I don’t know what it is about the bleakness of dystopia in games that draws me to them. Dishonored, Limbo, Little Nightmares, Inside… there’s just something about the relentless futility and ground-in subjugation that makes me want to see what’s causing it. White Shadows, from the moment I saw its trailer, piqued that curiosity with its looming sense of doom and gloom.
A 2.5D puzzle-platformer set against the backdrop of a totalitarian, Animal Farm-esque society, White Shadows deals with some familiar yet difficult themes. Utilising a contrasting black and white palette, it wears its sense of bleakness outright, really cementing in the oppressive tone. But from darkness comes light, and from oppression comes rebellion.
And from a grim initial outlook comes one of my late-year surprises. If you’re familiar with your George Orwell and Eastern Bloc retro cartoons, this may still surprise you. Prepare yourself, because this one is gonna get weird…
Quoth The Ravengirl
Our hero in this bleak adventure is Ravengirl, an anthropomorphic bird-person with human limbs. I didn’t know her name until a trophy popped with the name in the description, that’s how minimal the game is on exposition (at least to begin with).
Ravengirl starts her journey tumbling out of oversized clock, which sets the scale for what’s to come. Set against a hyper-exaggerated industrial world, it wouldn’t look amiss as a backdrop for the Mudokons to be enslaved in. Or a fever dream shared by Orwell and Tim Burton. Looming machinery, permanently draped in darkness, sets the scene for the bleakness ahead.
And bleak they are. Ravengirl is small in stature, as she makes her way through over-sized battery factories, Bernard Matthews-style breeding farms and god knows what else. The oppression is real here, Monokel have made sure of that. But fear not, for she is strong in resolve, which is necessary for the obstacles and contrivances in her path.
Logic, To A Degree
It always feels a bit remiss to compare X game to Y and call it that, but sometimes it’s inevitable. Oh sure, one could dress it up fancy and say, “White Shadows has been singing from the Playdead song sheet” and call it a day (and I have done that). But come on, it’s not hard to see here. White Shadows looks and plays pretty much the same as Limbo, right down to the colour palette and lack of dialogue.
However, that’s no bad thing. Limbo didn’t get heaps of praise for being rubbish, did it? Ravengirl’s adventure follows that formula: moving on a 2D, horizontal plane whilst the backgrounds move in full 3D. There’s obstacles to climb, traps and pitfalls to avoid, and sequentially timed puzzles to avoid getting crushed/shot/mauled in. Buttons-wise, you have your left stick to move, X and square (on PS5) to jump and grab, respectively, and that’s it.
Sometimes there’ll be a block that needs pushing into something climbable, or a switch that needs to be pulled. If the game is feeling spicy, there might be a switch that needs a block pushed under the handle to stop a door from closing. I know, right. It’s hardly The Witness territory, but there are some logic puzzles to break up the platforming.
To break up the monotony, there’s the drip-fed exposition.
Back In The Before Time…
The whole premise of White Shadows is that it slowly feeds you the story as Ravengirl progresses through the bowels of this hellish dystopia. To tell you the whole thing now would spoil it, ergo robbing you of something to experience. However, it wouldn’t be fair to not give readers anything to go on.
So, here is the abridged, not-quite-spoiler-y version: it is very clear, from the offset, that there is some sort of animal hierarchy going on here. Constant bird-hating propaganda spews out from billboards, signs and whatever else. Birds carry plague, apparently, which is why they’ve been driven from society. The wolves appear to be in charge, forcing the pigs into some weird, subservient deal.
But that’s not all: that’s a massive Soylent Green vibe, as the pigs are also being made into some Slurm-esque drink known as Youglow. The other propaganda is that light brings life, and therefore, the masses must drink this illuminating tonic to stay… alive, presumably.
It gets weirder, but it wouldn’t be fair to spoil. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to deny players some of the best uses of music in interactive gaming that brought a smile to my face.
Music To Rise Above To
A good soundtrack can be the perfect accompaniment to the tone of game. Death Stranding benefits from its chill, isolated tunes, whereas Hotline Miami and Furi are accentuated with bombastic synthwave tunes. White Shadows, in that regard, has the perfect tone carved out for it: classical music. Think about it; the oppression on hand here mirrors the oppression in the likes of Fahrenheit 451 and Equilibrium, or the rebellious nature of V for Vendetta.
Ravengirl is on a mission of sorts to either find her people, or rise up, or both (again, not wishing to spoil). The game wants to ignite that spark of joy, and what better way to do that an extensive movement/jumping puzzle ride to Flight of the Bumblebees? Or better yet, taking in the scope of the futility and suppression the wolves have over the populace, as you rise above the scenery to Also Sprach Zarathrustra? That’s the song made popular by 2001: A Space Odyssey, by the way.
There’s even a sequence involving synchronised farming machinery, orchestrated to the Blue Danube (again, made famous by Stanley Kubrick’s film). It genuinely bought a smile to my face, and I wouldn’t call myself a music snob. There is an original song about halfway through, that I won’t spoil, that had me both chuckling and wondering what indeed the fork was going on.
It’s Not Just The Eggs That Show Cracks
When it comes to criticising a big budget game, it’s easy. There’s a reason companies have QA testers and therefore no excuse. But when it’s a small team, it feels like I’m picking on the faults of a handful of people’s passion project, which sucks. Fortunately, White Shadows doesn’t have too many negatives going for it, but they are quite obvious.
For one, the pop up can really spoil the immersive tone. Seeing the vista of mechanical egg-farming arms swing in unison would have more impact, if several weren’t popping in at a time. Even the masses of swine at random set pieces aren’t always immediately there, so I’d stand there waiting for the game to catch up at times.
There’s also some collision detection issues, such as Ravengirl falling into a block she’s meant to pushing, only to magically appear on top of it. And lastly, in terms of gameplay, chapter four suffers some insane screen tearing issues. In a room full of [redacted], half of them were stretched and elongated across the scene and scenery. Ruined the moment somewhat.
I also had trophies pop for “Making it through X section” before I’d done, sometimes at the start of the section. Or worse, knowing I died yet still getting the trophy. I, for one, am not going to quibble at some free gold trophies, but you know how some purists are…
Fly High, Ravengirl
To conclude, White Shadows is dark, oppressive, hits some themes that parallel real world issues (as highlighted by a warning splash guard at the beginning)… but is still good. It’s good in the same way that Limbo and Inside are: oppressive, yes, but it drives you on to break free from it.
It is, however, very short. Not in a speedrun sense, either. I died quite a few times, through trial and error as well as stupidity and impatience, and it still took me about four hours. There’s also no secrets or collectibles, giving it limited reason to be revisited. The only replay value is in trophy/achievement hunting.
However, if you are in the mood for something in the similar vein to the aforementioned, you can’t go wrong with White Shadows. It’s short, weird, and hopefully evoking of enough curiosity to want to see Ravengirl’s adventure through. Which you should, because I’m not giving it away here.
White Shadows is a dark and oppressive experience, but don’t write it off. It’s reminiscent of Limbo and the like, but homages can be a good thing at times. It is criminally short, however, and would have really benefited from a bit more challenge and/or length in its puzzles. If you enjoy your misery in small bursts, this will be for you.
White Shadows is available now on PlayStation 5 (reviewed on), Microsoft Series S|X and PC.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
If you enjoyed this article or any more of our content, please consider our Patreon.