Indie games are the home of some of the best puzzle-based experiences around because they are willing to take unique, interesting ideas and run with them, or in some cases roll with them. That’s Tandem: A Tale of Shadows in a nutshell. The opening cutscene lays down the basis of this weird story: little Emma is intrigued by the disappearance of Thomas Kane, the only son of the famed Kane Illusionists who disappeared a decade prior. Scotland Yard have failed entirely to penetrate the twisted Kane mansion which houses all manner of oddities. On her way to the gothic abode a teddy bear falls from a speeding carriage, and to little Emma’s surprise, the bear immediately jumps up and pursues the runaway vehicle. Together, Emma and Fenton the teddy enter the mysterious home of the Kane’s and wind up working in tandem to solve the numerous puzzles that hide dark secrets.
As Emma you play from a bird-like perspective, high above the action where you can move about, avoid creepy spider robots, push objects and grab keys to unlock doors. The big gimmick in Tandem that you can swap between Emma and Fenton via a simple button tap, and when you switch over to Fenton the game’s entire perspective shifts from the birds-eye view of Emma into a monochromatic side-on platformer. That’s because Fenton has the rather unusual habit of walking on the walls, leaving Emma to amble around on the floor like the boring, regular human she is.
Fenton isn’t just a unique teddy bear in that he’s alive and can somehow walk on walls – no, he can also use shadows as platforms. As Emma, you can utilise various parts of the environment like a wall or movable panel to cast harsh, black shadows that Fenton can then walk and jump across. This forms the basis of many of the game’s fun puzzles as Fenton might need a shadow bridge to cross a gap, or you may have to leap back and forth between Emma and Fenton in order to shift shadows blocking the teddy’s path.
Tandem doesn’t solely rely on that one shadow trick, introducing a variety of twists throughout the svelte 3-4 hour adventure and the five different areas of the daunting Kane house. Big, gelatinous blobs that cannibalise each other can be used to barge through cake doors and to create helpful pathways for Fenton, while mysterious eyeballs with cones of vision need to be dodged around or else toy soldiers will shred Emma to pieces. You’ll hope up dials that turn on and off the flames that threaten to cook Emma, and carefully lure a strange creature into a button so that Fenton can access a new area. While there are no blood, guts, gore or detailed close-up views of death, Tandem does actually have a few brutal moments where Emma and Fenton get impaled, reinforcing the creepy graphical style that reminds me a little of American McGee’s Alice in Wonderland.
All the puzzles have nicely judged difficulty. There weren’t any that left me wondering if I was a complete dullard or anything, and the way they are designed means just playing around with them will typically spark an idea in your head. Unsurprisingly, they all revolve around alternating between Emma and Fenton, because while Fenton’s black and white world lets him avoid buzz saws, puddles of ink and flames, Emma is the only one who can cast the shadows he needs to move along or light up an area. As you shift a panel around you can always see how that alters the shadows, you can always see what effect a button has and even if you die the checkpoints are incredibly generous. At most, a section may take a few minutes to solve before you’re off to the next level, but that gives the game a nice, quick pace. Between that and the varied puzzle designs, there’s never a sense that Tandem is overstaying its welcome.
A little less enjoyable are the more pure platforming sections. You might use Emma to create a flow of black liquid through a pipeline that Fenton can then use to reach a new area, for example. There’s nothing bad about the jumping, but it’s also far from good, leaving timed platforming sections to feel more like a chore than something exciting. Likewise, bouncing from cog to cog is much less enjoyable than solving a clever puzzle that has you changing to Fenton to move light sources around so that Emma can smoothly sneak past some creepy foes.
There’s also a slightly awkward structure to the game. Whenever you arrive in one of the five main chunks of the house there’s a sense of the difficulty being reset while the developers introduce the latest tweaks and twists to the formula. While each new concept certainly needs to be shown to the player, it constantly felt as though the difficulty was being pulled back and only building back up in the last few levels of each area.
Inspired by the likes of Alice in Wonderland and even Tim Burton, Tandem: A Tale of Shadows has a striking art style with some very cool designs. However, on a technical level, it looks heavily outdated and nowhere is that shown as much as the cutscenes. Characters appear to be made out of shiny plastic, clothes don’t move and there’s a fuzziness to everything. And I can’t abide the camera direction during cutscenes. For some reason, it can’t stay still most of the time and whips around the scene as though it’s a fire-hose let loose.
The story is the game’s biggest weakness, despite its intriguing and creepy setup. The opening cutscene is really the meat of it, and then it largely disappears until the closing moments which aim to lay the groundwork for a sequel that I hope we get. But the focus on setting up a sequel leave the ending of this game feeling underwhelming, and none of the questions Tandem: A Tale of Shadows raises are ever answered. When you want to create a sequel naturally you want to hook players, but you still need to provide some context and resolutions for the first game, too.
The limited voice acting is ropey, the dialogue is and every cutscene between the beginning and the end is basically the same and could be taken out without a problem. If you were hoping for a deep narrative or even any explanation for all the insanity, Tandem delivers neither. Thankfully, the gameplay itself is strong enough to still make Tandem worth picking up. People often mention that a good puzzle game doesn’t really need a story and I have to agree. A solid narrative can elevate a puzzler, just look at Portal 2 or even the more recent Helheim, but when the design is good you can forgive that issue.
Tandem: A Tale of Shadows is a puzzler brimming with cool ideas that perhaps aren’t as fleshed out as they potentially could be, which is why I hope we get the sequel the ending so clearly sets up. The ideas of swapping between characters and dimensions, and of using shadows to walk on, are fantastic, laying the groundwork for some satisfying puzzles that strike a nice balance between not being insultingly easy but not giving you a headache. If you like a more relaxed puzzle game, Tandem is a damn good choice, especially if you love creepy vibes.