Review: Lost in Shadow
Developer: Hudson Soft / Publisher: Hudson Entertainment / ESRB: Everyone 10+ (Animated Blood, Mild Fantasy Violence)
It seems like a rarity for a Wii game to have a unique selling point that isn’t about the controls. Yes, we get it, you can flail that sucker around and make things happen. Good for you. Lost In Shadow, the new game from Hudson Soft, actually has a novel concept: you play as your character’s shadow, and not the character itself. (Yes, that’s different from LIMBO. That game had silhouettes. Yes, there’s a difference.) You can still flail that sucker around and make things happen, only this time they look interesting while you’re doing it. But the real question remains: Is Lost In Shadow as good as it looks?
Eh… It’s pretty good, I guess.
Lost In Shadow doesn’t so much have a story as an idea for one. There’s a gargantuan tower, you see, but it’s been taken over by a shadow monster with arms and legs sticking out of it, looking a lot like the orgy monster from the end of The House On Haunted Hill remake. The conspicuously absent owners of the tower have decided that the best way to deal with the infestation of shadow monsters is to cut the shadows away from a young boy and let them figure out how to handle it on their own. The whole tale is presented in a very understated way, which helps hide the fact that there isn’t enough exposition for it to make any sense whatsoever. Who are these people? Why should we even care? These are not questions Lost In Shadow deigns to answer, which is a shame because the teensiest bit of backstory would have made the game infinitely more involving. It seems fine enough while you’re playing it, but you’ll be playing it for so long with so little to go on that the story seems more like an excuse for the mechanics than an actual… you know, story.
Lost In Shadow is a dyed-in-the-wool sidescroller. You jump on objects, attack enemies and solve various little puzzles along the way. The game’s unique selling point – you play as the shadow of a character rather than the character itself, manipulating light sources to alter the two-dimensional terrain – does a fairly good job of making Lost In Shadow distinctive… for a while. Lost In Shadow turns out to be a surprisingly long game but runs out of new tricks very quickly. It’s a very effective platformer – some of the puzzles are clever, enemy types are varied, controls are sound – but once you get used to the gimmicks it just doesn’t seem fresh anymore. Maybe if the game were six hours shorter we wouldn’t have had the time to notice how milquetoast it really is.
But before you get bored with Lost In Shadow, something that’s less likely to happen if you space your playthroughs out a bit (an option us critics don’t always have, grumble-grumble), you’ll find yourself dealing with some new mechanics beyond the usual running and jumping and slicing. Using the WiiMote you can highlight certain foreground elements and rotate them, changing the shape of their shadows so you can climb on them (something practically every puzzle seems to rely on). Sometimes you can also move light sources left/right or up/down, extending shadows or shifting them to the sides, again for navigation purposes. These things aren’t so much innovations as modifiers for standard sidescrolling action, but they do qualify as “nifty.”
There are mini- levels throughout the game called ‘Shadow Corridors’ which provide a short, specific challenge halfway through most levels. At first they seemed like padding (something Lost In Shadow has no need of), but as the game got harder and I started dying a few times I realized that they’re actually mid-level checkpoints that make you work for them, and that’s actually kind of clever. These Shadow Corridors are occasionally annoying for their mechanic that allows you to move the actual camera left or right, which is a sound idea in theory but the foreground is rarely clear enough for you to make an informed decision about which direction to turn. Since the wrong choice usually kills you, this qualifies as something of a design flaw.
But really, Lost In Shadow’s biggest problem is pacing. The game keeps threatening to end with messages saying things like “Almost there” or “Just one more thing” which are then followed by either heavy backtracking or whole new levels with long-sounding names like “Garden Labyrinth.” Too much of a good thing is still a good thing, but when a game approaches a natural climax (as Lost In Shadow does multiple times) finding out that there’s still six hours to go – particularly when there aren’t any real characters or plot points to care about – actually becomes a little annoying. And the new levels are pretty much just more of the same thing, so what started as solid gameplay eventually turns pretty tedious.
For a Wii title, Lost In Shadow looks pretty darned good. Of course that’s damning with faint praise. The textures are still pretty blocky and the detail is minimal, giving Lost In Shadow the appearance of decent PlayStation 2 game at best, but with this game’s concept and minimalist approach the graphics do everything they need to do, over and over again. There’s only one series of levels in which Lost In Shadow pulls a visual switcheroo on you and it was a very bad idea. The colors clash, the background is too busy and overall it’s just genuinely difficult to watch. But the rest of the time Lost In Shadow’s graphics get the job done very well. The shadow effects are very atmospheric, and the ubiquitous foreground elements make it feel distinctive from similar-looking games like LIMBO.
The music for Lost In Shadow is frequently lost in the background. No catchy tunes or badass guitar strums for this ethereal game. It only leads to problems thanks to the game’s exceptional length: a more varied musical score could have alleviated many of the pacing problems from which Lost In Shadow suffers, but instead the tone rarely changes, leaving almost every level sounding like the one before it, and the one after it, and the one after that, and so on. It’s also pretty melancholy stuff. I found myself getting depressed after extended playthroughs.
The sound effects are all well done, although they’re also pretty standard fare: swords that go ‘swoosh,’ footsteps that go ‘tap-tap-tap’ and so on. Some of the enemies make unexpected and distinctive noises, however, like chirping birds or babies’ cries or a bizarre and frightened “Oh no!” from the less anthropomorphic baddies when they die. It’s a good example of how creative sound choices can make relatively straightforward game design seem more interesting. It’s a shame that the rest of the game doesn’t usually follow suit.
I’m worried that I’m making Lost In Shadow sound bad. It’s not bad. It’s actually rather good. It’s just nothing terribly new. The distinctive look of the game and light-based mechanics do a great job of making a familiar sidescroller seem new and exciting, but over time they too become familiar and we’re left with a standard – although above-par – platformer. A worthy game, just not a great one.