Coming from Frozenbyte, the Finnish creators of the Trine games, Shadwen is a physics based stealth puzzle game set in a medieval 3D world where you are an assassin heading to kill the head of an oppressive regime. Throwing a definite spanner in the cart wheels is that fact there’s a little girl you need to take with you after rescuing her from a grim fate. That said, does what is effectively a long escort mission manage to keep your interest from beginning to end?
Set in a dark and dingy world, Shadwen (the titular assassin of the game) is on her way to despatch the ruler of the land as part of a contract. Along the way she finds Lily, an orphaned girl, about to be arrested by a particularly brutal guard and decides to intervene, but does she kill the guard, or just distract him to allow both of them to escape? This is your major choice throughout the game – kill or avoid. Armed with only a knife and the ability to take down the enemy if they cannot see her, you have to weigh up whether it’s worth the risk of leaving bodies in your wake, or simply move the guard patrol routes so that Lily can run past and remain unscathed.
Lily can only run and hide around the environment (no jumping, climbing or dropping), which makes the conveniently placed bushes and haystacks handy because she has to wait until you’ve cleared the path ahead. She’s also fully AI controlled, and pretty good at staying out of sight or catching you up, so there’s very little to worry about with her. In fact, the only reason she’s present in the game is to slow your progress down because you can’t get through most doors without her (you need to pull two levers at once, maybe because there was some insane architect employed to build this city). Shadwen is a seasoned killer and fairly acrobatic, preferring to use her grappling hook to keep above the city, and if it wasn’t for Lily, each level would only take a matter of seconds to complete. It begs the question in the story premise why you’re bothering to take this urchin with you when you could actually leave her quite comfortably after the first encounter and complete the assassination without alerting any guards at all. But I digress, we’ve all played games with even stranger plot devices.
What makes Shadwen unique, because you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s all a bit Ico meets Assassin’s Creed from the last couple of paragraphs, is its use of time. When you don’t move time stands still giving you the freedom to spin the camera around and figure out what you want to do next. Most often this will be about your movement, especially if you’re using the grappling hook for swinging from point to point. There’s a satisfying feeling in stopping time, changing direction, grabbing another ledge, swinging yourself over a guard, pausing to check no one can see, then dropping straight down for the kill. It doesn’t always work so smoothly, the physics of the rope coupled with time pausing and the reel in control also being the same for firing out the rope, means that Shadwen can feel more like Jar Jar Binks than Qui-Gon Jin. However, and this is the real thing that keeps your interest, tapping one button rewinds time immediately so you can try again. Rewinding is instant and has a pretty good length to it allowing about 30 seconds of gameplay to be reviewed, and is essential because it’s game over when you get seen by an NPC.
Manipulating time also comes into play when you start to have fun with the physics of the world, because not every action is predictable or exactly repeatable. The littered barrels and boxes can be knocked, pushed and pulled around to create distractions or kills if they’re dropping from height, and they can be used in conjunction with gadgets you’ll acquire through blueprints whilst you’re exploring the levels. Sticking a proximity mine onto a box hanging from a crane and then cutting the rope to drop it onto the guard below is good, the mine triggering when others come to investigate is better. Giving you the toys and tools is all well and good, though Shadwen’s “game over” design mechanic does mean that inventiveness ends up on the backburner to practicality. An alerted guard will immediately run to an alarm and trigger game over, and an explosive noise or dead body can cause an alert, so it’s tough to bring yourself to use anything that’s imprecise on less than two guards at a time. I found myself simply separating the AI from groups and taking them out one at a time, even if it’s a painstaking process.
There are a few other niggles with Shadwen – it’s very dark so you’ll need to up the default brightness if you want to see where the enemies are; textures sometimes don’t load cleanly; and there are even code snippets listed on screen instead of the items that are meant to be displayed. All the bits that you spot and think that they should have been picked up in QA aren’t game breaking (except the one time it all crashed when I was rewinding time and I lost all level progress), they just make you think the game isn’t quite finished. That’s sadly the impression you get from the gameplay and levels as well. Whilst you’re given a lot to play with, it doesn’t feel like you’re really offered the opportunity to make the most of those toys, especially if you’re vying for the non-kill trophies that make up nearly a third of the list.
Shadwen’s story is told during loading screens as a voiceover, there are some interesting aspects to it, and you’ll pick up other snippets from the vocal guards as you’re moving through the environments, but it doesn’t really grab and hold as it progresses, mainly because you know the end goal from the opening sequence. The mechanics introduced are interesting and make for some enjoyable gameplay, it just feels very repetitive through the 15 levels despite the areas looking a bit different for each one you enter. As an experiment in joining the stealth and physics puzzle genres it works, though you may find that one playthrough will be enough, and it’ll probably only take about 5 hours to get through. However, it is worth a look despite the nagging feeling there could have been just a little more to it, especially if you’re a fan of the studio9.
A PS4 copy of Shadwen was provided for this review by Frozenbyte, and the game is available now on PS4, PC, Mac and Linux.