It's difficult to find a game genre these days that isn't inhabited with both Japanese- and American-developed games. For whatever reason, however, the console RPG has been a Japanese mainstay for as long as many can remember - most US-developed console RPGs were simply PC ports or adaptations, not original content. Let it be said that Craveyard isn't the US's best ambassador in the realm of RPG development, and let's hope it isn't the last. Considering how long this game was in development, one would have hoped that Craveyard would have come up with something better than this. Welcome to the land of Arkose, a typically fantastic RPG world that's recently been plagued by self-destructing cities, a mind-scrambling disease, and a variety of other social maladies. Narrowly avoiding death in the blast that destroyed his hometown, the roguish good-guy Stinger seeks revenge against the mysterious force that tore his life to shreds. On his journey, Stinger meets Windleaf - a waifish elfin girl with mystical powers, and Harv-5 - a literally barrel-chested farm robot. Shadow Madness' story is fairly dark, although it has its fair share of humorous dialog and situations. The long, two CD-spanning adventure's story develops nicely, even if it is a little cliche or contrived at times. Due to the fact that it was written for American audiences, Shadow Madness' text is of generally high quality and blends humor and drama with a mostly favorable effect. Supplementing the nice text is an abundance of Arkosian historical texts, simply available should players want to know more about the land they're saving. Chances are they won't, however, as getting to the story is a chore - Shadow Madness is a boring, poorly executed game, filled with an abundance of just plain stupid design flaws. The game's general look and feel are remarkably similar to that of the recent Final Fantasy games, sporting polygonal characters roaming around prerendered backdrops. Battles occur, as in many console RPGs, randomly. The key to any console RPG is a competent battle engine and interface, and Shadow Madness generally lacks both. Battles are built around a poorly conceived menu system that requires you to sort through four submenus with the left and right shoulder buttons. While this can speed access menu navigation with practice, it never becomes truly intuitive. As Shadow Madness mimics Final Fantasy's active battle system, the thinking behind this implementation is understood, but the execution ultimately fails. While boss battles are a different story, battles generally boil down to simply attacking monsters until they're dead, with little emphasis on the use of magic or other strategic devices. Random encounters generally require little strategy and take just a little too long to be tolerable. Fortunately, many random encounters can be avoided before they begin, but overusing this innovative feature can be detrimental to your long-term health and result in wasted hours of supplementary character building. Many of the game's other problems stem from an annoying lack of design economy, resulting in a game that can be summed up as sloppy. Arkose is a world littered with innumerable useless items - for every useful item you find, you'll likely find five completely worthless ones that you'll quickly discarded to make room for other useful items in the annoyingly small backpack. Inventory management like this is a complete waste of the your time, and Shadow Madness is rife with it. When you go up levels, spells are generally handed out in groups of three, resulting in an extremely long list of spells in a small battle window, wasting valuable time in the pseudo-real-time battles. To top it off, a majority of these spells have almost meaningless names and only slightly varied effects when cast. Innovations such as double-damage with a carefully timed button press. Avoiding random encounters are nice to see in Shadow Madness, but this hardly begin to make up for the game's problems.Whoever said "Graphics don't matter" never played Shadow Madness. Shadow Madness is truly hideous to behold in its own right - even worse when compared with the RPG masterpieces it seeks to emulate. To start, the game features the most heinous character art in an RPG. Stinger is a, er... "colorful" caricature of FF7's Cloud, sporting a natty ponytail, a cute little red vest and a big sword. Harv-5 is a barrel adorned with a tin cappuccino cup, googly eyes, and a straw hat. And Windleaf... well, she just has to be seen to be believed. Other character designs include an old man's head atop a floating dinner plate, and a fat woman with cheesy cyberpunk-like sunglasses. As if their core concepts weren't terrible enough, Shadow Madness' artists spared just about all efforts to bring them to life. Monsters and characters alike are decidedly low on polygons, textures, and animation. If the frame rate were decent, this kind of problem could be overlooked - maybe. The spell "effects" generally consist of expanding spheres with different textures, or sloppily rendered FMV summon sequences that look far less impressive than the real-time summon spells of Final Fantasy VII. Attempting to stray from the current trend of polygonal world maps, Shadow Madness instead uses a truly bleak, crayon-drawn series of 2D maps with no detail or visual appeal whatsoever. In what could have been a nice touch, Craveyard added character portraits to all dialog boxes - unfortunately, the crude, cartoonish nature of the portraits is as bad as the rest of the game's art and takes any impact from the accompanying text. The rendered backgrounds range from extremely drab to average, doing nothing to improve the overwhelmingly terrible visual experience that is Shadow Madness. To re-create an eyesore of this caliber would truly take effort. Surprisingly enough, amidst all of this, Shadow Madness somehow manages to pull an above-average musical score. Sporting a large variety of tunes for every situation, the music subtly and attractively evokes the game's darker nature and avoids the over-the-top orchestrations most RPGs tend to employ.
Shadow Madness is a decent story shrouded by years of bad decisions. As painful as it is to say so, seeing Craveyard disband after threats of a Shadow Madness sequel almost seems like a good thing. Shadow Madness is a curiosity and a cautionary tale of development for the ages, and should remain little more than that.