Shadows Remain is an interesting change of pace for Halfbrick Studios. The developer is best known for creating bright, lighthearted, and fast-paced arcade experiences that prioritize bite-sized bursts of engaging gameplay in games like Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride. Shadows Remain is a dark, suspenseful, and disturbing thriller told through careful observation across multiple episodes scheduled to release over a one-year period. The first episode is available now, and it offers an extremely short but gripping glimpse into the story and setting of this new series.
The game begins in the present day as our protagonist, Emma, finishes moving in to her new house. She receives a call from her husband, Simon, who is checking in on her and their son, Alex. Emma mentions Alex is somewhere in the house—although not in front of her—and Simon begins to shout a surprisingly distraught warning as the phone cuts off. Emma hears Alex’s voice in the distance and sees a strange flash on the television’s static that looks like him and another boy just as the living room fades away.
When Emma regains focus, she’s in the same room but in an entirely different time period. Her boxes and belongings are gone, replaced by someone else’s sitting chairs, wallpaper, and antique radio. A wooden dummy sits on the couch and a ghostly whisper warns “You should not have come.” After a brief moment of shock, Emma realizes Alex must be in this house somewhere and she’ll need to follow the whisper’s instructions to find him.
This search involves locating key story items throughout rooms of the house and piecing together the fate of the family who previously lived there. Shadows Remain uses augmented reality to place players directly in Emma’s shoes, letting them move around scenes and examine objects by physically moving their device. The AR works well in this environment: since every little movement you make affects Emma’s positioning, it really feels like you’re trapped in this haunted place. Having to physically move around and toward objects can put you in uncomfortable, surprising spots and allows for perspective puzzles that turn innocuous shadows into disturbing set pieces. The one disadvantage to this freedom of movement is that you’ll sometimes be facing away from a jump scare when it happens, but the suspense is still present thanks to the expressive music and sound effects surrounding you.
The story that Emma uncovers as she searches for her son is disturbing and tragic. Shadows Remain contains strongly adult themes and events that are directly alluded to through the story items Emma uncovers and their associated flashback dialogues. These items and their connection are vague enough at first that players are only given a hint of what happened—allowing them to make their own deductions—but the story is made clear by the end of the episode.
Although we learn the fate of the couple featured in this episode, Emma’s story ends on a cliffhanger with more questions than answers. Future episodes should continue where this one left off—and we’re given tantalizingly brief hints of some characters we may meet down the road—but we can’t help but wish there was a bit more substance in this first entry. We’re thrown into the past so quickly that we learn almost nothing about Emma and her family. Emma spends about a minute in shock that she’s been transported to the past with her son missing and a mysterious voice speaking to her, but then she dives straight into nonchalant quips about items she finds. While there are a lot of extra objects lying around the house to pick up and look at, very few have any commentary or purpose besides filling space: there are plenty of picture frames, teacups, kitchen utensils, and the like that you can examine, but little reason to do so.
Halfbrick has done a great job of creating a disturbing and immersive setting to explore, but this first episode is too direct and to-the-point to allow time for the bizarre, unsettling atmosphere to really sink in. Part of this might be due to the straightforward, objective-based nature of the game: each scene takes place in a single room with a specific number of story items that must be discovered. After these items are found, Emma and the player move on to the next area. This checklist-like format is at odds with the sense of isolation and confusion the game’s events instill. And with most of the “puzzles” that complete this checklist involving merely finding an item and tapping on it, the main gameplay challenge is simply adjusting your point-of-view so you can see everything within a room.
Despite this, the first episode of Shadows Remain is a successful introduction to the series. While we hope for meatier and lengthier entries in the coming year, this jumping-off point has piqued our interest. The disturbing story we unraveled in this episode, and the excellent use of AR to bring it to life, are enough to keep us on edge until the next episode is released.