Coming out of Asia, shadow puppetry – or shadow play – is an ancient source of entertainment and storytelling that would have been enjoyed by our ancestors; one that has travelled not just the world, but the decades. But if you don’t know what it is let me explain – you create cutout characters, scenery and props from card, which could be anything you want so let your imagination run wild, attach a stick or two and then play out stories by shining a light on the cutouts as you project them onto a wall or screen. Projection: First Light embraces the tone and visuals of this artform to produce an elegant adventure that takes gamers across the world. But does it allow you to really see the light?
There are certain games that will instantly surprise you, and that for me – after gaming for 40 years – is always a bonus. Projection: First Light is one of those games; one that amazed me in many ways through its playthrough. But the two main takeaways are in terms of the visuals and the gameplay mechanics.
Firstly, let me set the scene. Set in a shadow puppet world where you can still see the sticks attached to the characters and the scenery disappears and reappears like a theatre play, you play the character of a small child named Greta who, after a naughty day away from home – one that involves stealing an apple and wrecking a police car – is sent to her room as punishment. It is here however where she finds a secret passage in her room, escaping to a shadow puppet theatre and being whisked off to Indonesia, China, Turkey, and the UK.
The story and scenes of First Light are told completely visually, without the use of words or captions. It’s a great technique to utilise and works well throughout this adventure, without you ever feeling like you are missing text or dialogue to convey the narrative. It’s an epic adventure set across many lands and cultures, where Greta gets to meet a whole host of people who become her friends – and some who become her mortal foes.
Gameplay-wise and Projection: First Light kicks off just like that of a standard, normal platformer as you move from left to right, jumping where appropriate. However, it is when you enter the shadow puppet theatre that you capture a butterfly, seeing it turn into a small ball of light. From there, you are in control of Greta with the left stick and the ball of light with the right stick. This ball is useful too, as you utilise its power to create shadows from anything that can cast a shadow; a simple platform or a basic object. It is up to you to then control the angle and length of the shadow to create a platform that you can jump onto and exit the level.
As you would expect, as you progress through First Light the use of this shadow play becomes more and more complex. There are objects you need to move – giant boulders for instance – through a series of mazes, placing them on pressure pads to open gates. Movement of the boulder will see you needing to balance it on a shadow and then attempt to guide it in the right direction. At other times you might have to bounce moveable objects away from their directed path to land where they will be helpful to your progression. This technique is hugely clever and at times can happily test your brain matter, but it may make more sense to be used in conjunction with a touch screen. You see, on Xbox One there have been times where this piece of innovation becomes annoying, working randomly. I’ll admit to occasionally having got completely stuck trying to move certain objects and have had to walk away from the game for a while – composing myself, having a think about what is needed, and trying again. It’s all about how you cope with this gameplay mechanic which will decide whether you get on with Projection: First Light or not.
If you do get to grips with things, then this is a game that provides a big old adventure with some boss battles that are pretty straightforward but very exciting. It is with these where you are normally up against a giant shadow character, left to learn the rhythm of their attacks. I like these sections a lot as they break up the standard gameplay. And further to that, in each area there are butterflies to collect, although it’s totally up to you whether you need to spend the time to grab them all or not, as they don’t affect your progression. But there are people put there – you know who you are – who will need to take them all home in order to grab the precious achievements that are awarded for doing so .
Visually and First Light is a treat from start to finish. As you might have guessed it embraces the shadow puppet theme well, looking fantastic throughout. The colours and tones of the work are beautiful and the characters themselves are so well-drawn and animated that it has gladdened my heart playing it. The developers know how to produce a great cutscene as well, all while delivering a real sense of action at play. There is one sequence which focuses on a boat that is being chased by a sea monster – it is a wonderful trip into the underworld in order to rescue the old Chinese story character, Monkey. Projection: First Light has bucket loads of charm and knows how to use it.
The soundtrack is remarkable as well, making the most of a whole mixture of tracks and moods that complement the different locations on the world journey. Throughout my time here I’ve imagined an old music hall with a live orchestra playing as they sit and watch this shadow puppet saga play out in front of them.
Overall this is a quality piece of gaming that I have had a blast with. The visuals are wonderful, as is the no text-based storytelling and adventure. The gameplay is hugely original and cleverly implements its shadow play whilst also managing to test your brainpower throughout. There are however moments in which the whole shadow mechanic isn’t accurate enough and that in turn brings about frustration, but it doesn’t affect the enjoyment of the whole experience too much. If you love adventure, shadow puppets, and unique gameplay then Projection: First Light on Xbox One will enchant.