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Review: A Shadow's Tale
What is it?
A brilliantly innovative platform adventure in which you play as the shadow of a young boy who's trying to return to his body.
What we like
Dark, sinister atmosphere. Superb pacing. Challenging, thoughtful levels. Unique gameplay mechanics. Genius premise. Spectacular audio visual design.
What we don't like
Death is harsh and forces you to replay levels from scratch. Occasionally jaggy visuals made us wish this was on HD platforms.
A Shadow's Tale proves that Japanese game design is alive and well. By taking a simple, elegant idea, Hudson has created a platformer like no other, and is a candidate for Game of the Year.
Every now and then, a game pops up out of nowhere and catches everyone off guard with its breathtaking quality and effortless craft and brilliance - A Shadow's Tale is one such rare gem. Arriving free of the usual accompanying hype, it comfortably holds its own alongside the very best games released all year on any system. It's a true cult classic in-waiting.
Developed by Japanese veterans Hudson, it tells an unsettling and affecting story of a young boy's battle to reclaim the body that has been literally ripped from him. Forced into a strange out-of-body limbo state, the premise is to guide his shadow up to the top of a trap-laden tower, full of eery, groaning apparitions, vicious giant bugs and unwaveringly deadly manifestations of evil. Think Lewisham on a Saturday night.
With no body to call his own, he exists purely in the ethereal world of shadows, running atop the outlines of whatever the sun has cast against the scenery. In practical gameplay terms, the game still essentially operates in the same way as a traditional side-scrolling 2D platformer would, so what probably sounds like a far-out concept clicks pretty much straight away.
This wide-eyed immediacy is one of the things that hooks you into the sinister world that you inhabit. Although you would never describe A Shadow's Tale as a horror game as such, there's an almost Silent Hill-esque tension woven into the fabric of the entire experience, from the desaturated colour scheme and spindly monsters, to the creeping dread infused into its chilling audio design.
As you leap around tentatively in search of levers to pull, and orbs to collect, it's a game to get your blood rushing, with the ever present knowledge that one misstep will chip away at your precious life force. Shadowy black monsters with red eyes lie in wait at every turn, ready to pounce, but with a well-timed swish of your trusty blade, you can send them back to whatever hellish place they came from. It's a basic but effective combat system, relying on timing precision and no small amount of bravery as you take on giant roaches and hissing spiders en route to your mysterious destination.
Coming bank to life
With every small victory, you not only restore a small chunk of the 'weight' of your shadow, but gradually level up the overall mass of your shadow. With some sort of dreadful, all-powerful shadow monster to face at some point, you need all the power you can get - but it's not easy, when you can't even interact properly with the real world.
With memories to collect in the harder-to-reach parts of the world, the initial sense of total mystery starts to fade, and a greater sense of purpose becomes apparent. You start to notice sections of the 'real' world that can surely be accessed once you've regained enough of your powers, and so it proves a few hours in. Just when you think the game might be settling into a comfortable, predictable pattern, it ups the ante and changes the way you interact with the world.
This evolution of the puzzle design helps make the game somewhat more challenging, too. From basic lever pulling and pipe rotation, you find yourself briefly venturing into the three dimensional world to adjust the scenery to allow safe passage for your shadow form. Along the way you'll also enter progressively more challenging Shadow Passages, where you're briefly tasked with rotating part of the a strange otherworld in order to escape to a new section of the level. It's brilliantly disorientating, but never less than hugely engaging.
Of course, as you go along, the game starts to really test you, and is never content to merely offer more of the same. Level construction becomes more complex, with some hugely satisfying puzzles to unpick. Likewise, enemies become larger and more aggressive, with increasingly unpredictable behaviour. On top of that, some of them are just plain disturbing, emitting strangled moans as they disappear into an inky splodge.
Perhaps the most satisfying thing about A Shadow's Tale is how remarkably polished it feels in all areas, from the precise controls, to the challenging puzzles, to the tense combat. It feels determined to entertain at all times, with a bite-sized structure that never overwhelms, and keeps you engaged right the way through. Its worst crime is to force you to start a level from the start if you die, but given their manageable size, even that doesn't seem like a punishment.
Following on from the atmospheric masterpiece that was Limbo, A Shadow's Tale sits comfortably alongside Playdead's XBLA classic as another example of the ongoing platform gaming renaissance. With its wonderfully original premise, refined playability and engrossing atmosphere, A Shadow's Tale is an outside bet for Game of the Year.
A Shadow's Tale is out on 15 October for Nintendo Wii