White Shadows is the debut titles from Monokel that has just arrived on PC and PS5 and has totally secured a spot on my top ten indie games of 2021. Despite it’s less-than-three-hour playtime, every moment you spend in this eerily enchanting game from opening trigger warning to closing credits will enchant and delight players of all ages. Monokel has crafted a perfectly paced action-platforming experience with just the right amounts of action, light puzzle-solving and cryptic narrative. Every minute you spend in this world has purpose, which makes it even easier to forgive the short runtime despite wanting more.
At first White Shadows appears to take place in a dusty old attic, as our heroine emerges from a broken telephone, but all too soon you realize you are in this sprawling steampunk industrial world populated by all sorts of creatures that slave away in their daily grinds under the rule of the Ministry of Light. You see, in this world darkness is the enemy, although nothing bad seems to happen when you are in the dark, but regardless it seems society has been structured about keeping the world lit, even to the point where its citizens can spend $50 for a “light bath”.
There are numerous animals in the world with wolves at the top of the food chain while pigs gather in long lines awaiting their next light shower and others serve as elevator attendants, walking their treadmills so others can go up and down. Birds are apparently the enemy, which makes it all that much more difficult since you are playing Ravengirl, who at first I though was a human wearing a beak mask, but as it turns out is an actual raven head on a human torso – not the weirdest thing in this game to be sure. There is this whole factory farming vibe going on behind the scenes with these giant birds laying eggs that are processed along lengthy conveyor belts until these adorable chicks emerge. Sadly, these chicks turn out to be energy sources that are converted into batteries that are then lifted to the heavens via hot air balloons to power the array of lights that shine down on the city.
Considering the game deals heavily with light and shadow I thought the choice to render White Shadows in black and white was genius. I was amazed with the level of detail and creativity on display here with complex multi-layered environments, original creature design, charming animations, and great use of light and dark including real-time shadows that actually become part of the gameplay. There is a haze that covers the world, almost looking like fog or dust that diffuses the light, and while this takes away a bit of the crisp contrast you might think you want, this atmospheric effect actually helps spread what little light there is around to the darker areas. Much of this world is lit purely through scenery like neon lights and signs and the occasional ring lights around tunnels. On occasion when the camera tilts upward you can glimpse the grid of lights in the sky. The camera work is also exceptional, zooming in for fun close-ups where you can appreciate the finer details, then pulling way out to reveal the sheer scope and scale of these massive environments. I did enjoy the switch to 4:3 aspect ratio for a TV gameshow and numerous commercial breaks that pop-up during your adventure.
I would be remiss if I didn’t call out the amazing audio in White Shadows. While the game is mostly a quiet explorative adventure there are these action sequences where all these awesome classical tunes start to play. You haven’t done a train-hopping puzzle until you’ve done it with Flight of the Bumblebee playing in the background. Midway through the game there is this reality TV gameshow with its own original song that had me laughing for quite some time; a worthy reward for defeating what is basically the only boss in the game. There are some really great environmental sounds as well as powerful, almost scary effects from trains and flying machines.
I played White Shadows on both the PC and the PS5 and found virtually no difference in gameplay, presentation, controls, or quality. The PC version may have been slightly sharper; hard to say with all that diffused lighting, and the PS5 didn’t make use of the DualSense controller in any way and loading times weren’t any faster on that fancy SSD. It is worth noting this is a native PS5 title and not a PS4 game being played in back-compat mode. I saw no support for HDR on either format; shocking for a game that relies almost entirely on contrast. You can’t go wrong with either version.
White Shadows snuck in just under the 2021 wire to secure a nomination for one of the best indie games I’ve played this year. Sure, you can knock it out in a single sitting just like I did in my PC gameplay video. You can also see the first two chapters of the PS5 version if you prefer or want to compare. In both those videos I make numerous comparisons to games like Limbo, Inside, Little Nightmares, and even Oddworld. Monokel has captured all the best elements of those legendary titles and combined them into something that is fresh, charming, and fun to play. You’ll definitely want to check this out.