Queen of the swingers
Shadwen is getting a bit of kicking from reviewers and I’m here to tell you why they’re all wrong.
I think the fundamental problem is that the devs are presenting Shadwen as a stealth game. It really isn’t. I get the feeling that fans of games like Thief, Deux Ex, Dishono(u)red and so on are buying this, expecting a similar experience, and feeling disappointed when they get something else. Reviewers, too, seem to be treating it as a straightforward stealth game and judging it in that context.
The devs aren’t doing themselves any favours. Here’s the game’s description on Steam:
Shadwen is a stealth-action game where the only rule is to remain unseen. Stay hidden - or the ruthless guards will kill you on sight!
None of that is strictly false, but it gives entirely the wrong impression.
Shadwen is a puzzle game.
Yes, it looks like a Stealth game and, yes, you will spend the game avoiding and distracting and perhaps even murdering guards. But it’s only a stealth game insomuch as Portal is an FPS — you have a gun, you shoot your gun and it’s in first person so it’s quite clearly a first person shooter, right? No, not in anything but the strictest taxonomical sense. It feels and plays like a puzzle game.
And the same is true of Shadwen. It feels like a puzzle game. One that operates within the language of a stealth game, undoubtedly, retaining the tension and drama of that genre, but the thoughts you have while playing are puzzle game thoughts. It’s a puzzle game applied to the narrative and mechanical space of a stealth game.
Making a path
Playing as the eponymous Shadwen you must clear a path through levels for your companion, a young girl called Lilly, who will only move between hiding places when the path is clear.
Some reviews I’ve read have characterised this as elevating an escort mission to be the central mechanic of the game. This is really not the case since all the irritations we normally associate with escort missions are absent. Lilly doesn’t even follow you, not really, she merely moves through the level, entirely of her own volition, as the path is cleared.
There’s no hand-holding or guiding here — the two of you act entirely independently. Shadwen herself will usually be up high, on rooftops and platforms, while Lilly scurries between safe havens down in the streets.
And those streets are beautiful, this is a very pretty game. Locations are interesting and full of character while also seeming plausible, they have a lovely fairytale quality while also feeling grounded and real. Streets are dingy and worn but never drab, the feeling is that of a beautiful town suffering hard times and, as you move higher, the wan, melancholic sunlight suggests just enough warmth and hope. The aesthetic throughout the game evinces a subtle, skillfully understated art direction which stands in stark contrast to Frostbyte’s previous games.
Shadwen has a couple of tools at her disposal; a dagger and a grappling hook, with more craftable as the game progresses. The grappling hook, as you’d expect, allows Shadwen to climb up high and swing between platforms and poles but also allows her to pull objects, which is handy for distracting guards. Clearing a path for Lilly involves either killing or distracting all the guards in her immediate path such that she’ll move from one hiding place to the next. If Lilly sees violence, including the corpses of your victims, she will comment on it and this will, the game tells me, impact the story.
Reviews have criticised the game for being too easy and I agree that it can be; if you choose to follow the path of least resistance. The game is far more interesting if you challenge yourself to play in a particular way. I’m currently trying to play the game without doing any violence (which is unusual for me, I’m a big fan of killing guards — they chose the wrong side, after all — air vents and bushes are usually overflowing with my victims) because it’s a far more fun challenge. Afterwards it’s my intention to play through again, killing every single guard, but without Lilly ever seeing any evidence of it. These, to me, seem to be the two interesting ways to play.
So far this sounds like a stealth game, right? What makes Shadwen different is that time only moves when you move, which immediately creates what feel like turns. You might think that this would remove any sense of tension or urgency from the game but that’s not the case, what it does instead is make each moment more meaningful — rather than getting caught because you couldn’t move your fingers fast enough, you get time to think, to plan your next move, extending the moment and making it about thinking rather than dexterity with what are, in every game, imperfect controls.
Time can also be rewound at any point which, again, you’d be forgiven for thinking would lead to a lack of challenge. When the punishment for failure in most games is reloading a checkpoint or quicksave then I’m more than fine with this mechanic — you still feel bad, you still feel like you failed, but you are not further punished for forgetting to quicksave for half an hour or forced to redo the bit between the last checkpoint and where you are now over an over again.
These mechanics are liberating, allowing you to try riskier stuff without fear of the artificial punishment of repetition. They encourage creativity and experimentation. I’ll often rewind time not because I failed, but because I think I can do that section better or with more elegance or just in a more amusing way.
This is not a game for those people who like to be told exactly what to do and how to do it, it’s a game for those of us who like setting our own goals and really playing a game rather than just gaming it. A game that requires a bit of investment.
Shadwen is is a stealth game, you do feel sneaky and stealthy as you make your way around and over guards, leaping between rooftops undetected or creeping behind their backs. But, more than that, Shadwen is very much a puzzle game. It’s a game for people who like to stop and think and work stuff out. Then try stuff, fail, and re-think. It’s not quite like anything I’ve played before and it’s a game that gives you more the more you put into it.
It’s a game to play with as much as just simply play through. And a very very pretty one at that.