Initially I was very excited to review Shadow Puppeteer. The unique puzzle/platformer from Sarepta Studios showed much potential back in September during some hands-on time with a demo version. Four months later, the game has arrived on the Wii U eShop. With such a promising concept for a fun co-op adventure, it’s incredibly disappointing to see the end product shrouded in technical shortcomings which darken the entire experience.
At first, the game starts off strong, featuring a bold, yet simplistic narrative; a tale of a young boy and his shadow who have been separated by a power hungry puppeteer in his attempt to steal the shade from all living creatures. There is no dialogue or text descriptions — the storytelling is purely aesthetic, and that’s just fine. Contextually, it works perfectly as a dark children’s fairy tale. When coupled with the Tim Burton-esque visuals, the charm immediately shines through.
The premise of the gameplay is equally solid. The two characters essentially work in two alternate realms to solve puzzles and help each other progress. The boy is free to move around in three dimensions in order to interact with real-world objects such as crates and switches. Meanwhile, the shadow is limited to movement in a 2D space and must use lighting to its advantage to shift perspectives and navigate its path.
The characters can be either controlled by a solo player or two pals can pair together to separately command each character. Unsurprisingly, the latter offers the optimal experience. In single player mode, the boy and the shadow can be maneuvered around simultaneously with the left and right analogue stick respectively, while the shoulder buttons provide the ability to jump and interact. It works, but it’ll always feel clunky in comparison — especially during some of the game’s more intricate and fast-paced sections.
Having played through the whole story with a friend, I can safely say that two is better than one. The game flows so much more naturally when figuring out how to pass an obstacle together, or finding a way across to a hard-to-reach collectible. Communication is essential and feels pretty satisfying during the earlier stages. The most interesting aspect is the need to work together within the distance constraints of one another; should the two characters move too far apart, it spells instant death and the respawn of the pair.
Difficulty-wise however, the game is forgiving. The checkpoints are generous and it doesn’t take very long to work out the puzzles; even less time is spent pondering while communicating with a friend. Once you’ve figured out each new mechanic thrown at you, the rest of the level — and those to come — are no match for your mind.
Sadly, the game’s “puzzles” are where it all starts to fall apart. While they might seem clever the first time around, they’re repeated far too frequently and in no real meaningful way. After clearing the first area or so, pushing and pulling wooden boxes for the boy to climb up or to manipulate light for the shadow becomes ridiculously tiresome. Three tools consisting of rope, scissors and bombs are introduced in the latter half of the game. They do well to add variety, but are in no way implemented to their full potential, and when they are required to progress, the obstacles are always presented in the same arbitrary fashion.
It’s tough to stay engaged for long, but it’s even more challenging to come to grips with the fiddly controls which plague the platforming. Being fixed to a linear path, the shadow’s movement is mostly straightforward and feels tight, but the boy is a loose nightmare to control. While he might move around in a 3D space, the camera remains fixed at a 2D camera angle. This caused me frustration time and time again during platforming — whether it was trying to leap up to higher ground or nail a precise jump, there is an obscene problem with depth perception.
For a game that bases its mechanics around lighting, I felt as though there was a distinct lack of balance in that department. In some areas, the shadows weren’t very dark or defined well enough, and it made platforms difficult to spot playing as the shadow. In other areas, the environments, especially water, were far too dark to make out when trying to locate a safe platform for the boy. While some of these problems can be remedied by simply toggling the brightness, that also means compromising the quality of the graphics.
In terms of performance, Shadow Puppeteer also fails to shine bright. The loading times aren’t fantastic, often exceeding 20-30 seconds just to start the next level. This can swiftly kill any atmosphere created by a tense cutscene or spoil the eerily chilling soundtrack, which begins to grate after hearing the same punchy piano pieces being played loudly between load screens. The frame rate — while not a frequent annoyance — will occasionally take a noticeable dip, making for a frustrating experience while battling with the already unresponsive controls. I also encountered mild stuttering and animation issues, as well as the Wii U itself hard-locking on the same crucial spot of the final level (as if it couldn’t get any more infuriating).
Finally, it’s worth noting the game’s small amount of content. The story can be completed in 2-3 hours depending on skill. While there are 180 collectibles in all (90 to be found by each character), the vast majority of them will come naturally during your first playthrough, leaving very little replay value. On the bright side, collectibles have their use in unlocking some lovely artwork and songs featured in the solid soundtrack. Regardless of nice bonuses, you do have to question the value for money considering this is a $14.99 title.
Overall, Shadow Puppeteer is difficult for me to recommend. It’s a real shame because the demo I played at EGX last year left me feeling so optimistic about the idea. The premise and the story it ties into is solid for a fun and engaging cooperative game. Unfortunately, the kinks that were promised to be ironed out in the final version remain present. It’s a glowing concept which, while enjoyable early on, is quickly warped into a mediocre, frustrating experience due to poor optimization and repetitive gameplay. With so little to offer and such a high asking price, I’m struggling to find any reason for you to not leave this one in the dark.