Games of the quality of A Shadow's Tale used to fall through the cracks all the time. We used to get all indignant and shouty about publisher indifference to games like Katamari Damacy, Sly Raccoon and Psychonauts and then promptly dish out game of the year awards to make up for the rank injustice. It probably didn't make a lot of difference in the grand scheme of things, but it made us (and the 147 people who bought them) feel a bit better.
Now that we've got downloadable outlets practically coming out of our own faces, we don't tend to get hung up about these things anymore. More likely, we'll just spend hours poring over obscure forums, check out a few hastily cobbled together promo videos, and hassle hard-up developers for code. The best of the bunch end up featuring in one of EG's excitable weekly roundups of downloadable and mobile titles, and we all go to bed happy that no-one's being ignored, no matter how left-field or downright weird they decide to be.
A Shadow's Tale certainly fell through the cracks - although even the most deluded optimist would have known it didn't stand a chance had they taken a look at the game's European packaging. "Embark on a shadow's adventure!" we're told, before four amazing bullet points. "Journey through a land in shadow!" We got that bit. "Adventure with a Spangle!" What."
"Manipulate light!" Okay, that sounds sort of interesting. "Complete your quest." Amazing. Needless to say, if you were one of the seven people in the UK who idly picked up a copy and then put it down again, you'd have walked away none the wiser - perhaps guessing that it was some sort of ICO clone, judging by the rather knowing cover art.
In fact, the game itself starts off determined to hoodwink players into believing that it's spiritually aligned with Fumito Ueda's ethereal classic. On the surface, at least, such observations are on the money. Young boy? Check. Lost and abandoned? Check. In a mistily over-saturated world of sandstone? Ding ding ding! Coincidence? Hardly.
But once you progress beyond the derivative introductory level, the game carves out its own identity, with an ambience more pulse-quickeningly sinister than even Limbo. Stripped of your physical form, you find yourself occupying a dangerous shadowy afterlife, skipping along the outlines of the real world and clambering along makeshift obstacles in search of the three glowing red 'Monitor Eyes' that occupy each level.
The further you journey up the game's vast, imposing tower in search of the precious fragments of your physical being, the more twisted and deranged it appears determined to become. The game's patrolling sentries look like nothing more sinister than the creepy, spidery relatives of Patapon to start with, but later on they take on disturbing, miserablist forms, and the game goes from being a pleasant platform diversion to a cracked cousin of survival-horror in one swift motion. Rarely does it ever feel like letting you off the hook.
To maximise your discomfort, each level is linked by a thoroughly disorientating Shadow Corridor - a swirling, whirling portion of the environment where it's necessary to rotate the world about its axis for no apparent reason other than because the level designers probably thought it looked nice. They were right. In through the out door you go, round and round, never quite sure where it leads. Sometimes it all works out for the best, sometimes you die. That's A Shadow's Tale, right there. Either way, you're left marvelling at some breathtakingly beautiful and effortlessly artistic scenes.
This confusing, distracting journey always gets you there in the end, even when you're sure that you're probably going to be stuck there forever. The labyrinthine nature of the world is entirely deceptive, and whenever you feel like the odds are stacked against you, the solution is usually right under your nose. The game feels a whole lot bigger than it actually is, and fools you into thinking that you've been playing each level for ages, when it's probably been no more than 15 or 20 minutes.
The puzzle design is exquisite, and seems to get better the further you go. At first it's a merely a case of flicking switches and dodging sentries, but it starts to layer things on top of one another to the point where it feels like a masterpiece of inventive level design. With levels entirely constructed out of shadows, you become the master of your own destiny, morphing the platforms around you by moving lamps - first vertically, then horizontally. Sometimes it's just a means of creating a new path, but as the stakes are raised, it often helps send the groaning menace to their doom - and not before time.
Just when you feel like the game has perhaps played its hand, you find yourself able to briefly take advantage of your physical form - if only to push something to help your shadow progress elsewhere in the level. As if the game wasn't already creepy enough, it periodically threatens to overwhelm you with the kind of chase sequences that pollute your dreams for all time. If they don't, the intensely creepy music and tormented audio almost certainly will. At times, it makes Silent Hill seem positively jolly.
It seems extraordinary that a game with such obvious passion infused into every element has bypassed the attentions of most of the world's gaming critics, but then again, when a publisher is only prepared to send out a handful of review copies in one of the key gaming markets, the lack of coverage becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. How the game will fare in the US remains to be seen, but it can hardly do any worse. Can it?
Perhaps A Shadow's Tale's abject failure to make even a tiny impression is proof of how important it is to hype up a game. Sometimes it feels as though unless a publisher is prepared to push a game relentlessly to the press, the press will happily ignore it completely rather than pick up the baton to push it themselves.
Or perhaps there's no conspiracy. Perhaps I just happen to really love a game that other people find a bit dull. Did I just see something in this game that isn't there, or am I looking at one of the biggest overlooked gems of recent years? Sometimes it's hard to tell if you're just shouting into an empty room. Maybe one day they'll re-release it on HD platforms and it'll all make sense.