In my first half hour of playing The Shadow You, I was cringing but I kept humoring it. It reminded me of community-made games on Newgrounds, filled to the brim with teenage emotion and indignation. I also remember unironically playing stuff like that. We were all young once, after all. But that cringing turned into outright suffering within seconds. This game is such a mess it almost warrants a playthrough out of morbid curiosity, but there are much better ways to spend your time.
My Romantic Nightmare
The Shadow You's story can be charitably be described a romantic horror adventure. Ophelia is a young gamer girl who meets a dark and brooding but handsome boy named Kiel while working as a maid at his mansion. By a staggering coincidence he's also the guild master of the MMO she's a part of, and they start dating. However, as their relationship continues, a heavily disheveled girl who looks like Ophelia keeps waking up in a nightmarish world full of horrible visions, monsters, and ghosts, all tormenting her for mysterious reasons. Weirder still, the areas she keeps exploring look eerily similar to locations that Ophelia and Kiel have been to, setting up allegedly to dark revelations about our leads, the supernatural forces at play, and their relationship.
That summary was something I had to stitch together myself after two playthroughs of the game. This is because the English translation is patchy at best, since the studio behind this appear to be native Russian speakers – curious considering the anime-inspired artstyle.
Even with that language barrier in mind, the plot is an infuriating mess that has some of the worst pacing and momentum I've played in years. Somehow, Ophelia and Kiel meet, get to know each other, start seriously dating, have a serious falling out with their parents about the relationship, and have a pregnancy scare handled with the subtlety of a hammer to the face... all in about a week. What makes it even more baffling is that despite weak attempts at modern aloof jokes and quips, the two leads are paper thin caricatures with no chemistry at all. Both Kiel and Ophelia are one-note hardcore gamer stereotypes with no other interests or hobbies, and jump back and forth between antisocial brooding and angry pretentiousness. Yes, there is a part where Kiel calls background characters NPCs.
Worse still, the dialogue and the relationship building – if you can even call it that – is the sole driving force of these segments. There are no puzzles or challenges, save for one genre-bending sequence where the two meet up in their MMO that lasts about thirty seconds. All you can do is figure out where you're supposed to go to forward the plot, let the undercooked and scattershot dialogue play out and wait for the next section to start.
As for those horror segments, they're marginally better by virtue of having some gameplay structure. You start each section exploring abandoned buildings or trashpiles looking for a way to escape the nightmare world, all while inscrutable and scary things occasionally happen. These mostly amount to key-hunting puzzles and poorly explained chase sequences. On their own, these sequences are barely tolerable. The chase and action sequences are the worst offenders. If you ever die on any of these sections, which is a case of when in a game with no sprint option, reloading makes it impossible to interact with anything, softlocking your game. I had to quit out of the game entirely and load it back up to get around this bug. As for the key-hunting puzzles, they're mostly tedious. There's an attempt at Silent Hill style metaphysical symbolism with the key items and puzzle solutions, but it ranges from convoluted to trite.
The Contrivance This
For the first half of The Shadow You, I was slogging through these sections. My mental constitution draining from the boring characters, scintillating non-romance, and the ham-handed attempts at scares and intrigue, all waiting for the other shoe to drop. The moment where these two storylines would converge, leading to something at least experimental and different rather than two parallel stretches of nothing.
But when the game made its big reveal in the second half, finally giving answers and connecting tissue to the two parallel plots, I was floored by how tone deaf and dumb it was. If you were expecting something sinister about Kiel's parents and how they got to be rich or some sort of surprise regarding Ophelia's past, leading to some sort of disassociation, you would be giving the writers way too much credit. Worse still, the game assumes you connected these pieces yourself and decides to have multiple endings based on dialogue options you get right at the end. I would give the benefit of the doubt regarding missed details if it weren't for the fact this second half includes a third parallel story involving two characters who survived a bus crash that adds nothing to what little excuse for a plot there already is. At the point where the game needs the player to pay more attention to detail, it instead shovels more meandering nothing into the plot.
I compared this game to something on Newgrounds, and I firmly stand behind that assessment. Everything from the flat and forgettable art direction to the generic soundtrack to the slapshot presentation wreaks of a production put together by friends and hobbyists. A bunch of developers who wanted to get their feet wet and threw something together with no editorial oversight or holistic vision. Even judged by that curve, The Shadow You would barely qualify as a time-waster, a single playthrough clocks in at about two hours once you know all the puzzle solutions. But as a commercial product being sold for ten bucks, you'd have a better time paying someone to punch you in the gut.
The Shadow You | Final Thoughts
Even on the merits of a low-budget first project, The Shadow You flounders between a juvenile angry scribble fueled by eye-rolling angst and a tedious exercise in mediocrity driven into the ground by terrible pacing and ham-handed attempts at shock and terror. As a romance, the leads have no chemistry and no personality. As a horror experience, it's as frightening as a community center spook house. Combined, it is a mess that amounts to nothing. Do not bother.
The Shadow You was reviewed on PC with a code provided by the publisher.
- Decent Character Designs
- Not Terrible Sound Direction
- Awful Main Characters
- Horrible Pacing, Level Design, and Structure
- Trite, Pretentious Narrative