Review: The Shadow in the Cathedral

(A few years ago, somehow I started playing this game and thought I was finished after chapter two. I even rated it on IFDB then. I was recently looking at my list of long and literate games and realized I didn’t remember much about this one. So I replayed and found I had missed nine tenths of it. The Shadow in the Cathedral - Details (

St. Newton, St. Babbage, St. Breguet (hallowed be their names).

Isaac Newton: Mathematical Lawmaker.
Charles Babbage: Father of the Computer.
Abraham-Louis Breguet: Master-Horologist.

These intellectual giants played front-stage roles in a cultural movement during the 17th and 18th century where natural phenomena were being pulled out of the realms of chaotic randomness or transcendental intentionality and grasped in terms of their inner mathematical and mechanical orderliness.
The passage of Time ( Abraham-Louis Breguet - Wikipedia), the patterns of Thought ( Charles Babbage - Wikipedia), the regularities of Motion and the intricacies of Calculation ( Isaac Newton - Wikipedia) were captured both in logical/mathematical deductions of the mind and in mechanical contraptions of cogs and chains.

While aiding in freeing the human intellect of religious dogmatic thinking and opening up the path of naturalistic explanation and exploitation of the world, its mysteries and its resources, this mechanistical worldview carries within itself a rigidity not dissimilar to religious dogma. Once Nature is caught in Logic and Clockwork, it is unchanging and deterministic.

The world of The Shadow in the Cathedral exists as an exemplar of this rigid-mechanistic historical path. The cathedral from the title is a worshipping place for the three saints mentioned above. Worshippers make the sign of the lever when they PRAY. Priests gather around an altar and bow to the clockwork in the tower. Mechanical order replaces/equates divine order, with very similar institutions to uphold that order.

“The candles move in the space between floor and ceiling, the way the stars move between Earth and the Great Darkness of Heaven.They follow winding metal tracks that cross and recross along the length of the Great Hall, and as they move, pools of light form and then dissolve, so that some parts of the chamber are brightly lit at times whilst others are quite dark. The candles move day and night, with automatic systems to replace those that burn down to the stub.”

This paragraph might seem somewhat wordy, but it captures the atmosphere of the game-world perfectly by elaborating almost mystically on something as down-to-earth as moving candles while the bigger background is never laid out this explicitly. Instead it has to be inferred from these detailed minor descriptions. To this reviewer’s preferences, a leather-bound tome on the development and history of the clock-bound civilization to LOOK UP BABBAGE would have been very welcome indeed.

Wren is a lowly clock-polishing grease monkey in the Abbey. While cleaning the Abbot’s grandfather-clock, he overhears a conspiracy between a mysterious Figure in Grey and his Abbot to mumblemumble

When even the Archbisshop will not hear him, it is upon Wren himself to unravel the nefarious scheme.

Story takes precedence in every way in this game. The authors have gone to great lengths to eliminate annoyances for the player. When there is an important action to be taken, numerous but well-considered commands act as a trigger for that action to further the plot. There are calm exploratory and conversational parts where both Wren and the player can catch their breaths and learn more about the city. There are frantic chase sequences where it seems both Wren and the player will be out of breath a moment later but still push onward.

And of course, there are obstacles. Many, many obstacles. Not one of them breaks the flow of the story. And some of those puzzles are beautiful. Beautiful in that they combine storytelling, logic, engineering, associative reasoning and storytelling (yes, I meant to write that twice…) to engage the player and commit the Wren-and-Player team more and more to solve the mystery together.

Two puzzles are extraordinarily good. They are also great examples of the breadth of reasoning the player is asked to do . One is a completely down-to-earth physics question (the door in the warehouse). The other is an excercise in associative programming (the clockwork computer).

During Wren’s investigation, he will meet several people on his way, both friendly (good for Wren and the player needing clues) and malignant (great for the authors and the reader needing suspense). Although the conversations are ASK/TELL, they do not descend in awkwardness. Sometimes the characters won’t answer, but they are almost always believably occupied with other worries or tasks of their own. And even while they are otherwise engaged, their dismissive answers make sense in context. Nifty programming and great attention to both the detail of the immediate surroundings and the big picture of where Wren has gone before.

The Shadow in the Cathedral is a remarkable feat of intertwined puzzle-engineering, worldbuilding and philosophy.

Of course it is sad to have the story broken off after what should be the first chapter of a series. A word of wisdom to the prospective player: let the clock’s tick-tock take you to the bell, and let your imagination take over from there…

I loved every minute, hour and day of this game.

And a small but hopefully annoying heads-up (even if it has been 12 years since publish-date) to the authors (@joningold , @IanFinley): the chapter-titles are misaligned.

For example: the chapter-title says “The Rooftops of St. Philip” after the chase across the rooftops. By then Wren is already safe with Covalt. This is just an example. Every chapter’s title (except 1 & 2) comes after the story it’s supposedly about. A grating flaw in such a great piece. I would find it hard to believe that you would not return to The Shadow of the Cathedral to put the titles in order. (or is this a reflection of the rebellion against the clock?).


Hmm. No one ever pointed out the title bug. The source is on my GitHub. I can take a look at it.

Thanks for the review. If nothing came of Textfyre, it’s still a wonderful consolation to have Shadow to play. Wouldn’t it be great to get the second and third installments?



Yes, it would be…grea—shush… theymightbecreepiecrawlielistening…

About the title thing: at first I thought it was on purpose, to let the player know how far they’d gotten. But after a chapter or two, that didn’t really fit.

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What a fantastic review and insightful note. I’m a sucker for this kind of worlds, as a fan of Thief: The Dark Project franchise, I appreciate that we can transpose this definition to both games.

Probably Jon Ingold is fan of Thief too (or not).

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