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Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Frozenbyte
Release Date: May 17, 2016

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


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PC Review - 'Shadwen'

by Brian Dumlao on Sept. 1, 2016 @ 2:00 a.m. PDT

Shadwen is a true stealth game where the only rule is to remain unseen. Stay hidden - or the ruthless guards will kill you on sight!

As a genre, stealth seems rather unlikely to get mainstream appeal. Its focus on diversion with a minimal amount of combat may not appeal to those who want to fight, and the emphasis on patience betrays one's instinct to have something happening all the time. Despite this, the audience is rather sizeable, and there have certainly been a number of recent games to emphasize quiet over noise. With so many games vying for that audience, the question becomes how one can stand out in a market that is starting to get crowded. Shadwen's answer is to take some elements from other games in different genres and see if the mix works out.

You start the story with a homeless orphan named Lily. Her town has recently been taken over by the king's soldiers, and when she happens upon a church with an apple tree. Before she can take a bite of the fruit, she is spotted by a guard and accused of theft. Just in the nick of time, the assassin Shadwen appears to distract the guard long enough for Lily to escape. Instead of running off, she decides to stick with Shadwen, unaware that her savior is on a mission to kill the king.

The beginning changes depending on Shadwen's actions when saving Lily. While the above scenario plays out if you distract the guard, a completely different one occurs if you kill the guard and take Lily as an involuntary accomplice. The tone of the story also changes with these actions. Lily has a much more childlike outlook if no one is hurt, but she becomes more cynical as the bodies start to pile up in her presence. As such, you really get two different stories, depending on your play style.

The story doesn't evolve much during gameplay. With the exception of the beginning, end, and the meeting between Shadwen and Lily, the game features no cut scenes whatsoever, and the only dialogue between the two characters occurs during the loading screens. If you're looking for backstory and world-building, the game provides that through the use of the guards. There are many situations where two guards stand close to each other in brief chats, and getting close enough to them will reveal some interesting history about the world you inhabit, such as the turmoil between the royal families that created the current state of affairs, the burning of crops that has led to widespread poverty, and the belief in dark spirits that govern the woods. All of this history comes in at a rather slow pace, and only the patient will hear it all.

There are three main components that comprise the game, with stealth being the most obvious one. The usual moves are here, like using a crouch walk to avoid making noise, using bushes and hay bales as hiding spots, and performing one-hit kills by sneaking up on a guard from behind. You can use bottles as audible distractions, and you can move boxes and barrels as mobile cover and for visual distractions, respectively. As in a few other stealth titles, getting spotted pretty much means an instant kill, and taking on the enemy directly never results in you winning the bout.

While you can rely on your wits to get through the game, you also have access to a number of tools to help you out. The tools are never complete, though, and you'll have to get their blueprints and the individual items needed to construct those things. The one you'll always have at your side is a grappling hook, which lets you get to higher ground and swing between wooden surfaces as well as pulling wooden objects. Other tools include poison darts, land mines, and moving toys that you can attach other tools.

The second component has to do with movement, but it isn't the kind of movement you may be thinking of, where you have a plethora of moves to keep you hidden. Instead, taking a page from the game Superhot, the world only moves when you decide to. With the exception of camera rotation, every move in any direction or any action taken causes the world — and everything in it — to move, while stopping in place means everything around you also freezes. While you can't turn off this mechanic, it presents the player with some interesting uses for the time freeze. For example, it's much easier to line up your grappling hook shot without fear of being fully exposed for long periods of time. On the other hand, it makes it tougher to watch enemy movements since everyone has to move at the same time. Luckily, the game allows you to hold down a button to let time move forward without you moving. It can be an annoyance to hold down a button to do nothing, but it does afford you the chance to play the game like a more traditional stealth title.

Then there's the rewind feature. Though the guards will fire an arrow at you if they spot you or knock you out if you try to engage them in direct combat, Shadwen doesn't send you to the Game Over screen when this occurs. Instead, you're told to hold down a button to rewind time to correct your mistakes. The game doesn't restrict how far you can rewind time, so you can go as little as a few moves before you get killed or as far as rewinding to the very beginning of the stage. Like the movement system, it has both benefits and shortcomings. On the one hand, it means that you can quickly get back into the game since there are no load screens between deaths. On the other hand, a number of players will decry that the game is much easier because of this feature.

You may have noticed that Lily isn't being counted as a major factor to the game, and for the most part, she isn't. The idea of escorting her around a level stealthily sounds terrible, especially when you think about how most escort missions in other titles feature a less-than-intelligent AI powering your companion. Lily is quite smart as she darts from cover to cover, moving only when the coast is clear and running at the first sign of trouble. You can manually ask her to move if you wish, but you'll be glad that she's practically invisible while you do all the hard work.

The only time this doesn't ring true is when she affects the game via the morality system. The story and Lily's impression of you hinges on the presence of dead bodies and her witnessing you kill someone. If you're aiming for the game's more dour ending or don't care about the morality system, then Lily's presence won't affect you. However, if you want the happier ending, you'll play the game more methodically by infiltrating the deeper parts of the level and working your way backward to kill enemies and hide bodies. You might let everyone live and try to use distractions to pass by undetected, a more difficult proposition that can be rather satisfying.

The many systems come together to craft a stealth system that seems to cater more to the casual fan than the seasoned one. None of the stealth situations seem impossible, and the unlimited rewind system makes correcting mistakes much easier than expected. Lily's AI may sometimes fail, and she'll stand in plain sight, but her presence doesn't trigger any responses from the guards, an odd effect that saves you from unnecessary restarts. That level of forgiveness can seem off-putting, but for those who are interested in the genre, all of those forgiveness points are a good way to ease a player into the genre before they take on something more unforgiving.

Even if you aren't that disappointed in Shadwen being more casual than hardcore, you will be disappointed in the various ways that the title tries to dull the experience. The tools that you get are nice, but they come with so much noise risk that you're better off using your grappling hook and knife from beginning to end. It also doesn't help that the resources for the tools are so limited that you'll practice conservation more than experimentation whenever you stumble upon something new. The levels also feel rather linear most of the time, with very few opportunities to branch out into different pathways.

The guards play a big part in the disappointment. They have set paths that they never deviate from unless they're investigating a noise. Even when something is amiss, they'll stand and look around before walking back to their posts despite an object that's clearly out of place. Trying to distract them can prove to be futile, as some will completely ignore a noise unless it is very close to them, no matter how loud it is. Worse yet, there are only two guard types, and the second type is introduced very late in-game. The lack of variety makes things feel rather dull, since you'll rarely feel challenged once you know the tricks.

Then there are the many bugs. The game is relatively free from crashes, but there are still a few areas where the player can get stuck floating in the air, a bad look that can easily be solved with a rewind. What isn't fixed right away are the subtitles and status warnings that persist long after the event has transpired or were corrected from a rewind. Often, you'll see a warning that Lily has seen a corpse or that a guard has called for an alarm when nothing of that sort is happening at all. The wrong status indicator is confusing for players and sloppy when you realize how many times this kind of mistake pops up during gameplay.

Graphically, the title is serviceable. The locales don't vary at all, but at least the dark and damp castle grounds look decent during gameplay. There isn't anything breathtaking when it comes to the environments, but it looks nice. That's certainly better praise than what could be said about the character models, all of whom animate fine but look rather basic, especially when you see them hanging on invisible ledges or see  micro-stuttering when bodies are barely connecting while they're dragged around the environment.

The sound is in a similar position. The music is fine for the dirty medieval setting, but it plays all the time. It isn't necessarily bad music, but this is a genre where silence is sometimes the best score, and the lack of it robs the music of any "punch" it could have. The effects are fine, but the sound of a metal cage falling on a stone floor lacks the expected reverberation, considering the materials and height involved. The voices are generally good, and while a few of the lines are repeated, their delivery is appropriate for the situation. Where things fall flat is in the vocal variety, or lack of it. Despite the number of lines being spoken by the many guards, there only seem to be two or three voices for all of them. It gets to the point where you'll swear one guard is talking to himself because the same voice actor played two different guards without changing the pitch, further ruining any immersion that might have been available.

Shadwen is the kind of game that has the recipe to succeed. The use of time manipulation in a stealth game may make this a title that's intended for those just coming into the genre, but the approach is interesting enough to warrant a look. Bland level design and presentation along with a poor AI system for the guards makes the experience too rudimentary, and the lack of enemy variety can make things feel repetitive rather quickly. Ultimately, Shadwen has potential — but not in this incarnation.

Score: 6.0/10

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