Ever since the rise of independent developers, 2D games have been resurrected to their former glory and beyond. Previously synonymous with platforming games, 2D mediums have been used in a wider variety of genres lately, including horror. Games like Limbo, Inside, Detention, and Lone Survivor have proven that 2D games can be terrifying too. Now, Philippines-based studio Colideas Games tries to take on the genre with their debut game Shadows: Cradle Island.
Shadows: Cradle Island is set on a remote and desolate island. The game’s main plot is to look for your sister Laura, a scientist currently working on the island. You went there together on a helicopter with Jimmy, Laura’s husband, but crash-landed on the island. On the first night, Jimmy is attacked by a mysterious shadow. Alone, you have to find clues of Laura’s whereabouts while uncovering the island’s mystery and avoiding its fiendish Shadows.
Shadows: Cradle Island features an open-world setting with a day and night cycle. You are free to scavenge for useful items during the day and look for clues on the island. During the night, the Shadows are active and roam the streets. They are invincible, dark towering figures, and encountering them will often mean instant death, so you have to find shelter before it gets dark. Resources such as batteries and fuel are scarce, which means you have to manage their use especially when you wander around. The puzzle gameplay is a reminiscence of the Resident Evil series, where you collect and combine items to gain information and unlock new areas.
The game’s visuals can be very confusing sometimes since there are accessible areas placed in both the foreground and the background of the screen. The colour palette is rather dull and uninspiring, but I find it appropriate to its abandoned town setting, which defines most of the game. The UI design feels very basic, though, and reminds me of Flash games. Interestingly, the game gives you some degree of freedom to fiddle with its visuals, from simple brightness settings to setting a grain filter, which adds a little bit of immersion. Personally, I feel that the visuals are too dark, even during the day, so adjusting the brightness was very helpful. While it does reduce the game’s scary feel, I found that it’s not worth sacrificing gameplay.
Before talking about the flaws, I want to talk about what I like. First, I find it neat that this game is available on mobile, as such genre is relatively rare on this platform. Second, the story is pretty decent; you actually want to know what really happened on the island and whether Laura is still alive. It also features multiple endings based on your decisions. Third, the open-world setting and day-night cycle provide you with freedom but also limitations on how far you can explore before dusk. Going out into a new area and realizing later on that you have gone too far to get back to your previous shelter in time before the shadow’s descent can be a horrifying thought. There is also a skillset system in place, of which you have to learn some skills before executing actions such as applying medical items such as a first aid kit or fixing electronic devices.
Now for the flaws. The biggest drawback that bothers me is how counterintuitive the game and puzzle design is. The puzzles require key items to solve, meaning that a lot of backtracking is needed to look for the items. Some items that previously seemed unrelated may also become essential as the game progresses. Most puzzle games or puzzles in games such as Zelda allow or encourage you to collect such items beforehand when you believe these items will be important later. This game design enables you to seemingly solve puzzles easier than the game intended, giving you some pseudo satisfaction of being ahead of the game. Well, you will not have this experience here. The game will not let you pick up an item before it was deemed necessary, straight up acting like the item and doors don’t exist by not giving you the interactivity prompt, or even worse: only add the item after the game deemed it necessary. Meaning that each time the story progresses, chances are you are going to search every single room on the island, again and again, to check if there are new additional items. The cryptic nature of the story and hints make the experience even worse.
This backtracking problem is also enhanced because the areas are not distributed evenly, meaning that you could spend 15 seconds just to get in and out of a single room and then into the larger, main corridor that goes on seamlessly without a loading screen. The interaction prompt itself is somewhat inconsistent. The majority of critical items require you to interact with them using the touch button. Still, some are needed to be tapped on the screen, without any prompt whether such items are interactive or not.
The second flaw is how the game executes the horror element itself. The shadows are invincible and almost guaranteed to give you an inevitable death without any means to defend yourself against them (until later on in the game), which is pretty great. The problem is, the game doesn’t provide any reason to go out at night, whether through the story or an event. I played most of the game until the end without needing to go out at night even once. And when I did, I already had the tools to defend myself from the Shadows.
Last but not least, the placement of the ads ruins the immersion. At first, an ad is played every time you go to sleep or save the game in a safe area, which is excusable. But as you progress, the ads play even more randomly everywhere and even when you try to use an item. Imagine playing a horror game one second and suddenly witnessing Tiktok ads. Providing a purchase option to disable the ads would be welcomed.
All in all, the game has potential. The story is quite intriguing and every breakthrough does feel rewarding and satisfying. But the challenge is somewhat unfair; making such a breakthrough is very hard and requires tonnes of gaming logic due to the cryptic nature of the clue. I believe most of the issues can be fixed if only they would release it as a premium game instead of free-to-play. Without the ads and the necessity to sell hints, the game immersion would hold better and the story could be less cryptic. I also believe that releasing the game on PC or consoles would reduce the loading times and make it a more enjoyable experience overall. Until then, the benefits of playing this game are very few and far between, and I really can’t recommend Shadows: Cradle Island for players with low frustration tolerance. Those (like me) looking for a mystery story with challenging, sometimes even unfair gameplay, may still enjoy the experience in a slightly masochistic way.
Shadows: Cradle Island is available for mobile devices on Google’s Play Store.