If we were setting up a new studio, we’d probably take some baby steps. Release a brick-breaker or match-3 puzzle game to get ourselves going. What we probably wouldn’t do is turn up in our fighting pants and start a wrestling match with one of the most celebrated indie games of the past ten years, Inside. You have to applaud the bravado of new developers Monokel for such a lofty target with White Shadows, as they come within inches of hitting it.
Like Inside, White Shadows is a 2D platformer in 3D platformer clothing. Strip away all the fantastic vistas and depth of view, and you have a single plane for you to walk left and right through. Up and down, occasionally. And also like that other game, which we will attempt to stop mentioning now, it’s the backdrop for a rite of passage, where an innocent is exposed to the underbelly of their society, stepping through its many processes like a factory, and coming to the conclusion that they are nothing more than sausagemeat (albeit not literally) in a giant machine. There we go: it’s not all Inside, as there’s a fair amount of Oddworld in there too.
Your innocent is Ravengirl, a young and malnourished raven chick who has hidden in a giant cuckoo clock to evade the authorities. But it’s clearly time to come out and find her destiny. So, you begin to make your way through The White City, which is positively Bioshocky in its retro-industrial chic. Billboards and animatronics line your path, making it abundantly clear, without much subtlety, about what is going on here. The caste system is wolves at the top, pigs in the middle tier (the consumer, buying up batteries to protect themselves from the darkness) and birds, right at the bottom, demonised for bringing the darkness and for carrying the plague (“plaguebirds”, as they are called).
So, you’re one of the hated, and you’re castaway at the top of the city, where the pigs and wolves roam. It’s time to find out how things got this way, which means creeping in the shadows and through pipes as you try to find your kind. This takes the form of simple puzzles, the kind you’ve played countless times before: pushing blocks to make steps to a higher platform, pushing pressure pads to open doors, and the rest of the greatest hits. There are some stealth sections, mostly involving timing a sprint well, or hiding behind moving elements and keeping in their shadows. It’s achingly familiar but done with gusto.
Through all of this, it’s impossible to ignore the artfulness, which comes from the topmost of drawers. White Shadows lives up to its name by being entirely monochrome. But what sets White Shadows apart is how the light is almost aggressive, bleeding into the darker palette like light pollution from an overpopulated city. There’s a haze to everything, and it fits White Shadows like a white glove. Since you represent the darkness, while the pigs and wolves are drenching the world in light to protect themselves, it makes the light pollution even more oppressive.
Soundtracking much of White Shadows are ambient clanks and whirs, as well as the megaphoned propaganda of an authoritative regime. But some of White Shadows’ greatest moments are when well-known classical pieces surge up and give the gameplay a bit of oomph. Flight of the Bumblebees, Blue Danube and Ride of the Valkyries all elbow their way in, and – for a public domain, low copyright fee, no doubt – give White Shadows a bit of grandeur.
The journey that Ravengirl goes on can’t help but feel familiar. Part of that is down to the-game-that-shall-not-be-named-again, as it clearly steps in the same footprints. But its twists and turns are telegraphed to the degree that you wonder if they were intended as such. Where are all these batteries coming from? Yeah, you can probably guess.
But White Shadows mostly gets away with these obvious dramatic beats because the art direction and dramatic set up has so much swagger. A series of moving platforms is nothing to shout about, but when you are moving at supersonic speeds on a bullet train, jumping from one to the other as Wagner plays, well, it takes everything up a notch. Ravengirl’s need to keep out of sight is ripped away from her in one sequence in the most extreme manner, and – again – it injects a simple platforming sequence with adrenaline.
It’s this sequence – and another where you are also put on a kind of stage – that showcases White Shadows’ greatest flaw. It just hasn’t been tightened up enough. We played a review build that dropped to 1 FPS at this point. That got remedied by a patch, which attempted to fix it by playing an in-world advert at that very point, clearly loading the troublesome art assets in the background while we were distracted by a video. But White Shadows doesn’t do this anywhere else – this is an almost completely unbroken experience. It’s a weird, “look a three-headed monkey!” distraction that doesn’t work.
Elsewhere, characters flicker and animate incorrectly, particularly when there are lots of them in one area. We fell through bits of the environment, or did things in the wrong order, leaving us to reset as the game wouldn’t allow us to progress. The loose nuts and bolts aren’t overwhelming, and White Shadows doesn’t come apart completely, but clearly Monokel were rushing to reach a pre-Christmas date.
It takes away some of the lustre of an extremely confident debut. Because White Shadows is indubitably that: a journey through an astonishingly constructed and lit world, pitch black in tone but with moments that shine through. At points it can feel a little too much like you’re on tracks, and the puzzles aren’t difficult or different, but it’s such a precise and well-constructed rollercoaster that you won’t mind.
We’ll let ourselves mention it one more time: if you were ever put through the wringer by Inside or Limbo, and fancy climbing through again, then White Shadows will duly oblige. It’s a magnificent lightshow.
You can buy White Shadows from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S