Shadwen Review – From the shadows

Shadwen was created by the same folks that gave us Trine which was a sort of spiritual successor to The Lost Vikings. I was interested to see how they would transition from an action puzzle platformer to a stealth game. From the onset, this game seems to have carried over a lot of Trine’s quirkiness and penchant for physics based activities, unfortunately, I wished it carried it over Trine’s ability to be a good game.

The story revolves around two characters, the assassin Shadwen and a little orphan named Lily. The two cross paths early on in the game and Lily decides to accompany Shadwen even though she is on a dangerous mission to assassinate a king. During the loading screen between levels, the two will chat to each other and you get to learn more about each character’s backstory. It’s far from engaging, but it gets the job done in terms of providing some basic character and world building. The story is also affected by your actions, but I’ll touch on that a bit later on.

Shadwen is an interesting blend of different mechanics. At its core, it’s a stealth game in which you have to get from point A to B without getting seen. The goal for each level never really changes, but how you accomplish your objective is where the game’s two most notable features come in to play. Firstly, time will only move when you move, meaning that if you’re not actively controlling Shadwen then time will be completely frozen. You’ll still have the ability to control the camera, which allows you to easily plan your next move. The second big mechanic is the ability to rewind time at will without any usage cap. It’s an odd inclusion for this kind of game as it completely destroys any stress that usually accompanies the stealth genre, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Stealth games usually require a level of finesse and foresight from the player. You formulate a plan of action, scout the area and execute as stealthily as you possibly can. It can be stressful at times, especially when a tiny mistake can ruin everything. In Shadwen however, all of that is thrown out of the window. You can leisurely scout out enemies while time is frozen and should you make a mistake you can instantly rewind time. Sure, it seems cheap at first, but I appreciated the pacing it provides and it allowed me to try out different tactics without the fear that I would have to restart the entire level. Now, this does make things incredibly easy as well, but the difficulty ties in with the fact that the game is one big escort mission.

Now, before you run for the hills I should also make mention that this is not your standard escort mission scenario where you have to tell the other character to hide in a garbage bin so that the crazy infected villagers don’t find them. Lily, who tags along throughout the game, is a sort of invisible second character that can’t really be seen even if she’s standing right next to a guard. Its immersion breaking, sure, but it beats having to worry about an AI controlled character messing up. All you have to do is create a safe path for Lily and she’ll do the rest. Where it becomes difficult is that when you kill a guard in front of her or she sees a dead body, it’ll negatively impact your relationship and that will ultimately affect the ending. So you can either go the entire game without killing anyone, or you can try and do it in a way that Lily won’t witness it. I found this to be a really unique way to handle the story and it made me think twice before acting. Unfortunately, the pay-off for playing this way just wasn’t worth it.

In fact, this sentiment permeated throughout my entire playthrough. Not only was the good ending completely and utterly disappointing for the effort I put in to get it, but the game also gives you numerous gadgets that provides little to no pay-off. You have a grappling hook which you can use to get to higher ground, swing between platforms and attach it to various distant objects to distract guards, but it was never satisfying to use as it felt really loose and it almost always resulted in weird in-game physics behaviour. There’s also a number of traps and tools that you can craft, but I probably only ever used them once or twice and it’s not because they’re particularly uninteresting, but the levels are just so dull and repetitive and combined with the basic (and sometimes broken) enemy AI, there was never a need push myself and get creative with the tools at hand. It’s a shame that a game with so many interesting elements never really pushes itself or the player.

On the graphical side of things, Shadwen is a pretty average looking game. Environments themselves are bland and dreary, and while I understand that it thematically fits in with the overall artistic design, it would’ve been nice to get some variation to break up the monotony that no doubt sets in very quickly. The audio fares a bit better though with fantastic ambient sounds and atmospheric music. The voice acting was also quite good as well and I particularly enjoyed the banter between guards as they go back and forth talking about their personal life and current events. Overall, nothing really stands out but the game does a good job of maintaining a level of visual and audio consistency.

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