by Quinn Levandoski
previewed on PC
A Mysterious Disappearance and an Unexpected Team-Up
There isn't much story in the small sampling of Tandem: A Tale of Shadows that I was able to play, but a brief cinematic does set up the general premise for the game. Thomas Kane, the only son of a famous illusionist, goes missing in London in the late 1800s. While Scotland Yard cannot solve his mysterious disappearance, a 10-year-old girl named Emma decides to take things into her own hands. A horse-drawn carriage flies by as she goes outside, and a teddy bear drops out onto the rain-covered road. Surprisingly, instead of staying down on the wet road, the stuffed animal pops up and runs after the carriage. Emma's curiosity has her follow the bear to an old estate, which she enters. How does Emma connect to Thomas Kane? Why is the teddy bear, Fenton, alive? Why does Emma care about exploring this estate? The preview build I had access to didn't answer any of these questions, but the strange setup does make for an engaging, atmospheric puzzle experience.
The game’s brief preamble leads to Emma and Fenton working together to make their way through the mysterious manor estate to, I assume, find out more about what happened to Thomas Kane. The game is divided into a number of worlds, each one representing an area of the estate that Emma and Fenton have to progress through. I was given access to two different worlds for this preview, the Garden and the Boiler Room, which had 11 and 9 puzzles respectively. These puzzles vary in length and difficulty, but each one took me between 10 and 15 minutes depending on how quickly I was able to figure things out.
As the game’s name implies, Tandem: A Tale of Shadows is about both simultaneously controlling the two protagonists and using shadows to complete platforming puzzles. For reasons that were not made clear in the preview, Fenton is incapable of walking on the ground. Instead, gravity seems to be rotated 90 degrees for him, as he stands perpendicular to the ground and walks on walls. Emma walks like a normal person, and it’s in this locomotive dichotomy that the pair are able to make their way through the traps and obstacles in their way.
Beyond just having to think on two different planes at the same time, the light and shadow play important roles in how the characters interact with their environments. Emma holds a lantern that casts light in real-time and casts shadows when blocked by relevant objects in the environment. Conversely, when players shift to Fenton, the world goes grayscale. The bear can walk on normal surfaces, but shadows (and certain world-specific substances like ink in the Boiler Room levels) are also walkable surfaces for him. Players will use Emma’s light to cast shadows on the ground that turn into platforms, ramps, and barriers for Fenton. It’s a fun interaction, and it’s been implemented in a satisfyingly creative way across the available puzzles.
Challenging, But Not Overwhelming
I was also pleased with the difficulty level of what I was able to play. I actually played the two available worlds in reverse order by accident, but it didn’t matter. Each one was self-contained, and each one did a good job of slowly introducing the puzzle elements unique to its set of levels. I particularly enjoyed the Boiler room levels, which, in addition to shadows, had ink spills, ink-filled pipes, and krakens made of ink to work with and around. While they started off as static obstacles, the levels developed into time-sensitive puzzles that required quickly switching back and forth between Emma and Fenton to move ink and shadows as each character progressed through their respective planes. There were a few puzzles that gave me headaches, but that’s par for the genre, and I felt overall that the puzzles were nicely tuned to be challenging but fair.
All of this is made better by stellar visuals that give Tandem: A Tale of Shadows a thick layer of atmosphere. Everything has a sort of toy-like proportion that plays into the creepy fairytale vibe, and the levels are generally visually interesting and filled with detail. Like the puzzles themselves, I like the Gardens but loved the Boiler Room. The Gardens have creepy robotic spiders and a massive, nightmare-inducing jack-in-the-box, but the 19th-century nautical vibe of the Boiler Room world was great. The moving artwork, krakens made of ink, and hidden library nooks drew me in, and I hope that the remaining worlds that I wasn’t able to play are as attractive and detailed as the two featured here.
A Few Frustrations, But A Lot Of Promise
While my overall impression of Tandem: A Tale of Shadows is positive, there were a few frustrations and issues beyond the “known” bugs I was told about that did occasionally put a damper on my playtime. One fairly prevalent one was that Fenton would sometimes partially sink into shadows like quicksand. It would often happen during jumping. His foot would go partially into the dark platform, he’d sink in a little if I tried to move, and he’d be dropped out the other side to his death. It was never game-breaking since there’s no limited stock of lives, but it was occasionally frustrating if I was dealing with an already-challenging puzzle. The other frustration, and this is more of a design decision than a bug, is that shadows are sometimes inconsistent. While traversing the levels as Emma, what shadows would “count” for Fenton and which wouldn’t wasn’t always predictable. The ones that count are slightly darker, but it was sometimes a bummer to think of an idea to solve a puzzle, move into position with Emma’s light, then see that it wasn’t a walkable shadow when I transitioned to Fenton. Sometimes the object wouldn’t cast a shadow at all. Again, this wasn’t game-breaking, and I get that things aren’t going to be entirely consistent for the sake of making the puzzles workable.
Tandem: A Tale of Shadows isn’t the first game to utilize dual-protagonist puzzle-solving, and it isn’t the first to use light and shadow as a puzzle mechanic, but it does do a great job of carving out its own niche in the genre with its presentation and puzzle creativity. I’m not sure if the narrative will end up being worth exploring or if the puzzles and environments will maintain their satisfying level of difficulty and originality through the rest of the worlds, but what I was able to play was definitely a good sign. Look for Tandem: A Tale of Shadows to launch later this year.