So, confession time: I’m kind of a dumb person when it to video games.
Shocker, I know. Especially since it’s literally my only job to play them every day, five days a week. The worst part? I am required to pay attention to every little detail and note every single one of them down in a .txt file. And that is a major contributing factor to why I don’t do incredibly well with extremely open-ended games like those from the Elder Scrolls franchise, Soulsborne games, and especially the widely-acclaimed Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Just give me a linear story, a gun or a sword, a purpose, and I’ll be on my way with my brain turned off.
That being said, when I was given my game of the week by the name of Tandem: A Game of Shadows by the fine folks over at the NYX Game Awards, I was honestly not expecting me to genuinely sit still in my chair and leaning forward inches from my monitor to brainstorm an overly-complicated solution in an otherwise braindead and simple maneuver to get through the first part of the level midway through the game.
Tandem is definitely a palette cleanser of a game that I need to really give my brain an IQ workout, and it stands as one of the more unique takes on puzzle gaming that I have seen in the genre with some great level design, challenges and mechanics, and stunning visuals for a short, but otherwise sweet puzzle-platformer adventure.
Tandem: A Tale of Shadows’ story is one that carries out the entire narrative experience carefully crafted by the people over at Monochrome Paris and is perfectly balanced out by its interesting gameplay mechanics.
The opening of the game immediately puts you into action in old-timey London, your screen filled recent newspaper editions with the front page documenting the recent kidnapping of Thomas Kane, the son of a famous illusionist family, is spread across the desk of our very protagonist: The ten-year-old Emma who is determined to put this cold case to rest and rescue Thomas.
But as she steps out in the open and made her way towards the Kane Manor to begin her investigation, she just so happened to catch a glimpse of Thomas Kane himself in a horse-drawn carriage moving at full speed. In the midst of trying to compose herself from that near miss, a teddy bear named Fenton, possibly belonging to Thomas, falls out from the carriage and suddenly jumping to its feet and started pursuing after the captors.
Without a second thought and not wanting to let this massive lead go to waste, Emma chases after Fenton the teddy bear and arrives at her intended destination: The Kane Manor. With her initial investigations propping up more questions than answers, Emma joins forces with Fenton to rescue Thomas Kane and discover the motive of why he would be kidnapped.
Throughout your entire playthrough, each level has the possibility of you encountering secret rooms with beautiful pieces of artwork and a unique narration that continue to add to the story of Tandem, either by sheer luck or with the most observant of players that adds for more replay value as well as an extension in playtime if you want to get a 100% completion and getting all of the achievements!
Allow me to lead this part of the review with this first: If you are incredibly prone to flashing lights that can trigger an epileptic seizure, then it’s best that you should avoid this game entirely.
Graphically speaking, the people over at Monochrome Paris did a fantastic job at pushing the Unity engine to the limits and made a great-looking puzzle-platformer game with great textures down the smallest objects and using light and shadows as a major gameplay element for the entire game.
Each individual level is cleverly designed to match the puzzles and challenges in a way where the game can fully take advantage of where the light source and objects are placed and positioned, and where the shadows are cast to proceed to the next section of the level. From Emma’s point of view, there is plenty of detail to admire and vibrant colors pop out wherever light is present or when Emma walks to with her lamp. And despite not having raytracing in a game of light and shadow, traditional rasterization is incredibly accurate with places being dark are properly dark and reflections of light particles bouncing around.
On the other hand, from the perspective of Fenton the teddy bear, the color suddenly fades and you enter a black-and-white world instead. Showing only many different shades of black and white that indicates free open space and areas where you can physically walk over and stand on as well as other physical dangers that hinders your progress. These incredibly simple graphics when you play as Fenton may seem miniscule at first, but it can drastically impact Fenton’s mobility depending on which light source is active, which object is present and in which position, and even to where Emma is standing at to create platforms for Fenton to move over to.
There are very few games that I have seen and personally played in the past where your environment is heavily affected by the game’s overall visuals and aesthetic, with Superliminal being the only one that I can think of that comes close to matching Tandem. While much more simplistic in nature, it’s still executed brilliantly and meshes together manipulating the visuals to get to your end goal. To that, I say great job, Monochrome Paris!
Now, I haven’t had a proper puzzle experience like this in years, with my only exposure to the genre being Professor Layton by Nintendo and the Lego Star Wars games. So my first playthrough of Tandem: A Tale of Shadows is one that is about five hours long and overthinking some incredibly complex maneuvers for basically an extremely simple solution, all the while exploring every nook and cranny of each level where I try to find some hidden extras and easter eggs.
What took me off-guard when I started on the first level of the game just how different it felt compared to the previous puzzle games I have mentioned above felt. When I played as Emma, it was all viewed from a top-down perspective like how a dungeon crawler felt.
Similarly, on the other end of the spectrum (get it?), Fenton moves in a traditional side-scroller manner and has the ability to jump on shadows that act like solids. And areas where you have to get to is heavily dictated by Emma moving back and forth in different positions and rearranging movable objects to create a safe path for Fenton to cross.
There is a total of 40 levels throughout the entire game, and divided into four separate sections with 10 levels each. Each section of the game has a theme with its own unique mechanics and threats that you have to take overcome and take advantage of in order to proceed to the next level. At times, you will have to work quickly and shift back and forth between Emma and Fenton in perfect tandem to avoid certain death. And at the end of every level, you will come across a sort of pseudo final boss battle where you will have to take whatever you have learned in the current section’s level design and mechanics and use both Emma and Fenton to succeed and overcome.
Once you have completed the entirety of the game, there is still some endgame content that you can also pursue if you are a completionist like me! Each level has a replayability factor that you revisit and observe in its entirety, with at least one level having an observable item or area of interest that you can view up close and the aforementioned secrets and extra artwork that contain more interesting pieces of the story that makes you dig deeper on what happened.
I had an extremely pleasant time playing Tandem: A Tale of Shadows and completing all of its achievements and secrets within a day. Everything for me is simple enough of a solution for me to get through, and the difficulty curve is perfectly paced to keep things interesting and pushing the limits of each and every level’s unique mechanics that at times keeps you moving on your feet and switching between characters to get through a tough area.
If you have enjoyed puzzle games such as Superliminal like I have just mentioned, then you should also check out Tandem: A Tale of Shadows for a fun puzzle experience that looks and plays great while also offering a pretty good mental exercise for your noggin!