Frozenbyte Inc’s (creators of Trine) latest effort puts you in the stealthy shoes of a female assassin called Shadwen who’s on a quest to commit treason of the highest order. However, Shadwen is a stealth-action game with a twist. Besides the throat slitting and trap setting of your everyday assassin – time progresses when Shadwen is in motion. If you make a mistake or are caught in the act, you can rewind time to amend your mistakes because hey, no assassin’s perfect!
Before your blade gets a chance to meet the king’s neck – you have a chance encounter with an orphaned girl called Lily. After rescuing her from a dangerous situation and for reasons that are never fully explained – Shadwen bizarrely allows (begrudgingly) Lily to accompany her on what’s sure to be a child friendly journey of assassination.
Lily’s accompaniment is unconvincingly justified through a game mechanic in which she is able to open doors that enables you to progress to the next area. However, there is nothing remarkable about the doors or the ability in which she opens them. There’s not even a reason given as to why Shadwen cannot open the doors herself. If Lily witnesses you kill anyone as you maneuver your way through areas, you are notified that this will affect the overall story. Despite my actions affecting the story – I found it hard to be immersed in the world because I couldn’t understand why Shadwen would put a young girl in another dangerous situation after rescuing her from one just moments before. As Lily has nobody and nowhere to go – why not instruct her to wait in a safe location until you return from your deadly duty. Her presence on your journey is one that is quite jarring. As a result of this, Lily’s characterisation felt like it was ultimately reduced down to a plot device driven mechanic.
As for Shadwen’s characterisation and motivations for her intended assassination – they don’t seem to extend past wanting to kill the king because of his immoral ways of ruling his kingdom. It’s an understandable reason for committing some treason; but it’s essentially the only thing that is used to define Shadwen as a character.
The progression of the story is predominantly delivered via dialogue between Shadwen and Lily during load screens with cutscenes acting as bookends for the overall story. Eavesdropping on conversations between guards also fleshes out the story by providing further information on the current state of the royal landscape.
Despite my problems with Shadwen’s overall narrative, the cutscenes feature a wonderfully rustic art style that effectively sets the tone of the game. The cutscenes are only slightly animated but the hand drawn/hand painted appearance of these scenes ooze charm and more than compensate for the lack of animation. Unfortunately, when subject to the previously mentioned load screens, the dialogue is only accompanied by what appears to be an overhead image of the kingdom. Without the visuals to accentuate the delivery of the dialogue – the effectiveness of these scenes are not felt due to the conversations not being engaging enough on their own.
The actual gameplay of Shadwen manages to compose an appealing amalgamation of realism and cartoonesque visuals – with the areas you stealth your way through adequately setting the scene for your medieval mutiny.Disappointingly, as you progress further within the castle walls, each area starts to feel the same despite their slight structural differences.This feeling of repetitiveness is highlighted by the fact that you encounter only two different types of guards throughout the game – with each type of guard being relegated to only one character design.
This lack of visual diversity detracts from the great gameplay because of the ambiguity it creates in allowing you to gauge your sense of progression.
At its core, Shadwen’s gameplay is quite simple. Shadwen and Lily start on one side of an area and must get to a door on the other side which will lead them one step closer to the king. As you’ve probably already assumed, there is a wealth of guards patrolling this area who will kill you on sight. Whether you choose to kill or distract the guards – your main objective is to create enough chaos so that Lily can get to the doors unnoticed.
Whenever it comes to any kind of stealth game – it’s guaranteed that you will make at least one ill informed decision that will compromise your meticulous effort of remaining in the shadows. In a lot of ways, Shadwen’s mechanic to manipulate time is nothing unique. However, within the context of a stealth game it makes a lot of senseWhether you lay a trap that literally blows up in your face (I may or may not have done this) or you mistime a jump that introduces your face to the floor (the floor and I are now well acquainted) – these failed attempts don’t punish you with having to reload a checkpoint. Instead, it instills your playstyle with the freedom of experimentation in your assassination approach. All you have to do is erase your error with a quick rewind (you can rewind for up to two minutes) and give it another go. You also have the ability to make time move forward without moving with the press of a button to create an advantageous situation or to get yourself out of a tricky situation.
When it comes to the art of assassination and distraction – you are given several weapons and ways to get the job done. Weapons are unlocked through the discovery of blueprints and put together with the materials you find in chests scattered around the castle grounds. Your weapons range from a grappling hook, to exploding nail traps and can be used in a lethal or nonlethal manner depending on your playstyle. The process of assembling these weapons can be quite finicky; as you’re required to individually enter each material the blueprint requires before you can use the weapon.Although the grapple hook is used primarily to traverse your way through the kingdom – it can also be used to pull down boxes, barrels and whatever else you can find in your surroundings. You can flatten guards by pulling a stack of boxes onto them or just simply use them to distract guards with a cacophony of sound. However, distracting guards isn’t always as easy as it should be. There were several times where after making several boxes crash to the ground in front of a guard – they continued to stare blankly into the distance as if nothing had happened.
Guards can also be disposed with a classic sneak attack or by jumping on them from a vantage point which then triggers an assassination animation.
If you decide to turn some guards into pancakes, you can hide their bodies in bales of hay – or take my approach of stacking as much furniture on top of the bodies as humanly possible. If a body is found, its game over – so make sure there’s no stray limbs sticking out which may lead to your undoing. Oddly enough, the game allows you to conceal the dead bodies of guards in the same hay bales Lily hides in without any consequence.Halfway through the game, I encountered a bug that triggered Lily’s reaction of seeing Shadwen murder a guard even though I hadn’t. No matter how many times I rewound, I was unable to amend the bug and all my previous efforts of hiding my actions were nullified.
I mainly used the grapple hook as I never felt the urge or need to use my secondary weapons. Even with my reliance on the grapple hook, I found myself grappling with how to control it throughout my playthrough. As I swung from ledge to ledge, the hook regularly failed to connect with its target and sent me plummeting to my death.
Shadwen’s interesting elements aside, the gameplay quickly becomes repetitive due to its similar environments and overall lack of challenge.
With a bare bones story that falls flat setting the scene for the game – Shadwen’s gameplay really needed to deliver in every department. With frustrating bugs and inconsistent game mechanics – the overall product is ultimately one that lacks cohesion and conviction.
The PS4 version of Shadwen was primarily tested for the purpose of this review.