In addition to Lily, Shadwen sports several other interesting ideas. Like the recently released SUPERHOT
, time only moves when you do in Shadwen. This allows plenty of room to plan your moves. Moreover, if you make a mistake, you can simply rewind time to the appropriate point, and either try again or adopt a different tactic, which is a great way of encouraging experimentation. The flipside of this is, if you get spotted, it’s game over. There’s no “Evasion” aspect to Shadwen, which is normally a big problem for a stealth game as that’s often the most interesting bit. But I didn’t miss it here.
Lastly, and this is the one aspect of Shadwen that I really do like, your approach to clearing a path for Lily can affect the direction of the story. If you murder a guard in front of Lily, or she spots a corpse, then it will change her behaviour later on in the tale. Importantly though, this only happens if Lily sees you do it. In other words, you can employ your more lethal tools as much as you like, just not when Lily is around (assuming you want to spare her the horror of seeing a mutilated corpse, that is). This mechanic serves several functions. It provides a Dishonored-like condition upon violence, but doesn’t force you into a particular approach. It also results in some tense moments when you desperately try to stuff a corpse in a haystack just as Lily rounds a corner. I love the inherent deviousness of it too, mercilessly shanking dudes in the neck just beyond the sight of this sweet little girl.
At this point you’re probably wondering why I didn’t enjoy Shadwen, and the answer is, sadly, none of these concepts are particularly well implemented. To begin with, the story is rubbish. The writing is trite and simplistic, and the acting poor. It almost entirely takes the form of conversations between Shadwen and Lily during loading screens, but none of them are believable or invest you in the characters. There’s an attempt at Thief-style
conversations between guards, but they lack the dark humour of the Looking Glass classic. The flimsy storytelling wouldn't be such an issue, but as I mentioned, one of Shadwen's central hooks is how your behaviour around Lily affects the story. Given the writing is so weak, however, the player has little reason to care about Lily's fate.
Equally important to a good stealth game is how movement and interaction feel, and sadly Shadwen doesn’t feel particularly great under the fingers either. The controls are slippery and the world lacks a sense of weight and solidity. Shadwen both looks and moves like a Claymation model moulded with too much water, cartoon-like in appearance and with weirdly floppy animations. The time-freezing mechanic doesn’t work anything like as well as it does in SUPERHOT. Here it constantly feels like it’s interrupting the game’s flow. I think Shadwen would be better served if the player could stop time manually when they felt the need, and then the game continued if they moved after that. I also don’t like the aesthetic. Shadwen’s violet nights are certainly distinctive, but it’s overwrought and causes every mission to appear almost identical, although it doesn’t help that the same assets are used over and over and over.
This leads us on nicely to Shadwen’s biggest issue, which is that it fails to take these ideas and evolve them in any meaningful way throughout the duration of the game. The things you’re doing at the beginning of the game are exactly the same as those you’re doing at the end. It adds a few “tools” which you can craft from diagrams, like distraction toys or deployable crossbow traps. But none of them make any fundamental difference to your strategies. In addition to this are a few weird mechanical inconsistencies. You can push objects but not pull them, and while you can drag objects with your grappling hook, you can’t stand still and haul them with the rope, which would be extremely helpful when you’re balancing atop a narrow ledge. You also can’t pick up and throw objects, which seems like an extremely basic omission.
Ultimately, the problem boils down to the fact that Shadwen feels unfinished. The repetitive environment designs, the lack of variety in guards and enemies, the rough animations and the intriguing yet unrefined mechanics all result in the game resembling an alpha that has been released too early. This is especially odd from Frozenbyte, whose platformers are so beautiful and elegant and brimming with imagination. I admire its ambition, and the way it attempts to play on your emotions rather than your morals when it comes to killing is especially neat. But the game fails to sell any of these ideas convincingly, and as a result Shadwen is best left alone in the shadows.