Shadwen is a tough game to review because of how much I wanted to like it. Taking place in a time of kings and crossbows, you first take control of Lily, a hungry girl who wants to partake of the apple tree on the edge of town. This tutorial level teaches you the basic mechanics, and then switches to the main heroine, Shadwen. The two meet by happenstance and Shadwen reluctantly takes Lily with her to ensure her silence. Not much happens from that premise, but the game does introduce a great time mechanic that solves most frustrations with fail-states in the stealth genre. Too bad it doesn’t build upon its own mechanics or justify the existence of a harder, less lethal gameplay path.
The greatest achievement Shadwen accomplishes is eliminating the frustration that comes with fail states in stealth games. Too often are you spotted and forced to restart a level. Even if the game checkpoints progress, players often feel compelled to restart the entire section afresh, at the cost of time and mounting annoyance at repeating the level. Shadwen, instead of checkpointing your progression, has a time mechanic that allows you to simply hold L1 and rewind to your mistake at any point. This means when you are spotted, or leave a body in the open, you can rewind to the moment you committed the mistake and fix it. The transition is seamless, and you are given control of the camera as everything moves backwards.
This isn’t the only time mechanic at Shadwen’s disposal, as time only moves when you do. You can be mid-leap and release the analog stick to readjust, aim your grappling hook at a perch above, or look around and change your mind, rewinding to the moment before you jumped. You can also hold R1 in order to keep time moving at a steady pace, good for when you need a guard to move along his patrol, or when waiting for your unwilling companion Lily to catch up.
Yes, save for the first two levels, Shadwen is an elongated escort mission, and works as well as you would expect. You must guide Lily through each level, as she will make her way from hiding place to hiding place, relying on the player to either kill or distract the guards around her. Not that Lily is ever caught, even if she happens to be standing in plain view of a guard. While it is nice that Lily is never actually seen or captured, it can be a bit immersion breaking and simply highlight the less than perfect AI working her.
The choice to use lethal force or other means to progress is a major part of Shadwen, as Lily will react accordingly in scenes in between chapters. Kill everyone in the way and she will grow to hate you; spare them and she won’t think you’re all bad. However, there is no real reward for sparing guards besides her affection. The game is much easier should you choose to shove a knife between every guard’s rib cage, and no clear benefit comes if you choose not to. Even the crafting system leans more towards destructive than amicable means.
Chests hidden throughout the game’s chapters have materials that, when used in conjunction with blueprints, can create mines, explosives, dart traps, or distractions. Each blueprint requires you to slot the correct material, or you can press triangle when the necessary materials are present in your inventory to quickly create the item. These crafted objects have to be placed, so no dropping explosives from on high, and the limited placement radius means you will oftentimes be spotted when trying to set it in just the right spot.
Traps and distractions aren’t your only tool, as Shadwen gains the grappling hook, a most invaluable asset, upon her introduction to the game. With it you can hook onto and swing from various wooden platforms, reel yourself up to high perches, or grab crates and barrels to distract or crush guards. It can take some getting used to, as I had not mastered the grapple until a few chapters into the game, when I stopped trying to be in continuous motion and instead let go of the analog stick to stop time and aim for the next anchor point.
The narrative is peppered throughout the campaign’s fifteen chapters. Dialogue between guards reveal a history of dark spirits, and the fruitless attempt to quell them by lighting the neighboring forest on fire. These spirits are what most guards cling to as the source of your actions, whether it be sneaking just out of their view or dropping down crates and moving objects. The beginning of the game features still images with voice over of the characters Shadwen, Lily, the king, and a random guard, but disappear until the very end.
In their place, and to pass the time during the loading, is a single image of the castle and surrounding town. The few lines of dialogue spoken over this image from Shadwen and Lily was at first a repeat of the same conversation. That is, until Shadwen begins to give hints at her ultimate goal to kill the king, which was already shown in the introduction’s flash forward. The penultimate loading screen is the game’s attempt to thwart Shadwen, as it features two guards speaking about the calamity that would ensue should the king pass away. There wasn’t any reason why I, as Shadwen, haven’t already made up my mind by this point, and to have this final attempt to pacify me was a clumsy effort at best.
Graphically Shadwen doesn’t push the envelope, but it also is not an ugly game. Much like the gameplay, it falls somewhere in the middle. Although there were some technical issues when I was indoors, as the game would show the vast emptiness beyond the game’s walls when I looked at corners from a specific angle. Shadwen can sometimes clip through the geometry of the world due to swings from the grapple hook. The score is mostly background noise, though the end credit’s song is very good and fits perfectly into the time period.
Shadwen is a decent game at best and mediocre at worst. While not bad, it fails to build upon the mechanics it presents. What you do in the third chapter is largely the same as the final chapter: grappling to higher platforms, killing guards, and moving crates to help Lily move forward. Nothing new is presented, and what is already there is never combined in clever ways. About midway through a new enemy type is introduced, one that can only be killed by falling crates or air kills, but even that fails to introduce a significant change to the pace of gameplay. I really like its solution to failing midway through a level, but even that mechanic can’t save an otherwise okay game.