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.
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.