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Shadow Madness - Review

Strong Brains vs. Bad Technology - Part 2

By: Noj Airk


Review Breakdown
   Battle System 6
   Interface 4
   Music/Sound 7
   Originality 8
   Plot 10
   Localization 9
   Replay Value 5
   Visuals 5
   Difficulty Easy
   Time to Complete

35-50 hours

 
Overall
number
Criteria

Title Screen
 

   Today, people are arguing over what consoles are great, and which they wouldn't touch with a fifty-foot lead pole. However, as everyone has figured out in the past few years, it's not just the system, but it's really the manufacturers who can almost completely make or break a console's popularity. So, where do all these manufacturers come from? Why, Japan of course! Capcom, Konami, and everyone's favorite: Squaresoft, were the three horsemen who rode in for Sony, and aided their empire into completely conquering those of Sega and Nintendo (well, to a major level, not a complete one). In fact, RPG's weren't even appreciated in America until the Playstation.we North Americans didn't even like RPG's until we got hit by a barrage of Japanese titles like Suikoden, Wild ARMs, and Final Fantasy VII. We are a major gaming empire, and all of our games come from Japan; doesn't that seem at all weird?

   Well, here we are, the answer: an North American made RPG! "Wow!" some people must have yelled, for who would know what the North American audiences would like better than one of the few North American game companies? Well, here's the fact behind the fiction: just because they know what we want, they can't always deliver the goods. It's a fact that I've recently figured out that the American imagination and desire is infinite, but his production values are usually swallowed up by his ego upon thinking he can make it beyond belief (I'm only using the word "his" pretending the subject is a male). He usually makes this a fatal mistake by deciding to constantly change his plans to "perfect" the final piece. It would seem that that is exactly what Shadow Madness is a byproduct of. The game looks and sounds like a low budget RPG from right after Final Fantasy VII's huge debut, but while refining the plot and writing, while the graphics and sounds remained the same level of mediocreness. During that time, they sat unchanged for so long that the rest of the world's evolution in sound and graphics to the point of being completely left behind. The controls also seemed to have suffered from not being cared enough for.

   How was the gameplay affected? Well, the battle system is easily the most evident of a simple problem that was tragically overlooked. Like Parasite Eve, not only is it designed to be user friendly, but it's also intuitive.and also like Parasite Eve, the blueprints didn't seem tested until release to see if they work as adequately as they had planned they would. The battle system has a basic interface similar to that of Final Fantasy VII, where it's three party members against the enemy party, creature, or boss. The hitting, however, works just like that of Super Mario RPG, where if you time your hits correctly, you deliver twice the damage. Not to mention, unlike Super Mario RPG, you don't hit the button when whacking the enemy, but when you're about to bring your weapon down upon them, or about to shoot them. And finally, to make the interface more clean and easy, instead of the four commands (fight, magic, item, and escape) being listed, they're selected via the shoulder buttons, leaving the list for lists of spells, projectiles, or attack levels (Guarded, Normal and Aggressive). And finally, like Final Fantasy VII before it, it utilizes a cool moving camera.


If Wallace and Gromit took a trip back in Time
If Wallace and Gromit took a trip back in Time  

   However, what the producers clearly overlooked were two very dangerous things in the battle system. The first is the speed of the moving camera. One of the actual pleasures of the Final Fantasy VIII battle system was that it gave you a list of enemies, and the one you were going to attack was pointed to on the list in case you couldn't make it out behind someone else. Shadow Madness doesn't exactly utilize this kind of list, and it's among the games that would need it the most. Positioning in the battle is essential, and you can commonly command to attack a target that is out of your reach, where you simply run up to it, as you would have probably thought you were aiming at the one right next to you. The second problem is the lack of required strategy. Some people say that they can simply attack their way through Final Fantasy VII, and while that is possible, it's an easy task in Shadow Madness. The first boss you fight is extremely tough if you aren't on a high enough level, and the bosses don't get any harder. The story-based bosses (some are just there), like the clock tower beast, can be defeated in a couple of rounds. The final boss only takes a couple of minutes as well.

   This wouldn't be all that bad, apart from the fact that after you gain a level, you regain your stats completely, where you might have not even used up all your MP from last level up. However, the out of battle interface is where the game really falls apart in terms of playability. Anyone who ever played Legend of Legaia know what I'm talking about when I complain that the analog doesn't give free movement; it only allows you to travel the eight directions. However, while that was okay with the design of Legend of Legaia, Shadow Madness runs on Final Fantasy VII style backdrops, and the lack of mobility didn't make the designers think of making the location paths more free. That is one of three major problems; the other two go hand-in-hand, however. The item backpack is the second problem, and the items themselves are the third. You are given a backpack like in any other RPG, but this backpack has an incredibly small carrying capacity, that increases as you gain levels. However, the items will also fill it up, as there are dozens of different types of items that restore between one and twenty HP, a few items that have no purpose, and some items like nails and shovels that might, just might, fulfill some kind of side quest. However, if they do, there's a very slim chance that you'll decide to keep the items long enough to find out.

   It's a good thing that you can drop items, as the story almost prohibits selling the items, as most locations are places that were once populated, and you'll find stores with no sellers, but rather a bunch of new items. Now, as all players should, they'll challenge the story for this liability, as it's making playing the game a real pain in the neck. The point comes across: "This game had better have a great plot to make up for this!" At least here, our demands have been met; Shadow Madness has a phenomenally intricate plot. It's as long and twisty as that of Final Fantasy VII, and with as much historical background as Final Fantasy Tactics and Front Mission 3. The story is, basically, about a massive energy that erupts at populated areas, killing the people at close range, and people at farther range are hit by some kind of disease called Shadow Madness. Shadow Madness, the disease, isn't your typical plague. It is instead, some kind of mind-altering and psycho-creating (or "weirdo-creating") plague sweeping the land. The first twelve hours or so, you investigate who it must be, and then you spend the rest of the game dealing with the threat. You'll travel to floating cities, avalanching mountains, and a giant underground world.

   While this game could have been written as a thriller, the writers decided to make the game a comedy. It should be noted that the game's head writer, as well as plot developer, is no-one else but Ted Woolsey, the translator for all of Square's US games until Final Fantasy VII! He has always had a good way with words, but never anything like this; I think he should write his own fantasy sitcom. One good line is about eight hours into the game, where the main hero, Stinger, says: "Great, more weirdo's! They never seem to run out, do they?" The mind bent people are sometimes rather creepy, as they seem to have lost all signs of humanity, but usually, they're more like raving drunks you'll find in Rated PG movies, or a senile old-person stereotype. What's most fantastic about the writing is the fact that it never loses its power of voice. Robert Frost, the poet, once said that there is nothing more dramatic in writing than the human voice; don't write jagged and direct poetry to be "powerful," but write as you would say it. Ted Woolsey seemed to fall perfectly in sync with what Robert Frost said. However, I doubt that Frost would have written it at all like Ted Woolsey did.


Wow, so many screenshots, that I could swear didn't exist in the game at all
Wow, so many screenshots, that I could swear didn't exist in the game at all.  

   The story isn't just plot and history, however, but rather also some good characters. There are six characters altogether, and they vary quite a bit. You start off a rogue named Stinger, who runs into Windleaf, an amazon type of woman, and then they soon run into a farming robot named Harv-5 (who I renamed C-3P0). Later, you run into a warrior woman from the underworld, an old "engineer" (a race of technical remote humanoids), and even a man without a body; just a mere silver platter to float upon. These are the characters that tell the story, and the story does have some really great twists and turns. However, being from Squaresoft, Ted Woolsey also got many ideas that are now very cliché. For instance, before entering the wizard academy to ask for help from the sages, you are greeted at the door by a ghost, who won't let you pass until you prove yourself worthy to him. Also, there are several instances in which the character trusts a strange character, one that you as a gamer don't, only to be betrayed by them; a plot twist you saw coming. Sadly, while the plot is truly comparable to that of any Final Fantasy, it's originality isn't as gleaming.

One thing that also shines nicely, however, is the game's musical score. While the synthesization levels are really that of Super Nintendo quality, the compositions are both smooth, and plentiful. All the themes are location based, not importance based. In each section of the worlds, you'll encounter about half a dozen battle themes, and the bosses also seem to have a randomly chosen out battle theme. However, with so many locations, you could easily fill up an entire soundtrack CD with just the random battle tracks. However, while there is plenty of music, and all of the music fits the moods extremely well, there is little standout in the musical score. However, that also means that this game's musical score also is never hit by overdoing the "drama" of the tunes. Metaphorically, after the tune simply points the players' minds which direction to go in terms of intensity and emotion, it leaves the intensity and emotion up to the level of imagination the player has. Accompanying the musical score is a bunch of sound effects that range from roaring to clanking to mechanical sounds. Basically, the clanking sound effects sound amazing, the roaring is weak, and the mechanical sounds are laughably bad.

While most people agree with me about the musical score, most people for some reason don't agree with me on the graphic aspects. Personally, I really liked the pre-rendered backdrops, as I am a fanatic about pre-rendered backgrounds. Also, while not executed very well, I liked the idea of summoning creatures, and having them perform an FMV attack upon the enemy. Lastly, while textures of the battlefields are pretty bad, the backgrounds of the battle locations are very clear and beautiful, showing off distant trees, mountains, or sand dunes. Not to mention, the artistic design of this game easily matches that of any recent RPG, with art directors from animation, claymation, and even military backgrounds. Running in this game is like running through an art museum, which true, I would say that about most pre-rendered games.


Man, ain't nobody understand the words that are comin' outta your mouth!
Man, ain't nobody understand the words that are comin' outta your mouth!  

However, I will agree that this game is far from one of the most graphical I've ever played either; the art makers who painted these works of art forgot to make it one thing: clear. The backdrops are very nifty sometimes, but you will almost never encounter one that's clear. The battles are like that only worse. The characters have more polygons in the battlefield than on the map, but they still don't look good at all. The enemies are also commonly very blocky, and so are the FMV. The non-summoning spells come in an array of about a dozen different special effects, but with about 150 or so spells throughout the game, you really will see the same less-than-impressive effect done over and over again, only a different color each time. People refer to Shadow Madness' graphics as being hideous, but I for one had little complaint. I just never got blown away a single time either.

This game may be fun for a while, as I was attracted to this game's look, and lack of popularity and critical acclaim. However, this game cannot be beaten in less than twenty-five hours, and that's if you're extremely good. During that time, the annoyances with the backpack and running will make you stop losing interest, as there is no scenes like in Final Fantasy VII that alone warrant replay.

But, all in all, Shadow Madness is an impressive title for a company's first strife. The plot and writing are fantastic, and some of the looks are impressive. However, the lacking of playability, replayability and technology make this game one to only check out if you are truly open minded. Every rose has its thorn, and Shadow Madness is a rose of intelligence, with the thorn of bad-decisions.





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