What would you get, if you combined elements of the Thief series, Prince of Persia, and Superhot?
Well, Frozenbyte’s interpretation of this seems to permeate itself within Shadwen. Here you’ll find Superhot‘s time control mechanic alongside the rewind mechanic of Prince of Persia, mixed with gadgets, stealth, and trap elements of the Thief series. Holistically speaking, what you have is a unique stealth game set in Medieval times that sees you play as the titular protagonist Shadwen on a journey to assassinate the King, having to escort a young girl called Lily along with you.
Thanks to the word “escort”, it’s possible I’ve lost many of you already. Whenever escorting is mentioned in a video game, players are quick to let out a heavy sigh as they recall countless frustrating experiences of bad A.I, pathfinding, and game mechanics. I’ll say from the beginning that Shadwen isn’t at all as you imagine it to be in terms of escorting Lily. The game mechanics are very forgiving, following more modern games’ takes on the escort mission type. By allowing enemies to see the escorted without triggering a game over, combined with some great pathfinding and serviceable A.I, it’s very rare that Lily will ever proceed in a manner which deliberately puts her in enemies’ field of view. If she does, she’s quick to retreat back to the last known safe/hidden location she had. Control is given to the player for directing Lily to a different location, and with verticality playing a big role in level design, you can stalk safely from high points in the level, and direct her around enemy patrol patterns and vision areas.
The story of Shadwen raises too many questions, and not of the good kind. The introduction is fairly straightforward and without cause for fuss: after a brief period where you control Lily in order to learn the controls and mechanics, Shadwen saves her from an encounter with a guard. However, after being saved, Lily wants to follow Shadwen since she’s an orphan with no place to go. Even with Shadwen’s good intentions, it doesn’t seem to stand to reason why an assassin on a job would go out of her way to have a girl follow her deeper into the kingdom and infiltrate the King’s castle with her. Why not assassinate the King, and come back for the girl later? The entire mission is completed within the span of a single in-game night, and there’s no explanation for why the mission is exclusively time-sensitive, so couldn’t she help the girl first, and return for the mission another evening?
It just seems like a convenient plot device to justify having a vulnerable girl tag along with Shadwen, inhibiting her from simply climbing and dashing her way to the castle to complete her mission quickly, stretching out the game’s mission as a result. Simple changes could have been made to stop the story from feeling a little too convenient. Maybe the security is at an all-time low, giving Shadwen only one evening to complete the mission with the best chances at stake; maybe Lily is being actively sought out by guards because she stole food and can’t hide until Shadwen gets back? There are ways that the developers could have added more tension to the plot without leaving it feeling too light. Also, without going into spoiler territory, it’s worth noting that there are three main endings: one for killing most of the guards and the king in the final scene (murderer ending), one where you kill guards but spare the king (merciful ending), and finally one where you don’t kill anyone and spare the king (calm/peace ending). I feel however that they’re mixed up apart from the worst ending where you kill everyone (this felt like the outcome that would actually take place). The pacifist ending, and the half-kill/half-pacifist ending should be traded, and that simple swap would fix the entirety of the story’s conclusion. For all of my efforts to avoid killing anyone, and extra time spent finding alternative solutions to violence, I would have preferred the half good/bad ending in place of what I received for the pure good ending, as it feels more fitting to that tone, especially when you take Shadwen’s last words in both endings into account.
Anyway, that’s enough critical nitpicking of the narrative; what about the gameplay, you know, the reason why we’re here in the first place in lieu of a film or book? Fortunately, this is where the game shines; I’ve personally not played this mixture of mechanics before, and in today’s gaming climate, it’s a rare thing to see imaginative remixes of pre-existing game mechanics in a fresh manner. Giving you control on how you want to handle a situation makes Shadwen‘s gameplay stand out.
First of all, you can be aggressive. You can simply sneak up on the guard, slice his throat, and hide his body. This is the quickest, and least hassle method of dealing with a guard. This means Lily will see you murder someone however, and will remove the pacifist ending for you. The second and third methods use the environment to your advantage. There might be a conveniently placed crate on the balcony above his head, and you can use your grappling hook to pull the crate down on top of him, saving you the trouble of having to go up to him on the ground, placing yourself in full view of anyone that might see you in that area. Lastly, you could find another wooden object around the guard, pull it with your grappling hook, distracting him, and allowing Lily to quickly sneak by whilst he investigates. This takes the longest amount of time, but is the only way to achieve a perfect ending, maintain Lily’s belief that you are a good person, and avoid tainting her personality. There are other ways to distract guards with the environment too, such as attacking a wall with your blade, causing a noise distraction. You can also smash crates, push objects, roll barrels or carts down slopes, cut rope that drops chandeliers or other objects smashing onto the ground. There’s quite an array of choices to be had around you, and there’s never a scenario that can only be solved through one method.
On top of the environment, you have an active role to play in distraction, should you choose, through the use of gadgets. Around each level are chests containing parts and various ingredients to craft objects with. After finding the appropriate blueprint, you can add those ingredients to a list to craft the object, which could range from a trap/weapon to a distraction. You need to go out of your way to obtain the best items and ingredients however, and these chests are usually placed directly under the nose of, or within close proximity to, a guard or two. You can’t simply pull the chest towards you either with your grappling hook, as this creates a noise distraction, and just makes them follow the chest where you decide to leave it (although, you can pull it from them, and return to it later when they stop investigating).
You can break the A.I. in various ways with clever use of your grappling hook. The A.I. usually decide to enter a search state when an object begins to move, or if the object is out of their line of sight they will investigate the area where the collision/noise is initiated from. This means that if you drag a box along the floor, the guards will usually walk over to where the box started to move from, often completely ignoring the fact that it’s still moving along the floor away from them. Unless the box bounces from the floor and creates a noise, they’ll ignore a floating/sliding box to investigate the exact point it started to move from. You can exploit this in various ways, as you can with a few of the other environmental objects used to help you distract guards. These exploits become important later on alongside others, as the game’s difficulty within the patrol routes and number of guards increases, and you rely on every trick you know to get ahead smoothly if you want to avoid getting caught.
Patrol patterns are extremely well designed, and Shadwen‘s level design is some of the best I’ve seen in a stealth game. There are plenty of vertical sections for you to keep out of sight throughout the level, but they’re spaced sparsely enough that the game requires you to use traditional stealth to move in the transitions from one point to another alongside Lily. They’re placed and designed in such a way that a level will usually start by leaning towards a certain style of approach or environment, and allow you to guide Lily to start with, before mixing things up between you guiding Lily from above, and getting down and dirty with close quarters stealth yourself. The level can’t be navigated completely from above, but it allows you to stay up and out of sight during carefully constructed moments that require you to guide Lily through a densely packed area full of guards and tight patrol patterns. This allows you to focus between guiding Lily, and getting through to the next area together hand-in-hand. These sections alternate at a nice pace, and towards the end when both characters enter the castle grounds, there’s more cases of the player needing to rely on traditional stealth than being able to simply move up to a higher point in the level, increasing the difficulty aptly as you reach the climax.
Stealth is non-optional in Shadwen. You are required to sneak around, and cannot engage in any sort of combat, aside from a stealth kill from behind if you’re able to. After a second or two (depending on distance) of an enemy spotting you, they turn from yellow to red, and you are immediately killed by an arrow. There’s no option to dodge or avoid the enemy; it’s a split second trigger that activates with no means of avoiding death. You can, however, rewind time and try again – an amazing feature that should be in more stealth games. As far as I’m able to discern, the rewind feature is ridiculously long, where I’ve gone back a whole five minutes or so back in time to when I started a level, and there’s no annoying resource/magic meter that stops you from using this feature as much or as little as you want. In fact, this takes some getting used to, as I’m accustomed to having my stealth tactics ruined and having to restart a level. In Shadwen, you’re able to experiment and tightly time patrol patterns, and if your timing is off, you can simply rewind to a point where you can re-organise your timing and try it again. This kind of instant feedback means that the player is rewarded for taking risks and trying out various approaches to situations, free from the fear of restarting a level all over again.
The same is true about the time-stop mechanic. If the player removes all input into the controller, and stands still in game, time also stands still. This means that after jumping from a swing in mid-air, time stops, allowing you to position your crosshair for the next swing without missing your mark, meaning every action you make, every fall you land and every object you manipulate is done so with perfect precision. This is useful not only for precise actions, technically removing the possibility of making errors/mistakes especially considering you can rewind any you might make, but also for taking a moment to look around you, and see where guards are, where they’re expected to be, and where you and Lily are in relation to all of that information.
With the seemingly infinite ability to rewind as far back as you’d like to, stop time while you make decisions or line up complex/precise actions, and backed up with various gadgets and environmental objects to clear the path ahead of you, Shadwen gives an insane degree of control to the player to successfully navigate through an environment in whatever manner they choose. Shadwen’s character is left open enough that player identity and playstyle fills in her personality. If the player is a murderous, no-mercy assassin that likes to stay on the floor and play dirty, then Shadwen becomes that character through gameplay and in the ending for that sort of player. If the player prefers staying up high and scouting new locations to guide Lily towards to hide, playing God from above by pulling objects around and creating distractions without harming anyone, then Shadwen equally becomes that character by the end as well. Dialogue from Shadwen and Lily both leave room for Shadwen’s personality to be moulded by the player through gameplay. Usually games have a mute character that allows the player to inhabit that character with their own persona, but Shadwen manages to imbue the main character with life, without forcing the player out of being able to step into her boots.
Despite its problematic narrative, Shadwen is a very unique game that breathes new life into a genre that hasn’t seen much development in a while. The last time I had such a fun and interesting time with a stealth game was Dishonored. Shadwen carefully designs and organises at every turn; every piece of the environment is deliberate, purposeful, and interesting. The graphics hold up nicely, with a sort of clay/smudged look that works well with the Medieval theme, and reminds me very much of Dishonored/Thief in visual style. If you can ignore the brief moments where the A.I. hiccups, and slightly messy controls/movement (which can be forgiven since you can rewind any mistakes!), then I can highly recommend Shadwen to anyone who considers themselves a lover of the stealth genre – especially for its low price.