Paradoxes. They exist everywhere and anywhere, representing situations that simultaneously are and aren’t. Video games, in a way, are amazing examples of paradoxes, since they mesh together several mechanics that work well even if they shouldn’t exist at the same time.
Frozenbyte’s Shadwen is an example of a paradox. It’s a game where stealth meets movement-based time passage masquerading as tactical planning. However, it’s also an instant-game over simulator that wants you to rewind time to find the right ways to accomplish missions. Sounds fairly straightforward, this hodgepodge of elements from numerous other games mashed together to create something new. There’s only one problem – it’s not fun, it doesn’t feel new at all and it’s anything but straightforward with how maddeningly the game reacts to your actions at times.
"Like Superhot, the game world will move only when she moves and you can hold down a button to remain stationary while the world around you continues moving."
The story for Shadwen features an intriguing premise – you play as the titular assassin herself, having just assassinated the King with a young girl by your side named Lily. Going into flashback mode, you catch up with Shadwen before the assassination as she makes her way to the target. Running into Lily along the way, Shadwen decides to take the girl along rather than risk her alerting others or killing her. Sounds unique but then the game turns into one big escort mission wherein you’re meant to leave Lily behind, traverse ahead to eliminate guards, and then holler at her to run through unscathed.
Why does Lily so patiently await Shadwen‘s commands rather than just alerting the guards of her criminal activity? Why does Shadwen care enough to not want this girl to see corpses? These aspects are never really explained and for that matter, the story from that point is relegated to little more than dialogue over animated stills over loading screens. What could have been a cool dynamic in a medieval setting is little more than a poor set-up for the game’s escort mission premise.
Shadwen‘s mechanics try to make up for it and to be honest, the whole setup is interesting when you first start experimenting with it. Shadwen herself is capable of traversing through levels with a grappling hook and her own movement abilities (a note on the overall movement: it’s not at all fluid). Like Superhot, the game world will move only when she moves and you can hold down a button to remain stationary while the world around you continues moving.
"Why Frozenbyte would choose one of the most hated mechanics in gaming – the escort mission – and fashion an entire game out of it is mind-boggling."
If you’re caught, you have the option to rewind time and immediately seek out a better solution. Your kills will have an effect on Lily – if you kill guards, she’ll adopt a rather negative outlook on the whole situation. As such, you’re encouraged to knock out enemies or find other ways to get her past them (or even hiding bodies for targets you had to kill).
Unfortunately, the game’s mechanics and the results acquired from the same are never constant. You could be spotted by a guard in one instance only to rewind and have the same guard not notice you again. Ambushing a guard from up high, assassination-style, won’t alert his friend a few feet away but drop a heavy box on another guard and his ally from far off yonder will suddenly scream bloody murder. The wonkiness of the AI further extends to glitches in the guards’ movement and their response to Lily’s movement.
While you could clear out the level and motion for Lily to run ahead, it’s also possible to get her moving at any other point. You’d think there’d be some risk involved and at times, it’s confusing how some guards won’t react to her presence at all, even when she runs right past them. Lily herself can be extremely wonky, sometimes not responding to your commands or simply not running where you want her to. Why Frozenbyte would choose one of the most hated mechanics in gaming – the escort mission – and fashion an entire game out of it is mind-boggling.
Also, this is supposed to be a stealth game. Being able to plan ahead and carefully timing your movements is crucial. But there’s no real thrill to it all. You can simply bypass guards by staying hidden and letting them move past you, moving only when their backs are turned, but it’s no big deal if you’re caught.
"Stealth fans really shouldn’t bother with Shadwen. There are similar titles out there, some at better prices, which succeed in delivering a compelling stealth set-up…"
Simply rewind and try again. Heck, try the same thing again and it might just work. The thrill of games like Metal Gear Solid, Hitman or even Volume lies in what you do when the alarms do go off. Shaking your pursuers or finding creative ways to amend a disaster are crucial. Shadwen simply asks you to not bother, especially since the AI is so terrible for enemies and allies alike, and simply do the same portion again.
It’s a shame because Shadwen does have an interesting backdrop. Despite the bizarre physics on display, the environments themselves are unique enough to give that grim medieval look that strikes a fine line between gritty and cartoonish. The mechanics themselves could have been fun without the AI, movement and situational problems, even if the rewind mechanic feels like a cheap addition to it all. Though Shadwen is Frozenbyte’s first stealth game, it’s riddled with problems that make you question if the developer had any consideration of its various issues.
Stealth fans really shouldn’t bother with Shadwen. There are similar titles out there, some at better prices, which succeed in delivering a compelling stealth set-up, from Dishonored, Hitman and Metal Gear Solid to Volume, Splinter Cell and the old Thief games. Shadwen could have stood out despite its many derivative influences. However, the blatant combination of so many contradictory mechanics make its very existence like a paradox with flashes of non-boring somewhere between all the broken boring.
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Interesting environments and plot. Unique set of mechanics stitched together with an intriguing number of options. Decent visuals.
Story logic quickly falls apart and the narrative is extremely lackluster. Glitches, ranging from inconsistent AI to wonky physics, drag the experience down. Escort style of missions is annoying at best. For all of its borrowing from other games, it fails to deliver a mechanically competent game. Rewind mechanic takes all the risk out of the stealth experience.