Mike LeRoi, the main character of Acclaim's third-person action-adventure Shadow Man, has a rich history. He's a former failed English literature student, a former taxi driver, and a former hit man for the Chicago mob. And through an unlucky series of events, he is currently a zombie slave of a voodoo priestess and the shirtless superhero of the afterlife - a place called Deadside. Five demonic serial killers have elected to marshal the forces of the undead and loose them upon the world of the living, or Liveside in voodoo talk. And only one man can save the world from this hellish fate - one shadow man. And what form does his quest take? Surprisingly, one just like that presented in less serious but much better games, such as Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie.
Shadow Man copies the essentially nonlinear play style perfected by these two landmark 3D console games but replaces their ingenuity and sense of wonder with tedious, overwrought grimness. It's as if the designers' goal was to make an adult-oriented Mario, but all they could think of was to cover every available surface with bloodstains. Playing from an over-the-shoulder perspective, you guide Shadow Man as he runs, jumps, and climbs through 16 large levels while collecting Dark Souls and Cadeux, which are the equivalent of Banjo-Kazooie's Jiggies and Notes. Initially, only a few levels are available, but as you accrue Dark Souls, more areas become unlocked. By using a tattered teddy bear, you can return to any level to further explore it, rooting out objects you may have missed or that were unreachable the first, or second, or seventh time through.
Letting you reenter and further explore previously visited areas is a proven play mechanic of the genre. Shadow Man adopts this system then manages to screw it up by populating each level with a large number of enemies that are neither challenging nor fun to fight. The programmers who created the AI for recent games such as Kingpin and Half-Life won't be losing any sleep over the intelligence exhibited in Shadow Man. In fact, the programmers who created the AI for Pac-Man won't be losing any sleep over the brainless inhabitants of Deadside. The best that can be said about the battles is that they certainly are time consuming. Enemies lumber towards you or stand in place and shoot. Worse yet, all the enemies respawn (in exactly the same place) every time you enter a level, a huge discouragement to the sense of exploration the game should be working to promote.
Graphically Shadow Man is generally unexceptional. Your enemies consist of various Halloween fare: skeletons, ghosts, chain saw-wielding zombies, and human-headed dogs, to name a few. Unfortunately, the only scary thing about most of them is how poorly they're animated. Everything moves with a jerky stiffness, with the worst offender being, unfortunately, the Shadow Man himself. The game engine, which Acclaim has bothered to name 3D VISTA, seems designed to create very large but simple areas. Occasionally, you'll come across an interesting scene. A few could even be described as breathtaking, such as an otherworldly train station and a level called Engine Block, which contains some effectively huge machinery. But for the most part the gameworld looks like nothing more than simple geometric shapes with pasted-on bitmaps. Stairs are displayed as ramps with a picture of stairs applied to them - a telling example of the game's lack of detail.
For a game that wears its horror theme on its skeletal-arm-containing sleeve, Shadow Man is utterly devoid of any actual terror. Human entrails are strewn about, meat hooks are employed, and the soundtrack contains lots of babies and women crying (repeated to some point beyond annoyance that should not be confused with fear), but it builds absolutely no suspense. At no point does it transcend its nature and become more than a dull skills test. The game needs to foster some sense of dread as to what may lie around each corner, yet it fails miserably to do this on any level.
It seems silly to malign a game about the undead by calling it lifeless, but that's exactly Shadow Man's problem. Although not incompetent technically, it is poorly paced and ultimately not involving in any significant way. The developers have promised seventy hours of gameplay, and while this reviewer won't argue with that - Shadow Man is indeed a long, long game - that's no guarantee you'll get seventy hours of enjoyment.