This week, Zero Punctuation review A Shadow's Tale.
What's this? Some actual game releases in 2011? Fucking finally. Well, a release, anyway , a 2D platformer on the Wii. Jeez, don't all crowd in at once, guys.
Known as A Shadow's Tale in the blimey, guv'nor, chips and gravy, bangers and chimney sweep, "Gor bless you, marm" U.K., Lost in Shadow in the yee-haw, Big Mac and fries, pumpkin pie, Bay of Pigs invasion U.S., and in crikey, stone the crows, kangaroo, ANZAC biscuit Australia it's known as When the Hell Are They Going to Release This Fucking Game, Cobber? I know we're a bit out of the way, but we are the world's biggest island nation; it's not like we're hard to spot on a map. I had to import it from the U.K. and it showed up all smelling of chip fat and xenophobia. Not that I'm bitter or anything, but when the nuclear holocaust brings down Western civilization and Australia survives by virtue of being largely self-sufficient and in a position of little strategic value, I am so not sending you any of my meat pie floater.
But I digress.
A Shadow's Tale - I'm going to keep calling it A Shadow's Tale because fuck America for wanting to be different and special all the time - opens with a rather sickly young fellow hanging out on top of a tower that resembles a steampunk version of the Half-Life 2 citadel. Then Darth Vader shows up and swings a magic sword vaguely in the boy's direction that cuts his shadow off. Then he grabs the shadow and throws it off the tower in a series of gestures that would to an outside observer look like he was either practicing the Yorick speech from Hamlet, or angrily shaking his fist at a defiant cloud.
Anyway, later in the plot it transpires that the shadows of this lad are being send to combat a hideous shadow monster that beguiles the tower, although no explanation is given for why they can't just shine a big flashlight at it. Or if that's not an option, why they don't the shadows of, say, Sylvester Stallone holding a big gun. But I guess Darth Vader's hands are tied; when you're making a bleak, arty 2D platformer these days, the protagonist has to be a small, innocent child. It's some kind of law.
In one of my written columns - that's right, I do other things during the week - I made the point that the easiest way to get critically acclaimed is to make a game about a small child losing their innocence in a bleak, frightening, uncaring world much bigger than them. Because this is the permanent mental state of most adult male nerds in any situation more sociable than jerking off with a hand puppet. The ur-example of this sub-genre - as in, "urrr, what are you doing with that hand puppet?" - would be ICO, also known as I.C.O. if you're wrong, and it seems the developers of Lost in a Shadow's Tale agree, because the atmosphere is extremely reminiscent of that game. As well as the sound design, character design, monster design, environment design, colour scheme, and-- well, frankly, they might as well have called it ICO 2: We Forgot How to Make Good Games.
With the main character being literally a shadow, the other obvious comparison for me is Limbo. But while Limbo was a harrowing walk through a dark forest hand in hand with an unpleasant-smelling man breathing loudly through his nose, Shadows Whatever is more like a walk down a very long corridor hand in hand with a very boring man who occasionally stops to spit in your face.
Now, everyone knows the Wii isn't exactly the unseatable emperor of graphics hardware, but a 2D platformer shouldn't put too much of a strain upon the Wii's brittle, mongoloid bones. With that in mind, why does this game look like absolute arse? One would think that a game about a shadow navigating exclusively on shadows, swinging the shadow of a sword at shadow monsters would have high-quality shadows. But for the most part we appear to be controlling the shadow of King Graham circa 1984.
"Hey, our shadows look like Duplo recreations of swarms of bees."
"Oh, so they do. I know! Let's put a semi-transparent cloud image over the whole screen for the entirety of gameplay."
"But won't that also look like arse?"
"Yes, but criticism is easier to deal with if it's thinly spread."
The trouble with shadows is that they're not exactly what you'd call stimulating to look at. Even something as agreeable as a perfectly proportioned boobie in shadow just looks like a bumblebee sitting on a grapefruit. While the foreground varies, the game demands that our attention be focused exclusively on the shadows, and it'd be hard to find a more appropriate use for the word "monotone."
It's that particular brand of puzzle-platformer where every puzzle is this: "You can go left or right. You went left? A-ha, a wall! You fell into my clever trap. You had to go right first and pull a lever that opens up the wall on the left. Didn't you even know that, Mr. Thickywingwong?" Not really a puzzle, strictly speaking, is it? It's more like being a slightly lost mailroom clerk.
There are some rather disquietingly designed shadows of monsters that like nothing better than ruining your day, and dodging their attacks is rather awkward because your guy is probably getting a lot of inertia from that absurdly overlarge sword and needs a second or two's notice before he can change direction. Also, as overlarge as the sword is, it's slightly shorter than you think it is, so make sure you're close enough to lovingly bury your face in the monster's armpit sweat before you start hacking away.
There are some puzzle mechanics that use the shadow thing quite interestingly, such as the ability to bat at a light source like a bored cat, changing positions of shadows and therefore platforms, but every new mechanic is torturously witheld from you like a little sparkly fish dangled out of reach of a mesmorized cat until you've spent umpteen samey, boring levels mastering the last one. One late game mechanic is magic archways that let you temporarily turn back into a physical object, but I'd noticed several of those archways on various levels before you acquire this power. Oh, you're going to make me backtrack, aren't you, you little bastard.
Sure enough, after however many samey, boring levels it took to get to the top of the tower, I then had to go back through some samey, boring, tedious levels to gather some items to open up another set of samey, boring, tedious, interminable levels, which I'd thought would be end, but then some more samey, boring, tedious, interminable, prosaic levels started up and even reading this sentence is becoming samey, boring, tedious, interminable, prosaic and when does this fucking game end?
There are many ways to analyze a game, but uttering that sentence aloud never shines a positive light. It's a cute idea, but it'd better suit a short concept game like Limbo. It's way too long, and I gave up on it, abandoning forever an innocent child to a hostile, unforgiving land. Sometimes I still hear him crying late at night. He sounds exactly like a malfunctioning air conditioner.
A shadow of his former self: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
See the boss fight with that vampire dude in MGS2 for more examples of shadow-related bullshit
A Shadow Warrior's Tale of the Colossus Beast Comet Ninja