Expensive Ticket, Mediocre Play
HIGH Thoughtful artwork makes it feel like real shadow puppetry.
LOW Self-sabotaging game design thanks to awkward mechanics.
WTF Dismember your limb for a 99% chance to achieve absolutely nothing.
I like it when indie developers take a bizarre concept and turn it into a game. Triple-A companies would never take such a gamble, and although they don’t all get it right, once in a while I stumble over a gem. With its striking aesthetic, funny voiceover, and awkward physics, Shadow Fencer Theatre felt like it could be that gem. Sadly, it’s an unpolished one.
The first thing to notice about Shadow Fencer Theatre is its beautiful art. Staying true to shadow puppetry, the visuals mimic flat, cut-out figures held between a translucent screen and source of light. As players go through the story mode, they’ll notice a wide variety of environments inspired by familiar legends such as the Princess and the Wizard, Godzilla vs. Megalon, or the ‘unlikely hero’ vs. ‘insurmountable foe’. There’s even a puppet operator’s hand in the background and funny commentary provided by a husky narrator, adding to the immersion.
SFT has several modes that players can explore, so I started with the story. While I wasn’t expecting a long one, I was hoping for something, well… more. In total, the story mode offers under an hour of play. It’s just three acts divided by two intermissions featuring awkward minigames.
The story isn’t even really a story, but a succession of random short plays that showcase new characters and environments. I would have loved for the developers to pay as much attention to the narrative as they did to the artwork — knowing why I was going up against a scorpion with limbs the size of my entire body would have been a great morale booster. Sadly, it seems that Shadow Fencer Theatre was designed more as a novelty or comic relief, and offers no storytelling substance.
In terms of action, the player is an actor and his job is to entertain. There are several ways, but the simplest is through fencing. Players can make their shadow puppet use anything from a sword to a trident, staff, or even a giraffe head to poke opponents.
This may sound easy, but the puppets are difficult to control and they can’t be trusted to hold a weapon straight — it feels like trying to predict a drunk person’s movements on Mars. Weapons ricochet in awkward flurries and my perfectly-timed attacks were often turned against me. In story mode, players face off in one-on-one combat and have five lives at their disposal to defeat their enemy. All the action is contained within one screen, exactly like in a play. Once the round is over, the actor receives a new character that he must use to defeat the next foe.
I replayed the story over five times hoping to unlock a difficult achievement (which, at the time of the review, nobody has earned) and during this time I learned that I could kill opponents in creative ways (sometimes using my bare hands) which prompted positive reactions from the audience. There’s also a mechanic that allows players to throw their weapon or their own limb at an opponent. I found it mostly useless, but it did save me during a few encounters — I’m looking at you, Dorthmakka’s Kiss.
Players can put Shadow Fencer Theatre down as soon as they’re done with the story without fear of missing out, but the other modes do offer some replayability value.
Improv mode allows players to set up their own ‘sketch’ by selecting the desired character, map, and level. Marathon asks the player to defeat all enemies, one after the other, with a limited number of lives. Skit features minigames from the intermissions, but while some of them are enjoyable, some are too awkward for their own good. I have yet to land a single dagger in the bullseye, I have no idea how to move the spider on the web, and I’m tired of having the ball pass through my character in “Goal”. Naturally, these modes are better when engaging in local multiplayer, but as competitive gamers, we weren’t impressed since the controls aren’t responsive and the hitboxes don’t seem fair.
Frustrating puppet mechanics aside, Shadow Fencer Theatre is enjoyable for an afternoon thanks to its unique premise and visual novelty, but after putting my time in, I’ll forget it exists until the next time I have friends over.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by ShuddaHaddaLottaFun. It is currently available on PC and XBO. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on PC. Approximately 5 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. Over 2 hours of play were spent in multiplayer modes.
Parents: This game is rated E by the ESRB and contains Mild Fantasy Violence. These are literal shadow puppets, so the only possible concernis that there are scenes of dismemberment, which are not very graphic.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options. Apart from a few colored cut-outs, the game is mostly monochrome.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The game can be played without sound. All dialogue in the game is subtitled, and there are visual cues for audience reactions. This title is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. In addition to the controller layout, SFT can also be played on a keyboard, but I don’t recommend it. W, A, S, D and the ARROW keys are used for movement and fencing. Directional keyboard inputs are basic. For example, pressing W points up. Pressing W and D at the same time will point at a 45-degree angle. Using a controller is much more intuitive. Weapons can be dropped or thrown with Q or E.