Spider-Man! Spider-Man! Does whatever a Spider-Man does! Spidey has always been one of my favorite superheroes, and now you can take him with you!  Spider-man is back in action on Nintendo’s portable system, this time to stop Venom and a horde of rampaging symbiotes. Along the way he’ll have to ally with some old friends…and some old enemies. Will the city be overrun? Can Venom be stopped? Can a superhero game actually not suck?

In this iteration of Spider-man, Amaze Entertainment seemingly took their style from the Ultimate Spider-Man universe. If you’re familiar with those comics, then you’re also familiar with the art style – Spidey is drawn with huge eyes, tremendous flexibility, and a youthful appearance. While the style is a bit more “cartoon-y” than some other Spider-Man titles, it’s a perfect fit for the DS. The bold colors and exaggerated movements really help the playability on the DS’ small screen.


Spider-Man’s adventures this time around don’t have him swinging through skyscrapers, as he’s limited to a two-dimensional playing field. As such, the graphics are suited more for a platformer than a 3D title. However, Amaze did a great job packing a lot of detail into the backgrounds. Even though the environments you’ll be playing through are a little hum-drum (sewers, pier, etc.), the backgrounds are crisp and clean. This is particularly important since the hero you control and the enemies are rather tiny, and could have easily been lost in an environment that was too busy.


The animation deserves special mention, as Amaze really did an outstanding job. While Spidey’s movements are almost comically exaggerated (for example, when he’s running), these broad movements help you easily keep track of the action – particularly when fighting large numbers of enemies. The animations also contain some great detail. When Spidey uses his comical scissor-kick maneuver to rapidly kick an enemy in the face, you’ll be able to make out every movement. Everything from web-swinging to creeping up walls is fun to watch. Enemies are also well-done. Symbiotes will transform before your eyes or convincingly rise out of a goo puddle. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the graphics worked to make the gameplay easy on the eyes even though the figures are so tiny.

Web of Shadows holds up well in the sound department. The voice acting is by and large very good, with Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) sounding just as youthful and smart-alecky as you’d imagine. While there is a generous amount of cornball humor, there are instances in which the developers poke fun at the game itself. For instance, at one point after grabbing a collectible heart (which increases your life bar), Spidey quips that “if” he had a life meter, it would be increasing right now. These little touches give the game a nice sense of humor that hearkens back to Spider-Man’s early roots.


The music is generally well done. Big fights and boss encounters are met with an increasingly dramatic score which helps heighten the tension. While nothing about it was particularly memorable, I never found it annoying or distracting.

Web of Shadows packs a lot of combat mechanics into such a tiny game. Not only do you have to worry about climbing up walls, slinging your web, or punching enemies, you also have a variety of combos you can implement – some of them even in mid-air. The good news is that the controls feel extremely tight and responsive. I rarely had any problems getting to where I wanted to go via my web slinging, and even randomly slinging around felt completely natural. At times you will have those “how the heck did I just pull that off?” moments that will bring a smile to your face.


Combos are generally easy to do. No Mortal Kombat-style button sequences, though some do require a certain degree of timing. You can also pull off some nifty maneuvers with your web, such as ensnaring enemies or pulling them to you for a kick in the face. Using a combination of all of these maneuvers (plus your climbing/web swinging abilities) makes combat feel very fluid and remarkably sophisticated for such a limited set of buttons. The only downside is that you will wear your thumb out. Enemies tend to be pretty tough, and because you’re generally only using one button to attack you may find yourself taking frequent breaks to rest your fingers.

If you’re familiar at all with the Castlevania series of games, you’ll feel right at home in Spider-Man:Web of Shadows. The game utilizes the same multi-level 2D mapping system of those games. As Spider-Man you are free to roam wherever you’d like, though some parts of the game will be off limits until you unlock a particular power. Save points are scattered throughout the maps and clearly marked, and also serve as hubs to purchase new powers.


The upgradeable power system is one thing that gives Web of Shadows a unique feeling of being more than another simple platform action title. Spider-Man has the ability to change into one of two suits at the click of a button – his familiar red and blue outfit or his black outfit. Each of these suits contains its own set of powers and combos, and a third set of powers and combos can be used with either suit. As you defeat enemies you will gain experience, and you’ll get more experience the longer the combo you can string together. This experience can then be used to buy new powers at any save point.


Most powers are combat-related and give you access to new fighting combos. Occasionally some will upgrade existing combos, making them do more damage or last longer. The handful of non-combo powers include increases to Spidey’s overall toughness or attack speed. Unlocking these powers definitely makes a huge difference in the game – certain areas will be amazingly tough if you have not unlocked appropriate combos. One disappointment, however, is that choice of suit doesn’t seem to make a tremendous difference. While I occasionally had to use the black suit to break through a wall with my dash ability, I played through the majority of the game in the good old red n’ blue. The two suits even tend to share similar sets of upgrades. It would have been nice if there had been a little more incentive to use one over the other.


Powering up suits via upgrades is not the only option available to you, however. Another way Spider-Man can be upgraded is through collectible items found hidden away throughout the game. Heart containers will increase Spider-Man’s life meter, and other collectibles will enhance his suit or web. For instance, one might enable his suit to stick to symbiotic goo, or give him the ability to smash through symbiotic walls. In most cases these major suit upgrades serve to give you access to areas of the game that were formerly unavailable.


There’s not much in the way of plot here – Spider-Man is simply tracking down Venom so he can try to stop the wave of symbiotes that have been unleashed upon the city. However, the game does have some tricks to move the story forward, including meeting up with some familiar characters such as Black Cat or the Green Goblin. You’ll also have plenty of boss fights to deal with, some of which can be quite tough. The good news is that you can call on characters you’ve met to give you a hand during these boss battles. For example, Green Goblin will throw pumpkin bombs at the enemy, and Black Cat will drop plenty of health bubbles. These allies are on a timer, however, so you can only use them infrequently during a battle.


While the free-roaming level design and combat are very fun, they can also be a little frustrating. You will often have to backtrack through areas you’ve already “cleared” only to find everything has respawned again. While many times you can avoid enemies by simply swinging or crawling over their heads, some areas will remain locked until you defeat all enemies in the room. Because enemies are so tough to take down, you’ll spend a lot of time beating up things you’ve already beat up before. This can be particularly frustrating when you get into rooms where several enemies attack at once – you go down a lot easier than they do, so getting trapped between enemies (who can use combos of their own) can be a quick way to die.


Speaking of death, Web of Shadows utilizes a neat little mini-game when you kick the bucket. When Spider-Man is knocked unconscious, you will see a picture of him on the touch screen surrounded by clusters of incoming health bubbles. With the stylus you try to drag as many health bubbles onto Spidey as you can before time runs out. Dragging enough of them will allow Spider-Man to regain full health when he respawns, while being too slow may mean he only respawns with a little health. While this is ultimately more a detriment than a benefit (since it’s sometimes tough to get full health), it does provide a soothing little break from the action when you die.


 

So the game has great combat mechanics and animation, nice free-roaming level design – what’s the downside? Well, unfortunately it’s game length. Web of Shadows is really short. If you speed through it you can finish it in around four hours, and if you play it as an average gamer it may take you seven or eight hours on the high end. Most of the game’s length is purely artificial – having to backtrack through enemies and save points, having to explore to find increases for your health bar, or having to grind out experience to get powers just so you can survive. If you’re the type who wants to explore every nook and cranny and doesn’t mind a lot of repetitive combat, you’ll probably get plenty of quality time out of it. However, if you simply want to grind out your XP, buy all your powers at once, and blow through the plot, you may finish far sooner than you’d expect.


Unfortunately there’s not much in the way of replayability here, unless you’d like to try to beat the game using one suit over another. It’s a game you could easily play again just for the fun of beating enemies to a pulp, but there’s no real gameplay reason to do so.

While Web of Shadows is not the perfect Spider-Man game, it’s certainly a quality offering and is heads and shoulders above the previous Spider-Man DS title. The Castlevania-style 2D gameplay works surprisingly well for a superhero game, and the exploration and respawning enemies provide a tough challenge. Unlocking new powers and learning to use new combos is a lot of fun. However, the game is very short and experienced gamers will finish it quickly. A decent game length is hidden in there, but it will depend on your tolerance level for exploration and fighting the same enemies over and over again. Despite this drawback the game is a lot of fun while it lasts, and certainly makes a welcome addition to the DS’ library of action titles.

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