I usually don't like comparing games when I review them, but I have a funny feeling I'm not the only one that was reminded of other moody puzzle-platformers when I first saw White Shadows. It's a game that features a monotone colour pallette, a dystopian setting, an incredibly abstract story and the first few minutes had me pushing around boxes to get past obstacles, so yes, it will remind you of Playdead's Limbo or Inside. White Shadows gets close to growing its own wings and taking off, thanks to an incredible emphasis on musical sections and cinematic presentation. Sadly, some uninspired puzzles and an incoherent final act clip its wings before it gets to soar.
White Shadows begins with a content warning that fills a paragraph, cautioning players about themes of racism, xenophobia, suicide and more. But it explores these themes in the same way George Orwell explores the corruption of socialist ideals in the Soviet Union: with animals.
You play as a little raven traversing a hyper-industrialised city, devoid of natural lighting and stuffed with metallic structures. It's not uncommon to see signs in the background that read "All Animals Are Equal... Except Birds", or signs that encourage violence toward the poor feathered creatures.
The commentary is a bit overt - even more so later in the game in ways I won't spoil - but the sinister environment it manages to build is worth it. Especially with the scary amount of ads sprawled across the place, the city of White Shadows feels like a proper capitalist dystopia. One where all the pigs are trying to sell you artificial light, because God knows what happened to the sun. Some of the animal and machine designs are also superb. There's one depiction of a pig's buttcheeks that had my face create eight different chins.
When you're not being exposed to wrinkly pig cheeks, you're likely to be solving a number of puzzles, and these are somewhat hit-or-miss. Mostly miss. They're not terrible, or so vague that you'll be stuck on them forever, they're just too simple. This is probably down to the White Shadows' lack of physics simulation. I never spent any time playing around with a puzzle's various moving parts, so there was none of the experimentation that usually comes from most 2D puzzle games. Instead, the answer to most puzzles is either incredibly obvious, or you'll just need to backtrack and find another box to use as a platform. You never spend too much time on any puzzle due to their relative simplicity, though, so at least they act as mostly aesthetic obstacles during your playtime.
The majority of the game has a fast, frantic and fun pace, never really releasing the tension. Until the quite left-field final act, that is. In an awkward change of pace the game literally describes the history of the city, how the society turned into an industrial hell, and other, more spoilery stuff. For a game that seemed so committed to interpretive storytelling for most of its playtime, this section just felt like whiplash. Even though the rest of the game from that point on is telling an incoherent story, at least it's full of some amazing screens.
I don't want to oversell White Shadows shortcomings because White Shadows is a, well, short game. I completed it in just under two hours, so any sections that I did have a problem with never really lasted long. When White Shadows is at its best, it flies as high as the industrial monoliths that litter the background.
I'm specifically referring to the game's fantastic musical segments, which have you jumping and ducking for your life while a classical piece like Ride Of The Valkyries blasts in the background. The music is timed perfectly with the jumps to save your life, or the machinery slamming down and attempting to kill you. These sections serve as both heart-thumping thrillrides and spectacularly cinematic set pieces. It's not like the White Shadows as a whole is a two hour musical, but these showcases pop up often enough that they're the main thing I remember from the game.
But even when an epic opera isn't narrating your scarmble for survival, the game retains its cinematic flair. The camera frequently zooms out or pans up, drawing your attention to a menacing monument or another sickening character design. White Shadows never takes its foot off the pedal in this regard. The entire game is full of incredibly well-composed shots that could be turned into a poster - if you're into looking at morbid things every day.
White Shadows is at its best when it focuses less on puzzles and more on these moments. The moments where you're simply focused on running from point A to B, jumping over a few gaps or dodging some mechanical saws intent on grinding you up. When the game operates on this level, it reminds me more of an art installation or a piece of theatre; something to be bewildered by and admired rather than something that'll challenge you.
So, some of White Shadows' individual parts are flawed, but I did really enjoy my time with it. If you don't really mind the game's simple puzzles and you're willing to ignore the exposition dump at the end, I'd recommend it. White Shadows offers two hours of creative, chilling designs, joyous musical set pieces and enough screen-shottable sights to fill your hard drive.