Review: Shadow of Destiny

Official web page; KCE Tokyo (creators); Konami (publishers).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Writing and dialogue
Forgiveness rating
You can die permanently, but only in a few situations, which are fairly easy to avoid.

Most of the pure adventure games I've seen on console systems have been flops. Not that I've seen a lot of console games, but my searches on the Playstation archives have turned up only oinkers like Juggernaut and Echo Night. Which is why my console-game stack is mostly action-adventure games like Soul Reaver and Silent Hill.

However, I bought Shadow of Destiny anyway. Mostly because the Soul Reaver and Silent Hill sequels aren't out yet.

You are Eike Kusch, a young man in a town called Lebensbaum. Walking out of a cafe, you are stabbed in the back and die.

Yes, it's a short game. Ha! Ha! Ahem. You wake up in a surreal inter-time zone, where a voice informs you that you have a chance to avert your death. You are given a "digipad", the not-entirely-all-purpose but still handy-dandy time machine, and hopped back to half an hour before the attack.

From there, the plot develops over ten chapters (okay, eight plus prologue and epilogue) and four major eras of Lebensbaum's history. It seems that someone wants you dead, and he/she isn't going to stop with just one attempt, either. But the digipad can only take you to times that you know to be relevant to you. So the overall structure of each chapter is (1) die unexpectedly; (2) get resurrected and sent back to just before the attack; (3) use the brief respite to figure out how to prevent or negate the event; (4) jump back to the key event (which now appears on the digipad) and change history; (5) return to the present.

But this gets more complicated in later chapters, as you tangle up the threads of Lebensbaum's history and the five or six major characters that you interact with.

I class this as a "pure adventure game" because there is no fighting, or any other sort of button-jiggery to master. However, you do get time limits, yes you do. A real-time clock is always ticking. If you're going to be stabbed at 2:30, and clock reads 2:00:00, then you have thirty actual minutes to solve the problem. (Or less; some dialogues and events use more clock time than real time. This sounds unfair, but it actually makes sense -- consider a twenty-minute meandering conversation which is represented by a few intercut lines of dialogue.) (On the other hand, searching through your inventory is free. Whew.)

You wouldn't think that time limits would mean much to a guy with a time machine. But the digipad jumps you backward and forward in fixed increments. If you go back half an hour, when you return, you'll go forward exactly half an hour. If you spent ten minutes in the past, you'll reappear ten minutes after you left. This means that when you're in the past, you have two on-screen clocks ticking in synchrony; your local now, and your homeline now.

(I hope that made sense. Oy.)

When the homeline clock approaches a moment of your death, the digipad's handy vibrating alarm goes off, warning you to return to the future immediately. Yes, you're jumping into your own death scene, which sucks. Do it anyway. The mysterious voice can resurrect you from simple death -- but if you remain in the past too long, it causes a paradox or an energy drain or a Blinovitch limitation catastrophe or some damn thing, and the game ends.

(While I'm at it, I should mention the other way you can end the game permanently: touch your past or future self. This is a mistake, albeit a flashy one. Avoid it.)

Anyway, the time limits are usually generous. In a few scenes, you're dropped into a critical limit -- ten seconds, thirty seconds, that sort of range -- but the solution is always to grab an object very close by, or select something from your inventory. As I said, the clock freezes when you're selecting from inventory, so this isn't a great hardship.

But the time limits get annoying anyway. Searching the town for clues doesn't take a lot of time, but if you're genuinely confused and lost, the time adds up. You can also run into an unexpectedly long conversation, which pushes the clock (current or homeline) past your death. This is particularly aggravating, since a long and interesting dialogue in the past (which may even provide you with the clues you need to prevent your death!) is immediately followed by "game over", with no chance to recover or apply what you've learned.

Then there's the save system. You can only save the game at the end of a chapter. I often wanted to save in the middle of a longish chapter, and was frustrated that I couldn't.

(Actually you can save anywhere -- use the "end game" button on the digipad -- but only in order to turn off your console and go to sleep. Only one such free-save slot exists at a time, and when you restore it, it's wiped. For the traditional restore-to-an-earlier-game-and-try-something-different mode of play, you have to rely on the end-of-chapter slots.)

(No, I didn't try memory-card shuffling to work around the free-save limitations.)

Really, the game structure is adequate as long as you don't hit a "game over". Death (in the present) is always rescinded by Mr. Mysterious -- this is roughly equivalent to restarting the current chapter -- and since you can usually click through conversations you've seen before, you can recover your previous progress in five or ten minutes of play. (Foot travel is quick, but time travel requires a few seconds of level-loading.) It's not the pain-free experience of a save-anywhere game design, but it's not too bad.

However, if you do manage to end the game, you're forced to restore to your last save -- you remembered to save at the end of every chapter, right? -- and in this case you can't click through conversations. Keep a paperback nearby, or you'll wind up bashing in the screen with a rock.

(Just about the first thing I did after time-travelling was to touch my past self -- the game gives no warning about this. Blam went the universe, and I had to restart and snooze through the entire introductory cut-scene again. Bleah. Same problem occurred when a long conversation in the past pushed me past my homeline inhumation-by-poison.)

The writing is, well, a mixed bag; and I don't think I can blame that entirely on Japanese-English translation foibles. On the one hand, the designer has invented a really tremendous knot of intertwined story threads. Several major NPCs and a large handful of minor ones (and their ancestors and descendants) appear throughout the time zones, with all sorts of consequences zipping in and out as you mess around. The most important plot threads have to do with your own life and death, of course, but you encounter a host of lesser ones. I've played through the game twice, and seen several major decisions that I have only partially explored. And I'm sure there are bits of story I haven't touched even once.

On the other hand, a lot of the story is pretty awkward and contrived. I can see where the designer had to keep tight control -- a time-travel story would be completely unmanageable otherwise. Coincidences, implausible twists of character, and the arbitrary nature of the digipad (it takes you to where the author needs you to go, essentially) make the game work. But I still winced a lot as I played the thing.

(And the translation job doesn't help, either.)

You never really get a sense of any of the characters (except as caricatures). When I said, above, that you play "a young man in a town", that's literally all you get; you learn absolutely nothing else about your character, except that you don't remember your parents and you go to the art museum sometimes. The events that you witness across time form a nice structure of Lebensbaum's history, but they still feel like a fairly bare structure, sitting on a blank slate. The main map shows about eight enterable locations in the entire town. Intellectually, I know how much work went into creating that much territory. Emotionally, it feels minimal.

The game is not particularly difficult to get through. All the puzzles are in the nature of the game -- manipulations of history, no combination locks or sliding-block nonsense. And there are rarely so many possibilities as to confuse you about what to try. Talk to everyone; check the in-game notepad; look at the destinations available in the digipad. (The labels often indicate where you want to go next, and the game even highlights a likely destination for you.) If you fail and die (in the present), you'll generally get a clue in the inter-time zone, before you are resurrected and sent back to retry the chapter.

I played through twice, as I said, finding two entirely different endings (out of five, I believe). I burned six or eight hours of play time, the first run-through. The second took less than two hours, since the game lets you click through dialogue that you've seen before. I'm not quite inspired to replay it again and again, trying every different variation; but I will probably find on-line walkthroughs and follow them for the other three endings.

I don't want to spend a lot of wordage on graphics, but SoD looks fine. It's a fully-modelled 3D environment, and you have full control of the camera angle. The various time zones have distinct atmospheres, conveyed by nuances of palette and lighting, and the use of weather effects (snow, rain, fog, angles of sun) is really brilliant. The models and textures never look flat or repetitive. I don't know what the next generation of PS2 games is going to be like -- I'm sure my socks will be knocked off repeatedly over the next couple of years -- but this is top-of-the-line stuff for the moment.

Well. No doubt my ranting sounds very negative. Be not fooled; my reviews tend to focus on what could have been better about a game, not what was good. Overall, much is excellent about Shadow of Destiny. The storyline is fascinating; the well-worked-through sense of consequence, and opportunity for change of history, makes this a game for any time-travel buff.

(Damn. I swore I wasn't going to use the phrase "time-travel buff" in this review. Oh well.)

A week later, I added this postscript to my review:

I finally played through the other four (-ish) endings of the game. I noticed an interesting design trick:

Each of the endings leaves the main character in a different state, and they're all more-or-less satisfying resolutions to the story. This is the usual meaning of "multiple endings".

However, several of the endings also reveal (through cut-scenes) different parts of the backstory of the game. This is information that explains various loose threads and otherwise mysterious anomalies of the game world. Each piece of information is (mostly) independent of the others. Each comes pretty much as a surprise.

(I'm simplifying -- there are plot clues and foreshadowing and all that sort of thing. But this is the basic approach.)

This is pretty cool. You are motivated to see all the endings, even though each ending stands alone.

The trick is to make sure that each extra cut-scene really is part of the main story. After the player sees the scene, he should feel that it was vital to his understanding of the game; but until he sees it, he should feel that he's only missed a few details, whose shapes are well-implied by the main action of the game plus the ending.

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