I’m a fan of puzzle games that play with perception, so the initial pitch for Tandem: A Tale of Shadows caught my attention: you, an Alice-in-Wonderland-looking child named Emma, explore an illusionist’s manor, accompanied by an animated teddy bear named Fenton. There’s a lush, colored top-down view of Emma wandering through the lantern-lit halls, but then there’s also a black-and-white 2D platformer in which Fenton uses the silhouetted shadows you’ve created for him to proceed.
Tandem isn’t exactly the first game of its kind. From 2013’s Contrast to this year’s Shady Part of Me, shadow-manipulation risks becoming a gimmick, and what a demo needs to do is really showcase the ways in which it stands apart from others. In that, Tandem fails. The demo is nothing more than a proof-of-concept, allowing Emma to do the rudimentary elements of a this sort of character-swapping puzzler: build a path for one, reach a key with another. One hits a switch so the other can hit a switch. For some inexplicable reason, giant insects show up in one level, and Emma must stay out of their very limited field-of-view.
The sizzle reels and guided demos all show other, brighter elements of the mansion itself, not just the rain-soaked gardens. They feature giant mechanical one-eyed clown skulls chasing you down a hall, weird slime blocks that must be pushed around, and some sort of crazily elaborate furnace/death-trap. But this demo has none of that. There’s no sense of purpose, and while I was disappointed when the demo ended, it wasn’t because I wanted to see what happened next–I wasn’t sure what had even happened thus far–but rather because I hadn’t seen enough to really have much of an impression at all, beyond the fact that the levels were so tritely titled (for instance, “A Lock, A Key” and “Murky Woods”) that I’d lost confidence in the game’s creativity.
I think it’s critical that the full-length version of Tandem really focus on its sense of purpose and place, ideally uniting the two with a clearer narrative. Emma’s adventure could be happening anywhere, and the teddy bear springs to life randomly enough on the streets of the city; there must be a significance to this illusionist’s manor. Likewise, there must be more to this shadow-play than cute mechanics; is Emma overcoming a fear of the darkness? Are there missing children calling out to her from within? There are hints of a mystery within the introductory cutscene, but that narrative needs to carry through to the game; the creepiest elements must ideally speak to the forces that oppose her–those giant bugs must, at some point, be explained. (Think, for instance, of how Limbo or Little Nightmares operate.)
There are too many games each year. When you create your game–or your demo–you should be thinking about the mechanics that your game needs and that should be apparent in everything the player is doing. With this Tandem demo, I worry that I’ve not even gotten the shadowy half of the story, and I’m hoping the full experience shines a light on everything that currently feels undercooked.