German developer Monokel are the new kids on the block, entering the fray with their first project, White Shadows. These are probably the game’s I hate reviewing the most because criticising any new developer trying to enter the scene with something cool and different feels like running up to a child and punching them in the kidney. But as I always I write reviews with the player in mind, not the developer. White Shadows is certainly unique and a hell of a debut for a new company in many regards. It shows incredible artistic strength. The gameplay just isn’t up to par, however. So let’s jump into this.
There’s only one place we could possibly start this review and that’s the attention-grabbing visuals. White Shadows is the perfect name for this game and its use of whites, blacks and greys to create something very special indeed. Towering buildings lurk in the background, neon signs promote the lies of the social elite and the slums are places of dark misery. Anywhere you take a screenshot, White Shadows looks like a piece of art that someone has worked on for hundreds of hours, and it all comes together to create one of the coolest worlds around. It’s drowning in atmosphere and potential, always looking to drag you into the depths of its lore. I want to know everything about the universe that Monokel has created, which is why it’s so frustrating that they barely let us glimpse it during the mere 1-2 hours it takes to play through the game.
The star of this self-described cinematic platformer/puzzler is Ravengirl, a young bird who is journeying through this brutal dystopia filled with oppression, racism and abuse. The motto that all animals are equal has been perverted, replaced by a clear cast system with the wolves on the top, the pigs in the middle who buy up precious batteries that provide the light they are told they need, and on the very bottom are the birds, ostracized and taken advantage of because they supposedly brought about the plague. And of course, at the heart of all this is a twist that you’ll probably be able to guess because White Shadows doesn’t particularly beat about the bush when it comes to its themes of racism, oppression, classes, and consumerism. But being able to see that twist coming doesn’t make it any less narratively punchy. And the game doesn’t shy away from showing some brutal scenes, too, the art style making them feel gritty and horrible despite the lack of any blood, gore or detail.
With that said, White Shadows doesn’t say anything or portray anything that hasn’t already been covered hundreds of times in other books and movies and games. You’ve probably seen this all social commentary before albeit maybe not in quite such a visually arresting style. Outside of the main themes it hits, however, there’s a vagueness to White Shadows that I found kind of annoying. With such a short run-time and without any dialogue there’s absolutely no detail given to the world, its people or its circumstances. You have to accept everything at a glance. It’s like being thrown into Rapture from BioShock without any explanations provided; still amazing, yes, but it leaves so many questions. I could accept that if it wasn’t for the scruffy ending that comes out of nowhere that is gunning for a sequel without really answering anything from this game. When the credits rolled, I was left wondering what had actually happened. Ultimately, I find no joy in trying to derive any meaning from something that could mean anything.
Once you get down to the actual gameplay, White Shadows is shown to be a perfect example of vanity; lovely on the outside, but hollow on the inside. The clunky controls are the first sign of this with a notable delay in everything you do, especially jumping. It makes the platforming sequences a chore rather than a joy, but thankfully none of the jumping sections requires too much precision or skill. If they did, White Shadows would be in far more serious trouble. Instead, the platforming is just left to feel dull and lifeless.
There are a few puzzles dotted about the game, but they feel like an afterthought in their simplicity and how easily they are solved. Honestly, I wonder if Monokel would rather have made a walking-sim style game and steered away entirely from traditional gameplay. In fact, the only time I got close to being stumped was because I couldn’t quite see a box hiding in the shadows.
So no, the gameplay isn’t where it needs to be, but there are a couple of cool ideas and segments I want to give a shout out to. Riding a transport train through the sky is a stunning moment that gets to showcase the depth of the imagery. You can really see the world stretching away into the background. Indeed, there are loads of great moments where you get to see layers upon layers of buildings and architecture in the background. I also loved a section where you avoid being gunned down by moving inside a pile of little chicklets, a segment that’s both a great piece of design and utterly barbaric.
I’ve got to talk about the audio design, too, which has some awesome elements. There’s the usage of classical music throughout the game such as Flight of the Bumblebees which does perhaps come off as a little generic (how often have we seen classical music juxtaposed against beautiful visuals of horrible things?) but that fit White Shadows very well. Unintelligible squeals, squawks and yells over megaphones pierce the silence in other areas, irritating your ears and reminding you of the kind of world you’re in. There are some problems with sounds not fading out properly and ending abruptly, but for the most part, the audio work is strong.
As beautiful as White Shadows is and as compelling as the graphical style is, I’m sorry to have to say it’s also marred with multiple visual issues. You can visibly see animation cycles restarting everywhere, creating a horrible stuttering effect. There are characters sitting in mid-air, there are pop-in problems, there’s loads of clipping, black lines flashing onto the screen and much more. In a game that is so heavily pushing its striking aesthetic, these problems hit extra hard. While I’d prefer to be lenient considering this is the developer’s first game, the fact that it’s only 1-2 hours long means I do also expect a bit more polish, especially in what is clearly the most focused on aspect of White Shadows.
There are also some framerate issues. I was playing on a Series S and noted some quite big drops, and chatting to other reviewers it seems they encountered the same, even running on the much more powerful Series X.
White Shadows is a hard game to render a verdict on. Any game that focuses so heavily on its art and its very real themes can hit or miss wildly with every player. Some people will connect deeply with its messages, themes and presentation, while others will perhaps only find enjoyment in its graphics and nothing else. Others still will brush off its ideas as being nothing more than a shallow attempt at tackling the subject matter while trying to act like it’s far deeper than it is.
As for myself, as much as I adored the blacks, whites and greys and the fascinating concept of the world, the clunky gameplay, the lack of real depth given to the universe that Monokel have made and the visual hiccups all sadly over-rode almost everything else. I’ve read and seen these themes countless times, and while dressing it up in a world devoid of natural light and inhabited by animals gives the whole concept a different spin, it isn’t enough. But I think the good news is that as a first project, White Shadows is incredibly promising and speaks to a bright future for Monokel. I cannot wait to see what they do next.