Drawing as much inspiration from Jordan Mechner’s classic Prince of Persia as from Team ICO’s gloomy, haunting aesthetics, Hudson’s Wii-exclusive Lost in Shadow seemingly begs for gamers’ attention.
The good news is that it’s a striking and impressive journey that manages to mimic its influences rather well in a few key areas. Unfortunately, it staggers in a few areas, and ultimately can't quite stand alongside the masterpieces that inspired it.
Lost in Shadow (Wii)
Developer: Hudson Soft
Publisher: Hudson Entertainment
Released: January 4, 2011
While the game unabashedly wears its influences on its sleeve, Lost in Shadow brings its own gimmick to the table: a world where a shadow boy runs, skips, and fights in twilight. While the foreground is almost always visible, it’s the dark shadows that the “real-world” environments cast that are tangible to the player. Navigating the world is mind-bending at first, like taking a trip through a hallucination. It’s natural to focus on the solid object in a game’s forefront, which can lead to some early confusion. But it’s not long before that uncertainty gives way to wholly understanding how to interact with this new world, and you’ll soon find yourself taking pleasure in discovering passages otherwise unobtainable, now shrouded in shadows.
Lost in Shadow is played using the Nunchuk and the Wii Remote, the analog stick on the former used to move the shadow boy around on the game’s 2D planes. The remote is home to buttons for other basic actions, like attacking enemies, jumping, and moving switches. It also acts as a pointer, or in this case, to move around Spangle, a helpful little sprite who can move physical switches and lights in the “real world.”
Lost in Shadow is as much about playing in the darkness as it is about playing with the darkness, and there’s where Spangle comes into play. The pint-sized fairy can be used to move objects and lights, shifting shadows and changing the lay of the land, creating new paths and allowing you to access new areas. While some of these object manipulation and light-shifting spots can be looked at as puzzles, there are few areas of Lost in Shadow that are so complicated that you’d be able to label them “puzzling.” Most are simply a matter of keeping an eye open or hunting and pecking around an environment for moveable objects. There’s certainly some clever, M.C. Escher-like design at play here, but folks looking for head-scratching moments will probably feel let down.
“Shadow Corridors” -- mysterious mini-realms found throughout the game’s areas -- change things up a bit, and feature mechanisms that allow you to shift the world from left to right in 3D space. Shift the wrong way and get crushed by a shadow; move it properly and create a new path. It’s definitely an interesting twist, but doesn’t really offer much beyond the initial novelty. Because you can only shift left or right, you have a 50-50 chance of choosing the right direction. Choose wrong and you’ll die before instantly being revived... in the very same spot where you just perished.
The goal is to work your way up the game’s enigmatic tower, and thus has you mostly working upward, with stages broken up in chunks of a few floors. The exits for each area are blocked by “Shadow Walls”; in order to pass through them, you’ll have to find and collect three “Monitor Eyes” found in the region. As the levels get more intricate, this often leads to quite a bit of backtracking, as missing a single tucked-away eye will have you cursing at your television as you stand in front of a dense, unpassable “Shadow Wall.” This gets particularly irritating in some of the game’s larger sections, which may find you doing more backpedaling than working your way up the game’s lofty tower.
On the subject of how the game is broken up, it should be mentioned that the only checkpoints come when completing those chunks of floors. That is to say that dying after spending 15 or more minutes traversing a single segment will send you right back to the start to do it again. While the game is light on intricate puzzles, there are plenty of traps and enemies to contend with, and most players will certainly drain their health more than a few times during their adventure. It’s great that Lost in Shadow offers some challenge; that’s not the issue. It’s just unfortunate that the lack of checkpoints can sometimes feel so brutal and exhausting.
Lost in Shadow’s combat is also regrettably shallow, sometimes to the point of irritation. It relies on a single-button combo system that has you tapping the Wii Remote’s B button three times to launch a series of attacks. Afterwards, you’re left completely vulnerable, as there is no guard or evade button. The result is an archaic and annoying “run and pop” type of combat, where you’ll move into an enemy, hit them a few times, and then turn your back and run away. This leaves you completely open to taking damage, which can quickly get irritating. Fortunately, this type of encounter repeats itself across almost all of the game’s adversaries, so once you get the pattern down, it becomes easy enough; it’s just not much fun.
Visually, Lost in Shadow cribs quite a bit from ICO, with a hazy aesthetic, giving the game a washed-out, mystifying look and feel. As you’d expect from a game called Lost in Shadow, there are some breathtaking plays on light and dark. Coupled with a haunting soundtrack, the developers do a respectable job imitating the same kind of otherworldly vibe found in Team ICO’s titles. But where games like ICO and Shadow of the Colossus managed to use that atmosphere in conjunction with characters to an emotional advantage, that’s where Lost in Shadow fails.
Simply put, there’s no real connection to the shadow boy or the game’s narrative, which spends all of its time trying to be mystifying but never really offering up much substance. While this ambiguous storytelling can sometimes work in a game’s favor, there’s usually some storyline breadcrumbs or a relationship that helps ground it in reality. Lost in Shadow offers very little, so it ultimately feels like a series of platforming trials and little more.
Thankfully, the designs of the bulk of Lost in Shadow’s platforming trials are clever enough, providing a mostly fun and memorable experience, if an emotionally empty one. For most, that will be enough; there’s something to be said about shrewd level design wrapped in an alluring artistic style that nods towards some of gaming’s greats. Still, it’s regrettable that Lost in Shadow stumbles in key places that make it a “good,” but never truly “great,” adventure.
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