The stealth genre of action-adventure games is a lot of the time pretty standard stuff. You’re an assassin on a mission to kill a specific person(s), and in turn, you have plenty of weapons and gadgets at your disposal to dispose of all that get in your way on your pursuit of the target. Truth be told, that’s not too far off from what Shadwen offers. However, what most stealth games enter into what we get here, this game also offers a twist on the stealth game conventions.
Shadwen on the surface is your typical action-adventure stealth game, but, it doesn’t let that be the entire hook of the experience. You start the game off as Lily, a young child who is out on her own. No parents, no family, no home to go back to. She’s alone. She’s hungry. She has no one to care for her. Because of that, she’s on a search for some food. Once you make it through the quick intro level, you end up at the point where Lily and Shadwen first meet, but I won’t spoil that for you. It’s not revolutionary or inventive, but it’s a nice little encounter with a quick choice nonetheless.
Moving on from there, we play exclusively as Shadwen, guiding Lily throughout the tiered levels, hiding and/or killing our way through medieval towns, courtyards, and a castle. The mission is to kill the king, you see, and just because Shadwen has suddenly become a babysitter, that doesn’t mean her job is over. Since Lily is needed to unlock doors allowing us move on to every new area, it seems like this was a match made in weird assassin Heaven.
Frozenbyte may be best known for the Trine series of games, but they have certainly branched out before. This is no exception. Stealth is only half the puzzle to this game. The other is time manipulation. At any point where you aren’t moving, neither does the game. It’s essentially a built-in “pause” state without having to press anything for it. You can move the camera to better acquaint yourself with your surroundings without time passing, and you should, because that’s the main way you’ll be able to overcome the many obstacles in your way. This isn’t the only way time is used here, though. You also have a sort of fast-forward button and a much used rewind button. You remember VCRs, right? The remote had buttons labeled “FF” and “REW”, and that’s what those were for. If you aren’t old enough to remember that, your Blu-Ray player has them, too, but they probably look like arrows. This ends your home video history lesson. The DualShock 4 has buttons for this as well, and these will be on heavy rotation. You’ll use the FF to move time without you having to move, and the REW, well, you rewind with it. When you get caught, you immediately either die, or the alarm goes off, and instead of bringing you back to the previous checkpoint or main menu, you just rewind what you did up to the point you feel you can correct the mistake. You can rewind a lot, too. If you’re limited, I never found a time where the game told me it was too far in a level. Good stuff.
If you’re a fan of the Trine games, you know that they look pretty good graphically. Shadwen doesn’t blow you away with its visuals, but it’s not bad-looking, either. To be fair, they’re both completely different styles of games, so to expect the same quality is foolish. What Shadwen has going for it is a stylized 3rd person look. It’s mostly different shades of browns, grays, and purples, but it sets the mood of the environments up well enough. The character models for Shadwen and Lily are fine, as are their movements, but the rest of the NPCs (the guards) are a bit odd-looking. They aren’t bad, they just look, I don’t know… Off? It may be more to do with their animations when they walk. They all seem like they’ve just got back from the war everyone is going on about, and all have the same limp. When I first saw it, I thought it was a nice touch, because I reasoned it as the guy was injured. Then every one since moved the same and that hurt the overall feeling for me.
The environments are cluttered most of the time, but that’s a byproduct of the style of game and the way it’s looking to be played, so I don’t hold that against it. It can feel claustrophobic, but that’s by design. It hits home the difficulty of what needs to be done while giving you options to do it. Another major facet of the game is Shadwen’s grappling hook. This is used to not only swing from or climb to areas and objects, but to also maneuver the environment to your advantage (boxes, carts, etc.). Spider-Man or Daredevil she is not, however. Sometimes it can be really aggravating getting yourself from A to B using the hook, and the animations bounce back and forth between fine and all over the place, usually without warning. It’s easy to eventually let it go, though, because you can rewind out of jams super easily (I really love the time stuff). You don’t have to use the grappling hook for the physics objects exclusively. You’re more than capable to move or roll things around the landscape, redirecting or scaring guards as you go.
The story is told in brief loading screens after each Chapter via voice over from Shadwen and Lily, but the majority is through listening to the guards talking among themselves. The guards’ story doesn’t change. They go on about the recent war and how there’s not much food for them, or how the King is possibly losing control, caring only for the “dark spirits” in the world, or the mutiny that may or may not come from certain players in the King’s regime. Shadwen and Lily’s can. That all depends on if you chose to kill and allow her to see you do it. It adds an interesting dynamic to the game and story. Do I risk warping this child’s brain with calculated murder, or do I make it harder on myself by avoiding everything and everyone around us? These choices also affect the endings, of which there are 3 or 4 (I’m a bit confused at that, which I will go over in a bit).
While making your way through the various stages of the 15 levels, you’ll constantly be making use of the time dynamic, and as such, the camera becomes your best friend. It can also become your worst enemy. You have to stay undetected at all times, otherwise it’s almost an instant game over, so you’ll need to hide, typically in tight spaces or bushes and hay piles. No problem, I can do that. Yes, you can, but if you need to see what’s going on around you, you’ll need the camera to work with your best interests in mind. That doesn’t always happen. Often you’ll be clipping in and out of the world or yourself, many times not even being able to get a good view because the geometry is blocking you one way or another (clipping or otherwise). The graphical glitches don’t end there. I often found myself moving around and in doing so found that entire rooms would either disappear, turn into a solid color (usually blue), or turn into never-ending sky. They would revert back of course, but it’s so noticeable that it’s hard not to mention it. With the time mechanics, I’m much more willing to overlook these issues, because it’s not something that has to end your day. That’s for a different glitch apparently…
Yes, Shadwen was not a completely smooth experience for me. I can usually let glitches roll right off my back, especially when they don’t really affect or ruin something. Well, a game breaking (mission breaking?) bug on Chapter 8 definitely affected my play through, as well as ruined my perfect no-kill run. Allow me to try to explain that. On the 3rd and final section of Chapter 8, I started off with a guard already dead. There are supposed to be 2 guards patrolling a cellar and one standing blocking a hallway. One of the guards was already dead the moment I walked through the gate to go down the stairs, and even worse, BOTH alive guards were already inches away from him, so they both run to alert everyone. I’ve watched a couple of videos of that section to make sure the impossible odds weren’t supposed to happen, and sure enough, it wasn’t. In fact, the guard who was patrolling should have been extremely far away at the start from where the body lay that were it the case, I would have had a much easier time with it. It still would have ruined my play through and the style of story I was crafting, but I wouldn’t have been pulling what’s left of my hair out for hours on end trying to find a way around it. Restarting the checkpoint didn’t fix it. Restarting the entire chapter didn’t fix it, and restarting from the chapter before didn’t fix it, so something bugged out on my save file somewhere. It’s a major bummer. I didn’t put 2 and 2 together until really late, so perhaps that’s why the story seemed so disjointed to me all of a sudden. I never killed anyone in front of Lily (the game even points out when you do), and to suddenly have the girls chatting about how I’m a bad person for murdering made no sense to me. I could go on and on about this, but I think you get the point. I just hope it doesn’t happen to you, although searching online I couldn’t find anyone else talking about it, so, I think it was an isolated incident.
On to more interesting things, the game isn’t just a sneak around and stab affair. Littered throughout the game are chests filled with items and blueprints to create a variety of single use weapons and distractions, which include things like landmines, poison darts, and even a ball you can put a rat in to roll around. That was my favorite, though I couldn’t find the parts as much as I would have liked. Not the game’s fault. Sometimes I just didn’t want to risk being caught.
There are other areas the game can baffle you, not the least of which is Lily. I hate escort missions in games, so to have the entire game revolve around it was daunting to me. In all honesty, this kind of escort mission wasn’t a huge burden. Lily can’t be detected by guards, which is great. If there’s an opening, she’ll find her own way to the end without you having to constantly tell her to move (which you can do, but she may not listen because canonically the guards could see her). Where the issues (and laughs) lie sometimes are when she walks right in front of a guard and is invisible, or she literally bumps into one and no one acknowledges it. I think those are funny little moments, and it’s just the nature of the beast. I’d have hated it if she were much more limiting to where she gets caught every 2 seconds. The non-hilarity, though, is when there are no obstacles in her way and she won’t come to you or go to a safe spot when you tell her to. It’s either godlike or moronic. There were more laughs and godlike maneuvering than moronic endeavors, but again, enough to notice and get pissed at.
The last few things I want to point out that irked me were that menu navigation was sometimes difficult because the highlighting of options was almost identical to the coloring of the non-highlighted choices. It made it hard to choose. Also, as far as subtitles go, when you rewind time during someone speaking, the subtitles would linger on-screen for way longer than they should have. I get that some lingering is expected, but I’m talking a crazy amount of time, often over 10 seconds. It’s a nitpick, sure, but in a game that requires you to rewind time constantly, it’s kind of annoying after the 30th time it happens. Finally, the story doesn’t really explain the reason you’re after the King. If it did, I clearly missed it. Maybe it would be more clear in a different ending, but what I could gather, I didn’t find a reason for it. You do get a fair amount of lore on the land and the King from the guards chatting, but it’s not enough to invest you very much.
And now it’s time to talk about the Trophies. There is a Platinum Trophy. YAY!! And, for the most part, it looks pretty attainable with a couple of play throughs, so nothing too strenuous. As mentioned above, with the game breaking bug I got on Chapter 8, it messed up a couple of Trophies for me, so I hope that doesn’t happen to you. All that said, I really do think I will eventually go back to get that Platinum. I just pray that even on a separate save file the level plays out properly.
This is definitely a game. What do I mean by that? Well, this isn’t a “cinematic experience” a lot of games are going for these days. This feels like a game when you play it, not like you’re playing through a movie with game play mechanics tossed in. I think (and hope) you understand what I mean by that. This is a good thing, mind you, and those experiences have their place, too. I’m glad this felt like a game. I chose at the start to play through the hard way, not killing my way to the end. Unfortunately, that choice hit a rough patch. Looking at the list and order I earned them in, seeing the missing Chapter 8 “no kill” Trophy stings, even more because that ending isn’t one I got to see yet, I still had a decently fun time sneaking my way through the game. Enough fun that I do eventually want to go back and murder everyone standing. I experimented with killing in various ways throughout because the rewind feature allowed me to do that without worry that my choices were permanent. Ironically, killing and then rewinding allowed me to see a better way to avoid the death a few times. I’m not sure the devs intended it that way, but it worked out. There’s a lot to like here, from the game play to the ideas presented, they just all aren’t executed extremely well at the end of the day.