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.
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