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White Shadows review: for the birds

By Jon Bailes. Posted

Someone’s been mixing their Orwellian dystopias. White Shadows takes the grim retro-industrial sci-fi of 1984 and fills it with Animal Farm’s bestial hierarchy, except here the wolves are in charge, demoting the pigs to play the role of downtrodden workers. Still, at least they have it better than the birds, the underclass in this metaphor for capitalistic inequality, stripped of all rights and demonised by the powers that be. Unsurprisingly, you fill the shoes of one of these feathered lumpen, trying to escape a monochrome city.

As dark satire goes, with billboards extolling the virtues of a drug-like consumable ‘light’ to the porcine citizenry, and all-caps signs shouting ‘All animals are equal’, it’s a bit square on the snout. And it’s not only the Orwellian themes that are well-worn either – White Shadows owes much to Playdead’s LIMBO and INSIDE, while its eye for the horrifying chimes closely with that of Little Nightmares. First impressions are of a clumsy and glitchy tribute act, as you float about in ungainly arcs and clip through scenery. Your bird is an ugly duckling, too, one of many plasticky character models that lack texture.

Right from the off, however, the city you sparrow your way around is stunningly imposing, enough to drive the game through its early stages. From an elevated view, hopping between girders and hurtling monorail trains in a junkyard suspended from the heavens, you soak in Gothic skyscrapers, phallic pipelines, wolf-headed airships, and solemn queues of obedient hogs. All framed in flashing neon, like a carnival display of disparity shoving your head down a toilet marked ‘entertainment’. It’s a bumper pack of world-building to munch on while you’re working through familiar jump and push routines, clambering on boxes and yanking elevator switches to progress.

Sometimes the only light available comes from the eyes of the Orwellian city's inhabitants.

White Shadows really hits its stride after the opening chapter, though, once it knocks you off your observer’s perch. The middle of its three short hours especially hosts some half-decent platform puzzles and makes good on behind-the-scenes revelations hinted at from the start, placing you at their centre. At one point, you’re literally jumping through hoops to avoid getting flattened and torched for the pleasure of a baying crowd, while the most sinister twist unveils the truth of light manufacturing, bringing an even more disturbing meaning to the phrase ‘battery farming’. It doesn’t exactly shock, but it lands thanks to some playful narrative delivery and the ingenious contraptions that make the nightmare tick.

The final act isn’t quite so well-paced, as it forces you to swallow a hefty exposition dump in one go, yet even that is served in attractive packaging, and the actual climax that follows is satisfyingly neat.

With that, White Shadows is never really profound, but it’s a delightfully macabre fairground ride with its heart in the right place. While not as equal as its big brothers, it shouldn’t be treated as a second-class citizen.

Highlight

Perhaps another influence on White Shadows is Disney’s Fantasia, as it marries its action to well-known pieces of classical music. Factory machines shift in time to the lilt of The Blue Danube, for example, while an on-rails sequence leaping between speeding trains is backed by Flight of the Bumblebee. Clever touches that add an extra layer of magic.

Verdict

Despite its inelegance, White Shadows is visually arresting and well-served with wicked ideas.

68%

Genre: puzzle-platformer | Format: PC(tested)/ XBO / XB S/X / PS5 | Developer: Monokel | Publisher: Thunderful Games | Price:
£15.99 | Release: Out now

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