Stalking my way through the medieval town of Rivenden, I often had the distinct feeling I’d been here before. Not because of the familiar art style or the sometimes-repetitive level design, but because Shadwen (Frozenbyte, 2016) takes cues from so many other games in delivering up its stealth-puzzle-action hybrid of an experience.
The premise: As Shadwen, you’re on a mission to assassinate a king, but on your way from the outskirts of town to the castle, you encounter a young girl named Lily being menaced by guards for gathering apples outside a chapel. How you deal with this situation will set the tone for the rest of the game, as you swing Spider-Man style above the streets, avoiding guards and guiding Lily through each level. Guards can be distracted (usually using the game’s often wacky physics to pull barrels and hay bales around) or murdered, giving the game a frisson of Metal Gear Solid. But the big catch is that time only moves when you do, very much in the vein of this year’s breakout hit Superhot.
Shadwen is fairly lethal, but in a decidedly stealthy way: one-on-one combat means instant death, so you’ll have to rely on shadows and sneaky backstabs to eliminate enemies, should you decide to take the more lethal (and far easier) path through the game. Once you’re spotted, you’ve only got a second or two to break line of sight before the guards will send a crossbow bolt your way, and despite being quite dim in the way that video game guards often are, they do not miss once they’ve got you in their sights. Guards will also raise the alarm once they’ve become “alerted,” either by seeing you directly or finding a dead comrade, and this also means an end to your assassination mission.
Fortunately, in addition to being able to pause the action at any moment, you’re also able to rewind time if you make a mistake. Miss a jump or screw up a grappling hook swing? Just press the left bumper and you can try again, as many times as you want. This is a welcome addition to a game where the laws of physics don’t always behave predictably, or where it’s often impossible to tell whether guards are close enough to hear or see a disturbance (it’s possible to turn on guard vision cone indicators in the difficulty settings, but without this setting on, they seem to vary a lot throughout the game).
Taken together, this means Shadwen is often an exercise in trial and error as you work out a way to narrowly slip by a patrol, or shove a crate to land on a guardsman’s head just as he passes below. Sometimes you’ll only discover a guard’s location by turning a corner and alerting him, but in each case you can simply rewind and approach the situation with a new lesson learned.
As I mentioned above, the lethal path is a far easier way to complete the game. There’s a rudimentary crafting system that allows you to create a variety of distractions and traps, but I never found them necessary to progress – taking out a sentry or two, or yanking down some furniture or barrels, were usually the only tactics required to finish a level. Instead, it seems that Shadwen’s most interesting challenges are self-imposed: Figure out how to get a guard to walk into a dart trap or across a mine, or attach a sticky bomb to a rolling contraption to see if you can take out three at a time. It’s fun surveying a town square from high above, looking for opportunities to cause chaos. There’s a light Hitman vibe here, where you want to push your luck to see what you can actually get away with.
The physics engine, while frequently hilarious, often thwarts such plans however. Explosive barrels can be tipped over and rolled into campfires, but good luck lining them up. And in almost every case, explosions or “accidents” alert the guards and cause you to “lose,” so there’s a powerful disincentive to actually playing the game this way. I had hoped that a runaway hay wagon or falling crate would be treated as “suspicious” at worst by the guards, but they treat any corpse they discover the same way – as murder – and raise the alarm each time. The grappling hook, which you can use to quickly zip up to high platforms or swing between ledges, often got Shadwen lodged in the rafters such that I couldn’t shimmy up onto the level I was trying to reach.
Lily’s AI can also discourage you from pacifist play. She generally is good at running from hiding place to hiding place, but in later levels I found that she was unwilling to move forward until I’d killed a guard – distraction wasn’t enough. On the other hand, she can be too good sometimes, traipsing between guards apparently invisible, as if she’d just slipped on Frodo’s magic ring.
The rewind mechanic makes a lot of this jankiness a lot more tolerable than it would be otherwise. Despite the engine’s weirdness and the fuzziness of the stealth rules, Shadwen is an entertaining experience. You’re able to replay any level from the main menu, which makes achievement-hunting for the pacifist and ultra-violence runs a lot more appealing. The PC version of the game also ships with the same level editor Frozenbyte’s devs used to create the game’s campaign. I found it completely daunting, but cleverer users will undoubtedly have their creations up on the Steam Workshop in short order.
Shadwen has a lot of dings and dents – a superfluous crafting and loot system, unreliable physics, poor AI, and a fairly one-note aesthetic, and a brief campaign – but it manages to entertain nonetheless with its devil-may-care approach to puzzle solving and a heroine who’s actually a rather horrible, stabby bastard.
Shadwen was developed and published by Frozenbyte and released May 17, 2016. A review copy (PC) was provided by the publisher. It is available on PC, OSX, Linux, and PlayStation 4.