Shadow Madness is the first game to arise from Craveyard, the developmental branch of fledgling US publisher Crave. Unfortunately, the growing pains of the relatively inexperienced development team are quite obvious in their first effort. Shadow Madness, despite being a decent game overall, is heavily flawed in several of its individual facets, and, as a result, will more likely be remembered as the first US-developed traditional RPG for the Playstation than as a distinct game of individual merits.
In Shadow Madness, you play as Stinger, a teenager aspiring to be a great swordsman. Stinger lives with his mother and stepfather in the town of Port Lochane. One night, after a fight with his stepfather, Stinger elects to spend the night in the woods to gather his thoughts. On his way home, nearing Port Lochane, he sees a huge explosion engulf the town. Hoping that his mother is OK, Stinger rushes back to the town.
Upon his arrival at Port Lochane, Stinger finds the entire town a complete wreck. Houses are destroyed, and dead bodies are everywhere. Stinger is unable to find his mother among the few survivors, and is forced to conclude the worst: that she was killed in the explosion. Also, the majority of the remaining survivors seem to have gone completely insane. Filled with despair, Stinger decides to leave the town and try to find the cause of the wreckage.
On his way out, Stinger runs into a girl named Windleaf, who is from the nearby town of Enclaan. Windleaf, after a brief introduction, informs Stinger that the same fate has befallen Enclaan. Determined to get to the bottom of this tragic mystery, the pair sets out towards Enclaan to try to begin gathering clues as to what is going on.
The storyline of Shadow Madness is perhaps its strongest point. Although it never gets really deep, it moves along at a consistent and strong pace, and its fantasy-horror theme is relatively uncommon in traditional console RPGs and helps keep the plot interesting. However, the characters are not very appealing; character development is relatively weak, and most of the characters seem somewhat one-dimensional and sophomoric.
Although the underlying content of the storyline isn't spectacular, its presentation is excellent. The writers at Crave have done a remarkable job with the dialogue in Shadow Madness; the dialogue here is arguably as well done as that of Working Designs' translations. Spelling and grammatical errors are nearly nonexistent, and the dialogue flow is among the best that I've seen in a game with English text. Like many of Working Designs' games, Shadow Madness contains a healthy amount of witty humor.
However, the Shadow Madness dialogue and text run into the same problems that Working Designs' translations do. Pop culture jokes and references are quite prevalent in Shadow Madness, perhaps even more so than in most of Working Designs' games. These pop culture references rear their ugly heads almost constantly in item examination, but fortunately are a little bit less common in the actual dialogue.
Gameplay-wise, Shadow Madness brings almost nothing new to the traditional RPG table. As a matter of fact, Shadow Madness plays very similarly to Final Fantasy VII, minus the materia system. Enemies are encountered randomly in most parts of the game. Battles are turn-based, with the turns generated in real time. Spells and items can be used in battles, and monsters can be summoned to aid your party or attack enemies.
Shadow Madness does present a few minor innovations in its gameplay. Although enemy encounters are mostly random, you can hear your enemies before they attack. By pressing both the R2 and L2 buttons simultaneously when you hear a monster, you can completely avoid the encounter if your timing is good. Shadow Madness also allows you to skip the somewhat lengthy animations of the summon spells with a press of the start button. Skipping the summon spell animations saves you a good amount of time, and it would be great to see this feature included in future games.
In battles, your characters can attack at different strengths, too, at the cost of leaving themselves more open to enemy attack. Like Squall's gunblade in Final Fantasy VIII, you can increase the damage you deal with most characters by pressing the attack button again at the right time during your attack. In addition, each character has an auxiliary attack. Hand-to-hand fighters' auxiliary attacks feature projectile weapons such as darts and spikes, while projectile weapon users can enter a limited form of melee combat with their auxiliary attacks.
Although the Shadow Madness gameplay bears many similarities to that of Final Fantasy VII, it's executed nowhere near as well as Final Fantasy VII's gameplay was. Although execution is pretty crisp in the maps, it's not quite as smooth in the battles. Your characters' attacks miss enemies with annoying frequency, and the semi-real-time battles happen so fast that items and spells are of very limited use in the game. Enemies can often go through 3 rounds of combat while you search your menus for a particular spell or item. Loading is both frequent and lengthy in Shadow Madness.
Shadow Madness is also very poorly balanced in terms of experience points and items. Although I never went out of my way to level up my characters, half of them were maxed out in levels before I reached the second game disc for the first time. The item limit is really annoying as well; I found so many items so frequently that I ended up having to jettison well over 75% of my acquired items.
The difficulty balance in Shadow Madness is very poor, as well. The game is so easy that not only did I avoid dying a single time in the game, I was never even in danger of having any of my characters go down in combat. The bosses are insultingly weak; the majority of the boss encounters in the game are easier to win than the random enemy encounters. Although the final boss in the game does offer a bit more challenge than the rest, he still makes Sephiroth look like Ruby Weapon.
To its credit, though, Shadow Madness' gameplay maintained my interest throughout most of the game. Like the storyline, the gameplay moves along pretty quickly, and it almost never drags.
Like the gameplay, Shadow Madness' control has some problems. Your characters can move in 8 directions and are responsive to the control pad. They move slowly, but a dash button enables them to move along at a solid pace. However, they are constantly getting stuck on objects in the background in area maps, and it frequently takes a while to work them free, which wastes a lot of time.
The menus in Shadow Madness are quite a disorganized mess, with each button calling up a different menu. In the heat of battle, I found it to be very difficult to remember which button calls up what menu, which usually resulted in the enemies getting some good licks in before I finally reached the right menu screen. Although I can theoretically see this menu system being pretty efficient once you get used to it, I never got used to it, even after 30 hours of play.
Graphically, Shadow Madness is one of the more unimpressive non-remake 32-bit RPGs that I've seen. The prerendered 2D area maps are detailed, but lack any stylistic pizzazz that distinguishes them from any other RPG out there. In a unique presentation, the world map is drawn out like a map, rather than a real landscape. This departure from the norm is a nice diversion, but ultimately doesn't look quite as nice as a well-drawn landscape of a world map.
In battle, the spells are unimpressive but serviceable. The summon spells, carried out in FMV, are similarly unimpressive. In fact, the animations of some of the humanoid summons, such as King Fanoma, are laughably bad (he animates like Richard Simmons running a workout).
Where Shadow Madness really takes a nose-dive is with its polygonal characters. The superdeformed characters look absolutely horrible in their blockiness and lack of detail, especially up close. In the battle scenes, the characters are better proportioned, but still suffer from blockiness and lack of detail. The enemies suffer similarly, even the larger bosses. In addition, the characters animate very poorly in the maps, though their animation looks significantly better in battles.
Shadow Madness also has the dubious distinction of containing perhaps the ugliest character art and designs I've seen in an RPG since Vandal Hearts. I found all of the characters to be completely unappealing visually. For example, Stinger looks like the result of Final Fantasy VII's Cloud Strife becoming a member of the Village People, and Clemett (another playable character) looks like a failed attempt to turn a ladybug into a human. The art in the mug shots that accompany the dialogue isn't much better. It's nice to see a different approach to character art than the standard anime style that so many games seem to bear, but not at the cost of appeal. I did, however, like some of the variant art shown during the ending of the game.
The CG FMVs in Shadow Madness are also subpar when compared to those of its peers. Much of it is grainy in quality, and the animation of the movies is noticeably choppy. The content of the movies is generally somewhat uninteresting, too. Although the FMVs in Shadow Madness are nowhere near as bad as the Black/Matrix opening FMV, they really don't match up well compared to other present day Playstation RPGs.
Sound, however, is one of Shadow Madness' strong suits. The sound effects are pretty good; the clang of swords and the explosions of attack spells are well done. There is no voice acting in Shadow Madness.
Shadow Madness also brings a well-composed soundtrack to the mix. Brad Spear's score is more ambient than melodic, but the underlying melodies are generally quite strong. Almost all of the soundtrack has a distinctly medieval feel to it, and Spear uses different arrangements of the same central melody (a la Uematsu) quite well.
Shadow Madness also keeps things interesting in the sound department by varying battle themes randomly. This is a good idea, as it keeps players from getting bored of the game's soundtrack by having to hear the same battle theme over and over again.
Some of the major towns also have multiple themes that are played in succession. This doesn't work quite as well as the randomly generated battle themes, because unlike the battle themes, the successive town themes vary quite a bit in their moods. The schizophrenic nature of the town music prevents it from setting the mood in the towns well. When I heard a tranquil theme followed by a very ominous one, and nothing in the town had changed in the meantime, I was completely unable to decipher the mood of the setting without some other context (such as talking to townspeople). Most other RPGs don't have this problem.
Although it isn't one of the better RPGs available on the Playstation, Shadow Madness is a decent first effort from Craveyard. Unfortunately, Craveyard disbanded mere days after the release of Shadow Madness. Sadly, we may never get to see if this young development team can fulfill the promise that it shows in Shadow Madness.
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