Guest Review by: threetimes
Shadow Madness: a strange game, with a, *ahem*, shadowed history. Bear with me for a moment for a brief trip into the past.
This game was the first and last to be released by the doomed developer Craveyard, headed up by Ted Woolsey, who was the creative force behind the localisations of many Japanese role-playing games in the mid-nineties. Poor Ted has since disappeared from the gaming world, as have most of the SM team. This was meant to be a new dawn for American RPGs in the Japanese style, but, alas, it was not to be. Within days of this game’s release the company folded, and today the parent company Crave does not even acknowledge the game as one of theirs on their website.
Why is this? Well, the truth is that Shadow Madness is not really a game. Sure, it looks like a game and plays like a game, with battles to fight and foes to vanquish, but its real strengths are its story and script. Someone said it’s more like a graphic novel than anything else, and that might be true. Someone else said you need an English degree to cope with the nuances of the script. That, too, might be true. But it’s actually worth the effort to play the title because it features one of the most comedic game scripts ever written.
As the game begins, the main character is in a bar telling his tale to the bar-man and regulars. This is a great idea that is followed through well, right to the end: You play through his story. It begins with Stinger (a thief with lock picking skills) in his home town and finding that, in his absence, it has been razed to the ground and the remaining few citizens have gone stark staring mad. As he travels further afield he meets up with two other survivors of the shadow madness—Windleaf, a bow toting beautiful spell caster, and Harv-5, a scythe wielding harvester robot—who become his companions. The other three characters join them much later in the game.
They traverse the land trying to find the source of this madness and discovering dark secrets at the heart of the land of Arkose. Different towns have different forms of the madness, and they find that things are badly wrong in the whole of the land. Some of the themes of technology versus magic, the corruption of good intentions, and the heroes who will fight to right all wrongs will be familiar to fans of the genre, but Shadow Madness has a unique spin on all these themes because of its excellent script.
This is its strength. The main appeal of Shadow Madness lies in the attention given to the script and to the books that can be found everywhere. Unusually, the whole history, geography, sociology and theology of Arkose is laid at your feet, but in text form. The world is filled with books that detail everything you might ever want to know, and indeed things that you didn’t even consider wanting to know. There are books on fighting, on enemies, on places, on religion, on magic, on history, on fables, on warfare, even books on the tax system and, my personal favourite, romantic fiction. Nearly every one of these books is hilarious.
If you don’t believe me, here is an example from a tax book, titled “Sec. 59A. Found coin and property tax”: “Each year our citizens find and pick up coins and other property dropped out of the pockets of more careless individuals. This represents, in essence, an untaxed windfall on the part of the finder.” So they impose a tax on everyone! Or from the Banori book of Slavedom: ” A parent may sell an incorrigible or disobedient child in a public market place or shop. This sets an example to other children.” Or the books of war that tell you to “slaughter everything in your path, then club those you have slaughtered just to be sure”…and so on. The time you take to read them thoroughly is well worth the effort.
The game is stuffed full with hilarity, despite being an essentially dark and forbidding tale concerned with insanity and despair. Besides this, only the Shadow Hearts games have managed this juxtaposition of comedy and death so well. There are some nicely risqué jokes, including banter with a lady of the night, and just about every exchange can have you giggling.
For example, Harv-5 makes the comment “Humans who speak in riddles should be subject to spontaneous combustion.” Xero, one of the final group of six, and probably one of the strangest characters to grace an RPG, but I can’t tell you why, but let me just say that another character calls him “Head,” says both profound and silly things. The two women are continually insulting each other in nicely imaginative terms: “Unless you wish to explore life as a pretzel, you will get out of my face.”
And that’s just the playable characters. In fact, every non-playable character also has clever lines, and the laugh out loud quotient is high. Everyone you meet has a name, or at least a function, and a character portrait. This attention to the detailed depiction of each non-playable character is something that, even today, not all RPGs take seriously enough. It is a feature that greatly adds to the enjoyment of a game and to the sense of immersion in a real and active world. These people all have their particular problems and trials to face, for the madness has descended on the land, and although some have retained their sanity, others are just plain ga-ga.
For example, the homeless man who had his house destroyed complains: “I was just dusting my living room yesterday…and today my living room is just dust. What a difference a day makes!” Or Sir George, who lives at the retirement home and joins your group until his nurse threatens him with no pudding. In Forestgrove, (a backwoods hamlet) people are talking about vaguely having noticed a few foreigners fleeing and passing through the place: “Of course, since Arlene turned 16 there’s been more traffic through these parts.” Maybe these things seem a bit silly taken out of context, but that’s just it—they are silly and fun and they never stop.
There is no voice acting, only a few cut scenes, the graphics are so-so, and the gameplay is worse.
The music is fantastic as well. It was all composed by an American called Brad Spear, who also has disappeared from the gaming world but whose skills equal that of any self respecting Japanese game composer. The tracks are sophisticated and varied with instrumentation ranging from eerie and ethereal choral singing to Mexican/Spanish guitar work and moody smoky tavern music.
Map music begins with drums, followed by strings, and is insistent and threatening with a syncopated rhythm. Music in the first mountain location at Brink’s cabin is almost like the start of the moonlight sonata, with soft and sad piano arpeggios then with additional orchestral haunting sounds added. The battle music is also varied and enjoyable to listen to, and the music often changes and is not on a perpetual and short loop. Sounds are effective too, ranging from chilling screams to the roar of nearby monsters.
Now comes the less good bits. The graphics are fairly basic, although the spell animations are nice in battle and the map is cleverly done. But the character models are a bit strange. They are a bit like clay animation, with few details. The sprites showing their faces are better, and you see these a lot because they talk a lot.
The towns and villages are all different and, although with the exception of the huge capital city, Karillon, they are small, I quite liked the clay colourful look of them. The map is laid out in segments and you walk from square to square. A small map of the whole of Arkose is shown in the bottom left hand corner of the screen so you can see where you are, and dotted over the maps are glyphs showing the heavens or places of ancient battles or dreadful monsters. Each has its own description and picture. So, for example, you might come across a bloody severed foot, or a monster eating stick figures of people. It all adds nicely to the gloomy atmosphere.
The game’s controls are not great. In battle, you are continuously attacked by enemies and meanwhile you have to wait your turn. Trying to find the right item or spell to use is a pain as you have to scroll down the screen, there is no pause, and even when you do find the right thing, it is hard to know if it will do what you want because there is no in battle description. Is this spell going to do the right kind of elemental damage to these monsters? I have no idea. So in the end I just used the same powerful spells again and again, and didn’t bother about the elemental strengths and weaknesses. Selecting the spell or attack is also clumsily done and takes a bit of getting used to; however it is not too much of a problem as most enemies are very easy to defeat. You can select a harder difficulty, which suggests that the developers realised that they were making the game too easy.
I have recently replayed the game and I enjoyed it despite its failings. I am not sure that I will play it again in the near future, as I did pretty well everything that could be done with game, including reading all the books and text. However, the story, characters, script and music make the game great fun. If you know what you are getting into and don’t expect the wrong things, like imaginative gameplay or stunning graphics, and if you are interested in RPGs and can’t find a new game to play, you might like to try and find this.
Why not find new enjoyment in playing a game that reads like a comedic graphic novel and single handedly destroyed the promising careers of so many. Shadows? Madness? The game lives up to its name.