Tandem: A Tale of Shadows Preview – Tim McGee’s American Burton in New Victorian Land
I really like the Victorian era. Not sure why. Maybe it’s the top hats? Probably the top hats. I recently sat down to check out Tandem: A Tale of Shadows, and it hits that Victorian spot just right. You’ll play as Emma a spooky Victorian orphan with shades of Alice from Alice in Wonderland mixed with a bit of Tim Burton and American McGee sensibilities. The poofy dress, the giant bow around the waist; tip to top, that’s a Burton. Famous magician Thomas Kane has gone missing, and with Scotland Yard refusing to listen to a Dickensian Tim Burton orphan, Emma gathers up her teddy bear Fenton, and they set out to travel to Kane Manor to solve this mystery.
You’re dropped into an overworld reminiscent of Super Mario World. A path snakes through each world with small dots representing playable levels. You’ll start in the garden of the manor and move your way through. The game is played from both a top-down and 2D sidescrolling perspective, at the same time. “How?” you ask, fully fooled by my lie by omission. You’ll play as Emma in top-down, and Fenton in the sidescrolling sections. You’re free to switch between them as you like. Tandem: A Tale of Shadows is, at its core, a puzzle game. You’ll need Emma’s ability to cast shadows to help Fenton navigate levels.
It’s done very well, if a bit janky. Emma’s shadows can be walked on by Fenton. In later levels, anything sufficiently dark enough will work. The second chapter sees you navigating a boiler room with brackish water flowing through the pipes. By filling and draining different pipes and pools, you’ll give Fenton a place to go. There is danger, though. As Fenton, you can miss a jump and get brutally impaled, or drown, or any number of other hideous fates that can befall a well-worn spooky Victorian teddy bear. It’s alright, you respawn instantly with no penalty other than being knocked back to the platform where you started your ill-fated journey.
Tandem: A Tale of Shadows doesn’t much care to punish you. It’s not that kind of game. It’s almost leisurely in its pacing. The levels are downright bite-sized, taking about 3-4 minutes apiece to beat depending on how puzzle-minded you are. I am not super puzzle-minded so I found quite a lot of fun challenges in this game. The aesthetic is wonderful, with all the trappings of Victorian England. There is steam, and cobblestones, and a giant haunted jack in the box. Wait. Yeah, there are bosses in this game. It’s kind of strange. Whereas Fenton can die from missed jumps, Emma can die from enemies on the ground. They are few and far between, though. The strange thing to me is that bosses generally don’t attack like regular enemies.
Spoilers for the next paragraph. The first boss is a giant haunted jack in the box and other than having some reactive spikes on its long…neck? Body? Is the springy part of a jack in the box a neck or a body? Someone let me know. Either way, the spikes will take out Fenton, but it poses no outward danger to Emma. The second boss is a giant squid stuck inside the pipes of the boiler room. It’s also harmless, and the boss fight as it were sees you using all the techniques you used in the second chapter to quarantine it to a small tank where it can’t hurt people anymore.
It’s small choices like that, that make me really like Tandem: A Tale of Shadows. It could throw you into frustrating boss fights, where you constantly die and have to respawn, but instead, it makes the very smart move of making bosses a place to showcase what you had learned leading up to it. I can’t say enough how much I like that decision. The visuals, as I said before, are deliciously Victorian. The music is as well, it’s this jaunty harpsichord that you would think would burrow into your brain and drive you mad, but it works well enough to just fade into the background and not bother you. I had to consciously take a moment to listen to the music so I could mention it. It’s that unobtrusive.
We should talk a bit about the jank. When you play as Emma, in the top-down perspective, things are hard to see. I spent probably 15 minutes in one area because I was supposed to walk through a small hole in a wall to go around a giant spider to get to a key. This is pretty standard puzzle game stuff. Well, it is when the hole is actually noticeable. Putting a hole on a flat vertical plane would have worked in an isometric 3rd person game, where the world is kind of tilted. Tandem: A Tale of Shadows is just straight up and down, not an angle to it. That means that you’ll often find yourself bumping into walls figuring out what to do. The levels are small, so it’s really not that big of an issue, and other than that one time, it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the game.
All in all, I think Tandem: A Tale of Shadows is refreshing. You’re not hiding from monsters in a locker, you’re not the lone survivor in a zombie outbreak, or really doing anything that’s uber-popular in horror games today. It’s just nice. It’s a little reprieve from the horror of, well, horror games.