Even though its colour palette and design practically scream, "Ico", Hudson Soft's Lost in Shadow for the Wii is inspired just as much by clever platform-jumping games like Paper Mario, Braid and Cloning Clyde.
Its inventive, light-based puzzles and artsy look should make it a critical success, and if its still undisclosed back-story justifies the core design, we could be looking at a dark horse game of the year contender on the Wii.
Lost in Shadow, due out in the fall, opens with a boy, held in chains at the top of an ominous-looking tower. An equally menacing executioner materialises out of the ether, and cleaves the shadow from the boy's body, which crumples to the ground before being rousted by a shadowy fairy. The executioner then picks up the shadow and flings it off the side of the tower.
Once that introductory cut scene finishes, you begin play as the boy's shadow. Your goal is to climb back up to the top of the tower, assisted by the fairy. During a recent demo at Konami's Gamers Night in San Francisco, I got a chance to play through a level of the game, as well as see some of the game's more complex mechanics unfold during other players' sessions.
The genius of Lost in Shadow's core gameplay element is that it's easy to grasp, yet allows for an ever-increasing level of complexity. In short, you play as a shadow and interact not with the physical level itself, but the shadows cast by its architecture. In traversing the levels, you'll be doing a lot of running, jumping and fighting with the sword, all thankfully operated without the use of gimmicky motion controls. The monsters you fight? They're shadows, too. The new wrinkle, though, is that the fairy who accompanies you, currently nicknamed "Spangle", has the ability to interact with certain objects in the physical world. You'll use your brain, the shadow's sword and Spangle's muscle to collect three keys that allow you to exit each level.
Controlling Spangle is as simple as using the Wii remote as a pointer and using the trigger to manipulate objects. In the relatively simple level that I tried, these functions were used to open up new areas. Though the bulk of the game is played in two dimensions, at certain times you'll have the opportunity to rotate the shadow's orientation, adding a 3D element to some of the puzzles. Watching others' sessions, I saw how the player gains the ability to manipulate the angle and intensity of the game's light source.
From time to time, you'll come across memories left behind by other characters, but the text for these memories was left out of the build I played. Each time you unlock a memory, your shadow gains a little "weight," which is expressed in grams and reflected in the game's health bar.
Because Lost in Shadow is still in development, we accessed levels through a debug menu. The bulk of the connecting narrative is still under wraps or in development. As an admirer of Braid's stunning visuals and ambitious, ambiguous story, I'm looking forward to finding out how director Shinichi Kasahara and his team flesh out the world as the game nears completion.
I know a game is coming along nicely when, once I've played it a bit, all my questions revolve around how the story will gel with the gameplay. After my hands-on time with the demo, my mind kept travelling back to that opening cinematic, the unfilled-in bits of exposition and how your shadow's weight would be incorporated into the final build.
Why does the executioner sever the boy's shadow from his body? Is the boy in control of his shadow, or is it a sentient being in its own right? If it's self-aware, why is the shadow, now liberated from the being it's been tethered to its whole life, motivated to mount a rescue when it could just walk off, and play with the other shadows? How does Spangle fit into all of this?
Does the shadow represent a soul, and are the characters occupying a literal purgatory, as the opening cinematic hints at? Or is the whole thing a metaphor, with the executioner standing in for a traumatic event or antagoniser? I look forward to finding out more as the game's fall release approaches.
Eric Wittmershaus writes a weekly column and occasionally blogs about video games for The Press Democrat, a New York Times regional newspaper in Santa Rosa, California. You can reach him at eric [dot]wittmershaus [at]pressdemocrat [dot]com and follow him on Twitter as @gamewit.