|Platforms||PC (reviewed), PS4|
|Release Date||May 17, 2016|
This game was reviewed using a key provided by the developers
Shadwen is a third-person stealth game that casts you as the title character, an assassin who is on a mission to kill the king. On her travels she runs across a young orphaned girl called Lily being harassed by a guard. After saving her, Lily decides to follow Shadwen on her dangerous journey, and Shadwen must make a choice – risk the girl’s trust by killing the guards that stand in her way, or find another way to get to her target.
It’s an interesting premise for a stealth game. Guards litter the various levels ahead of you, patrolling slowly between you and your goal. Making the choice between killing or not killing changes the way you approach the game. Although to Shadwen’s credit, it’s not as simple as a binary choice. Lily is only, for want of a better term, affected by the killing that she can see – so if you can murder a guard and hide his body away from her sight then she’ll never even know the difference.
As interesting a premise that is, though, Shadwen is still one long escort mission from start to finish, and not a very good one either. After two brief tutorials that see you control first Lily, then Shadwen, you’re going to need to escort Lily through each and every level. In each and every level you not only need to get past all the guards without being seen (as soon as you’re spotted it’s game over), but you need to get Lily past them all too. It’s an added level of micromanagement that becomes a tiresome burden very quickly.
Luckily Lily is more or less invisible to guards, thanks to the AI programming. As per the rules of the game she won’t move into a guards line of sight. However the game doesn’t factor into its rules what should happen when she moves into the line of sight of a guard that turns around, or walks around a corner. When this happens the guard either freezes, struck by temporary blindness, while Lily completes her move, or Lily scarpers back to her original hiding spot – sometimes past a gaggle of guards on her way back. While it’s nice that Lily can’t cause an immediate game over, it would have been nice if the game had obfuscated its mechanics a little better.
That being said, the further into the game you get, the more plausible it is that guards could be looking directly at Lily and not register her presence at all. The AI in Shadwen is pretty wonky. Moving boxes or making intentional noises to maneuver guards is a part of the game. But if you move a box, nearby guards will investigate the source of the noise, even if you’re still dragging the box around a corner. Heck even if a box is still moving. The AI in Shadwen just isn’t smart enough to really prove any kind of challenge, which removes all the tension from gameplay.
It’s not helped by a Superhot-style time mechanic – where time will only move when the player moves. While this mechanic is outright necessary to execute fiddly and demandingly precise grappling hook jumps (more on those in a moment), it feels entirely out of place in the rest of the game. For starters, stealth games generally require you to stand still for long periods of time, as you hide behind a wall or in a bale of hay to allow a guard to pass you by before you sneak on ahead. You can hold down a button to make time keep moving, but when you’re spending the majority of your time holding down that button, it makes the entire mechanic feel pointless.
I can see why it works in theory – giving you ample time to stop, take a look at your surroundings and assess your next moves, but I can do that in other stealth games from hidden vantage points. Considering a big part of the planning in stealth games, including this one, revolves around watching guard patrol patterns, there are just too many instances where you’ll be calling into question why this mechanic exists in Shadwen in the first place.
The saving grace of this mechanic is that it allows you to rewind time, either after being caught (and avoiding multiple reloads after being spotted), or to try another approach after finding that your last attempt at stealth was about to lead to total disaster. Avoiding checkpoints entirely is a smart move by Shadwen, but it didn’t really need to be coupled to a time stopping mechanic that sticks out like a sore thumb. This rewinding mechanic, coupled with the fact that being spotted is an instant failure (with no opportunity to kill a guard who has spotted you), gives the game no tension whatsoever. It’s freeing in a way, allowing you to take risks you never would in a more traditional stealth game, but it makes your progress feel like an inevitability rather than something you’re accomplishing.
It doesn’t help that most levels feel identical to each other. For the most part they’re all just drab, colourless corridors with some crates and bales of hay/bushes to hide in, and they all pretty much bleed together. There are moments where the game opens out into larger, more detailed areas and present you with a complex challenge with multiple paths of progression. These areas are where Shadwen shines, despite mechanical problems, giving you the freedom to move through in your own way at your own pace. It’s just a shame there weren’t more of them, or that there wasn’t more of a focus placed on them rather than the same corridor sneaking that fills the game.
Verticality plays a role in Shadwen, thanks to the titular characters grappling hook. While it’s used to move objects around the environment to distract guards, this is mostly used to Spiderman your way across certain levels, stringing together grappling hook jumps on contextual and conveniently placed hanging crates. In theory the grappling hook adds an extra layer of complexity to the stealthy proceedings, allowing you to go up as well as through. The problem is that it’s really fiddly to actually execute more than one grappling hook jump.
When the game asks you to grapple from one point to the next, it demands a level of precision that simply wouldn’t be possible with the games time freezing mechanic. Best hope you’ve stopped pushing forward on the analogue stick in midair, or you’re going to miss the next jump. It really is as simple as that, as the hit box for grappling to these crates is tiny. Once you’ve wrapped your head around it, this is where the time stopping mechanic shines, and there’s a decent thrill to be had hanging motionless in midair as you aim your next jump.
Shadwen is packed full of a surprising amount of lore. Mostly told through eavesdropping on guards conversations while you’re ducked down in a bush, these conversations are oftentimes quite riveting. Guards discuss a myriad of topics that hint at a world much bigger than the concerns of a single assassin and her ward, with subjects ranging from forest spirits to the complex and interesting class and social issues of the city. While the main story doesn’t really stick its landing (thanks to a confusing arrangement of the games multiple endings), it’s clear that Frozenbyte but a lot of thought into the world beyond Shadwen and her stealthy antics.
Shadwen is a game that is better in theory than in execution. It’s plagued by wonky AI programming and some baffling game design choices. While the time freezing mechanics are interesting on paper, they don’t really fit a stealth game. In a genre where players will sit motionless for extended periods of time by design, it seems useless. The rewind feature is a welcome replacement for sitting through load screens upon failure, but it has the added detriment of removing a lot of the tension you’d ordinarily find in the genre. It works really well for the grappling hook sections of gameplay, once you’ve wrapped your head around it, however. But probably the biggest problem is the repetitive level design. When Shadwen opens up and presents you with more complex challenges with multiple paths, it works really well, and you can see the game Frozenbyte were aiming for. But it doesn’t do this enough. As it stands, Shadwen is a game that could have been great, but it feels like it needed more time in the oven to realise its full potential.
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