Shadow Madness

(this is a copied and pasted review from Steam on the game; it’s one I mentioned a while back with game preservation and remembering old titles, so I figured I’d go ahead and post it here too)

There’s this term that gets thrown around when it comes to some games, this idea of the “hidden gem,” a game that got ignored during its release and is actually worth looking into later. I would actually say that Shadow Madness fits into that lofty qualifier, though with some addendums.

This is the first real game that Crave put together. That studio has the same story of many: a few employees broke off from other projects and got together to make the games they want. The most telling among those is Ted Woolsey, a name that may be familiar to fans of classic SNES RPGs. Woolsey was one of the main translators of those early games, producing lines that people still quote to this day from Final Fantasy 2 (IV) and 3 (VI), and even Chrono Trigger.

This explains why the writing in Shadow Madness is incredibly well done. The dialogue often does read very much like a product of its times (you could tell this was from the late 90’s even without looking at the release date), but it also has this snappy, realistic feel. Characters are often quite quippy, each in their own way. Every NPC has their own unique portrait, their own unique dialogue, and their own unique position within the wider story going on.

And that story is very well done. As others have pointed out, it combines elements of Fantasy, Comedy, and Horror to produce a really unique tale. The “Shadow Madness” has started to invade the land of Arkose. Sometimes this is through a group of invading monsters bent on human blood and destruction; othertimes it’s the creeping illness that pervades the entire land. Our story begins with a group of survivors from three small towns: Stinger the sailor/thief, Windleaf the archer/healer, and Harv-5 the harvesting robot. The early hours of the game sees these three tightly bonding as they flee the encroaching madness, both in the form of vicious monsters and in the creeping mental dread. These three are definitely the focus of the work, getting their own development and stories throughout the course of the work.

Still, there are other fascinating characters that you meet along the way. The land is diverse, and your cast of playable characters reflects that. It really does feel like the creators did this awesome work putting together this mature, diverse plot that deals with mental diseases, feelings of despair, vast fantastical worlds and politics, all with excellent dialogue and characterization. I remembered these characters twenty years after I played through the game; they’ll stick with you.

Unfortunately the actual gameplay is… bad. It’s bad. There’s no way of getting around that it’s bad. The mechanics are poorly explained and even more poorly implemented. There’s some idea that if you hit the confirm button at just the right moment in time you’ll do double damage, but that window is incredibly obtuse. Throughout the game you’ll unlock “twitch attacks” which seem to indicate that mashing different buttons will produce different elements effects. If it works, I didn’t see it doing so.

The battles are just so stiff and repetitive that it’s insane. Stinger and Harv-5 can only perform basic attacks or fling set projectiles at the enemy, and that never changes throughout the entire game. Windleaf gets access to magic, but it felt like the developers really didn’t understand how that works. The spell lists are absolutely massive, with the vast majority of them being completely useless spells. This is made worse by the fact that in combat, no spells or abilities are properly described. This means that you’re going to spend a large portion of the game experimenting just to figure out what something does.

Not that you need to worry. The game is stupidly easy. Enemies never have more than 999 health, and your attacks are almost always doing damage in at least the low hundreds. This means that there is a whopping one fight that has any tension to it whatsoever, and that’s an optional battle that occurs within the first few hours of the game. Managing to win that fight awards you with equipment so powerful that it won’t get replaced until the last few hours of the game, making an already easy game laughably easy.

I didn’t even struggle during the final boss. There’s a super interesting mechanic going on, where your party is divided and each part has to deal with a different iteration of the boss. It should work well, but the lack of any real threat kills it. (They do this excellent job of continually mixing up the party, putting different groups together for different tasks. It does mean that the player is never allowed to construct their own party though).

The graphics also weren’t all that impressive when this came out. The character models look like they would barely match Final Fantasy VII, which was released years before this dropped. The backgrounds and the world itself look pretty well designed and hold up, particularly if you’re into that sort of spherical charm that comes with PS1 era polygons. But there’s no denying that the game looks ugly.

There’s also way, way too much backtracking here. There are large sections of the game where you have to physically walk to some remote location, then walk all the way back. You are forced to walk the path from this Magic Academy to the capital city no less than five times throughout the course of the game, each time forcing you to walk through a fort that was impressive the first time, but annoying after every other iteration. It feels like they were desperate to pad the game, or simply didn’t know how to just teleport characters to the destination to cut out unnecessary, boring travel.

So is this game worth it? If you’re someone who plays RPGs for the story and want to read something that’s very grounded in its time, then it’s worth a playthrough. I found the story engaging throughout my entire 20 some hours with the game, and the characters are incredibly likeable and memorable. However, in order to deal with that story, you’ll have to suffer through excessive amounts of backtracking, graphics that weren’t even good at the time, and battles that are never going to offer even the slightest challenge. It’s up to you whether or not its worth it.

I would encourage people to consider supporting it though. The company who put this out is trying to preserve games that would otherwise be lost to the flow of time. Buying this game means that you’re putting money toward a group that wants to save games before they’re lost forever. It’s a worthwhile bit of games preservation, and if you have fond memories of PS1 RPGs, this is probably going to be at least bearable for you.

7 almost entirely for the story, which is probably a 9; the rest of the game is a borderline slog to get through, so be warned: really tackle this only if you play games primarily for the story or characters (or are interested in games preservation)


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