Lost in Shadow review: Succumbing to the dark side

Lost in Shadow isn't a bad game. At times, it soars. But it doesn't know when to quit. It begins as a cerebral platformer with an inspired gimmick, then keeps adding ill-advised play mechanics and new story beats when the main narrative thread has frayed. Like a stand-up comedian who lingers onstage long after the audience has stopped laughing, Lost in Shadow's greatest achievement turns out to be how thoroughly it squanders its goodwill.

It's a shame, because things start so well. A brief introductory sequence shows a boy's shadow severed from his body, and dumped from the top of a high tower. When the game begins, you find yourself controlling not the boy, but the shadow. This takes a bigger mental adjustment than you'd expect. Robust, three-dimensional objects float uselessly by in the foreground, while the real action is projected in two dimensions against the rear walls, deep in your field of vision. A simple enough idea, but powerful. You find yourself leaning forward in your seat, almost feeling your brain rewiring itself as you try to make sense of this dangerous world.%Gallery-105078% Not that your character is doing anything especially novel back there. It's Platforming 101: the boy's shadow runs and jumps, grabbing ledges to pull himself up. Your most significant interactions with the game world come with the Wii Remote's pointer function, which illuminates and manipulates foreground objects. If you reach a dead end, there's likely something far from your character that you can spin to create a more favorable shadow.

The puzzles never tax your brainpower. Generally, you'll rotate an object until its shadow opens up a path. What this means, though, is an unimpeded sense of forward progress. Some backtracking is necessary to unlock everything in a level, but, for a time, Lost in Shadow avoids making you run back and forth without a clear sense of your goal.

Early on, you acquire a sword, with which you can hack away at red-eyed foes, one of the first real weak spots. You can't block or dodge, so against tougher enemies, you find yourself darting in for a single swipe of your blade, and then scurrying away before your foe counterattacks. It feels sludgy and unresponsive, but most of the baddies are cannon fodder, existing solely to feed you experience points. Rarely do they present a real threat.

So far, so good, and for the first several hours Lost in Shadow feels like a solid 2D platformer, not unlike Limbo in gameplay, and Ico in aesthetics. There's a lot of bloom lighting in the foreground, and the soundtrack is an ambient drone that would bring a tear to Brian Eno's eye. Your silhouetted avatar runs, jumps, and climbs with youthful zeal, and swings his sword every time as though he's surprised by its weight. It's all suffused with a feeling of melancholy, especially when the boy picks up the pieces of his lost memories scattered around the tower. Each one adds weight to his shadow, which increases his stamina, but also unlocks a doleful inscription about how the boy is convinced he'll never recover his body. A Wii game this may be, but a Nintendo game it ain't.

But the cracks in Lost in Shadow turn into fissures before it's all over. Periodically, you're made to enter "Shadow Corridors," standalone mazes within each level. One of the key mechanics of the Shadow Corridor is one in which you rotate the board by 90 degrees. Never once did I understand what was about to happen when I did this. It is impossible to discern spatial relationships in the environment along the Z-axis. You're as likely to crush yourself to death in the Shadow Corridors as you are to proceed. Yet trial-and-error is a completely effective strategy here. You can rely on brute force, not mastery, to get through. What's the point? You gain extra experience points from completing Shadow Corridors, but they feel divorced from the action.

If Lost in Shadow were half as long, and half the price, it'd probably be great.

Unfortunately, the entire second half feels similarly disconnected. The first several hours of the game have a tantalizing narrative throughline: you start at the bottom of the tower, and need to reach the top. Brilliant. But when you reach the top, the game forces you to head back down and retrace your steps in order to pick up six more items. Then, having assembled the objects, you enter a "Dark Tower," which sounds for all the world like the climax of the game. You run through a tense boss battle, banish the shadow monster to a netherworld, and prepare to get your body back. And then, you... play a few more levels? Bizarre pacing makes Lost in Shadow feels like it should end about four different times before it actually does.

Through all this, control problems grow from mild frustrations to fatal flaws. None of it's so bad as the introduction of short playable sections in full 3D. If you can remember the last time you had trouble shoving around crates in a 3D game, you're probably remembering a PSOne title. But here we are, in the year 2011, and Lost in Shadow goes for the gold with Tomb Raider-quality box-pushing mini-games. Yeesh.

If Lost in Shadow were half as long, and half the price, it'd probably be great. It feels like a decent downloadable game trying desperately to stretch itself into a full retail suit that doesn't quite fit. As it is, its joys are like its formless protagonist: ephemeral.

This review is based on the Wii retail version of Lost in Shadow provided by Hudson.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.