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The developers of Lost in Shadow try to squeeze every drop they can from the game’s core mechanic, and they do an admirable job of it. The story follows an unnamed boy who has his shadow separated from his body, and his now-sentient shadow takes a long fall from the top of a tower that looks suspiciously like it came out of the world of ICO or Shadow of the Colossus. The shadow’s quest is to climb the tower and regain his body. This leads to a whole lot of classic 2D platforming, but requires 3D thinking due to the nature of shadows.
Above: Finding a magic sword is always a highlight of any videogame
The first interesting aspect of the game is that you have to learn how to look at a familiar 3D game world in a whole new way. Your character only interacts with objects’ shadows, but those objects are visible in the foreground and background, and all the nuances of how shadows stretch across the landscape come into effect. The boy also has a fairy companion who, we are thankful to say, doesn’t chirp in with “Listen!” or a similar call at all. She stays nice and quiet, and serves as your cursor so you can manipulate certain real-world objects. For instance, when you hold down B, the cursor becomes a sensor and can detect objects that can be interacted with. Usually it involves rotating a pipe, but unlike in a standard 3D game, the actual terrain you deal with as a result is more complicated, since a rotating pipe’s shadow changes shapes on a 2D plane much differently from its 3D counterpart.
This leads to a good amount of trial and error in Lost in Shadow, so player tolerances for that sort of thing should be taken into consideration. Much of it is fun because it’s endlessly interesting to see an object, wonder what shapes its shadow will take, and then view the surprising result. Sometimes it’s irritating because it’s hard to tell if something will kill you when you manipulate it in a certain way, but luckily these “deaths” really just instantly respawn you in the same spot with moderate damage, so the trial and error rarely gets truly frustrating.
Above: The enemies have wonderfully alien designs and attack in all sorts of ways
To progress up the floors of the tower, the boy must collect three “shadow eyes” on each stage. These objects don’t do anything other than open up the gate for the next stage, so they’re just keys really. These eyes are hidden in sometimes incredibly obscure ways, so although the game is 2D and your job is to get from A to B, there is a lot of lateral movement and backtracking involved. Lost in Shadow follows the time-honored formula of showing you something you can’t quite reach yet and then eventually opening the path up, although unlike in say Zelda or Metroid, most of these dangling carrots are solved within a single level, in a more compact fashion.
The combat in Lost in Shadow is simple: you get a sword which you can swing with B, and dealing with enemies requires sticking-and-moving when they attack. It gets the job done and doesn’t get old, since the game keeps introducing new enemies throughout the quest. Note that there is NO WAGGLE whatsoever – everything is done with buttons or the remote’s pointer.
Above: Your health is represented in grams (represented in the upper left), and as you find memories, your shadow becomes heavier, providing you more health
Speaking of which, one of the more interesting uses for the pointer is to slide light sources around in certain spots. Sometimes a meter will appear, either as a horizontal or vertical slider. You can grab onto the light bulb and move it around, stretching and leaning the shadows in the level, which brings platforms close enough for you to grab, or even send pillars shooting skyward while you stand on top of them. As with all the ways to play with shadows, the puzzles become more complex as the game progresses.
We don’t want to spoil exactly how it works, but there’s a late point in the game when a new mechanic shows up to turn your brain upside down. Although there are foreground and background objects throughout the game, for the most part you’ll learn to ignore them as so much visual noise because the important stuff is happening on the 2D plane where shadows intersect. It’s incredibly clever how the devs wait for a number of hours into the game before giving you an ability that suddenly forces you to pay attention to the solid, 3D elements of the world in a way you hadn’t before. It almost feels as if your eyes have to retrain themselves and it makes your brain hurt – but in a very good way.
Above: Although the shadows can seem easy to lose in the background in screenshots, it's actually easy to keep track of everything in motion
Unfortunately, Lost in Shadow hurts in ways that aren’t so good as well. As we mentioned before, the nature of the levels requires a good deal of backtracking, but until very late in the game it’s not a big deal. However, there’s a point where the game asks you to backtrack really, really far, and while revisiting old levels with new abilities proves interesting in a number of ways, for the most part it annoyed us and felt like unnecessary padding of the game’s length (which clocked in at a meaty 14 hours for us). The matter is exacerbated by multiple pathways within the old levels that aren’t easy to remember the route through, so considerable wandering around blindly will probably occur for most players during this segment.
The other part of the backtracking that can annoy is that since you must gather three eyes in every level before progressing, it’s easy to miss an eye early in a stage and then have to clamber all over the place, traipsing back through long sections to figure out what you missed. We didn’t have a problem with this in most levels, but it did crop up from time to time. Regardless of how much it affects a particular player, backtracking is a big part of the game due to the manipulation of the shapes of levels through shifting shadows – but again, most of the time the backtracking is in short stretches.
Above: The boy, who never says a word, is strangely endearing simply through his silhouette and body language
A final annoyance comes from the controls, which certainly aren’t horrible, but do cause some irritation here and there when you often have to make perfect leaps by hitting A at the last possible second before falling off a ledge. There are also some issues with sluggish climbing that get on the nerves when saw blades are and buzzing up and down ladders and you have to make quick leaps. Essentially the controls could have been more responsive for a more fluid experience, but they don’t affect the fun too much and often work quite well.
A big part of Lost in Shadow’s appeal comes not from the shadow gimmick but from the game’s tone and feel. The story is simple but affecting, and the world is fantastic in the way it slowly reveals more of what the tower is like. Sure, it probably couldn’t look the way it does without ICO to inspire it, but the lonely look and sound, with softly luminescent crumbling bricks and mellow ambient music, do the job of giving you the feeling of a lost character – lost not only in a big, scary world full of monsters, but lost from his very body.
Above: Objects that you can manipulate are detectable by the little winks of light on them - they might seem obvious, but it's easy to miss some of them when they're way in the foreground
Lost in Shadow comes together to form a unique package and is often inspired in its complex play of light and shadow. It’s a fun game that sometimes frustrates, but also really works your brain’s capacity for spatial awareness. It has moments of brilliance and excitement, but most of the time simmers at “fun” and doesn’t boil over into “superb.” If the premise has had you intrigued since it was introduced, we doubt you’ll be disappointed in the result.
Jan 4, 2011
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