Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch
September 29, 2020
Projection: First Light is the kind of game the world needs more of. It’s a puzzle platformer with a handcrafted shadow puppet aesthetic. Shadows are platforms, so you need to cast shadows in specific directions in order to solve puzzles and get through each level. The game is a visual delight, and its dialogue-free tale of a little girl travelling the world is a fantastic way to highlight shadow puppetry techniques from various countries and incorporate them into gameplay. Unfortunately, clumsy controls and inconsistent physics make many puzzles a chore to get through. Despite this, I still want to recommend Projection: First Light, because I am so impressed by what it does well.
When I mean “shadow puppet aesthetic”, I mean the entire game looks like a shadow puppet show performed in front of you. Everything on screen, including your character, is on little sticks, and the level is hurriedly assembled around you whenever you move around. It’s beautiful to look at, and is also cleverly used in gameplay. See, while you control the little girl with the left stick (with buttons to jump and grab stuff), you control a glowing butterfly with the right stick. You move the butterfly up against the puppets to cast a shadow for the girl to jump onto, or to move objects around.
Shadows are cast realistically, so it matters how far away the butterfly is from the object you want to cast a shadow off of. The butterfly can pass through solid surfaces, so there’s no inch of the screen it can’t reach. It’s also playable during cutscenes, which is a lovely (and totally optional) way to shed a bit of extra light onto specific characters, and see how shadows bounce off them. Shadows look organic and move around how you’d expect them to, and I did feel like a genius the first time I figured out how to create a ramp to reach a far away platform. Shadows are also used to push objects around, so there’s a lot of variety in how they’re used. Casting shadows is the most fundamental mechanic of the game, so I was disappointed at how often it didn’t work.
Sometimes, if a shadow is cast too quickly against an object or character, it passes straight through, which feels like a glitch. I eventually got used to placing the butterfly far away from an object and slowly bringing it closer, since slower cast shadows seemed to register better. But since you can’t control the camera, you are often stuck placing the butterfly right up to the edge of the screen. In these situations, the only way to get through is to repeatedly jiggle the butterfly around until the shadow finally registers. During later puzzles requiring precise timing, this glitch makes a challenge feel like a drag, and makes a thought-out solution feel like luck.
The butterfly can also make the game tough by virtue of being on all the time. There will be points when simply trying to move the butterfly to a certain point will accidentally create a shadow that will knock the girl off a platform. The game is very generous with checkpointing, so it’s not a huge loss to repeat a single puzzle, but that’s too many ways the game punishes you for things that aren’t your fault. These issues don’t always happen, but it happened so much during my time with Projection: First Light that it made me turn the game off at several points.
But every time I turned the game off, I would only remember the good parts. I would remember how satisfying it felt to figure out a puzzle solution, and how spectacular the game looked, and how authentically (to a layman like me, anyway) it represents artistic histories of different countries. I would remember the amazing soundtrack. And that would motivate me to play a little more. And I would make a bit more progress. And then a stray shadow would kick me off a cliff. And then I’d stop again. And then I’d want to play it again.
But maybe that’s how Projection: First Light should be played, in increments. It has over 60 levels (I only made it through half of them before this review), and each level contains a handful of puzzles, so maybe it’s best not to rush through them. Australian devs Shadowplay Studios and Sweaty Chair Studio have created a charming, enthralling world. Even though I had my issues, I still want to see more of it.
- Amazing visuals and soundtrack
- The shadow mechanic is clever and varied - when it works
- Amazing way to showcase shadow puppetry from different cultures
- Frequent glitches when casting shadows
- Very easy to fail a puzzle due to accidentally casting shadows
- Timing-based puzzles are frustrating
Projection: First Light has a lot of positives going for it. It’s got great ideas, smart mechanics, and plenty of heart. It just needs a bit more polish. I need to emphasise that the glitches and physics issues around shadows are my only gripes with the game. It’s sad to see that they were so prevalent, but it didn’t stop me from appreciating how fascinating the shadow mechanic is, and how cleverly it’s used. Projection: First Light doesn’t let its issues mar how brilliant (get it?) and impressive it is as a whole.