SHADWEN Game Review: Grappling With Time

All the games you love, combined, with 80% less polish.

I love Dishonored. I love Superhot. I love Uncharted and Braid, and I love Half-Life 2. It stands to reason that I should at least like a game that cherry-picks those games’ best mechanics and bundles them into something new. Frozenbyte’s Shadwen is that game, but it’s a colossal disappointment.

Shadwen (the character) is a medieval assassin contracted to kill a king. While infiltrating the capital, she runs across a young girl, Lily, who’s about to be arrested for stealing an apple. Rescuing the child from a potential trip to the slammer, Shadwen decides - for some reason - to bring her along on her mission of murder. From there, she has to reach the king without Lily dying - and without mentally scarring the girl in the process. As usual, the destination is unimportant (and unimpressive); let’s talk about the journey.

Thankfully, Lily cannot be caught or killed in Shadwen. If she’s in danger of being seen, her AI automatically runs to the closest safe spot, hiding around corners, in bushes, or in piles of hay. Her AI will automatically move forward to the next safe spot if there’s a guardless path. Thus, progression is a matter of clearing those paths, either by distracting guards or killing them. It’s more of a puzzle game than an escort mission, and thus a clever take on one of the worst recurring motifs in video games.

The relationship between Shadwen and her ward is more complex than a typical player/companion situation, though not as complex as Frozenbyte’s marketing would suggest. Lily is fragile, and seeing Shadwen brutally murder guards teaches her powerful lessons about life’s value. In theory, the player’s degree of lethality is meant to affect Lily in significant ways. In practice, the effects are limited to between-level dialogue. Despite writing that harshly guilt-trips you for killing, there are no gameplay consequences to speak of. And even if you murder literally everyone in a level, Lily will make an about face in her judgement if you go non-lethal afterwards. Frozenbyte had a great idea here, but the allegedly dynamic morality system isn’t integrated deep enough to make it really sing.

Shadwen’s gameplay mechanics are so numerous, it’s hard to know where to start. All the typical stealth stuff is present and accounted for: footstep noise, line of sight, backstabbing, and so on. Shadwen has a grapping hook she can use to climb onto ledges, swing around levels, and drag objects. She can craft distractions and traps. She can knife enemies in the back and plunge-attack them from above. But the most interesting mechanics revolve around time.

Time, you see, only moves when Shadwen moves. This is cribbed directly from Superhot (or the DLC implementation of Dishonored’s Blink ability), but employed for stealth rather than combat. As such, the pace is slow and deliberate; you can take time to assess situations and respond, even - or especially - in moments of panic. If you or a victim are detected, it’s an instant failure, but that’s no problem: you can rewind time. Just like in Braid, you can undo anything from moments to whole levels, enabling precise, perfectly-timed movements. 

Fun, emergent things can happen when you combine these mechanics. Rope-swinging seems impossible while jumping, but then you remember you can stop moving, freeze time, and aim for grapple points more carefully. You can attach mines to objects and drop them on enemies, or rewind time to nail the perfect plunge attack. But while combining elements can be fun, using the rope to move boxes and distract enemies is so much more effective that many gameplay options feel redundant. Worse, the stacked mechanics effectively negate any tension that might otherwise exist. It’s technically impossible to fail, so the stakes are linked to your attention span more than your skill.

As the game progresses, the levels get bigger, the escort puzzles get trickier, and enemies get slightly tougher. But that’s it. Every level is assembled from the same small collection of assets; they’re fine individually, but the visual and practical repetition gets old fast. There’s also a palpable lack of polish. Physics jank is almost expected for a game this mechanically varied, but Shadwen was clearly pushed out the door too early. The grappling hook has no weight; Shadwen gets stuck in odd positions; physics bugs and flashing textures abound. The AI is worse, with guard perception ranging from supernaturally attentive to dumb as pigshit. Even Lily’s AI glitched out for me, getting stuck in cover and preventing me from progressing. Some of these bugs are comical. Some.

Shadwen emphasises mechanics over atmosphere, letting players see the cracks in its systems all too easily. It’s a clever set of borrowed ideas that never adds up to more than the sum of its parts. The game has the faint odour of a game-jam project that became a full release, but unlike Goat Simulator, bugs can’t be twisted into features in a game like this. The promise of Shadwen deserves better execution. If only there were a Lily following the developers around, Frozenbyte might’ve been guilt-tripped into giving Shadwen the polish it needed.