In this age, a novel twist on a traditional genre is the perfect way to make a game stand out from its prole brethren. Our highly evolved tastes don't just want Mario to chase after the Princess anymore. We want Mario to chase after the Princess... in space! Hudson Soft's A Shadow's Tale sets itself apart from like-minded platformers with a dreamy, meditative style and innovative gameplay that asks players to manipulate light, shadows, and perspective in the basic package of a 2D platformer.
You play as the shadow of a boy, cut apart from his body and thrown from the top of a tower to the ground below. With no memory, and only the help of a sylph named "Spangle," you decide to climb to the top of the tower, reclaim your body, and roundhouse whoever did this to you. But here's the twist: as a shadow, you can only interact with other shadows cast by objects in the foreground. It takes some getting used to, but once you adjust and realise how objects you'd normally be hopping on in any other platformer affect the landscape you're actually allowed to traverse, the result is genuinely delightful.
During play, you can interact with levers and switches in the background, while Spangle can rotate machinery in the foreground to open new passageways. Other ways to manipulate the shadows involve moving the light source - swinging a hanging bulb to bring platforms into reach. for example - and rotating the perspective, Echochrome style.
A Shadow's Tale is simple to learn, as markers with helpful hints are scattered throughout. Collectable memory fragments either provide advice or contain the woebegones of an emo teenager, but always increase your health bar. Health is also replenished by venturing into shadow corridors - mini-stages that feature unique puzzles and double up as checkpoints in case you catch tetanus from a rusty saw-blade.
Ico is the obvious inspiration for A Shadow's Tale's visuals, right down to the palette, industrial machinery, and rabid use of feathering. As such, you can be guaranteed that this is one of the better looking games for the Wii. It's easy to get tunnel vision during play, but when I took the time to observe I noticed intriguing details in the foreground. I could be running on the shadow of a clothesline in the residential district, or the shadow of a windowsill, 30 feet in the air.
Yet for all its creativity, A Shadow's Tale is best enjoyed in small doses, due to some niggling flaws that become more apparent the longer you play. For one thing, the puzzles are formulaic: the light slider pops up? Move the light source. An object in the foreground glows? Rotate it. For a game with so many innovative mechanics, I hoped for better integration. Fussy controls also made it infuriating to perform precise movements, and the foreground sometimes blocks the view of the boy entirely.
These problems are nothing compared to combat though, which is clumsy and adds little to the game. Fighting enemies consists of slashing them, jumping out of the way, and then slashing again until they explode into experience points. Unfortunately, when the boy swings his sword he can't move, and is paralysed for about a second after, so a missed swing usually results in a beating - the numerous enemies inflate the length of the game in an annoyingly redundant way. Not all enemies were a chore to deal with, though. Some require solving a puzzle to take down and are satisfying to outsmart.
If you can keep your expectations in check, accepting that A Shadow's Tale is essentially a riff on the original Prince of Persia, you'll find much to enjoy. The initial head trip and squeals of glee you'll make when you discover yet another unique mechanic will be worth it. Just remember that, to fully appreciate the aesthetic and not let the repetition wear on you, you should approach the game in bite size chunks. Save it for those lonely rainy nights, when all you can hear are the eerie creaks of gears turning, lever flipping, and the crazy guy on the street belting out "All Along the Watchtower."