The Wii is no stranger to obscure games that have some kind of tweak to traditional genres, whether it's the likes of Disaster: Day of Crisis and its mix of third person action and on-rails shooting while combatting natural disasters, or the bone-chilling fear experienced in Cursed Mountain's treacherous terrain. In a lot of ways, A Shadow's Tale fits into this mould, albeit in a more subdued manner. While it's clear to see where some of its inspiration lies and it takes a while for the gameplay to reach some form of momentum, A Shadow's Tale still offers a solid platforming puzzler with a unique bent that offers up interesting possibilities for gameplay.
A Shadow's Tale tells the story of a young boy in an ancient land. After ascending a great tower, he finds his shadow ripped from his very body by a mysterious being, and is then thrown back down to the bottom of the tower. When the boy's shadow comes to, he finds himself accompanied by a small fairy. The two then team up to climb up the tower, so they can restore the boy's shadow to his body.
At its core, the game is a combination of a platformer and a puzzle game, as a variety of different problems need to be overcome along the way, but the shadow element of gameplay means that things play out a bit differently from standard fare. For the majority of the game, the boy's shadow cannot interact with the real world - instead, you must make your ascent up the tower using the shadows of platforms and objects as your guide. At some point, you will also encounter shadow corridors which block your progress. To clear them, you must step through the shadow corridor, where you will then find yourself in a smaller alternate world where you have to make your way to the shadow corridor exit. To clear levels as a whole, you must collect three glowing red eyes which will dissipate the wall sealing off the next section of your quest. Along the way, you will see some glowing purple markers that are the boy's memories. Reading one of these will give you information as well as give more weight to your shadow, which translates into experience and a higher health metre.
Sounds simple, right? Well, for the first hour or so of playing, it is. The early levels don't really use the shadow setup to its full advantage, but when the game does find its feet it offers up some gameplay aspects rarely, if ever, seen before. Since the boy's shadow can only come into contact with other shadows, you won't always be able to get from point A to point B in a straight-forward fashion. What you must do is find ways of manipulating shadows. The fairy that accompanies you is able to interact with the real world. You are able to point the fairy at the screen with the Wii remote, and the use of the trigger button will open up possibilities for progress. You may have to do something particularly standard in adventure games, such as throwing a switch. However, there are also a lot of far more interesting gameplay mechanics that A Shadow's Tale employs that you will need to master to progress. By holding down the trigger button and moving the fairy around the screen, you will be able to detect other objects that the fairy can interact with, such as a platform that you will have to rotate.
Another more inventive mechanic is the manipulation of lights, which in turn alter the layout of shadows on the screen. By moving a slider either left to right or up and down, shadows will move closer and further apart, alternately opening and closing gaps of height and breadth, without the physical landscape ever being altered. Not only will this tactic allow you to to reach other places, it can sometimes protect you from the onslaught of arrow traps that would otherwise maim you. The fact that the boy's shadow can interact only with other shadows has its negatives - while as mentioned above you can manipulate shadows to cross otherwise treacherous gaps, you are also vulnerable to shadows coming together and crushing you, as well as dropping off a ledge where no more shadows exist.
Occasionally when jumping across gaps the controls will seem to stick and be a bit unresponsive, but sometimes a bit of rhythm is required in the pressure you use to push your control stick, as sometimes you will have to manipulate shadows in such a way that only a small ledge will be available for you to use. Compounding matters for you is the presence of shadowy enemies that grow larger, more grotesque and tougher as you go along. Eventually you pick up a sword that will do away with them, but they can still be incredibly tough to beat. Some, which have a glowing red spot, cannot be defeated with a sword; you must instead throw switches to launch arrows or manipulate the environment to bring about their demise.
If there's a single game that A Shadow's Tale takes its inspiration from, it must surely be Ico. The two games have a very similar feel and atmosphere about them, even if they have different gameplay mechanics - Ico was far more to do with exploration and adventure, and retreading past areas in order to open up new ones, but A Shadow's Tale is far more linear and puzzle-driven. A Shadow's Tale also takes its cues from Ico in terms of its visual style and sound design. An emphasis is on cell-shading here, but it's not always smooth and anti-aliased to give its scenery the constant beauty that it deserves. There is also a bit of a cloudy and fuzzy effect over the screen, which is more likely to be by design than any genuine flaw, perhaps to better reflect the indistinct world of the Boy's Shadow. And when it does away with such an effect in cinema sequences, the graphics really are spellbinding in their animation quality and visual glory. In a similar sense, the music of the game has a moody and cloudy tone about it. But make no mistake, the music is there but it's very hard to describe the effect it has on the playing experience without having been through it yourself. In any case, the audiovisual elements of A Shadow's Tale are some of the most unique that you will experience on the Wii and complement the nature of the game well without impeding the actual gameplay present.
At about eight hours long, A Shadow's Tale is a fairly short game and one that doesn't have a lot of replay value compared with some games - it's not loaded with collectibles, but you can always go back and pick up any missed memories. In some ways it's a bit of a moot point, as if you can get past its length, A Shadow's Tale happens to be excellent at building its momentum in terms of story, visuals and the increased complexity of puzzles and levels that need to be passed. It ends up feeling a lot longer than it actually is, which is a very good thing. Those who crave multiplayer gaming will feel disappointed, but any kind of co-op mode in A Shadow's Tale would seriously break the atmosphere it's trying to create - it's a bleak and solitary world, one that would be disrupted with a second player on board.
A Shadow's Tale is able to take a common genre and turn it on its head ever so slightly that it's both fresh and familiar at the same time. While there can be some minor control and aliasing issues, these are fairly minimal and outweighed by everything else on offer. The manipulation of light, the beautiful graphics and unique, melancholic atmosphere of A Shadow's Tale make it a one of a kind experience on the Wii. For those that aren't immediately gripped by its initial stages a bit of patience is required, as it definitely does become a far more inventive and interesting game as you progress. Combined with a price point far below most current retail games, A Shadow's Tale is worthy of you shining a light on it.