Shadwen is a stealth game with a medieval fantasy setup developed by Frozenbyte, the makers of the Trine franchise. It is a game that borrows a lot of ideas from various different games, attempting to weave them together into a unique product. While it succeeds in some portions, it falters quite heavily in some other, more crucial areas.
Shadwen, the female protagonist, sets out to assassinate the king for reasons of her own and on her way comes across a girl named Lily. She has been apprehended by a guard for attempting to steal apples. Shadwen rescues her and she decides to tag along with you for the remainder of the game. The rest of the game consists of guiding Lily through various levels, all the while getting closer to the goal of eliminating the king. The gameplay consists of utilising the various tools and means provided by the game to accomplish this.
One of the coolest gameplay aspects that I feel is one of the game’s strengths is the ability to rewind time. Unlike the Prince of Persia games, there is no story explanation for its presence in the game, it simply acts like a gameplay mechanic for players to use. This feature allows players to rewind time by an indefinite amount and takes the place of traditional quick save-quick load system. It’s a really useful and convenient feature because it eliminates the problem of having to frequently save the game at specific points and then reloading once things go wrong, forcing you to sit through a loading screen. I found it to be really helpful because it allowed me to rectify a mistake made a second ago or a series of them made over the course of last few minutes.
Also if Shadwen is spotted the game immediately ends. Hence the player doesn’t have to bother about inconvenient things such as breaking line of sight or scampering away to a dark corner till the guards stop looking for her.
Also time in the game stops when Shadwen stops moving, a feature similar to SUPERHOT. Whereas in SUPERHOT it made the game unique and challenging, here it serves to be a hindrance. Yes it allows players to survey the surroundings looking for vantage points, safe paths and aiming the grappling hook for performing air manoeuvres, but its poorly implemented. A button needs to be held to make time move while the player isn’t moving, which means sitting in a hiding spot for a significant amount of time waiting for guards to move out of the way for Shadwen to progress. It’s awkward and clunky and feels more like a gimmick than a helpful addition.
Shadwen also has a grappling hook in her possession which allows her to not only move to higher vantage points but also manipulate objects like crates, wagons and barrels to create distractions. It’s a really neat feature and it is the single most important tool in the entire game. I really enjoyed using it to ascend to higher areas to survey the surroundings before making my move. However, it’s implementation isn’t exactly intuitive. The grappling hook feels nowhere near as smooth and easy to operate as the one in Batman Arkham games and the controls and physics governing it feel like they belong to a game from 2004 not in a game released in 2016. The physics are wonky and the controls awkward.
The game has a crafting system in place that allows players to create new tools that can be used for various purposes. These tools include explosives, dart traps and distractions. Levels are littered with treasure chests containing blueprints and the corresponding items needed to craft said tools. All of these items need to be placed however on objects or on surfaces, meaning throwing explosives and distractions from high up is not an option, and there is a high chance of getting detected while attempting to place them in the right spot. As a result most of these additions, even though welcome, feel redundant.
The game’s primary source of story and information are the guard dialogues. They talk about the state of the kingdom, the friction between nobles and the burning of nearby forests to destroy dark spirits. The guards are well voice acted and stopping to listen to them to get a feel of the world is really interesting and it clearly shows Frozenbyte put a lot of effort into creating a rich and complex world.
A major part of Shadwen’s story is the choice between using lethal force or pacifist means, as Lily will react accordingly in between chapters. She considers Shadwen as evil if guards are killed in front of her or dead bodies left in her path. If they are spared instead, she won’t think you’re all that bad. However, other than improving your standing with her, there is no real advantage of taking a non violent approach, as using lethal force makes it significantly easy to progress, without the guards around to cause unnecessary hindrances.
Gameplay mostly consists of guiding Lily through each level, as she makes her way from one hiding place to another, reliant on the player to either kill or distract the guards around her. Lily however is never caught or even seen, even if she is standing in plain view of a guard. While it is nice that she is practically invisible, it highlights the problems that the AI governing her has. It suffers from pathfinding issues from time to time. She often considers a path with five guards along it as a better choice instead of a safer path that allows her to circle around them. Lily’s AI works fine most of the time, but on the rare occasions that it doesn’t, its quite annoying.
Then there’s the AI governing the guards. It is very inconsistent varying from being utterly mediocre to godlike. Sometimes a guard will just flat out ignore you even if you happened to be dragging a body a few feet away in the open and at times will detect you even if you happened to be well enveloped in darkness or safely perched on higher ground. Some guards detect sound the moment it is made, and on other occasions don’t respond even if haystacks or such is dropped on them. The AI is a very a important part of any stealth game and it is immersion breaking to see them behave so inconsistently.
Graphically Shadwen certainly isn’t a looker, but it isn’t an ugly game. The lighting and other post processing effects really push home the fact that this is a really grim and dark world in which Shadwen lives. The game doesn’t suffer from any major technical issues and runs really well. A couple of bugs did show up during my playtime, one of them being an autowalk bug where Shadwen would continue to walk without any user input. Shadwen also clipped through a number of objects while swinging around or ascending to a vantage point using the grappling hook.
The musical score of Shadwen is minimalistic and ambient. It does a good job of adding to the grim atmosphere of the world along with the excellent sound effects like the crackling of a fire, sound of water dripping in underground cellars and the sound made by barrels as they are being pushed around by Shadwen. Overall the sound design is good, but the music doesn’t really stick and is forgettable.
As for the level design it is average at best. Its fun navigating through the levels stealthily, noiselessly slipping past guards or getting rid of them as per requirement. But it got really repetitive after a few hours. The layout varies from chapter to chapter, but appearance wise the areas never look any different.The levels consist of sneaking around in roads, squares and tight corridors with the same houses and environmental clutter all around with little to no variation.
The gameplay too doesn’t change or evolve as you progress. All 15 levels in the game consist of guiding Lily from one hiding place to another, with the game throwing a few obstacles on the way like introducing a heavily armored version of the regular guards to mix things up. But none of these feel drastic or significant enough to force you to change tactics on the fly. The gameplay works fine for the first few levels, but later becomes too repetitive for its own good.
Make no mistake, Shadwen is a good game and I certainly had a lot of fun while playing it. It focuses heavily on stealth instead of relying on unnecessary action sequences and offers an adequately long campaign and good value for its asking price. However this game could have been so much better if Frozenbyte had taken their time polishing the rough edges and putting in more effort into certain aspects like the story and level design. I do hope Frozenbyte comes up with a sequel which improves upon this game in many ways, because this game’s interpretation of stealth is both unique and refreshing.