Shadwen and Lilly artwork

Shadwen is a stealth-action game from Frozenbyte, the creators of the Trine series, and while it doesn't feature the same sort of whimsical art style it does manage to perform a miracle of its own, and by that I mean somehow making an entire game based around an escort quest an actually enjoyable, thought surprisingly easy experience. 

Throughout all 15 levels you will be accompanied by a poor peasant girl named Lilly that you brought along because... uhh... reasons, and while she isn't able to pull off the same combat and grappling hook maneuvers as you are she is quite adept at sneaking around, so her presence is never an annoyance, but rather an extra element to the stealth-based puzzle Shadwen presents you with.

 

Video version of this review (8 minutes)

The first question everyone should ask when it comes to stealth games is how good are the controls, and does your character attempt to do some sort of a riverdance if you move too quickly from cover to cover. The answer to that is thankfully no, though I would love to see Shadwen riverdance with that constantly vacant expression on her face. Your controls are smooth and for the most part completely responsive, although this does come at the cost of the occasional glitch that occurs when you do too many acrobatic movements in a small enclosed area as Shadwen gives precedent to you over reality, as it should because reality tends to get bogged down with such silly things as gravity... and physics.

Your best bet at navigating the environment in secrecy, besides simply walking around on foot and hiding behind barrels, is through the use of your seemingly magical grappling hook that never makes any noise, or announces your presence even though the couple of meters of rope should clearly be visible to anyone not stricken with sudden blindness. Pedantry aside, its an excellent tool that works perfectly with stealth-focused gameplay as it allows you to both survey your environment, and to leapfrog from hideout to hideout while leaving the guards non the wiser.

The problem is that the grappling hook, while usually completely fine, has a chance to go haywire when attempting to do quick motions, with the end result being your character flipping around through the air as if caught in an invisible tornado. Its not enough to ruin your game given that you can rewind time, but it did impact my enjoyment of the movement system since it never allowed me to go wild with the swinging without some sort of a visual glitch popping up.

Shadwen using the grappling hook

Not pictured: Shadwen slamming face-first into the wall

The grappling hook's use extends far beyond simple Spiderman impersonations, however, as the grappling hook allows you to manipulate the environment in order to distract guards, create paths, or just knock down an entire wine-closet on an some unsuspecting fool's head. Since you will need to constantly escort Lilly from one shadowy area to another this sort of object manipulation will become one of your mainstay tactics as there is nothing better than a crate suddenly moving in a far away corner to make all of the guards panic about the presence of dark and malicious spirits in the area.

Physics in a stealth game don't really sound like a big deal, but if I've learned anything with Shadwen its that they make for a highly engaging gameplay experience since you don't have to rely on pre-set cover pieces to plan your routes, you can instead create your own! Naturally there are limitations, and you can't just push a box past a guard without them becoming suspicious about any 'snakes' crawling about, but when it comes to creating impromptu cover in order to hide from a soldier that may have spotted the tail-end of your coat it comes rather handy. Its a shame the levels are so linear because even though you can technically create your own cover it always feels like the developers intended for you to do it exactly there, and in exactly that way, a feeling that makes the whole puzzle-solving aspect lose a bit of its luster.

While I love the general idea of both having physics and a grappling hook, there are also some issues that occur when the two of those systems interact. The biggest, and most game-changing one is that your grappling hook always extends to its maximum length whenever you use it, which combined with the swinging motion that comes from realistic physics means you will frequently recreate the iconic George of the Jungle scene, but with the pointy end of a guardsman's crossbow instead of a tree to welcome you.

Shadwen has some silly bugs

Don't even ask how I got stuck here...

As you might expect, especially since the almighty grappling hook is involved, Shadwen is mostly about supporting Lilly and ensuring she makes it across each level undetected, either through pure stealth, or by murdering everyone in sight which unsurprisingly doesn't resonate well with your overly optimistic young companion. Since I'm not a complete monster, and since the guards are actually likable and often hilarious, I opted to go through the entire game without killing a single person, a feat that should've been much harder than it really was.

Most of this comes down to the fact that the levels are designed as a collection of fairly linear arenas that connect to each other via corridors, so even though you might have a couple of different paths you can take in each area they are all rather obvious to anyone that has even a modicum of experience with the stealth genre. While that would be completely fine on its own, the levels all mostly feature the same visual design so after a while they all kind of blur into the same thing, which is unfortunate since I actually like Shadwen's washed-out look.

The second reason I found Shadwen a tad too easy is the fact that Lilly, the poor and undernourished peasant girl, is the true master of stealth and subterfuge, capable of finding the exact millisecond the guards have their back turned in order to sneak past even the most formidable barricades. This was a design concession that had to be made in order to keep Shadwen's long escort quest actually entertaining, but it does somewhat cheapen the puzzle aspects of each mission when a little girl is able to solve them without you even doing anything.

Shadwen's companion Lilly is a bit too powerful

Lilly does NOT give a damn

The third and final way Shadwen makes things approachable for new players is by allowing you to freeze time when you're standing still in order to give you a chance to survey the situation and plan ahead, as well as rewind to any previous point in time in order to maybe try a different approach. Its a great idea, and it certainly made my failures a lot easier to stomach, but it does also mean that Shadwen can be completed rather quickly despite having a large selection of equally large levels. I would've preferred it if the rewind system had a certain amount of juice after which it would stop working for the duration of the mission, because you can currently keep bashing your head against the wall until it inevitably cracks instead of being forced to actually find a proper solution.

Not every game needs to be tailored to the hardest of the hardcore, but it is well worth mentioning that those looking for a Hitman-esque style of gameplay that revolves around meticulous planning, open-ended levels, and perfect execution will not find their place here. To me Shadwen feels like an introductory game for the stealth genre as its difficult enough to get your brain-gears turning, but never so frustrating that you would consider purging it from your PC, though this does also means the replayability is fairly low.

Shadwen has some occasionally colorful moments

Its not all dark, there's even a bit of Sunlight in Shadwen!

Speaking of the Hitman series, Shadwen also features a whole bunch of gadgets, gizmos, and bombs you can use to turn the tides against the often overwhelming number of guards. Unfortunately, most of them are practically useless as they either accomplish things you do yourself without much trouble, or create so much noise that every guard within the local Solar System will be put in the alert state making any sort of sneaking nearly impossible.

Even for a purely stealth orientated character the gadgets that create distractions are never as effective as just using your grappling hook to shuffle a couple of boxes. Releasing a constantly rolling noise bomb will indeed get every guard's attention, but the bomb's rolling pattern is erratic so it often goes to complete waste, whereas simply using your trusty grappling hook guarantees you can get the exact two guards away from their post for a couple of seconds, thus allowing Lilly to pass by unnoticed.

Shadwen has a funny face, enough said

Shadwen's completely emotionless face always makes me crack up

While the overall difficulty may have been a bit too low for me given my long-lasting love for stealth games, there is one shining beacon of hope on the horizon, and it comes in the form of the mod support and a fully featured map editor! Even though I've barely ever seen it advertised this is quite possibly the most exciting feature of Shadwen given that all of the campaign maps are featured within it, so if you feel like Shadwen is too easy you have the option to change it!

I haven't spent too much time fiddling with it, mostly because every game in existence has decided to set their release date for the same two week period, but with a well done tutorial and seemingly powerful tools this could be an excellent platform for some intriguing new mods and levels to appear, especially since it all links to the Steam Workshop. Here's to hoping someone less lazy than me ends up taking the time to slightly re-balance Shadwen with a more 'purist' approach in mind.

Shadwen's map/level editor is amazing

I can't overstate how glad I am to see this feature

Verdict

Shadwen is occasionally clunky, and personally far too easy to be something I would ever replay, but I can't deny its charms or the fact that I've managed to binge through the entire game in two sittings. Not because I forced myself to do so, but rather because I had a decent amount of fun in the process, though I'd imagine the fairly short run-time also helped ease some of the repetition.

If you're looking for a hardcore stealth game in the vein of the Hitman series you will not find it here, but if you're new to the genre, or simply want an engaging "sneak and peek" through a medieval castle that will never grind its pace down to a halt due to difficulty, then by all means give Shadwen a try.

Its certainly not an amazing game, but there is plenty of fun to be had with it, especially given the budget pricing.

Please Log In to post a comment