By Darren Franich
Updated January 11, 2011 at 03:00 PM EST

Lost in Shadow is a videogame built on an interesting idea. In the opening cinematic, you see a mysterious figure separate a boy from his shadow. The shadow is thrown off a tower — and not just any tower, but the sort of impossibly tall anime-fantasy tower that seems to have been built forty thousand years ago by steampunk-fetishist robots from the future. (It’s a Miyazaki tower, if you will.) Playing as the shadow, you have to climb up that tower to reunite with your boy. The twist: you can only walk/jump on other shadows. The result is a platform game that should, in theory, feel like a meta-platformer: There is a three-dimensional world in Lost in Shadow, but your poor shadow can only participate in the two dimensions of light and darkness.

Besides offering some lucky grad student somewhere the potentially thrilling opportunity to write a dissertation connecting Plato’s Cave Allegory to modern videogame theory, Lost in Shadow has some very clear antecedents. Most obviously, the game owes a great debt to two landmark games designed by Fumito Ueda: Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Spare, gorgeous games set in quiet-yet-lavish fantasy environments, Ico and SotC mixed a clockwork-puzzler playing style with a practically abstract storytelling mode. Lost in Shadow is nowhere near as great as those games, but it occasionally captures their particular mood: The glorious-yet-paranoid feeling of a beautiful fantasy landscape that seems almost completely empty.

Lost in Shadow also bears a striking resemblance to Limbo, the short game released last summer to great acclaim. (EW named Limbo our No. 2 videogame of the year.) Like Limbo, Lost in Shadow is a platform game built on the suggestive freakishness of shadows; like Limbo, Lost in Shadow is set in a world that seem simultaneously prehistoric and mechanical. (I’m not suggesting any direct rips, since Lost in Shadow has clearly been in development for awhile. Although it’s worth pointing out that both games also feature creepy shadow spiders.)

It’s almost unfair to compare Lost in Shadow to games like that. But it’s useful. Because even though Shadow is far, far from perfect, it has the heart of something interesting. I played the game for about nine hours, and found it to be an incredibly frustrating experience. Part of the problem is the protagonist: Turns out that playing as the shadow of a real character is exactly as frustratingly two-dimensional as it sounds. (It’s remarkable how much more you cared about the Limbo kid just because he had eyes.) Since all the myriad tiny villains are also just shadows, a terrifying repetitiveness sets in on the game very early. Sure, the goombas in Super Mario Bros. were repetitive, but at least they had a bit of witty particularity (evil mushrooms with tiny legs and angry eyes, oh no!).

The bigger problem is the gameplay itself. Lost in Shadow‘s early levels have a delightful intricacy, as you circle through a single level of the tower jumping down ledges and opening gates. But the game doesn’t really diversify its structure very much after those early levels. Each level’s goal is exactly the same: Find three Monitor Eyes, break through the shadow wall at the end of the level, and advance. There are secrets to search for, but they aren’t particularly interesting.

Mostly, there are “memories” scattered around each level which you can find. When you find them, you’re treated to one of three things: Shameless exposition (“I need to be careful that I don’t get squashed by the shadows when the light moves”); fortune cookie-worthy aphorisms (“Each time we fade away we leave behind a fragment of our soul”); or absolutely nothing at all. At least a quarter of the memories I found were “Too blurry to read,” which I assume is some sort of double-secret easter egg that I simple have no patience to figure out.

So Lost in Shadow is frustrating. But it still makes for an occasionally fascinating gameplay experience. Even if you get the feeling that this is fundamentally a two-hour game stretched impossibly too thin, there are a few levels that are legitimate visual treats. And the mysterious Shadow Monster which occasionally stalks you is as terrifying as anything in Limbo. You get the feeling that there is a great theoretical sequel to be made here — a game that follows through on the promise of the concept. (What if, instead of an empty tower, a shadow has to climb through an entire living, breathing city? Hey, never forget: Before there was the open-ended majesty of Red Dead Redemption, there was the shockingly closed-off world of Red Dead Revolver.)

Honestly, it’s difficult to give this game a good grade. The game retails for about $40 right now, which is just objectively too much. But if you happen to find a copy of Lost in Shadow sitting in the Wii bargain bin in a few months, you could do worse than picking it up. If nothing else, it’s certainly one of the weirdest games on the Wii. Call it an interesting failure — the world needs those, too. GRADE: C

Gamers, has anyone played Lost in Shadow? Did you like it, or did it just make you even more sweaty for the upcoming Ico/Shadow of the Colossus PS3 re-release?

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