Shadow of Memories: that familiar sense of déjà vu

How do you feel about timed scenarios in video games? Not necessarily quick-time events (QTEs) but those situations where you only have so many minutes to complete a task. They may be ok if they’re used sparingly, but what about a whole title full of them?

For example, take 2006’s Dead Rising where Frank West attempts to discover the reason behind a zombie outbreak while surviving for three days in a mall as he waits for the rescue helicopter to arrive. Or even further back in 2000, when Link tried to save the world and its inhabitants from a falling moon within 72-hours in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Or earlier still in 1997’s The Last Express, where Robert Case investigates the death of his friend aboard the Orient Express and must find the murderer before the train reaches its destination.

While searching online for a retro game to send to Luke from Hundstrasse as part of our game-swap last year, I came across Shadow of Memories (also known as Shadow of Destiny). Released for the PlayStation 2 in 2001 by Konami, it tells the story of Eike Kusch who is brutally murdered – but then given a second chance by a mysterious character called Homunculus in the form of a Digipad. Can he use this time-travelling device to discover who killed him and change his fate?

You know that sense of déjà vu you get sometimes, where something feels strangely familiar? After finding a trailer on YouTube, I felt as though I knew this title and had even experienced some of the sections I’d just watched in the video; but I couldn’t remember ever owning or playing it. I forgot about it until I had to track down a copy of The X-Files: Resist or Serve for our GameBlast21 marathon stream last month, at which point I decided to add a few other old games to my order including Shadow of Memories.

The title starts after a blade is plunged into Eike’s back as he leaves a coffee shop in the German town of Lebensbaum. Instead of going straight to the underworld, he’s transported to a weird limbo area where his meets Homunculus for the first time and gets his hands on the Digipad. It’s explained to him here that even if he can prevent the stabbing and avoid death once, it doesn’t mean he’s free of the threat: unless he’s brave enough to tear it out at its very root, destiny can’t be cheated.

At the beginning of each of the following eight chapters, the protagonist will die in some way. He’ll then have to travel back in time and make a change to thwart the killer before returning to the present day, where his enemy will change tactics and then try again. For example, how do you stop an ambush by a murderer who’s hiding behind a tree in the town square? You travel back to medieval times and convince the guy who planted it that some pretty flowers would look much better, obviously.

Shadow of Memories, Shadow of Destiny, video game, Dana, Eike, man, woman, coffee shop

This isn’t the only bewildering moment in Shadow of Memories. The plot gets off to a good start and, even though it’s not exactly a well-written game, seeing how the stories in each period intertwine when Eike begins time-travelling is interesting. But the more changes he makes in the past, the more complicated the narrative gets and it eventually turns into a bit of a cause-and-effect mess. Several things that happened towards the end of the title had me asking ‘But why though?’

On top of this, Eike has no personality other than being a douchebag. When the waitress tracks him down in Lebensbaum to return the lighter he left in the coffee shop and she says she feels tired, he replies that she can’t be weary from such a simple errand – and there are many people out there who’s lives are a lot tougher, like him. And that’s before he transports her back to 1580 by accident, then leaves her there to survive and make a life for herself in this strange time. What a great guy.

So looking back over those past few paragraphs, why on earth would I recommend Shadow of Memories to anyone? There’s one element which makes up for some of its many weaknesses: the way it uses time as a gameplay mechanic. You can visit a fortune-teller at the start of each chapter and she will reveal the hour at which the killer is going to strike. Eike must set out to change his fate before then, otherwise his enemy will be successful in their murder attempt.

Two digital clocks are shown on-screen when you travel back to the past, the seconds on both passing by in tandem. One shows the time in the present day so you can keep an eye on how many minutes you’ve got left until the hour confirmed by the fortune-teller; the other shows the time in the era you’re currently visiting. The Homunculus will give you the opportunity to try again if you fail to change your fate but can make it back to 2001, but it’s game-over if you get stuck in the past without any energy units for the Digipad.

You could describe Shadow of Memories as creepy but there’s nothing overtly frightening about it at first glance. There are no jump-scares, no blood and gore, and no monsters other than a murderer who’s obviously a human. But that ticking clock adds an element of pressure which increases the fear factor and gives you that same feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you’re late for an important appointment. The scariest thing about this game are those moments when you realise you may not have enough time left.

Timed scenarios in video games exist to add a sense of urgency and make the player feel as though their actions have weight and failures have consequences. Remove the time gameplay element from the chapters in Shadow of Memories and we’d end up with a very mediocre adventure starring a protagonist you just want to punch for his lack of emotion and treatment of coffee-shop-waitresses. But those clocks mean it never reaches a point where it become boring and adrenaline increase as the minutes tick down is kind of addictive.

I’m the sort of gamer who likes to explore an environment without any kind of deadline hanging over their head. Timed sequences have the tendency of turning me off completely but I managed to reach the end of the game in one sitting and with only a few deaths (forcing Eike to meet his past self was a mistake even though it’s one I don’t regret). Instead of the time pressure making me too anxious to enjoy the game, there was something about it here which spurred me forward.

If I were reviewing Shadow of Memories with purely a cold analytical eye, I’d say it’s a PlayStation 2 relic which isn’t well-written or had aged particularly well. But there’s just something compelling about the way it uses time-travel as a mechanic and its incredibly eerie atmosphere which makes it worth a look by adventure fans at least. I’m glad I finally got the chance to play it and figure out whether it was a title I’d already experienced at some point in the past.

Although it felt as though I remembered the first chapter, I didn’t have any other previous memories of the game by the time I reached the credits. Maybe it was how Nathan from Gaming Omnivore explained it, that I’d completed a demo for it back in the day. Or maybe it was that damned Homunculus using its Digipad on me.

Metal Gear Solid 2: cutscenes and craziness

Back in March, Luke from Hundstrasse and I took part in a game-swap. Our objective was to find the most bizarre retro titles and, in return for my gift of Realm of the Dead, he sent me Whiplash – a platformer that caused come controversy when it was released in 2004.

It was a fun experience so, when Athena from AmbiGaming asked if I wanted to do another game-swap, I agreed straight away. This time the requirement would be different though: instead of searching for titles the other had never played before, we instead challenged each other to try one of our favourite releases. This explains why she completed Fable on stream recently, something I can only apologise to her for; I might love this game but the controls and camera do feel awfully clunky nowadays.

She nominated me to play Metal Gear Solid in return but it didn’t quite work out as planned. Thanks to the original being rather expensive to purchase and a code donated by Ellen from Ace Asunder not working due to regional lockout, I didn’t get the chance. Athena agreed I could play Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty instead, so a copy was ordered for my PlayStation 2; but ultimately I installed it on our Xbox One after realising it was available via Game Pass as it would enable the use of a modern controller.

This would be the first Hideo Kojima title I’d ever tried so I felt a little apprehensive for a couple of reasons. Although I can enjoy action releases, poor coordination means I’m not that great at them and I wondered how long it would take me to complete the game. In addition, my opinion of Kojima had been influenced by articles I’d read in the past – about the way he viewed women, his eccentricity, his sense of ego – so I wasn’t sure whether I’d feel comfortable with what I was about to see.

I usually give a story overview of the game at this point in posts but I’ve struggled to write one for MGS2. There are so many plot-twists thrown at the player, particularly within the last couple of hours, that I’m not entirely sure I fully understand what happened. There was something about virtual-reality (VR) simulations, several terrorist organisations, a president being taken hostage, huge metal machines which behave like animals and artificial intelligence (AI) – and this is only a start.

And there are cutscenes. Lots and lots of cutscenes, some so lengthy that our Xbox decided to put itself on standby while we were watching. I found this infographic online which shows they averaged 05:30 minutes each, with the longest being 20:15 minutes. I’m not adverse to such moments in video games because I usually play them for the narrative, but at times it was excessive: it felt like the control was taken away from us each time we were starting to get into the gameplay.

Metal Gear Solid 2, MGS2, Sons of Liberty, video game, man, Solid Snake, face, gun

Luke was watching while Pete and I streamed the game on Twitch, and kindly sent me an email last week to try and explain it all. I can’t deny that I’m still confused though. There are so many plot elements, not all of which seem completely relevant or necessary, and there are far too many names for someone who struggles to remember the characters are like I do. There was the impact of streaming too: sometimes it was hard to follow what was happening in-game at the same time as trying to keep up with chat.

Luke also told me about the controversy surrounding MGS2 at the time of its release. The tanker section, where you play as Solid Snake, was released as a prologue so fans were understandably annoyed when they got their hands on the full release and realised they’d be spending a lot of time with Raiden. I’ve also read that Kojima came up with the idea of this new protagonist to appeal to female players, after hearing female debuggers working on the original Metal Gear Solid say that it wasn’t appealing to them. More about this later.

I agreed with Athena before starting that I could attempt the title on the easiest mode and I’m glad I took this option. I had to pass the controller to Pete on several occasions because there were sections I struggled to get to grips with. My main issue was the way the camera angle changed whenever you entered a new scene so I never knew which direction I’d be moving in (the main reason I’ve never felt totally comfortable with classic point-and-click series that make the transition from 2D to 3D).

The thing is though, for all the things I found confusing or frustrating about MGS2, there’s a part of me that enjoyed playing it. After our stream of the last section of the game, my other-half and I both admitted to each other that we’d actually had quite a lot of fun. Maybe it was the fact that we could finally say we’d experienced a Metal Gear title, or that we’d played while discussing it with friends over Twitch, or that we just never knew what the plot was going to throw at us next. It’s difficult to put my finger on it.

I can see why the series is one of Athena’s favourites. Certain elements might come across over-the-top or not aging well, but it must have been pretty amazing to experience a release that like that on the PlayStation 2 when it was originally released back in 2001. As Nathan from Gaming Omnivore and Phil explained to us, there was nothing on the market 19 years ago which was as cinematic or ambitious in what it was trying to deliver, so I can imagine it was something truly spectacular for players at the time.

I’m afraid I can’t end this post without saying something about the game’s depiction of women though, and I’m not sure what it is that annoyed me the most. Maybe it was that Emma both looks and behaves like a 12-year old girl despite being 18, and Raiden has a good long look at her butt as she climbs down a ladder above him. Or perhaps it was that girlfriend Rose feels the need to call him regularly and constantly brings up their relationship every time he wants to save, even though he’s on an important mission.

As Kevin from The Lawful Geek said in chat: Kojima can’t write a female character to save his life. But my annoyance could also come from the designer creating the protagonist for female players, as if a hunky blonde hero is the only thing we’re interested in when it comes to playing video games. It almost feels like he treats a person’s view of the opposite sex as something that’s purely sexual; his characters’ interactions are very voyeuristic and it’s as if people are measured in terms of their sexual worth.

I might not like all the characters. I might think the cutscenes are excessive. I might feel that MGS2 is incredibly self-indulgent and as Brandon from That Green Dude said, could have benefited from an editor going through it and telling Kojima ‘No’. But playing this game has definitely been an experience and one I’m glad I’ve had. In the very least, it gave me the opportunity to play something I probably wouldn’t have picked up otherwise and be more open to the idea of further game-swaps in the future.

Metal Gear Solid 2, MGS2, Sons of Liberty, video game, man, Raiden

Speaking of which, my next collaboration is lined up already. I’ve shared before that I really dislike turn-based combat because I just don’t have the patience for it, so Ellen is going to try and convince me otherwise with her gift of Final Fantasy XIII. In return I’ve gifted her both Her Story and The Madness of Doctor Dekker, to help cure her of her aversion to full-motion video (FMV) after she watched us play Dark Nights with Poe and Munro in May (perhaps not the greatest example of the genre).

Thanks so much to Athena from slogging through Fable and for giving me the chance to experience my first Metal Gear game. Here’s to more game-swaps!

Lost control: weird gaming accessories

Last week I shared a guide to provide inspiration for buying Christmas presents for the gamer in your life. The big day is now only a couple of weeks away and we all want to give our loved-ones thoughtful gifts they’ll treasure forever, and that will potentially be the subject of blog posts about festive gaming memories in years to come.

What we don’t want to do is to give them a present that will cause them to say a half-hearted ‘Wow!’ before it’s shoved into the back of a cupboard and sits there gathering dust. You’ve therefore got to feel sorry for the people who gave the items in the list below to their partners and children – and possibly even more sorry for the partners and children themselves. Here are the some of the weirdest and worst gaming accessories.

1984: Atari Mindlink

The promise: “An exciting and unusual new way to operate Atari home computers… the state of the art for the stage of your mind.”

I know what you’re thinking but no, this wasn’t a controller that allowed you to play video games using only the power of your mind. It was simply a wired headband that enabled the player to control their onscreen character using eyebrow twitches. During product testing however, volunteers reported massive headaches from furrowing their brows in exactly the right way – and that was when the device actually worked. This stopped the Mindlink from ever being officially released (so I probably shouldn’t have included it in this post but I thought it was funny).

1985: R.O.B.

The promise: “R.O.B, the extraordinary video robot (batteries not included). He helps you tackle even the toughest challenge.”

Following the video game crash in 1983, Nintendo wanted to rebuild faith in the industry and went about it with their Robotic Operating Buddy (R.O.B.). Unfortunately though their attempts to give everyone their own Johnny 5 were unsuccessful. The little guy only worked consistently with certain CRT televisions due to receiving instructions via light flashes; he could only be used with two games; and he couldn’t do much apart from picking up blocks and flailing his arms. The fun kind of stopped there.

1989: Power Glove

The promise: “The Power Glove for your NES. Now you and the games are one.”

Another item from Nintendo now and one most readers are likely to have already heard of because ‘it’s so bad’. The Power Glove took a some setting up before use, with sensors that needed to be attached to your television and game-specific codes that had to be input using the buttons on the arm – and after all that it didn’t event work properly. It’s therefore no wonder the device had a short lifespan: it was discontinued about a year after release and not even The Wizard could save it.

1989: Roll & Rocker

The promise: “You become the directional control pad!”

Who on earth thought it would be a good idea to put a platform on top of a ball, get gamers to step on top of it and have them rock around the unit in order to move the D-pad for a NES? LJN Toys, that’s who – the same company that published titles for the console which were largely slated by critics. It seems like an injury and a lawsuit waiting to happen rather than a great way to control a video game; imagine playing Super Mario with the device and you’ll understand why nobody bought it.

1989: LaserScope

The promise: “Take yourself out of a tough situation… The amazing voice activated firing system for Nintendo.”

The Konami LaserScope was designed for use with Laser Invasion on the NES and consisted of a light-gun on a headset equipped with a microphone. It was supposed to allow gamers to look through its crosshairs and shout ‘Fire!’ to activate the trigger, but all it did was make the wearer look incredibly stupid. The technology was so bad that not only you could say anything in-game to shoot the gun but background noises would make it fire also, meaning that there was no way in hell you were ever going to be able to conserve your ammo.

1993: Sega Activator

The promise: “Some kids won’t see the advantage of Activator. Then it will hit them.”

The idea here was to make the player feel part of the game and have your character onscreen replicate your actions in real-life. The reality was however that you had to move in one of eight directions while standing in the middle of a plastic octagon on the floor. Here’s an example: if you wanted to do a special attack in Street Fighter you had to punch to the left and right simultaneously while also kicking backwards. An Activator player’s only hope was to flail their limbs wildly and hope for the best – before switching to a normal controller.

1994: Aura Interactor

The promise: “Enter the virtual reality world of the Interactor, where all the action jumps of the screen and into your gut.”

The Interactor isn’t actually as useless as some of the items on this list. It was a big plastic backpack you’d put on and then plug into the audio feed of your console, so sounds below a certain frequency would be converted into vibrations you could then feel while playing a video game. The problem was however with its configuration: having the power on maximum would vibrate far too much while turning the filter high took away the game’s music. And as the device heated up pretty quickly, you’d soon find yourself in a puddle of your own sweat. Eww.

1998: Game Boy Camera and Printer

The promise: “With the Game Boy Camera, you can turn pho-tography in to fun-tography!”

The Game Boy Camera was great if you loved taking grainy, heavily-pixelated, black-and-white photographs of family members and friends. The Printer then allowed you to print all those terrible pictures using six AA batteries, reams of thermal paper and money to throw away. The thing I hate most about these devices however was the Camera advert; whoever thought it was a good idea to use bullying, group hugs, pubescent leching and extreme goatees to market products got it so wrong.

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