Time travel is an idea that has fascinated people since we as a species were able to mentally grasp the concept of time itself. Im sure nearly everyone who has ever lived has wished they had their own personal time machine at one point or another, and uncountable science fiction novels have sparked the imagination of those who havent. If such travel was possible we could all go back and get an "A" on that book report we waited until the night before to finish; we could take back that boneheaded joke that slipped out on our first date; or we would all be millionaires from making legendary deals on Wall Street. These are just a few examples off the top of my head, but really, who among us hasnt wondered how things might be different if only 20/20 vision could be experienced as foresight instead of hind?
Traveling through time is the main theme explored in Shadow Of Destiny, the latest release produced by Konami Computer Entertainments Japan wing (KCET) for the PlayStation 2. The premise for Shadow Of Destiny is that the games protagonist, the horrendously named Eike Kusch, has the ability to time travel, but not for the frivolous fantasies or money-making schemes that the average person might partake in. Instead, Eike is traveling through time in order to save his own life.
The game is played in a behind-the-back third-person perspective, and the area of play is limited in scope to the confines of a small, enclosed northern European township. The town itself is actually quite small, but the twist here is that the player needs to travel back and forth through time to different versions of the city in order to change events and find items to help Eike solve the mystery of his own murder. Imagine a point-and-click style adventure that lets the player search and move around in full 3D, and youre very close to how Shadow Of Destiny actually plays—though I found it much more enjoyable than other games it might be similar to.
One of the first things that struck me about the title was its overall artistic quality. Shadow Of Destiny begins with a very eye-catching pencil-sketch effect that I have never before seen in a game, which lends it a very mysterious and intriguing feel and helped grab my interest immediately. Later in the game, after Eike gains the ability to travel through time, each period he arrives in has its own distinctive monochromatic color scheme. Not only does this help the player tell the time periods apart, it has the same emotional effect that you might get when looking at antique, sepia-toned photographs of your great-grandmother. Its very clear visually that Eike does not belong in those times since he is the only thing that retains a full spectrum of color, and its an elegantly effective way of giving the game visual sophistication and artful style.
The game also features a large cast of voice actors, with each line of dialogue being spoken along with the subtitles. I thought Eikes voice was better than average, save for a few times when there wasnt enough emotive quality to it. Ill discuss this particular aspect a little later in this review. Homunculus, the mysterious character who grants Eike his time-travel abilities, has a particularly effective and memorable voice that I enjoyed listening to a great deal. As with nearly any game that uses voice actors, there are definitely some rotten apples among the large number of speaking parts, (a few of the townsfolk are particularly whiny and annoying wretches), but overall they dont spoil the bunch.
While those things are nice touches, the best part about Shadow Of Destiny and the thing that really makes it worth playing is the incredibly intricate and addicting plot. In the first few minutes of the game, the player witnesses Eikes murder in the town square. Instead of making it a candidate for "Shortest Game Ever," Shadow Of Destiny resurrects Eike and gives the player the power to change his fate by going back and forth through time to rearrange the events surrounding his death. Gameplay itself is very passive—featuring no combat at all—and it feels very natural to focus on items and puzzles since Eike is sort of an "everyman" rather than some battle-scarred veteran, martial arts expert or cyborg bounty hunter.
The game generally has a very smooth flow, and it always kept me wanting to see the next plot twist or surprising event. Once you find a way to help Eike avoid getting killed, fate finds a different way to kill him again, and it doesnt stop until you unravel the mystery and find the killer. While most games would be content to lead the player to the end and have little left over to encourage replays, this is where Shadow Of Destiny truly succeeds. The plot and events surrounding the game are so convoluted and expertly woven together that its nearly impossible to see every facet of it the first, second or even third time through. There are lots of little side-events to uncover depending on which time period youre in, and things get especially interesting when you start encountering yourself as you go back and forth along the timestream. The game takes on a real "Twilight Zone" quality, and after playing Shadow Of Destiny, Im surprised that game developers in general havent used the rich concept of time travel more often.
To cap it all off, the game features no less than eight distinct endings, all of which are far more substantial and rewarding (as well as enigmatic, depending on what events you trigger) than most games dream of including these days. It goes without saying that I give a huge amount of respect to any company that doesnt shortchange gamers on the ending, and while each finale in Shadow Of Destiny tells a little piece of the whole tale, you wont really appreciate the entire thing until youve seen at least a few of them. These are the type of endings that actually make it worth it to go back and play through the game again, and there are far too few of those being made lately.
I think its fairly true that most people have a few things in their pasts they wish they could get rid of, or change. Im sure theres not a person alive who wouldnt be tempted to take a quick trip back in time to try and prevent a few bad memories from being created, if only they could. If Konami and the developers had free use of Eikes time travel device, the "Digipad" (yes, thats right… its called a Digipad. Believe me, I thought the same thing youre thinking now), they might want to go back and alter a few elements in Shadow Of Destiny as well.
While the graphics arent terrible by any means, they are rather simple and basic. Eike himself looks like a few hundred more polygons wouldnt hurt, and things in general dont seem to use any of the PlayStation 2's much-touted-yet-rarely-seen power. Shadow Of Destiny looks solid and serviceable, but its not going to impress anyone visually. While on the topic of the games visual aspects, the camera angles in the games interior environments are fairly awful. There were a few times when inside a house or in the library that I was going in circles looking for an exit due to the poorly placed, non-maneuverable camera. The games floating camera works fine outdoors, but the unmovable views inside need work.
Something else I found which needed tweaking was the pacing of the games middle portion. The beginning scenarios are fairly linear and do a good job of setting up the mechanics and concept of how to play the game. At about the fourth or fifth chapter, the game suddenly gets very nonlinear, and gives the player access to practically all of the various time periods in the game, whereas the player was limited to one or two time periods a level earlier. While Im not against nonlinearity in games, I felt that the game had briefly lost intensity of focus, and I found myself with the ability to wander from time to time without really knowing what I could be doing, or should be doing. More of a transition would have helped here, I think.
Finally, the last thing worth mentioning is the games handling of characterization. I think its pretty safe to say that anyone in Eikes situation would be pretty shaken up by being killed, resurrected and summarily put on the trail of his own killer. While I didnt expect the game to spend hours upon hours examining his inner thoughts and feelings, it felt to me that he came to grips with things much more quickly than a normal person would. While its certainly not ignored, I felt that they didnt spend a lot of time going into the disorientation of time travel or the metaphysics of it all.
On a similar note, the writers didnt spend much time with anachronisms or variations in language patterns and vocabulary—something that would definitely play a role if you were transported a few hundred years back in time. Perhaps Im looking at Shadow Of Destiny with an eye too closely attuned to realism, but I felt that there were many opportunities for fleshing out the characters to an even greater degree of depth, especially given the strange set of circumstances throughout the game. Much like the characterization, the issues were touched on but there was room to explore things further.
All in all, Shadow Of Destiny is a very enjoyable effort and a step in the right direction towards expanding and diversifying the PlayStation 2's currently weak selection of games. The plots trippy time-continuum convolutions will have your brain pleasantly spinning by games end trying to follow the Moebius Strip of its events, and the quality of the story is good enough that most players will find it pretty hard to put the game down until theyve finished it at least once. Although Shadow Of Destiny does have a very short playing time, youll definitely be back for a multiple helpings of the games plump, juicy endings. Konami has done well in releasing Shadow Of Destiny on our shores, and is another solid effort from one of the best names in the business.