Sneak silently and avoid detection? Kill all that stand in your way? This is the question poised by Shadwen, an interesting hybrid between stealth game and puzzler, with each step you take playing a crucial part as you work your way to the end of each level on your journey towards a nameless castle and the games end.
Starting the game as Lily, a little girl who is simple hungry and in need of an apple, you are introduced to the mechanics of stealth that the game employs, and the interesting idea that is Shadwen’s key gimic – when you are stood still, time stands still too. When time stops you can still swivel the camera around, eyeing up your surroundings and plotting your next move, and during this initial introduction, the stealth system works well, the mechanics and controls coming together to allow this first level to be completed in a mere matter of minutes.
Upon retrieval of aforementioned apple the game shifts in tone, and puts you in charge of the titular Shadwen, an assassin on a quest for blood. Shadwen too can manipulate time when stood still, and it is during this initial section were you are taught the basics of how Shadwen moves, including using a grappling hook that can attach to most wooden surfaces, pulling them towards you, or you towards it. At first the controls when using the grappling hook, although simple to use, are tricky to implement, with the time mechanics often getting in the way. Pulling objects to cause distractions or swinging from wooden poles jutting out from the buildings that make up the town is at first tricky to get used too, as you need to take it to account that the minute you stop, so does time, and this takes a little bit of getting used too as you sometimes try and plot your next move. Once you have got used to this idea then the game does a great job of putting a range of scenarios in your way that fully utilise the idea, but be prepared for some frustrating moments along the way.
The game quickly forces the peaceful, sneaky Lily and the deadly, equally sneaky Shadwen together, and it is the conflict that ultimately becomes the crux of the game. Lily is a peaceful, innocent young girl, happy to sneak past guards, causing distractions or hiding in bushes, whereas Shadwen has no qualm in sneaking up on guards and calmly slicing their throat. This is when the game then opens itself up – do you complete each level using nothing but stealth, creating distractions as Shadwen to allow the AI controlled Lily to sneak through each level unnoticed, or simply go to town, sneaking up on the guards and gutting them silently so they cannot see Lily on account of them being dead?
Each level is a tightly packed playground, offering equal opportunity to make both stealth and murder viable options in order to complete your goal. During my play through I started with the best of intentions, sneaking past the guards and pushing over boxes to send them over to investigate, but it is here that the game begins to lose momentum, let down by some sloppy AI that simply refuse to see Lily, often when she runs right past them, and certain scenarios are set up in such a way that make it far to easy to go in and slay everyone for an easy win. Not only that but mistakes are easily rectified by holding the L2 button which serves to rewind time, allowing you to retry earlier missteps, or rewind far enough and try something completely new altogether. This does come in rather handy, and as such is used way more often than it should be.
After the first couple of levels, the game slowly starts to play like a room to room puzzle game, and I found myself looking at each level as a small, self-contained zones to navigate in whatever means I deemed necessary, shattering the open world illusion that the first few levels seemed to work so hard to create. Guards stand in fixed positions, with predictable patterns of behaviour and patrol routes that, when combined with the time mechanic, make it easy to plot your next move. Of the two options the stealthy approach is by far the hardest to manage and trickiest to plan for, and the game itself does anticipate such binary playthroughs, encouraging you to be either all out stealth or full-blown assassin on your quest to the king, with very little in the way of a happy medium. Once I had decided to go all out, I went all out, killing every guard in a level in order to unlock the trophy associated with each level. Will I play through each level again in order to unlock the trophy assigned to completing each level in total stealth? Probably not – the game does feel weighted towards killing the guards as opposed to sneaking past them, even taking into account the ability to freeze and rewind time. The game uses this duality as a means to develop the relationship between Lily and Shadwen, which plays out through dialogue as each level loads. Play in a way that all the guards live, then the surrogate relationship that forms between Lily and Shadwen is a positive one, with the opposite being true should you decide to go on a murderous rampage and eliminate the guards one by one, the relationship that is built is equally negative. This is an interesting idea that doesn’t feel fully utilised, playing out through loading screens but not really having an impact on the game itself until the last few moments, and this does feel like a missed opportunity – if Lily suddenly decided to spring up and kill a guard as a consequence of my earlier actions, I might reconsider a second play through to see what would happen if I played in the more positive way by leaving the guards alive, but as such I didn’t feel invested enough in Shadwen and Lily’s relationship to see what would transpire if I had taken a different path.
Ultimately Shadwen is a fine game with some interesting ideas, many of them seen before in numerous games and mixed together here. When they all pull together they work brilliantly, but too often this doesn’t seem to be the case, with one of the many mechanics always seeming to hinder another. Shadwen is an enjoyable game that can be finished quickly by killing everyone, or spread out over weeks as you perfect each level as stealthily as possible and I know there will be some of you reading this who will relish such an opportunity, but for me something just didn’t quite hit the mark.
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