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Shadwen Review – Out Damned Spot

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Frozenbyte’s Shadwen should be brilliant. The core concept is a mix of SUPERHOT and Thief (the original, not the horrid reboot), the artwork has the same storybook style as the studio’s marvelous Trine trilogy, and its narrative and mechanics attempt to do something a little different. In short, it’s the kind of game that’s usually right up my alley, from a studio that I have the utmost respect for.

Which is why it pains me to say that, unfortunately, Shadwen’s good points are eclipsed by dreary environmental design, awful AI, and repetitive gameplay, ruining a game that potentially could have been another cult hit.

Players take on the role of the titular Shadwen, a female assassin on her way to commit a little spot of regicide. For reasons unknown, she decides to save a street urchin called Lily from being ‘reprimanded’ (read executed and/or raped) by a couple of guards for Scrumping apples.  After the first couple of introductory levels that have you play as Lily and then Shadwen, the pair head to the castle to stick a knife in the king. Interestingly, how you act as Shadwen impacts Lily’s perception of you. Knifing a guard in front of the poor snot is obviously traumatizing for the girl, and she becomes fearful as a result. It has a small amount of effect on the plot, but very little effect on the gameplay. It just makes you feel bad for not taking the non-violent route (or at least trying to hide your homicidal tendencies) in each level.

As an assassin, you can imagine that toting around a scared child can’t be too much fun, and that rings true.  It doesn’t take long to realize that Lily is a pain in the proverbial. For some bizarre reason, after initially allowing you to play as her, the game then descends into obnoxious escort mission territory for the duration once Shadwen turns up.  Both Shadwen and Lily need to make it to the door at the end of each level for you to progress. More often than not, Lily just can’t keep up, bumbling around and curling up into a ball whenever she stumbles across a dead guard. In theory, having a character need to shelter a child from violence is an intriguing idea, but in practice it sucks a lot of the fun out of the experience. Trying to guide Lily through the levels feels like herding cats, even before you take into account her being randomly triggered, which I’m not sure were the result of my actions or just bad AI.

The game’s main hook is your ability to manipulate time, with guards and the world around them only moving when you hold down the R1 button, or (as in SUPERHOT) whenever Shadwen or Lily Move.  You don’t have to worry too much though, because you can also rewind time Sands of Time style by holding the L1 button whenever you get caught, shot, stabbed or rumbled. However, unlike Prince of Persia, you can do this as much as you want, which completely obliterates any fear of death or reproach, and with it any challenge or need for skill. You can simply brute force your way through any level, rewinding whenever things don’t go your way.

You also have access to a grappling hook, which you can use to tug on barrels, crates, and hay bales to distract the guards, as well as clamber up to high ledges and swing between lampposts like an urban Tarzan. Well, you would if it worked properly. It’s hard to gain momentum, and often you find yourself dangling in the air no matter how hard you try to swing, or simply miss your mark and plunge into the streets below. Likewise, the collusion detection is absolutely comical.  Oftentimes, I would pull a crate to distract a guard only to see them fall down dead in front of it.

shadwen_shot_04

The enemy AI is as dumb as box of rocks. You can get right up in the faces of the guards, so long as you have some cover in between you, and they won’t suspect a thing, even if you accidentally nudge it when you move past. Chucking a barrel in front of them results in nothing more than mild puzzlement.

Bookending each level are beautiful hand-drawn scenes and portraits that push the narrative forward as the pair make their way to the inevitable killing of the king. The artistry of the game’s static cutscenes and the wonderfully-framed narrative sit in stark contrast to the drab medieval environments, an endless procession of stereotypical Tudor architecture and cobbled streets that make levels feel indistinct, and the games repetitive gameplay feels all the more laborious as a result.

Ultimately, Shadwen disappoints because it doesn’t properly follow through. There’s a lot of potential here. The narrative is engaging, and the characters (at least during cutscenes) are likeable and well written. Likewise, the time manipulation mechanics could make for an intelligent and rewarding stealth-action game. But it’s wasted potential. There’s just too much that could have been good, but ended up poorly implemented.  Coupled with niggling technical issues (most of which could probably be patched out) it would be difficult for me to recommend Shadwen.

Shadwen was reviewed on PS4 with a copy provided by the developer.

Developer: Frozenbyte | Publisher: Frozenbyte |  Genre: Stealth, Action | Platform: PC,PS4 | PEGI/ESRB: 12+/T | Release Date: May 18, 2016

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Review

American Fugitive Review — A Grand Tale of Theft and Auto

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American Fugitive gameplay screenshot 1

The original Grand Theft Auto rocked the virtual world with its violent gameplay from a birds-eye view perspective back in 1997. Once the series moved to a third-person, 3D perspective with Grand Theft Auto III, few gamers looked back and few developers attempted to replicate the original style. More than 20 years later, Fallen Tree Games has become of those few with American Fugitive.

Players control Will Riley, a man convicted for a crime he did not commit and filled with the desire for revenge. Once he has escaped from prison, Will must find old friends—and meet some new ones—to run errands and discover the person who killed his father.

The game is played from a top-down perspective in a 3D open world. More reminiscent of Chinatown Wars than the original Grand Theft Auto, the camera adds a level of complexity to American Fugitive, as players often will not see what lies beyond the edges of the screen. While a behind-the-character perspective would, at times, not go amiss, players will eventually grow to familiarise themselves with the camera, respecting the callback to classic open world titles.

American Fugitive gameplay screenshot 2

The open world itself is also reminiscent of classic titles, with simplified designs regularly complimented by the detailed art style. The game’s animated, cartoon design scheme is fitting of its fast-paced action gameplay, always managing to keep the player on their toes and keen to discover more. Technically, the game plays almost flawlessly, with no significant performance issues to disrupt the player while they explore the map.

Players can explore the rural open world of Redrock County on foot or in a vehicle. The vehicular gameplay may take some time for players to familiarise themselves with, with some overly slippery mechanics leading to some unfortunate collisions, though fitting to the game’s tone. Thankfully, most environments in the game are destructible, so sliding off the road—if the player follows the road to begin with—does not often lead to disaster.

Despite beginning the game as a seemingly innocent man, Will doubles down on his criminal actions once he escapes from prison. Akin to Grand Theft Auto, the player can hijack cars, kill civilians, and attract the attention of police. Most residential buildings in the game can be robbed by the player, often leading to tense confrontations with the homeowners or police, so players must continue at their own risk.

American Fugitive gameplay screenshot 3

The ‘wanted’ system in the game works similarly to Grand Theft Auto games, with players accumulating up to five stars depending on their behaviour. The stars often accumulate a little too quickly, however, with additional stars regularly added simply for evading police. Oftentimes, the player may possess a full wanted level—complete with large police vans and circling helicopters—within a minute of committing a minor offense. While this over-the-top gameplay design is fitting to the pace of the game, it may lead to frustrations within the main story missions by bringing the player’s progress to a halt.

The missions are also reminiscent of those in Grand Theft Auto, tasking the player with a wide variety of tasks to keep them busy while the story evolves. While many of these missions may seem disconnected to the main narrative structure, they are unique and regularly keep the player entertained, ranging from simple fetch quests and car robberies to full-scale shootouts. The game’s fast-paced gameplay and lack of loading screens also make the poorly-placed checkpoints bearable, especially when the beginning of missions require the player to drive to a certain location.

American Fugitive‘s storyline is simple in design but entertaining enough to keep the player engaged. The game’s ‘cutscenes’ exist in the form of text atop character designs; while some simple voice acting would elevate these scenes with more dramatic tension, they are short enough to maintain the player’s attention and continue the missions at a fast pace. Players will find themselves surprisingly engrossed in the story, wanting to see it through to its full conclusion.

American Fugitive gameplay screenshot 4

Accompanying the fast-paced gameplay and narrative is the game’s music. From slow, explorative themes to fast-paced tracks, American Fugitive‘s original score is reminiscent of some of the best soundtracks across different media—from television’s True Detective to video gaming’s Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Last of Us. Each song accompanies the gameplay nicely, ramping up and down as the player makes the appropriate actions, and, along with the expert sound design, add the auditory sprinkles atop a visual and narrative treat.

American Fugitive, simply put, is fun. Fallen Tree Games has added its own unique twist to a classic gameplay formula, and utilised a simple but engaging narrative and a beautiful original score to maintain the player’s interest until the very end. Despite a few minor flaws in gameplay, the game stands strong against its competition. Players looking for a fast, fun, and mature sandbox game should not miss American Fugitive.

OnlySP Review Score 4 Distinction

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro.

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