The first game I ever played on the PlayStation 2 was Konami’s Shadow of Memories, also known as Shadow of Destiny in the States.
I’d wanted a PS2 for a while, but even back then, I felt like I didn’t want to pick up a game that I felt I already knew all about from reading about it in magazines. So I deliberately chose a game I knew absolutely nothing about as my first PS2 game, then sat down to play it and found myself utterly entranced by something quite unlike anything I’d ever played before.
Combining elements of traditional adventure games, visual novels and even open-world exploration, Shadow of Memories remains a highly noteworthy title in the PS2’s library, and well worth exploring even today.
In Shadow of Memories, you play Eike, a young man with implausibly long legs who, over the course of the game, finds himself repeatedly getting murdered in a variety of increasingly convoluted ways. The first time this happens, Eike encounters an androgynous, somewhat sinister being known as Homunculus (voiced by Charles Martinet of Mario fame, fact fans), who, of course, has a proposal that will result in Eike being able to prevent his own murder.
Providing our hero with a device called a Digipad, Homunculus explains that it is possible for Eike to defy his fate by manipulating events in various time periods. And so he does, beginning with a simple bit of preemptive protection against his initial stabbing, continuing on to investigate four distinct eras and get to the bottom of who or what Homunculus is and exactly why he’s so interested in Eike.
Shadow of Memories is primarily a story-based game, which means the majority of your time is spent moving from location to location to trigger the next event. In the beginning of the game, you’re given very little freedom as to which time periods you’re able to travel to and from, making the solutions to Eike’s various problems relatively straightforward to determine, but as the game progresses you get more and more freedom, your time-travelling adventures limited only by the “Energy Units” the Digipad holds, which can be replenished by exploring and picking up glowing crystals from the floor.
The game is split into four main eras — present day, 1979, 1902 and the late 16th century — but these aren’t “static”. Rather, as Eike’s adventure proceeds, each of these four distinct timelines have their own narrative threads that proceed along their way, going so far as to span a whole four years in the case of the 16th century period. You even find yourself jumping forwards and backwards within a single era to accomplish various goals at times, raising some interesting questions about causality.
An interesting twist on the use of time in the game is the fact that even while Eike is in a time period different from his own, time continues to tick onwards — and if he’s not in the right era when he’s “supposed” to get murdered, he’ll be forever lost in the depths of space and time. Should he be back in the present day at the appointed hour, however, he’ll either die again (in which case he’ll have to endure a few sarcastic comments from Homunculus before having the opportunity to try again) or successfully defy his fate thanks to the things he managed to set up in the other time periods.
The game does some really interesting things with these conundrums. One chapter sees you preventing a tree getting planted in the 16th century, which ensures that when you return to the present, your would-be assailant no longer has anywhere to hide. Another demands that you ensure you’re on hand (albeit out of sight) to protect your own past self from being killed by a heavy piece of pottery that falls from a window. And the solutions only get more convoluted and interesting from hereon.
The true appeal of Shadow of Destiny is not in the core “puzzles” that see you repeatedly saving Eike’s life, however; it’s in the different narrative threads that unfold in the different eras, and in some cases have an impact on each other. There aren’t many choices to make in the game, but when they do crop up they tend to be significant ones, and the game has eight different conclusions according to the various combinations of your responses to the different situations throughout.
By the end of the game, you’ll have come to genuinely care about the characters Eike comes into contact with throughout the four time periods, because he (and you) will have had a profound impact on how their lives proceed. There’s a real sense of consequence to what you’re asked to do throughout the game — even in the situations where you don’t have a choice as to how to proceed — and this keeps things constantly interesting as you wonder what the long-term effect of Eike’s actions might be.
The central narrative of Homunculus taking an interest in Eike’s survival apparently for his own selfish ends is a compelling one, too, and Martinet’s performance is haunting, chilling and morbidly fascinating. This is very much a game you play for the overall experience of it all, because in gameplay terms it’s very lightweight indeed, with the majority of your interaction consisting of ensuring Eike is in the right place at the right time for him to see something happen, with occasional item use to trigger events or respond to particular situations. Don’t expect any complex puzzles, though, nor any sort of combining items in your inventory.
It’s a step up from your typical visual novel in terms of interactivity, for sure, but be sure to go into Shadow of Memories with the right expectations. This is not an action game, a survival horror game or even really a true adventure game, despite what it might look like when you first start playing. What it is, however, is a thoroughly compelling interactive story — and one of the PlayStation 2’s most memorable, unusual games that, despite its somewhat aged appearance, is still worth spending some time with today.
More about Shadow of Memories
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