Lost In Shadow
Once upon a time, there was a boy who lost his shadow. No, that’s too euphemistic. The Shadow was cut out of him. Slashed. Ripped. It dropped onto the ancient stone floor beneath his body, lying in a crumpled near-weightless mass of darkness. Before it could get its bearings, it was swiftly thrown over the nearest ledge, plunging thousands of feet into the outskirts of the tower below. Rather than allowing itself to be consumed by the loss of its body, The Shadow decided to climb back up the tower and find the boy. Fueled by nothing but the determination to regain its identity, it must fight its way to the where its misadventure began.
It’s got the makings of some kind of twisted fairy tale. The protagonist isn’t trying to save the world, let alone a hero; it’s just trying to get back to its rightful place. That’s how it begins, at least. As you climb further into the tower, the rest of the plot will slowly unveil itself via flashbacks and text. You’ll eventually discover the reason why The Shadow was separated from the boy, as well as the true purpose of your adventure. By the time you reach the top of the tower, everything you assumed up to that point will be put into question, and you’ll be forced to look at your quest from a completely different perspective. The gradual revelations are made especially poignant with The Shadow’s lost memories, which are scattered around the tower as pick-ups. Aside from providing some insight into the character (the emotional pain of losing its body, feelings of isolation, the willpower to continue, etc.), they also add a tiny bit to The Shadow’s weight and overall health. Not only will remembering things give it strength, but will fully flesh out the rest of the story.
That’s assuming you get that far. At its most basic, Lost In Shadow is a platforming game. You’ll have to jump and fight your way through every floor of the tower, each of which is designed as its own level. It’ll start off with some simple obstacles, like a bottomless pit, a row of spikes, and a handful of baddies. But the further you climb, the more complex the stages become. The linear stages give way to massive labyrinths crammed with re-spawning and occasionally invincible enemies, rows of deadly buzz saws, and plumes of fire. Not to mention all of the switches, levers, doors, and other obstacles you’ll have to contend with. Given the sheer amount of branching paths, interconnected hallways, and dead ends you’ll inevitably encounter, it’s surprisingly easy to get lost in the higher levels. The situation is made further complicated by the Monitor Eyes, which act as checkpoints and pickups throughout the level. If you don’t find all of them, you won’t be able to progress to the next floor. While few of them require anything more than a little puzzle solving, some exploration will uncover alternate routes and hidden areas. It’d all make for an average platforming title, but except for one, huge detail:
It’s all in shadow.
Your character might be climbing a tower, but it won’t be using the stairs. The adventure takes place on the walls and floors of the rooms, and the layouts of each stage is determined by the kinds of shades they project into the background. A gilded balcony in the foreground will turn into a deadly row of spikes. A box might cast an insurmountable wall of darkness. Moving machinery will morph and twist itself into different shapes, creating temporary ledges and passages. If you find yourself unable to progress, you’ll have to enlist the aid of a fairy who – in the game’s only needless gimmick – can interact with certain objects. Doing so requires you to hold down a button and comb over the screen (this is thankfully nowhere near as tedious as Metroid: Other M, which used a similar mechanic), until you find whatever needs to be moved. It’ll usually be a section of pipe, a gate, or some discarded factory part. Not to mention the areas that let you control their light sources; depending on how you position a light bulb, whole sections will expand or contract, thus getting you through otherwise impassable obstacles. That’s on top of the Shadow Corridors, little tears in the fabric of reality that whisk you away into another dimension. Those levels are among the best aspects of the game; rather than forcing you into another platforming scenario, they have you rotate the entire stage on its axis, constantly screwing with camera perspective and forcing you to think creatively.
These moments of brilliance don’t last long, though. By the time you start enjoying the clever puzzles, you’ll have finished them and moved back to the relatively bland platforming of the regular levels. The stages aren’t bad, but they are horribly, utterly repetitive. The layouts become more complex, but they use the same elements almost every time. The same moving blocks, flame-spewing pipes, and only slight variations of obstacles. You’ll be able to solve the light bulb-based puzzles with a glance. You’ll see the same kinds of enemies over and over, just with bigger shadows and stronger attacks. The combat tends to drag on because of The Shadow’s pathetic arsenal – you’ll only have a sword on your first playthrough – and an incredibly limited (in terms of both variety and hit detection) three-hit attack combo. The only thing you get for defeating enemies is some health recovery and experience points, which eventually boost your attack power. You’d think the game designers would have found a more creative way to use all of those discarded shadows; what about modifying weapons, acquiring new powers, or even a simple blocking maneuver? The combat mechanics are functional, but nowhere near as deep as they should have been. They make the battles seem almost as tedious as the rest of the stages.
With such grating and monotonous gameplay, you’ll likely suffer through most of the game. You’ll start wondering if you should just turn it off and play something more entertaining. By the time you’re six or seven hours in, you’ll have lost almost any will to keep playing; you’ll silently pray that the next level will miraculously do something, anything different…and it does. I won’t spoil what happens, but the game throws you a serious curveball about halfway through the adventure. It takes everything you’ve taken for granted about the stages you’ve just finished, and twists it in the most awesome way possible. The tower will suddenly seem much, much bigger, and reaching its top will be the least of your worries. While it’s great that the game manages to surprise you, the fact that it takes six or seven hours for the gameplay to develop to its full potential is annoying. Not only does it completely knock the pacing off-balance, but it detracts from the level designs themselves. Had the game embraced all of its features early on, there would have been more opportunity to see more variety and creativity. The latter half of the adventure may drastically improve things, but it might not be enough to keep you playing.
Nor will the presentation. Lost In Shadow relies heavily on its unique style, but doesn’t fully utilize the Wii’s graphical capabilities. You’ll be able to see the shadows easily – the animations for the giant spiders and lizards are remarkably fluid – but the physical objects come off as grainy and blocky. What should have been a beautiful stained-glass shrine is nothing more than a bland backdrop of sunlit walls and the occasional hint of color. The residential areas seem underdeveloped; aside from a few discarded bicycles and some clotheslines, they lack personality. The Shadow Corridors, despite all their clever designs, are rendered blurry by overused bloom lighting effects. The light bulb puzzle areas are what really stand out; you’ll watch the whole section bend and sway in tune with the moving light fixture, giving new life to the otherwise bland level. Not to mention the rare boss battles, which force you to flee from a gigantic mass of writhing shadow limbs and just managing to escape with a couple of pixels between you and death. Combined with a tense music theme, those few moments are the only times in which you will feel in danger, let alone challenged.
That doesn’t mean that Lost In Shadow is a bad game. It uses a simple, dark fairy tale as its story, gradually revealing everything to anyone willing to make the effort to see it. It’ll take a lot, too; the platforming and puzzle-based stages become much larger and more complex as the adventure wears on. The Shadow Corridors offer a brilliant and creative approach to level design and camera perspective. The problem is that the game never uses its ideas and concepts to their fullest extent. Despite the decent variety of obstacles and enemies, the quest becomes tedious and repetitive after a few hours. The combat mechanics are shallow at best; had there been a few additional default weapons, a better moveset, and more refined item and leveling systems, it would have made the process far more interesting. The adventure is salvaged halfway through via an awesome, gameplay-altering twist, but getting to it requires far more effort and time than it should have. With such terrible pacing, you might not want to continue. But if you do, you’ll be treated to a solid, if underdeveloped platformer. Patience is a virtue.