Lost in Shadow struck gold at E3; almost overnight it went from a little known title to a critical darling. Its rich presentation and promising puzzle/platforming mechanics earned the praise of blogs and high profile gaming sites, including Digital Chumps' own Chris Stone and featured writer Ricardo Trejo-Castro. It even created a feel good story for Hudson, a smaller Japanese publisher most well known for Bomberman games. It's been a long road, including an odd turn that brought a European release months ago, but Lost in Shadow is finally here to kick off the first week of 2011.
Lost in Shadow's premise is a throwback to the minimalist days of gaming past. There's no elaborate narrative, no ridiculous cast of characters, and no arbitrary motivation. In fact, there's barely anything beyond pure player interaction. A nameless boy, your shadow has been stripped of your body and tasked with ascending a tower in hopes of vanquishing the nefarious shadow monsters within. Bits of narrative are relayed through collectable memories scattered throughout the levels, though all but a precious few contain any worthwhile text.
Your character is absent of personality but not of attributes. Turns out a shadow's health is measured in weight, which is collected in grams throughout the game. Weight can be added by collecting memories or leveling up. Experience points are gained via blue orbs expunged from vanquished enemies, which also typically emit red orbs for health restoration. The whole system is rather plain, making it hard to notice much difference, but at least Lost in Shadow is generous with its orbs.
Progression is simple. The tower features dozens of floors that must be covered in a relatively linear, mostly 2D manner. Each level, which contains a few floors, contains three Monitor Eyes that must be located and collected in order to unlock a gate, dubbed the Shadow Wall, to the next set of floors. Monitor Eyes are meant to be collected in a certain order, but the opportunity to go backwards is always available (if not slightly cumbersome). Covering treaded ground isn't the most convenient method of travel, but with a few exceptions the paths branch in a relatively intuitive manner.
Simple platforming is supported by even more simple combat, effectively rendering Lost in Shadow a two button game. A bit of a flourish arrives by way of Spangle, a voiceless fairy employed by the Wii-mote pointer to activate subtly marked environmental objects for ease of traversal. While the levels are fairly cohesive, each also contains an exit to a challenge room (of sorts) called a Shadow Corridor. I found these to be the most fun portions of the game, as their trial-and-error means of progression weren't subject to the same progress destroying, demoralizing penalties of the proper game. Mechanics extend through means I'm not willing to spoil as the game reaches the later third, at which point the only fault is making the player wish the entire game was just as involved and complex as the final act.
As expected, shadow play is the creative hook driving most of the platform mechanics. At first, controlling a shadow is arresting; watching the image stretch with light or wrap around a corner provides a curious fascination, one that the developers seek to extend through a few cool tricks. Occasionally you're given control of a light source the grants manipulation of surrounding platforms. By adjusting a slider, you're essentially changing the dynamic of the shadows cast by the platforms in real time. Other examples, specifically those in which you're directly interacting between the real world and the world of shadows to reach your goal, are equally impressive. Even when the end result isn't fundamentally dissimilar, there was always a certain charm that went in manipulating object's shadows, as opposed to directly affecting the actual object.
Unfortunately Lost in Shadow never completely runs away with its promise. Clever light puzzles and Echochrome-inspired sections of perspective shifting are fun while they last, but soon the game inevitably submits to familiar platform convections. Switches need to be thrown to open gates, arbitrary enemies must be slaughtered to lift barriers, crates need to be pushed, mirrors plead to reflect light, and countless buzz saws and arrows are all fixated on reliving the better parts of platform games past. It's all done reasonably well, even if player control is a bit dodgy, but only small portions of Lost in Shadow could be considered new or novel.
The basis for this predicament lies not in the development team's ambition but rather an awareness of their limitations. Anyway you spin in, Lost in Shadow was clearly not constructed with the mega budgets afforded most other high profile games. It feels as if the team was aware of this and made the best of what they had, which was a solid foundation on classic tropes along with a few cool ideas of their own to augment the experience.
And if it wasn't clear enough in preview coverage or any seasoned gamer's intuition, a large part of that process began with Ico. The ultra saturated, bleeding-light aesthetic married to sword-wielding protagonist dead set on crushing shadows calls to mind Fumito Ueda’s PlayStation 2 classic. Lost in Shadow creates an impressive facsimile of the style, but forgot to translate the accompanying mood. The environments are heavily repeated and impossible to discern from one floor to another. Certain themed floors might feature a hint or two of human familiarity, such as the lonely bicycle found in the residential area, but as a whole the endless wave of pipes and moving platforms feel constructed for, rather than around, the player. To put more blatantly, Lost in Shadow failed to say anything of importance. Placing a smudge filter over the lens or tasking me with beating insect-like creatures to death was nothing more than a means to an end. The sense of danger or isolation that should have joined the alluring aesthetic was often replaced with a vapid progression of A to B.
All of this would have been more difficult to detect had the pacing been a little bit better. Those who wish to totally avoid spoilers should avoid the rest of this paragraph, but it came as a considerable shock to that ascending the tower was not the end of the boy's journey. In fact, even completing the next reasonable challenge wasn't the finale either. Memories discovered on my journey pointed toward and false end-game, as did challenges that, while not directly repeating, started to feel a little too familiar. More game isn't necessarily a poor quality, the fourteen hours on my play clock were above expectations, but the constant "oh...another one" sentiment felt defeating and lacked incentive. The eventual conclusion was appropriate, but by that point Lost in Shadow had already worn out its welcome.