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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

Etherborn Review — A Brief, Beautiful Defiance of Gravity

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Etherborn

Indie developers in 2019 truly have the freedom to create the games they want. When Fig-funded game Etherborn reached its funding target, developer Altered Matter set out to craft a gravity-shifting puzzle platformer. Players sold on this concept have a lot to look forward to as Altered Matter has delivered on its promise. The mind-bending mechanics of Etherborn force players to approach the world from a new perspective amidst some stunning visual landscapes. 

In Etherborn, the player takes control of a voiceless, newly-born being who follows a bodiless voice in search of meaning. Such a philosophical premise promises an experience that will answer key questions regarding self-identity and the quest for meaning. The answer plays into the age old cliche that we are born to create our own destiny. The game’s narrative discussions around these topics are disappointing, though they do demonstrate that the narrative is less important than the themes behind them. 

Etherborn

One of the biggest frustrations with the story is that the language used complicated the simple message the developer was trying to tell. The soothing yet commanding tone of the omniscient voice would have been enough to carry along a more refined script that served the themes with clarity. Instead, Altered Matter opted to write something poetic by using lots of really big words that sound like they have lots of meaning, which instead detract from the actual meaning. 

Etherborn has a linear structure that takes place across five distinct levels. The levels are completed by solving gravity-defying puzzles to collect light orbs that open the pathway forward. Once all levels are completed, a new game+ mode is unlocked, creating replayability through the additional challenge of new, well-hidden light orb locations. Including this game mode offers players a chance to enjoy a more difficult experience without an additional learning curve. 

What sets Etherborn apart is the unique mechanic that underpins the gameplay. To traverse the landscape, players must jump and use ramps to change their perspective, turning walls into floors to move through the level. The opening level does an exceptional job of introducing the player to how this concept will be manipulated throughout the game. Controls in Etherborn are simple and intuitive, allowing for an experience that focuses the challenge purely within the design. Despite being able to run, the movement speed of the character seems sluggish for the most part, yet can be too fast for easy maneuverability in levels that require finesse to execute. 

Etherborn is deeply beautiful. The soft hues and subtle colour palette create a truly ethereal experience that carries through until the final level where the tone shifts into something somewhat dark, yet utterly breathtaking. Skeletal bodies, frozen in time, dwarf the character to create a visual masterpiece that captivates the viewer. Accompanying the divine art direction is killer sound design that makes the world feel complete. The ambient music creates an atmosphere that indulges in the landscape it calls home in a way that elevates the experience. 

The short length of Etherborn leaves players wanting more. In OnlySP’s preview of the game in 2018, the Alpha build contained the same five levels that are seen in the final game. Having spent so much time on these levels has meant the final product is highly polished yet disappointingly short. The gravity bending puzzles at play are so clever, well designed, and satisfying to complete that a lack of experimentation through more level designs to satiate the player’s hunger for more is disappointing.  

The challenging gameplay, gorgeous sound design, and stunning aesthetics all make Etherborn a worthwhile experience, even for those not fond of puzzle-platformers. Every level demonstrates a craftsmanship that encourages the curiosity to think and engage with the world. Completing puzzles is satisfying, even if the length of the game is not. Some minor issues may crop up along the way, but Etherborn is still a clever, fun game that challenges players and their perspective of the world. 

OnlySP Review Score 3 Credit

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch. Also available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

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