and only game, it bombed so badly that they had to shut their doors. It was a bold move, make a JRPG in America with a team that was fairly inexperienced with the PS1, and it shows, featuring Ted Woolsey, of SNES Final Fantasy games fame. The end result is a game that had a lot of love put in, but a ton of odd choices in gameplay and how it plays out set it back, sinking it to the ground.

 The story tricks you into thinking that Stinger is the protagonist, as the game starts out with Stinger, generic rogue that dresses in red, narrating how his hometown is now a crater, his family dead, and grouping up with Windleaf, generic native-american girl that doesn't like to wear clothes, and Harvester-5, a robot with a barrel for a torso, a Scythe for harvesting enemy heads and a very dark sense of humor, there will be death indeed. Stinger and his friends eventually get involved with the Magi, sorcerers of great power, as they set out to save the world from an otherwordly invasion. Remember how I said that the game tricks you? As soon as you get your fourth party member, the party will start splitting up and taking different routes, with different objectives, Stinger is not the protagonist, this is an ensemble cast, and they get more or less the same development(Which means to say not a whole lot). This also means that, unlike most other RPGs, the rest of the cast is not on stand-by twiddling their thumbs, they are actually fighting alongside the rest of the characters, albeit on a different mission! The rest of the party is made up of a disembodied head that can talk and spit fireballs, he is Xero, the last of the Mage Warriors who lost his body years ago, Clemett, a gadgeteer, robot-like beings who you will soon become familiar with, and Jirina, an Org from the lands below that likes to dress up just like Windleaf, except that her thong is made out of iron instead of cloth.
 While Stinger and Windleaf look very generic and dull, (And Jirina too, to an extent, having blue skin and a metal visor save her from averagedom), the rest of the party members are pretty original. Speaking of original, the whole party loves to rag on each other endlessly, few times they see eye to eye, even when they are on the same quest, and they bicker and argue constantly. This is not your average party of heroes. Having the party split up on pre-set groups also helps, as the game likes to mix characters in every split, so you get to watch them interact with each other. Enemy design isn't so lucky, sadly. In spite of that, the world of the game is very interesting, featuring a fair amount of races that share the world of Arkose, and you'll get to meet them and see how they behave, heck, almost every time you first talk to an NPC, triggers a mini scene where the whole party interacts with him/her!. Furthermore, if you are so inclined, there are loads upon loads of books that give you insight into the world of Arkose, its god, and just funny stories from the world. A lot of care and love was put into the game's lore, and it's easy to tell.

 And now the game falls apart. This is an RPG, so you will be travelling from town to town, but instead of going through an overworld, you go through a map. A map, as in a real map, a flat, hand-drawn map. It's better than a list, as most RPGs now a days use, but at the time it was fairly underwhelming. It does have a very neat twist in the form of landmarks, you may see drawn symbols, like a sun with a face, an upside-down crow or what have you, you can examine each of them for little pieces of lore surrounding the area, which is very cool. Towns are made out of pre-rendered backgrounds, the norm for the time, but they are very low-quality, and while most towns get it easy by showing places you can enter with yellow lights, some dungeons make it hard to see just where you can enter. Movement is also pretty dorky, characters love to bump into things, and walking through narrow places can be a bit of a pain sometimes. There's also a lockpicking minigame, there are like 5 places where you need it, luckily, and most of the time, there are Skeleton Keys that let you bypass it nearby. Why luckily? It's a Simon-says type minigame, the right pick is controlled with the four face buttons, and the left pick is controlled with the keypad, there are four levels to the minigame, and according to the level, is how many moves there are. Level 1 has you memorizing one move at a time, for a total of four, while level 4 has... four moves at a time, for a total of 16. WHAT?! If that wasn't obnoxious enough, some of the moves the pick does look very similar, particularly down and left on the DPad, it's very easy to make mistakes when trying to do a 16-move chain. Don't ever bother with anything above level 2, luckily, there are not many of these, I think there's not a single Level 3 lock for Stinger to pick, god bless.
 Then comes the Random Encounters, which you can avoid by holding R2+L2 when you hear the roar. Combat is needlessly confusing, as it's in real time, but what makes it confusing? There are four menus that you must toggle with the shoulder buttons, a Engage, Attack, Spell and Item menu. Melee characters, like Stinger and Harv-5 have it easy, as you should never need to touch the Item menu(Bar the last boss) and they don't have spells, so only two menus, yay. Engage Menu lets you either Engage the enemy, Evade enemy, Flee from battle or Pass the turn. How does it work? In order to attack the enemy, you must get close to them, hence the Engage the enemy, but why a Get Away from enemy? Once you engage an enemy, or get engaged by one, you are locked into fighting it unless there's another one in attack range, in which case you can attack both of them, but if you wish to attack another enemy, you must "Evade" the enemy, and then Engage it. Needlessly complicated. Attacking needs its own menus since you have Guarded, Normal and Aggressive. Just stick to normal attacks, as Aggressive moves love to miss. Actually, this game has the highest Miss chance I've ever experienced in an RPG, I was missing attacks left and right all the time. Lastly, there's Special, for melee characters, it means that they get projectile attacks that consume ammo, while ranged characters get a melee attack(Since they can't use their normal, ranged attacks when engaged, unless there are enemies far from them). Lastly, the game implements a "Twitch attack" system, pressing X before a melee attack hits deals double damage, and later on you gain elemental twitch attacks that has you pressing two buttons before a melee move connects, not a bad idea, but in a game this easy, it serves no purpose.

 Spells and Items is where it gets annoying. You can't get any spell or item description in-battle. So just hope that "Swarm" is an attack spell and not a Poison spell. Even worse, you have to go through a list in order to pick your spell of item, and you must go one by one, on 20-item plus lists. Clemett gets it worse, as he attacks with a cannon that has 20 different types of shots.... except that there are no description for them anywhere on the game. All his shots look the same, even if they behave differently, He-At was probably a fire attack, but what does the player make of "BNG-50"? With Clemett, just stick to the 25 mana shots. Oh, and remember how combat is in real time? Enemies will get free shots at you while you go through the lists! Except that it doesn't really matter. The level cap in the game is 15, and the game provides the best leveling spot... on the second town of the game. These four guys can be fought at any time, give money after each fight, and give out from 500 to 800 experience points(Depending on how many last hits the character got) per fight. I had maxed Stinger at 5 measly hours into the game. How does this tie into the game? The difficulty is a straight line, enemies take more or less the same amounts of damage, and deal the same amounts of damage, the whole time. New area? Enemies are just as weak as the ones in the area before. Sometimes even weaker. The game doesn't get any harder, but it might as well get easier as you go along. And the bosses are just pathetic, the last boss has two forms(One for each party), one that is fought thrice and the other one twice, but it's really, really easy. I just had to use a mana potion(First time I used an item in the game) on the mages, but that's about it.
 To top it all off, you get a limited inventory, and 80% of the stuff you get are useless items that heal 1-3 Hit points or "Nothing special". You can either have them hog inventory spots until you find that one shopkeeper that will take them for 30 gold instead of 1, or just drop them on the spot, I always chose the latter. The game does keep its sense of humor even with the items, there are items that "Taste great, but does nothing", and you can find "Pandora's Cauldron" that says "Don't use. EVER.". Save before using it, as it destroys the world in the game's longest FMV, and you have to reset the console.  Then there are two FPS minigames, and both of them are.... pretty decent actually, while they suffer slowdown when lot of stuff is going on at the same time, they are way more fun than they should. Oh, and the game is 2 Discs, but each disc contains a different overworld map... when the party splits and one goes to said other world, expect a lot of disc-switching, so you might as well stick with one party until you finish their quest, even though you can swap quests at Inns.

 Most bad games tend to have really good graphics, this is not the case. The game has aged very, very poorly, characters look as pixel vomits, so to speak. Some NPCs look like Final Fantasy VII potions, I kid you not. The animation is very choppy as well, and the FMVs don't fare any better. Hilariously enough, spells have very... picturesque descriptions, say "a spiritual snake appears and bites the enemy", but it's just a small yellow "hit" sfx over the enemy, every spell is like this, more or less. To be fair, the 6 Summon spells do have FMV sequences, but they are the exception. While the music won't be considered a classic any time soon, it's very, very good. There's also a lot of different songs used throughout the game.

 What does one make out of Shadow Madness? It is not a good game, that much is clear, but so much work was put into the setting of the game, I'd say it's worth a look if, and only if, you happen to enjoy JRPGs, especially the old ones.
 4.0 out of 10.

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