We’re currently in the middle of a lull with recent releases thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. 2020 saw a number of delays and setbacks, but 2021 is where things are truly being felt. That’s what makes the recent release of Shadow Man Remastered feel like a stroke of genius. Announced last March for modern platforms, this re-release comes courtesy of Nightdive Studios and follows a similar pattern to its catalog of classic games. You get 4K resolution support, HDR color, redone lighting effects, and a host of new graphical features to bring the game up to modern standards.
This version goes a bit further than a simple remastering, however. As was revealed over the course of the last year, Nightdive went to the original design documents and finished up some cut content to make this the definitive Shadow Man experience. It’s a tremendous thing to see, especially since the new levels fit in seamlessly with the old ones. If you are coming into this completely blind, you wouldn’t even realize there were never-before-seen sequences here.
Is the end result a homerun, then? It’s sort of a mixed bag, but mostly because Shadow Man is 22-years-old.
The plot in Shadow Man is a bit hard to follow if you’re not familiar with the character. Based on a comic series from the early ’90s, the game takes many of the ideas and themes established there and simply throws them at you right from the get-go. The opening scene is set in 1888 and shows Jack the Ripper getting ready to end his life after having failed to find some unnamed mystical power. A being known as Legion then appears and promises him said power if Jack will construct an asylum in an ethereal world known as Deadside. Jack agrees, kills himself, and then the game transports to the present.
In late ’90s New Orleans, protagonist Michael LeRoi becomes the titular “Shadow Man” after meeting with a voodoo priestess named Nettie. She binds the mask of shadows to him and he gets tasked with being the protector of Liveside (i.e. the real world). Soon after the ritual, Nettie clues Michael in on Legion’s plan and has him hunt down five serial killers to stop them from claiming the power of the Dark Souls. It’s a ton of exposition in the beginning, but it soon gives way to a more gameplay-focused title than you might otherwise expect.
Born from a desire to mesh popular games together by developer Acclaim Studios Teesside, Shadow Man is a surprisingly forward-thinking game for 1999. Combining elements of Tomb Raider, The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid, this is not a game where you can shut your brain off and blitz through it. If you’re not accustomed to old-school level design and a lack of hand-holding, Shadow Man is going to feel like an absolute battle to progress through.
While I’ve given you a really brief summary of the overall plot, from pretty much the word go, you can explore Shadow Man in whatever order you see fit. You’re going to hit roadblocks that will require different power-ups, but the game never prevents you from exploring as far as you can with the abilities you have at your disposal. That can be frustrating but is only really exacerbated by the lack of an in-game map screen.
Taking the form of a third-person action platformer, Shadow Man Remastered introduces a heavily modified control scheme that certainly makes the game more playable. Originally, you would maneuver Michael with the typical tank control setup that was prevalent during this console era. In Remastered, you’re given the ability to freely strafe and can even circle-strafe enemies during combat.
The arsenal you’ll amass is a mixture of some really cool gadgets and some bafflingly inept guns. Being that you’re a voodoo god that can freely walk both the living and dead worlds, you’ll acquire typical firearms that get supplemented with things like a shadowgun, a voodoo fire rod, a mystical spear, and a magical shield. Much like how Lara Croft would automatically target enemies in her PS1 days, this remaster implements an incredibly generous auto-aim feature that almost trivializes combat scenarios.
If you’re finding that the auto-aim isn’t working, you can switch to a first-person “snipe” mode that lets you take more accurate shots. You’ll be locked in place while doing so, but it not only gives you the chance to target enemies more precisely, it can double as a free camera. Despite having mouse movement for turning, Shadow Man Remastered does not unlock camera movement like a more modern game. This is like playing Classic Doom with mouse aiming disabled, which is perfectly fine for how Shadow Man is designed.
Honestly, a lot of this probably doesn’t sound too bad. The tweaks made by Nightdive do enhance the playability to an extreme degree and the opening few hours are relatively enjoyable. It’s when you hit your first roadblock that you’ll start to become fatigued by Shadow Man. In a modern sense, the game design simply feels obfuscated. It’s great that areas that require different items are clearly labeled, but there’s not much in the way of fast travel in this game. You can utilize a teddy bear plush to warp to specific locations, but then the level design is overly linear to the point of making backtracking a common occurrence.
It also doesn’t help that there’s no clear objective or goal list you can reference when getting lost. The hints provided on the loading screen tell you to check in with Nettie and your Deadside companion, Jaunty, but their words are vague to the point of uselessness. I completely forgot that I was even hunting serial killers until I started looking at walkthroughs, but that brings up another complaint. Why doesn’t the game do a better job at stopping you when you can’t complete an objective?
Throughout the course of your adventure, you’ll grab items called retractors that you’ll use to open the Deadside corpses of each serial killer. Since you can find these relatively early in the game, nothing is done to stop you from entering Liveside and attempting to kill them. Thing is, you can’t actually defeat them until you perform a ritual to fully become the Shadow Man. I had a period of roughly 15 minutes where I was unloading into one of the killers and making no progress only to look up a video and see I was missing something entirely. The game never indicated that I needed to find three other items to acquire my voodoo powers in Liveside.
As deflating as that was, I can’t knock Shadow Man too much for it. Obtuse puzzles like this were common in the ’90s and Shadow Man honestly handles things better than most of its contemporaries. It’s freeing to be able to make mistakes like that when modern games would explain every minute detail to you. That doesn’t mean it’s not aggravating, but I can see where the fan love for this game comes from.
It doesn’t hurt that the audio/visual presentation is really top-notch. The character models absolutely do not hold up, but the redone textures and reworked soundtrack are phenomenal. Apart from low polygon meshes for geometry within each world, Shadow Man Remastered looks stellar. Nightdive has outdone itself here, turning in a port that not only runs ridiculously smooth (I had a locked 240 fps on my RTX 3080), but looks like it was made as a retro throwback instead of being an actual retro game.
I do want to give particular praise to the soundtrack, which brings a tremendous amount of atmosphere to each area and is generally creepy and unnerving at all the right times. Nightdive was able to get original composer Tim Haywood to return and redo some of his compositions, resulting in a masterfully done score that meshes perfectly with Shadow Man’s aesthetic.
This isn’t even considering that new content is available, meaning returning veterans will have the chance to get the full Shadow Man story without an unexplained cop-out for missing serial killers. I can’t adequately express how wonderful that is. Nightdive Studios was already the standard by which I measured retro re-releases, but this just takes things to a whole new level.
It’s ultimately a shame that I can’t be more enthusiastic about Shadow Man as a whole. I know I would have hated this game as a kid, but there’s a lot to appreciate here as an adult. The main reason I’m frustrated isn’t that I dislike the game, but that 22 years of progress has completely changed my perception of how games should be. I love the open-ended progression and dark, moody world, but loathe the confusing level layouts and lack of clear direction. There’s a near equal amount of good and bad here, but it’s only truly “bad” because games have come a long way.
It’s interesting to get a look into the past that’s as well cared for and presented as Shadow Man Remastered. Maybe I didn’t find a new favorite, but there’s no reason why you might not end up loving this. If you’re okay with having a walkthrough ready and are willing to traipse through the same few corridors numerous times, Shadow Man is certainly a good way to kill some time between big releases.
A PC copy of Shadow Man Remastered was provided to TheGamer for this review. Shadow Man Remastered is available now on PC and is coming to PS4, Xbox One, and Switch later this year.
Next: Shadow Man Remastered Releases Today On PC
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Peter is an aspiring writer with a passion for gaming and fitness. If you can’t find him in front of a game, you’ll most likely find him pumping iron.
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