Earlier this year SUPERHOT wowed the gaming world with its innovative take on the increasingly tired first-person shooter genre. The developer, appropriately named the SUPERHOT Team, were able to do this by making time progress whenever the player moved, and seemingly made the world pause when standing still. This added a new layer of strategy to the familiar action, and created something truly special. Now Trine developer Frozenbyte is attempting to basically do the same thing within the confines of the stealth genre with Shadwen.
Shadwen‘s promising journey begins by placing players in the shoes of Lily, a starving orphan child who is looking to sneak past guards in order to get an apple. While Lily may not be a veteran thief, she does have one thing on her side: time. What makes Shadwen unique is that players are allowed to plan every move as action is paused when you’re not moving (although the player can press R1 to make time pass while standing still). Going a step further, Frozenbyte has also given players the ability to rewind time, which eliminates a lot of the trial and error frustration that has plagued stealth games in the past.
It’s a great concept, and one that’s immediately appealing. After a brief introductory stage that’s all about non-violently sneaking around, which is done by distracting guards by pushing objects around, players are introduced to Shadwen, who is the game’s primary protagonist. Unlike Lily, the titular assassin doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty, and controlling Shadwen, whose goal is to kill the King, opens up a lot of different mechanics.
Shadwen, who is armed with a knife and a grappling hook, is very mobile. She can quickly climb to the top of any wooden structure and only needs to get behind guards in order to permanently end their night. It’s incredibly freeing to be able to swing from balconies and jump across rooftops unnoticed. Which is why it’s frustrating that the grappling mechanic is typically more awkward to use than fun.
Just like the Trine series, a lot of Shadwen deals with manipulating the game’s physics. That’s awesome in theory, but everything from wooden crates to dead bodies have the habit of freaking out from time to time. This also happens a lot when trying to use the game’s grappling hook, which only worked as intended about 50% of the time. When trying to get on top of a ledge Shadwen has the habit of not grabbing onto it, and instead forcing the player to awkwardly jump up and around to get on top of it.
If there’s one nice thing about the game’s rewind mechanic, and this is something players will use frequently as being spotted is an immediate failure, it’s that players are almost instantly given a second chance. Did a dead body just freak out on a ledge and fall right on top of a guard below thus alerting him? Just rewind and try to drag the lifeless corpse again. This lessens the overall frustration, but the game’s rough gameplay doesn’t eliminate the trial-and-error like it’s supposed to.
While the physics-based jank is almost to be expected from such a game, and sometimes the bugs are weirdly charming, the biggest issue in Shadwen is the level design. Every single stage is essentially the same: eliminate area after area of guards so Lily can sneak past them unharmed. While obviously the game is going to revolve around taking out enemies (or just distracting them if you choose to go a non-violent route), the guards’ arrangement is far too similar level to level. The main challenge from the very beginning to end is basically getting two guards who are talking with each other separated and killing each one individually. That’s about as far as the stage layouts go.
That’s just not enough to keep the gameplay feeling fresh through 15 stages. The game does give the player additional toys to play with later on, such as poison traps and explosives, but the game rarely gives you a good reason to use them. My strategy that I employed from the very get-go was essentially just as effective in the game’s last level as it was in the beginning.
Not being forced to adapt is disappointing, and this is largely due to Shadwen only having two types of enemies. There’s regular guards, that can be taken out with a backstab, and heavily armored guards, who simply need to be attacked from above. That’s really all the strategy that is needed for basic play. Sure, you can get fancy if you wish to get through the game without killing anyone, but it’s never required and the game doesn’t do a good job of showing you how to use the additional traps you find in hidden chests.
Hail to the Thief
While the core gameplay idea is seemingly genius, Shadwen isn’t able to fully capitalize on it. The repetitive nature of the game’s eight-hour story really lets it down, and a bunch of small issues end up marring the overall experience. I found myself not only battling the guards, but also the game’s camera. Since it’s a stealth game, I often found myself hiding in tight spaces such as behind boxes and in dark corners. Due to this, the camera would sometimes freak out to the point where it was difficult to see where the guards were. I would simply have to wait for suspicious foes to stop searching so I could move again as attempting to do anything while I couldn’t clearly see was a recipe for disaster.
Another issue is that the game simply ends with a fizzle instead of a bang. Considering the game’s goal from the very start is to kill the King, you’d expect the final level would be an epic affair of sneaking into the castle and into the throne room. The whole game essentially builds up to the moment where you get to decide whether or not to take this important person’s life away, and yet it ends up playing out in an animated cutscene. You never even get to see the King in-game, and the final level feels incredibly underwhelming.
Shadwen makes a lot of smart decisions, and I’ll definitely miss its rewind system in other stealth games, but it never fully comes together as a whole. There’s just not enough enemy variety, and the 15-level campaign grows tiresome as the end nears. Throw in one of the most anticlimactic endings in recent memory, and a lot of the initial goodwill is used up. While far from perfect, there’s still enough ambition here for stealth fans to appreciate, but Shadwen isn’t Agent 47.
Review code for Shadwen provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here