While Shady Part of Me hasn’t been hyped or previewed in any way, the stealthy approach feels appropriate. This is a confident but low-key game from new developers Douze Dixièmes, and it feels personal. Letting people find this story of only two characters, on a journey that’s more inward than outward, feels right.
You play an unnamed girl who wakes in an imposing building that could be an asylum, her home, an orphanage or any other dusty big building. Shady Part of Me isn’t particularly interested in specifics, as it’s focus is completely on this girl and her state of mind. As she walks through the house, her inner monologue scribbles itself on the walls, tremulously voiced by Hannah Murray, who played Gilly in Game of Thrones and Cassie in Skins.
Everything feels hand-painted in water-colours, which only adds to the personal, confessional feel of Shady Part of Me. While it’s rarely breathtaking, this style is extremely effective, and the wash effect becomes an important part of later puzzles, where layers of light become vital. The action takes place in linear levels that have some 3D movement within them, reminding of other narrative-driven puzzle platformers, like Inside or Little Nightmares.
Rather than encounter enemies or anything malevolent, the girl’s phobias form the obstacles. She is intensely scared of the light and wants to keep to the shadows. Again, there are few specifics about the trauma that might have caused this, but it makes for initially simple problems, as lamps flicker and you have to stalk past them while they’re dark, or boxes are moved to create long shadows to walk in.
It’s not long before you meet the second character of Shady Part of Me. On the wall, you come across your shadow, or what you presume to be your shadow, although she is completely independent of your movement. She’s a touch more confident and determined to escape, although where to, and where from, are again elusive. As a shadow, she represents the flip of the girl: she can only move in the light, and darkness kills her (a press of RT rewinds the action, so it’s nae bother). She also moves on a 2D plane rather than the relative freedom of the girl’s 3D space. She’s a projection, so she gets to jump around on the background on (mostly) the walls.
The interplay between the 3D girl’s world and the 2D shadow’s world is where Shady Part of Me’s genius lies, and genius is not too strong a choice of word. The shadow’s world is entirely determined by the darkness and light projected by the girl’s 3D world, so the two worlds are indelibly tied together. BUT shadow can be distorted when a light is moved round an object, so the shadow world shifts and warps based on your actions. Move a small box close to a light and it becomes huge in the shadow background.
We’ve played a couple of shadow-based puzzlers recently, with Morkredd only released this week and Projection: First Light a couple of months ago, but Shady Part of Me feels more playful and clever. By making the shadow girl independent of the real girl, it feels like you’re in the business of constructing levels with the shadow-play, like a murky game of Super Mario Maker and that feels completely new and exciting. Heaven knows how they managed to code it.
The genius isn’t only in the concept. For a new studio, Douze Dixièmes have a near-complete mastery of puzzle design and how to get the best from the tools they’ve made for themselves. There were puzzles that foxed us, but when the stars aligned and we understood what was wanted of us, we had to do a little clap at its sheer audacity. This is a puzzle game where you’re often in the state of ‘what would happen if I did this?’, imagining that you’ve outwitted the designers, only to find that was exactly what they wanted from you. The shadows move together and a perfect path forms. A Shady Part of Me is stupendous at making you feel like you’re god’s gift to puzzling, so bravo to Douze Dixièmes for achieving what many studios don’t achieve in an entire portfolio.
By introducing collectibles – little origami birds – into the puzzles themselves, there’s also a kind of ‘opt in’ hard mode. You can choose to make the puzzles even more difficult for yourself in an attempt to get them. It’s a fantastic way of testing the real puzzlers from the very start.
Douze Dixièmes don’t rest on their laurels. Each of the fifteen ‘sessions’ (a pretentious term for levels or chapters, although admittedly there is no break between them) brings a new idea, whether that’s the layering of shadows on each other, moving primary control to the other character, or doing some funky things with gravity. This is a game that never feels long or poorly-paced because it assumes you’re intelligent enough to juggle the mechanics they’re throwing at you.
While they could have come more frequently, the puzzles are also broken up by memorable moments. As a puzzle clicks into place, the world reacts and you find yourself tumbling through an hourglass, sailing on a paper boat or being circled by a dragon. While they’re not as frequent or impressive as the set pieces in Inside or Little Nightmares, they ensure the game isn’t a conveyor belt of puzzling, like a Turing Test or Portal. You still feel like you’re on a journey, making your way through an authored story.
There is a chunky negative, and it stops Shady Part of Me short from ‘great’ status. It’s largely down to the choice to strip the story of any kind of specificity until the end, so that you don’t know who the girl, her shadow and ‘The Other’ – a voice that creeps in towards the middle – really are. You don’t know what has caused the girl’s trauma, what she is running from, or where she’s running to, and – to this reviewer – it meant that there were very few handholds to get interested in the story.
There’s no plot to speak of. The default state of the dialogue is bickering between the girl and the shadow, and a wrangling with whether either is strong enough to continue, or whether one has become too dominant. It leads to a single neat touch towards the end, and the best use of drop-shadow that we’ve ever seen, but the focus solely on ‘states of mind’ is not worth it in our opinion: the characters became irritable rather than endearing, and we stopped caring about the story that was being told. It would have been fine if the story was a sideshow, but Shady Part of Me talks constantly throughout.
The intent was clearly to explore the strife that anxious, phobic individuals have to go through daily, which is a noble goal that we’d love to see more of in games, but it’s done melodramatically, inauthentically and it’s the only note that the game plays over its long-ish runtime. The writing also reaches for poetry, possibly trying to achieve a sense of poignancy, but it just doubled down on the lack of specificity. By the end, we got the sense that the writers didn’t quite know what they wanted to say.
It doesn’t give Hannah Murray, who plays both the girl and the shadow, much to work with. Perhaps exposed by the script, her delivery gets grating. The blackboard-scratching voice she uses for the girl sounds like an adult mimicking a child, rather than an actual child, and we would have reached for the volume if the fantastic Air-like soundtrack wasn’t so good. It even shifts in texture when you move from shadow to real world, which was an extremely deft touch.
Luckily, the lacking story and characterisation is only a small shadow over Shady Part of Me on the Xbox. The brightness of the puzzle and level design is more than enough to lighten the room, and they are comfortably some of the cleverest we’ve encountered this year. While Shady Part of Me doesn’t quite reach the heights of a Limbo, Inside or Little Nightmares, it more than belongs in that illustrious group of puzzle platformers. For a game that arrived with little hype or fanfare, it’s a welcome and unexpected light at the end of a dark 2020.