To kill or not to kill? It’s a question that many games ask, though perhaps none as boldly as Shadwen. The game takes place in a medieval kingdom, where the titular character Shadwen makes her way to the castle with the intent of murdering the king. Mixing stealth and action, Shadwen allows players to be peaceful or violent, and features a unique “rewind” mechanic, allowing players to freely retry their actions as they make their way through the game.
Early in the adventure, Shadwen happens upon a young girl named Lily, who must be escorted throughout the remainder of the game. The need to guide Lily from one hiding place to the next makes Shadwen a linear affair, though there are several ways to traverse the city, using the streets, walls, and lampposts to move about.
Shadwen uses a grappling hook to move vertically around her environment. It enables her not only to swing to higher platforms, but to manipulate objects such as crates, shelves, and tables. Doing so allows Shadwen to create distractions in order to lure guards towards traps or away from doors. There are a variety of items in the game such as mines, decoys, and poison dart traps which can be deployed to deal with enemies. Items take multiple components to construct, and there are a finite amount of treasure chests to find, many of them under heavy guard. Even if you are very thorough, you’ll only be able to construct each consumable item a handful of times.
The story changes depending on whether the player chooses to kill enemies or allow them to live. Playing as a pacifist means luring enemies around, sneaking from cover to cover, and sometimes just getting lucky. If Shadwen gets seen, the game immediately ends, but you are always allowed to rewind to a previous point without restriction. As such, the game is highly forgiving, and you can rewind five seconds to slightly tweak a strategy, or rewind several minutes to give yourself a clean slate.
It is your responsibility to clear areas so that Lily can move from cover to cover without being seen. This presents an odd mechanic, because Lily can’t actually be caught by the guards – which is highly fortunate. If Lily is in danger of being seen, she will simply refuse to move to the next cover, or will retreat to the last one if an enemy faces her while she’s on the move. You can direct Lily’s actions to a degree, but she will often refuse to follow them if there’s danger afoot. Usually, Lily’s AI works just fine, but there are those highly frustrating times when it doesn’t.
Sometimes you can lure guards away from a path, and Lily won’t recognize that it’s clear. Other times, she’ll inexplicably retreat to previous cover, forcing you to try a new strategy when the previous one seemed viable. In one scenario, I laid out a path around an enemy checkpoint, only to discover that Lily refused to go to it. Her programming insisted that we cut directly through the enemy guard, which meant distracting five enemies at once, rather than just walking around them.
Fortunately, the aforementioned problems rarely come into play if you go the violent route, which is a lot more fun than the pacifist route. Many of the items are completely off-limits if you abide by the no-kill rule, whereas you can set up elaborate traps with mines and falling objects if you’re looking to get your hands bloody. I had a lot of fun jumping on people from height, and “height” is a very generous term in Shadwen. You can jump off of a six-foot crate and kill somebody by landing on them, and with the rewind feature you can tweak your aim repeatedly if you didn’t get it right the first time.
But no matter which way you go, Shadwen has its share of technical deficiencies that are hard to overlook. While the framerate is great and the graphics and sound are nice, the game is often a buggy mess. I saw flickering textures, found a walk-through wall in one level, and often saw all kinds of oddities occur with the grappling hook, from barrels and crates thrown high into the air, to a shelf that ended up around my body and spun around it for a few moments like a gyroscope. Most of these bugs are fun bugs, but along with the sometimes infuriating Lily AI, they make the game come across as unpolished.
Ultimately the biggest problem with Shadwen is repetition. The majority of levels look like each other, taking place on roads and walls with the same houses and backdrops. The layout is different from level to level, but at a glance it always looks the same. There’s also little variety in the gameplay. You lead Lily around guard-post after guard-post, through haystack after haystack. The game changes it up with different obstacles, sometimes allowing different ways to proceed, but there are no genuinely new gameplay wrinkles after the first few levels, nor is there any time to breathe and explore. The violent campaign moves briskly enough that it’s forgivable, but the pacifist campaign can be a slog.
I do give Shadwen credit for really pushing environmental manipulation like no stealth game ever has. You can create a lot of havoc by knocking objects around with your grappling hook, and it’s enjoyable to find an inventive solution for getting by the next set of guards. The gameplay often breaks down into guards being surrounded by falling hay bales, blaming the “dark spirits” for their misfortune, while Lily tries to get by, running head first into a crate until it spontaneously shatters. It’s all pretty absurd, and it probably would have worked better had Shadwen chosen a more cartoony and whimsical artstyle. As it is, Shadwen’s serious aesthetic and storytelling clash with its gameplay.
Shadwen deserves two scores: A 5 out of 10 for the pacifist route and a 6 out of 10 for the violent route. Since nobody’s going to force you to play as Gandhi, a 6 out of 10 seems fair. Shadwen offers an original take on the stealth genre, and provides some silly thrills, particularly for those who don’t mind cracking a few heads. It’s not a polished game, and it can be frustrating when Lily doesn’t behave as you want. But it provides a solid length and a pretty good value, offering a heartier experience than some games within the same price range.