The Wii U eShop, courtesy of its support for Unity and web framework technology, has become home to a broad range of titles. There are some exclusives that put the hardware's unique capabilities to work, while there's also a significant percentage of titles that are multi-platform, helping Nintendo gamers get a sense of the wider 'Indie' scene. Shadow Puppeteer, released on PC in September 2014, now makes its console debut on the Wii U and brings its own unique flavour to the library. There's a lot to admire here, but also some shortcomings that are difficult to avoid.
The storytelling is one of the strongest aspects to be found. Entirely without a voice track or even contextual text, it's rather like a silent movie in colour, with our protagonists - a boy and his shadow - and the mysterious Shadow Puppeteer villain (who seems like Guru-Guru's evil twin) leading proceedings. It's a simple tale that could quite easily make up a slightly darker story to tell children on Halloween Night, with the courageous boy and shadow pursuing their foe across dangerous lands and caves.
The gameplay concept, too, is strong. The shadow operates entirely within that realm, so movement is effectively 2D; despite this there are clever moments where it'll move into the foreground or have a warped perspective as it reacts to the available shadows. The boy, meanwhile, can move in a 3D space, albeit with a fixed side-on camera angle for most of the game. Taking those alternate planes of movement both must navigate stages together, and moving too far apart prompts an immediate death and respawn back at the most recent of the fairly generous checkpoints.
The key choice for players is whether to go solo or to find a playing partner for co-op. With three save profiles you can have separate runs for both, and they offer distinct experiences. Playing alone you control both characters at once, each with their own analogue stick on the GamePad or Pro Controller. The four shoulder buttons serve as each character's action and jump buttons, and it works nicely. We successfully played the entirety of the campaign this way, even finding some old-fashioned dexterity for tricky fast-paced segments.
Two players teaming up is certainly the optimal approach, though, with the developers telling us in the past that the strong local multiplayer audience for Wii U contributed to Shadow Puppeteer making its console debut on the system. The weaker player is better served as the shadow on its fixed plane, and each character works independently to progress. Direct communication is key here, and as a co-op experience it flows well, with grabbing collectibles and solving puzzles feeling natural when teamed up. Regardless of whether you play alone or with another, this is an enjoyable experience.
Though early levels take the necessary steps of using simple puzzles and movement, as the game progresses the challenge and smart design steps up. Light is manipulated in intriguing ways to create platforms, for example, while the steady tempo is occasionally disrupted by chase sequences or boss encounters. There's pleasing variety across the relatively short campaign - some will clear it in 2-3 hours - and the late introduction of additional items that pass from the boy to his shadow add some extra depth.
In general the difficulty remains constant and fair, though late on there are some spikes; the final encounter will truly put players to the test. Some problems arise not from the puzzles, which are solid, but rather through technical shortcomings. The general performance in this Wii U version is acceptable, it's playable, but it's not the smoothest framerate (even when running from the internal memory) that we've enjoyed from eShop titles. There are moments where the framerate dips, occasionally problematically, and we seemed to run across a bug - on a few occasions - where either character would lose the ability to jump for a few seconds. This would rarely cost us a life - which are unlimited along with generous checkpoints - but would add to the sense of this being an experience that's a little rough around the edges.
Controls can be a minor issue too, at least in one aspect of the experience. The shadow, operating in a 2D dynamic, is easy to use, but the boy can be far trickier. Platforming is solid most of the time but there are certainly issues with depth perception and occasionally sticky control. Some mechanics and physics don't always feel fully on point, with uncertain jumps occasionally coming into play; when these mishaps occur in boss encounters they can be rather frustrating, but are ultimately short-lived and passable.
Presentation is rather mixed, too. On the positive side the aesthetic in the core gameplay is pleasing, with the aforementioned shadow effects impressively combining with gameplay. The story-based cutscenes are rather rough by comparison, and the soundtrack veers from being universally likeable to catering to more niche tastes at the drop of a hat. Smooth and flowing pieces played by strings can be punctuated by choppy and sharp piano pieces, and in our experience the latter can be divisive. While we rather liked the artistic goal of the almost discordant piano in moments of tension, for example, repeated struggles with one boss encounter did prompt our co-op buddy to turn the sound down at a critical point.
Shadow Puppeteer is certainly a welcome addition to the Wii U eShop. The concept of the boy and his shadow is cleverly implemented, and there are some standout moments of level design combined with a strong sense of artistic style. There are some rough edges, however, in terms of some scratchy framerate and animation issues, a soundtrack that may be divisive at points and occasional slip-ups in design and implementation. The overall impression is a positive one, but occasionally the lights of this puppet show flicker, making the strings visible and taking away a little bit of the magic.