By: Brian Gunn
Shadwen is the latest title from Frozenbyte, the developers largely known for the Trine series. Coming off a relatively disappointing Trine 3, they’ve switched things up, exploring the stealth genre, though a few signature style mechanics make the jump.
The basics of Shadwen are relatively standard fare for third-person stealth games. There are a few unique twists, though. First, time only moves when you do, similar to games like SUPERHOT, and so you can plan out some pretty precise and cool tricks fairly easily. Second, is a rope that can be used as a grappling hook to traverse or distract guards.
Sadly, the rope is also one of the more aggravating elements of the game. There’s very little animation for when you reel yourself in, which looks incredibly awkward and cheap. The game is also reliant on physics engine gimmicks that are sometimes frustrating and hard to wrangle. Still, when you do pull something cool off it’s pretty satisfying.
Visually, Shadwen looks fine, albeit a bit plain. It could easily pass for a last-generation game, though its storybook art style does help hide some of the flaws. As noted, the animations need work, and frankly they make the game feel a little unfinished at times. On the plus side, some of the levels do have a wonderful dark and grimy back alley atmosphere.
Similarly, the sound design is adequate with nothing particularly standing out. Voice acting is decent, but it tends to be pretty sparse outside of the usual guard chatter. Music is good, often going for a tense and mysterious air. Sound effects could use more oomph given you’ll likely be tossing a bunch of heavy wooden barrels and boxes around to distract guards, and they can sound kind of pathetic.
Shadwen is the tale of two women; the first, a daring assassin on her way to kill the king, and the titular character. In her care is Lily, a young girl that gloms onto her after Shadwen defends her from a bully. Shadwen’s tolerance for Lily is a little unclear, especially as mechanically she’s just a giant liability.
The only justification in that regard is a few doors that require two people to open arbitrarily. I’d have liked some excuses for keeping her around — for instance, letting her access areas an adult might not fit into.
Shadwen is the type of punishing stealth title that doesn’t get made much these days, where getting caught is pretty much a game over. However, in addition to time only moving when you do, the game thankfully also includes a rewind button so you can quickly correct mistakes instead of having to reload the game.
Between this rewind and the time stopping, it can end up creating quite a playground to mess around in. It takes a while to really get tools for that, though. There are treasure chests scattered around, but they are full of materials or blueprints, and so actually crafting goodies beyond the basics ends up taking a while and requires scouring the maps.
Lily doesn’t have any practical uses and must be escorted throughout the game, which is not quite as hard as it sounds. She will instinctively seek out hiding places and wait for you to clear a path, either through murdering guards in her way or simply distracting them. She can also be directed to spots outside her natural AI instincts, though if she actually listens to you can be a tossup.
The word “finicky” comes to mind when playing Shadwen. I found myself wrestling with the controls far too often, and both companion and enemy AI feel unpredictable and not in a good way. Lily will sometimes not go where you guide her despite a clear path, and sometimes enemies right next to her will simply ignore her, invalidating the entire central premise of the game.
In addition, the physics of objects, often used to distract, feel oddly hard to accurately predict, sometimes distracting just one of two guards that are standing right next to each other. I ended up feeling like I was doing a lot of guesswork in how things would turn out rather than mastering any of the mechanics.
Like Trine 3, Shadwen is another good idea marred by sloppy execution. The time mechanics make for a unique experience, but there are too many rough edges to recommend it to any but the hardcore stealth aficionados.