Shadow Brain is a little known game made by a little known company with a stupid or awesome name (dunno yet) called Pony Canyon. I stumbled upon this homie purely through searching the Famicom library for something obscure and possibly funky. There are not many games like it on the system that aren’t called Megami Tensei, and is a game that requires a similar pain threshold – it’s hard. It also seems complex but is also a bit shallow.
A young man named Jun awakes in Harmony Town. It is the year 2090 in the super-city Lemuria, a sprawling place made up of multiple cities and areas populated by humans, robots, cyborgs, monsters and mutants, created after a global disaster in 2040 caused civilization to prosper anew. While there is co-existance, there is also conflict among the different types of beings, with some believing in human superiority or robot superiority. All Jun has is a VDS system and message from his father, urging Jun to find him as he is being chased by “the enemy”. Jun bursts out into the Harmony Town streets to find his father. Along the way he finds there is an evil force influencing people through the network, but what it is exactly he does not yet know. The Digital Venus, a woman digitized into cyberspace, guides Jun along the path.
Jun traverses this world in first person through a maze of corridors. Old-school first person graphics always tripped me out, because no matter what the setting is intended to be it always looks like some funky space world or some other claustrophobic type thing. There are full-on cities and locations you visit, but with the corridors, spacey ceilings and key card doors to different locales, it instead feels like interconnected hubs of a big space station or dome complex. There are areas with trees, but even that feels like it’s the “nature sector” of the station. While not quite the image Pony Canyon intended to make (credits clearly depict a city skyline), it is more engaging one for me, imagining some cyberpunk society eking out a living within the tight corridors of a spaceship.
The citizens and enemies of Shadow Brain are a varied and strange bunch that compliment the above vibes. It is almost Earthbound-esque in its eccentric enemies ranging from dudes wielding guitars, blob monsters, bugs, cowboy bandits, fat cows, werewolf cyborgs, etc. Some have odd names like “Siberian” for cowboys and “Saudi” for cultist-looking dudes. A number of enemy types are encountered as friendly NPCs, too, making it a bit headscratcher as to what makes them go bad. A lot of the stores and services are operated by punks and cyborgs that look they are ripped straight out of some generic 90’s attitude-era cyberpunk story, as well as 1960’s tinman Jetsons-esque robots.
The online network is kinda a neat feature in the game considering it came out the same year the world wide web became public. The online talk is similar to chat messengers and you get new messages from people often throughout the game. They typically offer clues and tips to progress, but this is also the only part of the game where any sort of humour comes through. Not all of it is really all that funny, but some of the colourful characters you meet online are fun; it’s got its weirdos. You can also shop and sell online (wow spooky prediction levels on eBay and Amazon). The Cyber Net’s slogan, “Welcome to Cyber Net. You are our friend.” is some of the most dystopian future shit I’ve ever heard. Super big brother vibes.
While some of the music tracks of Shadow Brain lend to its atmosphere well, it is an extremely limited soundtrack to the point of irritating. Some of the tracks are annoyingly high pitched. There are only two bloody battle themes, one for enemies and one for bosses. The enemy theme gets old fast, I was muting that bad boy time to time. The boss theme isn’t bad if a bit boring, but it plays even on the last boss, which is a bummer. Last boss doesn’t get any cool jam, just the same stuff his lackies had.
The core system is the VDS system that Jun possesses. It allows the player to perform various actions in both the world and combat. The player has 9 options available to them. Some classics are Look, Take, Talk, Fight, with Look never needing to be used for anything. Besides that, the player can use programs and access the internet. Items are used via the system, as well. The player collects parts and upgrades that allows him further abilities such as accessing the internet from anywhere (not just designated terminals), passive AP (magic points) regeneration, and a quick ride to the last visited hotel. VDS is restricted and can only hold 16 regular items at a time. You have to choose your items wisely which can be a pain because some are event items that you can’t get rid of easily, essentially robbing item slots. Items are typical healing stuff and tools that deal damage or do other helpful things in battle. Unfortunately, while powerful, many of these tools are simply too expensive to be practical without grinding cash, and lord help your salt intake if the tool misses its target, essentially being a waste of money. There are different Programs in the VDS system that are used as event items or to heal outside of battle.
During combat you have an array of options at your disposal. You can do nine different things, which sounds like a battle system ready to kick some ass with variation and deepness. The first three are weapons you can equip: fists, swords, guns. They get stronger as the game goes on, but there are also ones with special properties. Some weapons use up AP while others do not. The ones that use AP are stronger, but the difference is not as drastic as they should be, and some weapons are practically trolling you with how much AP they suck out of you. Despite three weapon types, there does not seem to be any noticeable difference between any of them. There are no enemies, for example, that are weak to guns and strong to fists; they are all the same. You only fight enemies 1v1, so it’s not even about AoE attacks or anything either. There seems to be no real point to having three weapons types except to add empty variety. Now, due to some weapons having different effects, it could be seen as a way to give the player numerous attack options. But, you can stock 3 of each weapon type anyway, essentially giving you 9 weapons. They might as well just had one weapon slot that you cycle through instead of adding three pointless types. Some of the specialty weapons are good and some suck ass. There is a type of fist weapon that has a chance of oneshotting enemies as long they are under 100 HP (which is most of them). This is very good, as sometimes it just tears through things if you’re lucky. Another is a sword that does 0 damage but puts the enemy to sleep. Sleep doesn’t last long and enemies typically wake up the very next turn, so you might as well just do damage instead of wasting a turn snoozin dudes.
You have special abilities that you find or purchase for your VDR equivalent to magic. Barriers (coming in 3 differing levels of strength) absorb attacks and are an absolute must have, especially against bosses. They absorb hits so you can survive without having to have crazy HP as some enemies hit like a truck. There is a heal ability (again of 3 different levels of potency) and specialty moves. The SP moves include a skill that lets you “control” robot enemies to use as items against other foes. From my experience only one enemy in the entire game can be controlled like this so it’s a waste and a gimmick. Another is Protect, that seals an ability of the enemy. Except, again, for specific enemies this doesn’t really make much of a difference. Programs can also be used on enemies and bosses, but these are story related. Many programs are collected at various parts of the game’s story but not used until the very end, so a little confusing on when to use stuff.
The combat itself is very simplistic. There are only two status ailments, poison and sleep, and no other variety of attacks, so all enemies essentially do the same thing: basic attack or they try and ail you. The animations vary, but all attacks have the same properties. In the end, despite the variety of battle options and enemy types, fights come down to just bashing heads against each other until one is dead. Healing is very important as the game can be savage as hell. There are a lot of annoying enemies; some dodge constantly, some have crazy defense, some hit like doomsday devices, and some just love to poison you. Poison is a real piss-off because the only way to heal it is to use a Cure Body item – not even healing at a hotel cures it. So you either have to always have slots dedicated to Cure Body, or enjoy puking down the corridors until you can buy one. Pain in the ass. Sometimes enemies will just smoke you, so grinding and luck are required. It’s not surprising to find oneself constantly healing, and dying is a very expensive venture. Enemies can appear at hair-rippingly high rates in the hallways making sure you either have to flee everyone or slog through their corpses. Fleeing doesn’t always work, and you of course lose out on precious EXP and money that is totally needed to stand a chance against tougher baddies.
The bosses are also quite rough. Some can use barriers like you, which stalls. One boss can inexplicably attack 3-5 times in succession, each hit doing mild damage but altogether adding up to heavy damage. So I seal his ability with protect and that stops his multi-strike! Cool! But now his single attack just does heavy damage equivalent to the sum of the multi-strike…it made no real difference. He was a boss that needed barrier spam. The last boss ends up being total bullshit because you can’t use your barrier, he often attacks twice, needs a SP move used on him and hits like a goddamn bulldozer through paper mache. I stocked up on hard-hitting items and just spammed them on him, he dodged them like it was his day job, so it was trial and error as I did not feel like grinding any more.
The game sprinkles some other gametypes early, such as hoverboarding through a town and playing simple video games against gamers. This shook things up which was nice, but completely disappears only like 30% through the game.
Eventually you go full cyborg, enter cyberspace, kill the evil program that’s trying to rule the world, and escape back out with Digital Venus, saving the country. Happy ending for all.
Shadow Brain’s got a cool aesthetic, neat vibes, and some interesting enemy/characters, but it’s also repetitive, difficult, and becomes a drag. Just bashing against enemies on the way to next event and then going on to the next. One could argue that doesn’t sound too different from some other old RPGs, but compared to others this felt like it was just tedious at times. Parts of the game require you to wander around (again bumping into repetitive battles) talking to NPCs etc to figure out where to go, what to get, or what to use. The repetitive battles would be less of a hassle if some enemies didn’t make it their life mission to destroy your face. When I am grinding or trying to boogie along, despite my higher level and only taking minimal damage, some enemies would still dodge attacks stubbornly, drawing out what should be quick work. Basic enemies can suck resources out of you in a hot minute, especially if their hobby is poisoning you. Getting the passive AP regeneration item was a life saver and completely necessary to keep up a decent pace.
Maybe I was just impatient.
In the future I will more than likely forget the frustrations of the game and simply remember it being kinda cool, so it’s a win for Shadow Brain.