If you’re wondering whether Shadow Puppeteer might be up your street, the first question you have to ask is who you’re going to play it with. If you have a friend, partner, sibling, parent, child, super-intelligent experimental chimp or prison bunkmate with whom you like to play co-operative games, this may scratch the itch quite nicely. If you’re playing alone, or are a more competitive, impatient sort, it’s a slightly harder sell.
Shadow Puppeteer is a puzzle platformer, with one player a three dimensional boy and another their shadow, locked to the two dimensional plane. From this seemingly simple premise, the game constructs some inventive ways to test the grey matter.
From early sections where one character moves something so the corresponding object moves on the other plane, it progresses to elaborate tricks with multiple light sources and objects relative to them.
If the two become separated by too great a distance, they will die. As they move farther apart, you see the thread which connects them appear, then weaken. Though sparingly told, little touches like this make the player care about the story of a boy and his shadow reconnecting after a wizard tears them asunder.
Spread over the course of this adventure are a few power ups, letting new shadows be drawn or inconvenient ones cut, or bombs be placed to destroy obstacles. New techniques are never piled on too thick, and no time is spent on elaborate tutorial. Everything is learned organically, and puzzles always feel like they’ve been properly solved.
The platforming is a little woolly and a little floaty, but generally forgiving. In what is a theme for the game, it appears simplistic but soon elaborates. The shadow conceit allows for Super Mario Galaxy-esque circular platforms around a central light source and for intangible 3D smoke to create solid 2D walkways.
Mellow puzzle sections are interspersed with boss sections. While these are essentially just platforming chases or puzzles themselves, they bring a welcome change of pace, often proving tense and exciting.
The bosses themselves take the form of monstrous animal shadows, emerging from lanterns thrown by the game’s antagonist, a creepy wizard who looks like a cross between Abraham Lincoln and Dark Souls’ Pinwheel.
The game’s aesthetic is the one thing that never evolves beyond the initial simplicity. A pleasant soundtrack is accompanied by inoffensive visuals which most remind me of the pre-rendered game boxes of Playstation 2 titles. This subtle art direction is used to tell a heartfelt little tale and never obscures level design. Where the visuals do impress is with clever lighting, stretching shadows across surfaces in a way that not only looks pretty but also serves the gameplay.
Where the game is a little less impressive is in singleplayer. Controlling boy and shadow with two analogue sticks and four shoulder buttons is unintuitive and difficult. Solving puzzles alone is much less satisfying than reaching a mutual conclusion and working with someone to put a plan in action. The looming threat of death by separation feels less meaningful when the two characters are not being controlled independently.
In the end, you already know if a two-player puzzle platformer is something you want in your life. All I can tell you is that this one does the job competently and with enough charm that it won’t ruin any friendships, break up any couples, wreck any homes or get you shanked in the yard.