Imagine if you will, having the ability to make time move forwards or backwards on a whim. Think of all the cool stuff you could do – you might want to go back in time with a winning Lottery ticket, visit a time period that held some romantic appeal, or perhaps more crucially, go back to 2001 and stop Metal Gear Solid 2 from ever being made.
In Shadwen, the latest effort from the house that Trine built, you can do just that; manipulate time however you see fit across its numerous, stealth-stuffed levels. The problem however is that the execution and level of polish is lacking to such a degree that you have to wonder if the game couldn’t have benefitted from a great deal more development time than it was actually afforded.
How does Shadwen look?
With a menu screen in which you absolutely cannot tell which of the selections you have highlighted, it’s probably fair to say that Shadwen doesn’t exactly put its best foot forward, and once into the game itself things don’t improve. The first thing you notice, aside from the utterly dull and flair-free visuals which look like an old PS3 game that’s accidentally stumbled out of the old folks home and into your PS4, is the huge amount of texture flickering that’s going on around the place. Particularly obvious when you look at some illuminated windows from the outside and turn the camera, the lights in those windows flicker in and out as if some lunatic was flicking the light switch on and off at a manic pace. It just looks awful.
It’s not just the environment that suffers from such technical maladies either; the repetitive character models also get their fair share of visual misery too as heads get stuck in walls, limbs end up trapped in scenery and attempting to climb or jump onto just about any surface looks more akin to your on-screen avatar trying to have a good old humping session more than anything else. From a technical perspective then, Shadwen stands as a far cry from the refined visual opulence of the Trine games for which the developer is known. If there is one area where the visuals fare better it’s in the cut scenes; an attractive menagerie of hand-drawn illustrations which have quite clearly been sketched with a great deal of love, their presence serves as the sole highlight in what is otherwise a technically disappointing effort.
A fantasy storyline
For the curious, the plot for Shadwen boils down to this; cast as the titular assassin, players must find their way to a nefarious king so that he might be stabbed all the way up in an attempt to spare a downtrodden fantasy kingdom from enduring any more of his sadistic reign. Throwing a wrench into the proceedings is a little girl called Lily, who must be protected both from harm and from the apparently violent excesses of Shadwen herself, with the game splitting off into two different endings depending on whether or not you elect to distract or simply murder your enemies.
Gameplay: stealth meets action
As Shadwen, your main goal in each area is to clear a path, either through means of assassination or misdirection so that the pint-sized Lily can reach the exit. In the case of the latter, the developer’s obsession with physics based objects first seen in the Trine games bleeds over here, as Shadwen can knock over vases, push crates and knock over bales of hay to create the necessary distraction to allow you to slip past. Additionally, those same objects, when shoved from a height, can be used to incapacitate guards in somewhat permanent fashion, too.
Somewhat annoyingly, the developers have taken the notion of stealth absolutely to the letter; merely being spotted by a guard is enough to trigger an instant fail state and a pad-squeezing game ending condition. As such, any kind of confrontation cannot occur at all meaning that your options are expressly limited to sneaking past your foes, or, bludgeoning/stabbing them into the next life to achieve the same result.
On the topic of that, the big issue here is that Shadwen is horrendously unclear when it comes to enlightening the player on just what qualifies as lethal and non-lethal ways of dealing with your enemies. For example, you could drop down on somebody and knock them to the floor, thinking that the lack of overt stabbery has only rendered them unconscious, only for Lily to skip along and become aghast at the sight of the felled (and apparently gorily murdered, but not) baddie. Luckily, you can hide bodies in conveniently placed piles of hay to prevent Lily from seeing them, but the complaint about the lack of transparency in lethal and non-lethal methods still stands.
Speaking of the enemy, the guards are a hilariously soft-headed bunch. I’ve simply lost count of the number of times that Lily has sauntered in front of them only for the silly goons to not even bat an eyelid at her presence which begs the question; why in the blue heck would she need Shadwen risking her neck when she’s basically invisible to her would-be harassers anyway? Crazy stuff.
Being an assassin with apparently some modicum of acrobatic acumen, you’d think that there would be some grace in Shadwen’s traversal of the environment but nah, that isn’t the case. In actuality, she’s about as graceful as an intoxicated Andre the Giant attempting to scale the walls to his bedroom window with the net result being the most horribly imprecise and haphazard platforming experience since Glover (remember that garbage?) was released on the original PlayStation all those years ago.
Craft gadgets to murder enemies
Further afield a crafting system also features, allowing you to engineer various poisons and other implements to use as a means to distract the enemy. The thing is there really isn’t a need to invest in it simply because the majority of the areas that you find yourself in is usually packed with enough hazards in the form of boxes, crates and so forth to enable Shadwen to reach her goal anyway.
Finally then, we get to the time manipulation mechanic that sits at the very heart of Shadwen. A neat idea in principle, players can instantly turn back the clock on game-ending deaths or discoveries by the enemy, watching as time turns back on itself to a point where you can correct your course and avoid the original calamity. More crucial than being able to turn back the clock though is the realisation that time will only move when you do, or when you command it to. This in turn allows you to plan your moves and routes around enemy guards ahead of time, or to grapple onto climbable objects in mid-leap with the majority of the platforming in Shadwen being engineered around this idea.
Perhaps the most significant cornerstone of any effort in the stealth genre is one of tension and Shadwen just doesn’t have any because the time manipulation mechanic essentially strips it away completely. Of all of Shadwen’s missteps, perhaps the most damning of all is that Shadwen’s stealth is never tense, rather instead – you just feel numb to it all; the ability to instantly rewind back from a game-ending scenario utterly sapping the game of any sort of intensity or threat and making the whole affair feel utterly trite in the process.
If a game ever needed more development time, like a good extra year of it, Shadwen would absolutely be it. Tragically buried under all its depressingly substandard craft, a decent premise exists at its core; it’s just a shame that in a game so obsessed with time that Shadwen wasn’t given more of it.