Shadwen is one of the more refreshing takes on stealth that I’ve gotten to play in recent years. Frozenbyte’s deviation from the Trine series shows that they have a penchant for making beautiful and different styles of games. Though, Shadwen is a game where success happens in short bursts, and failure occurs in large quantities – which is normal for a stealth game. But in the case of Shadwen, this is a game where frustration is out of your control. Thankfully time is in your control, easing what would be a game that would be written off as lackluster, and is instead a challenge worth undertaking.
Starting off, you are introduced to Lily, a little girl with no guardian or anywhere to call home must stealthily get past guards and teaches you the basics. Then you’re shifted to playing as Shadwen, the game’s namesake. She has similarities to Zoya the Thief from the Trine series, but far more dangerous and ruthless. Her debut has you crafting a rope-spear and also learning about her mysterious time powers and evasion techniques. Once these two characters meet, Shadwen reluctantly takes Lily on a journey to murder the king on his throne. What you allow her to see along the way can shape the rest of the game.
Shadwen has you going through fifteen painstakingly detailed, albeit similar looking levels of one medieval castle. Though, there’s some really great uses of color and vibrancy in a grim and mostly dark setting. Over the course of this single night, when rain comes and goes, adds to the atmosphere. The levels of Shadwen open up both horizontally and with verticality, allowing you to use these levels to the fullest so that you don’t get seen as easily. Though, later levels realize you have verticality and post guards higher up for you to avoid them.
With the added challenge of escorting Lily through a level, guards can detect and kill Shadwen on-sight. So for both Shadwen and Lily to make it safely through, you must push or use Shadwen’s ropespear to grab boxes at a distance for a distraction. Items moving mysteriously or making noise are enough to get the AI to investigate, and just enough time to get past. Much like Trine, Shadwen has a lot of physics-based items that can be tricky to control or expect behavior of. Lily will only move if she has a safe passageway. Thankfully, the game is forgiving in that the guards can’t see her if she’s within their cone of vision, but frustratingly she will backtrack and hide when she thinks she’s seen. You can direct Lily where to go and when, if you feel it is safer direction than she will go by default.
All of this is aided by Shadwen’s ability to control time. There’s no explanation on her being able to control time, she just can. So this just may be a gameplay ability rather than something embedded into the world, but with the ambient dialogue of the guards, there does seem like there are supernatural elements out there. Like in SUPERHOT, time is always frozen when you’re not moving, and continues when you’re in motion. While still, you can press a button to move time forward, but often waiting for the guards to saunter their way through an area until it is clear for you to move is a bore. You are killed immediately once a guard sees you and fires his crossbow, but you can easily rewind time to a place where you were safer and re-route or try different strategies. The default normal difficulty does some nice highlighting of characters to see what you need, on easy difficulty, guards’ cone of vision is shown, which greatly reduces the frustration you’re likely to experience.
Along the way, Shadwen can loot chests that contain items and blueprints that help her to create traps and other useful items in getting through a level. Most of them are lethal, and there’s not a healthy balance of that and non-lethal tools, sadly. Shadwen can leave guards alone, or kill them. You must be aware that Lily can discover dead bodies and will affect her over the course of the game, and as such, multiple paths can be taken solely on the decisions made from level to level.
Neither the story nor the characters are engaging for what is a relatively short game. The guards tell an interesting tale of the things going outside these walls, but only glimpses are told. It’s a shame more of the larger world is not shown or discussed, because it truly seems intriguing. The dialogue shared between Shadwen and Lily can change based on decisions, but often fall flat and remain uninteresting. The gameplay makes up for this shortcoming.
Shadwen is basically an entire game being set around an escort mission to an AI companion that does nothing other than get in the way of what would be a great game. Clearly the game is built around this idea and without the kid, would make the game far too easy and the obstacles in the way, pointless. The time control mechanic does ease things, and lowering the difficulty allows you to more or less puzzle your way through a level. Shadwen is a unique approach to stealth games that is rewarding once you take the time to understand how it all works together.
A Steam code was provided by the developer for review purposes