Setting you as an assassin with a mission to kill a usurper king, Shadwen’s premise is a simple one. A mission like this will have its hazards and problems, but having a young girl tagging along isn’t something that’s going to be thought of when planning. Shadwen might be an assassin, but she isn’t completely heartless, and takes Lily under her wing after saving her from a guard who catches the young child for stealing. So begins a partnership of sorts, as they journey to Shadwen’s ultimate target.
What this means is that you have to do more than simply navigate your way through the levels, but also help Lily to get through without attracting the attention of the guards. You move things like crates and carts around the environment to cause distraction that are then investigated, but can also bloody Shadwen’s hands and kill the guards up close and personal or by using the environment to end their lives.
All of the environment style deaths require something to fall on a guard, be it a precariously hanging crate or a shelving unit. That makes sense when it’s something falling from a great height, but there are also moments when a crate gently toppling from a foot above a guard will come up with the same murderous result. This didn’t always happen and required luck more than anything to trigger such incidents, but it can stick out.
Shadwen’s main piece of equipment in getting around the world is her grapple hook – albeit one without an actual hook on the end – which she can throw and attach to what seems to be any wooden surface in order to start swinging through the skies. It feels so stilted though, and the sudden jerk of the camera when Shadwen swings to grabbing a ledge is jarring. Grappling in games has been around for a long time, but Shadwen’s is one of the least inspiring efforts I can think of.
One interesting twist is that time only moves when you do or when you want it to. It’s there to allow for more tactical thinking and considered action, but ends up feeling a little cumbersome, as I found myself often holding R1 to move time forward so that I could see guard routes and plan my moves. It’s not much more than a gimmick and one that doesn’t really help much. In fact, it becomes an annoyance while listening to conversations, since they freeze too when there is no movement and you’re left with isolated syllables to try and decrypt.
While dropping crates could be fun, it was often much easier just to cause a small distraction which would open a path for Lily to run across, or get Shadwen’s hands dirty and directly kill the guards. This can be done by either sneaking up behind them, jumping out from haystacks and bushes, or diving on them from above. You do need to hide the bodies though, because if they are discovered and the alarm sounded then it’s game over.
A rewind function makes that little more than a hollow threat, as you can simply skip back in time. Without an imposed limit, there’s no fear of failure or of being caught, removing any tension that Shadwen could have possessed. In place of that tension a sense of boredom creeps in, due to the repetitive nature of the game in general.
You can mix it up a bit by crafting different traps, such as a wall mounted poison dart trap which has two shots, but you have to find the components to craft them in chests. Even when looking out for chests, there never seemed to be enough materials to craft a large arsenal of traps, and they really aren’t required anyway due to the simple minded guard AI.
The guards are quite quick to react to noise and if they spot Shadwen they will shoot on sight. Shadwen can’t fight the guards one on one, so hiding from them is your best option when they are alerted to your presence. However, they are really bad at catching Lily. While it’s lenient and prevents you from failing without having control, there were a number of times when she would run right next to them or right in front of them, and they wouldn’t even react. The whole gameplay premise of Shadwen relies on the fact that neither character should be seen, and when Lily quite clearly flaunts that rule, it really breaks the immersion of the game.
Then there are the bugs with the guards. Most of the time a guard will run to trigger an alarm if they see a body, but there was one stand out occasion where that didn’t happen. I’d managed to kill three guards but didn’t have time to move the bodies, as another rounded the corner. My finger was on the rewind button ready to redo my actions, but the guard simply looked at the bodies then stood on them and stopped reacting to anything. Elsewhere, a guard didn’t become alert even as I was pushing a crate against him. A third moment had a guard become alert because he himself had wandered into and moved the cart. There were also a number of times when NPCs would just get stuck on scenery, moving their legs but not going anywhere.
Speaking of which, Shadwen isn’t the best looking game out there, and it wouldn’t look out of place on the last gen systems. Considering Frozenbyte released something as good looking as Trine 3 last year, Shadwen is a step back. Aside from a level in a harbour and the game’s finale, all of the environments blend into one and you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart. There’s also texture flickering present in the game, which becomes very distracting as a result.
There’s very little story to the game either. It wasn’t ever really clear why Shadwen was after the king, and the forced morality system in play to protect Lily’s innocence really didn’t affect how I played, purely because I didn’t care for the characters. The dialogue is little to write home about, and the voice acting was simply passable for the main characters, while a bit amateurish for the guards.
Honestly, Shadwen feels like it needed more time in development, both to work on its core ideas and bring them to fruition. The bland environments, the lack of an interesting plot, the technical issues, and the various gimmicks makes Shadwen a poor stealth and assassination game. At the very least, it tries to do something a little bit different, but simply doesn’t pull it off.
Version tested: PS4