Players: 1 Player Game | Release Date: 03/05/01 | Genre: Adventure
Shadow of Destiny, the follow up game from Junko Kawano, creator of Konami's 1999 masterpiece Silent Hill, is basically a murder mystery. That alone would be unusual for a game, but Shadow has an incredible twist. The player's character, Eike Kusch, is the one murdered in the opening sequences of the game. Eike is then brought back to life by an entity calling itself Homunculus, and the player (controlling Eike) is given a time travel device, and returned a few minutes before the death originally took place.
Unfortunately, preventing Eike's death at that time only delays the inevitable. The would be assassin tries again. This cycle of evading death, only to face it again later from a different source forms the basis of the game. The actual gameplay is essentially similar to other adventure games. The game lacks combat of any kind, which might disappoint some gamers, but combat is entirely unnecessary.
Even without it, the game has a constant tension matched by only a few games before it (including Silent Hill). Instead, the focus is mainly on character interaction and the use of items (though item use is never as convoluted as in many adventure titles). The player talks to characters in a small, fictional European village, searching for ways to prevent Eike's death while also attempting to piece together just who is trying to kill Eike, and why. Of course, to do that it quickly becomes necessary to employ Homunculus' time travel device. During the course of the game the player travels anywhere from 10 minutes in the past, to over 400 years.
As the game progresses, the player is given more and more freedom to explore other time periods. In some cases it's necessary to travel between multiple periods to prevent Eike's death in the present. If that weren't enough, there's effectively a time limit on Eike's actions. For the most part, even when Eike is in the past, time is still passing in the present. For example, if Eike leaves 2001 at 8:30 PM, and spends 30 minutes in the past, it's 9 PM when he returns. This means the player is always working against the clock.
On top of that, there are a number of side quests to help other characters out. Most aren't necessary, but the characters are so well fleshed out, feel so real, that I always found myself trying to help whenever I could, even at the risk of "my" own life. While that may all sound complicated, it's actually relatively straightforward, especially at first. When starting out, the player is given few options, and basically walked through a scenario.
By the time the game gives the player the ability to choose between a number of time periods, the player has had ample opportunity to come to grips with the time travel system. In fact, Shadow of Destiny actually deals with time travel better than any other work of fiction I can think of. Not just games, but movies and novels as well. The plot is constantly doling out pieces of the puzzle.
Without giving anything away, Shadow deals intelligently with about every time travel idea or paradox, but has the time and ability to really explore it in ways other media can't. While the plot gets incredibly complex, it never feels forced or convoluted. Everything has obviously been thought through very well. Almost as amazing as Shadow of Destiny's premise are its graphics. Although the entire game is rendered in real-time 3D, the graphics look very similar both artistically and in quality to the pre-rendered movies in Silent Hill. There's an incredible amount of 3D detail. Complex detailing in the backgrounds, curved surfaces, real-time shadows that fall across 3D surfaces perfectly (and sometimes come from multiple light sources at once). Characters show absolutely no polygons at all. Clothes hang off characters realistically -- dresses are especially impressive. Tekken Tag Tournament and the upcoming Virtua Fighter 4 are the only other games I can think of with characters this incredibly detailed (although the art style is completely different here).
Character animation is excellent too. For the most part, the "performances" of the characters work perfectly with the voice acting. Environmental effects are near perfect. When Eike is plodding through a snow storm, it feels thick and oppressive, like it's really the dead of winter, and not just some white shading on the ground. Colors are used to interesting effect. Some of the alternate time periods use almost monochromatic color schemes. Everything skewed brown or almost black and white. The town changes realistically through time, and the player can almost see from one end to the other. There's some noticeable aliasing in some parts, but the only real complaint I have with the graphics are the subtitles. For some reason Konami included English subtitles which can't be turned off-even though all characters are already voiced in English.
While I appreciate when subtitles are included for the hearing impaired (or just those who need to play with the volume low), always having subtitles slightly detracts from the voice acting and character animation, since the eye is drawn downward.
Shadow's sound is basically a match for the graphics. The voice acting is top notch for a game, especially the main character and Homunculus. A few characters could have been voiced better (one boy's voice in particular is especially nasally), and a line here or there doesn't sound natural, but for the most part this is a thoroughly professional job. The environmental music and sound effects are the equal of most movies. The excellent voice acting and writing help tremendously with drawing the player into the game's world.
Shadow of Destiny looks and sounds amazing. It has a unique, fascinating premise, and expertly follows through with it. So is there anything wrong with it? Well, Shadow does have a lot of voice acting. Players who want constant action, and don't care about a story would be disappointed. The game is also fairly short by today's standards (probably under 8 hours of actual play time at the most). There's no dead time in that it's fantastic the entire way through, and the multiple endings and possibilities are actually all very different, and all reveal more of the plot. Aside from those possible caveats, I can honestly say Shadow of Destiny is one of the most fun and amazing games I have ever played. A new high watermark.