Review: Tandem: A Tale of Shadows

21 Oct 2021

It’s that time of year again. The autumnal season is in full swing, and our current proximity to Halloween could very well move you to seek out TV shows, movies, music, and video games to commemorate the month of harrowing haunts and spectral spirits. There’s no shortage of spooky titles asking for your time, but if you should happen to be looking for one that’s more of a lighthearted brainteaser than an outright horror romp, it’s easy to be drawn to Tandem: A Tale of Shadows.

It’s a puzzle platformer developed by Monochrome Paris and published by Hatinh Interactive, launching on October 21st, 2021 for PlayStation 4, PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One. It’s also clearly tinged with the various flavors of All Hallows’ Eve given its overall aesthetic and Victorian-era setting, but is it an experience worth seeing through?

The Disappearance at Kane Manor

Tandem sets you up with the plot as soon as you launch the game. Ten-year-old Emma is intrigued by the as-yet-unsolved disappearance of Thomas Kane, the only son of the Kane family. Wanting to see if she can solve the mystery herself, she travels through the streets of London to reach Kane Manor. On the way, a stagecoach en route to Kane Manor rushes by, and out of it drops a teddy bear named Fenton who promptly gets up on his own two legs and makes chase. When the two of them reach the manor, they team up to overcome elaborate contraptions in order to gain access to the structure proper.

The storytelling of Tandem is decidedly not its primary focus. The cutscenes are few and far between, typically bookending each area of the manor and featuring very little information outside of showing Emma and Fenton traveling to the next one. Emma will speak during them, but the dialogue usually amounts to little more than different shades of, “Wow, that was scary!” while Fenton silently walks beside her.

One of the biggest missed opportunities on the narrative front is the lack of storytelling through the environments that Emma and Fenton traverse. As you make your way through each puzzle, there will occasionally be a glowing light that lets you get a closer look at a nearby object. This can be a painting, the contents of a cupboard, things of that nature. Normally this would be something I’d welcome in order to take a breather from a puzzle I might be struggling with, but these items are nearly always bereft of any context. It shows you the subject in focus, but doesn’t do anything else to make you wonder about why it’s there, or what it implies about the disappearance of Thomas Kane.

To say I was not invested whatsoever in the story of Tandem would be an understatement. If the game didn’t always play the introductory cutscene every time you launched it, I probably would have forgotten Emma’s name. It’s a mystery story with only trace elements of mystery solving, and that makes it a poor vehicle for the game regardless of the potential quality of the puzzles.

Chasing Shadows

On paper, Tandem has a thoroughly promising premise. At every moment, you’re looking at Emma from a top-down perspective and Fenton from a side-scrolling perspective, and are able to switch control between them at the press of a button. By positioning Emma at certain spots in the environment, the light from her lantern will cast a dark shadow that Fenton can then utilize to move further through each level. Difficulty is found in the fact that Emma has to deal with environmental obstacles before she’s able to make a path for Fenton, and Fenton will often need to step on a switch to disable a trap to allow Emma to continue.

It doesn’t take very long for the game to throw a few wrenches into this relatively simplistic setup. Multiple light sources will cause a shadow path for Fenton to be too weak, forcing you to deal with them first to strengthen the darkness; enemies might patrol in specific sections of the puzzle, requiring you to trap them or obscure their vision; a specific solution might require strict timing and precise platforming. Also worth noting is that each area brings its own unique mechanic that the others lack.

These all sound like they might be interesting dilemmas to throw at the player. The problem, however, is that they feel vestigial to the game’s core concept. Rather than featuring interesting challenges focused around creating shadowy paths as Emma and traversing them as Fenton, Tandem throws in other mechanics (like those I mentioned above) that feel like a checklist of steps you have to work through just to get back to the most interesting mechanic the game has to offer.

Designing the puzzles in this way leads to two major problems. The first and largest of them is that most of a puzzle’s complexity is found in those secondary mechanics. It’s satisfying when you solve them, but it causes a noticeable lack of complexity in the forming of the paths once you’re done. Stand in the right spot, tab over to Fenton, walk across the shadow, and then you’re right back to solving other mechanics. This loop leads into the second problem: playing Tandem gets very repetitive, very quickly. Even when the puzzles incorporate different elements, they still feel like more of the same because every level always goes back to that same cycle.

None of this is alleviated by the fact that solving each puzzle in Tandem feels a bit like fumbling around in the dark; you’re not given enough room on a visual level for figuring out puzzles in advance—you just have to feel your way through them, poking and prodding everything just to find a starting point. This isn’t always a bad thing in a puzzle game, but its negative aspects are exacerbated by the game’s tendency of hiding paths for Emma. Sometimes I would find myself butting heads with a puzzle over and over again, trying to figure out the perfect way to position the shadow, when all I had to do was find a semi-obscured hole in the wall for Emma to slip through that made the solution trivial.

At the end of every area is a boss encounter (for lack of a better term), and I actually enjoyed these thoroughly. In contrast to the puzzles leading up to them, it often felt like Emma and Fenton had their own separate objectives that worked parallel to each other, rather than the usual norm of the duo relying on one another. It’s just a shame there weren’t more of them.

Porcelain in Presence

The visuals are where I take the least umbrage with Tandem: A Tale of Shadows. When the game starts and Emma is making her way down the rain-soaked streets of London, it’s easy to be reminded of an animate dollhouse display. Emma herself looks like she could have been crafted from limoges porcelain with the way the rain causes her character model to shine, and the light from her lantern cascades off of the glass it rests behind in a gorgeous way.

Though I found myself somewhat unimpressed with the visual stylings of the first area, the second area of the Kane Manor featured an excellent step up in atmosphere, and I was surprised that the game wasn’t afraid to take some time to establish it, either. I also very much enjoyed the cute attentions to detail you can find on the outskirts of each level.

Unfortunately, much like my issues with the gameplay, the reuse of assets leaves every level feeling somewhat monotonous despite having wildly different layouts. This is understandable given that every level has to work from both character perspectives, but I found myself craving locations that surprised me a bit more.

Additionally, cutscenes are frenetic to excess. The camera is constantly moving, wobbling, and cutting regardless of what’s happening in the scene. It’s jarring, it’s dizzying, and it’s simply confusing on a compositional level. Your eyes are never given any room to breathe and linger on what’s being shown; it’s a slow-paced puzzle game with the nauseating camerawork of a bad action film.

The music, while on-brand thematically, is overly repetitive. Sound effects are inconsistent in both quality and volume, and it’s especially irksome when certain objects in the environment will have a sound effect that plays on a loop. When you’re trying to figure out your next step to make progress, hearing the same squeaking noise over and over again gets grating with a quickness.

Less Treat, More Trick

In spite of a unique aesthetic and passable puzzles, Tandem: A Tale of Shadows struggles to keep itself exciting. The almost complete lack of narrative thrust and droning gameplay progression drag it down from the moment it begins, and its failure to capitalize on its more attention-grabbing elements guarantees a disappointing experience out of a game that could have easily been more.

~ Final Score: 4/10 ~

Review copy provided by Hatinh Interactive for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Hatinh Interactive.