Indie Wonderland: Shadwen

A flash reveal out of nowhere, Shadwen leapt into my games awareness much in the same way an acrobatic rooftop assassin would onto their target du jour. And with about equal chances of me resisting their intent, too. A 3D free-movement grappling-hook-based assassination simulator, by none other than Frozenbyte? This game was always going to draw my major attention — though not necessarily for the positive reasons you might be thinking of.

If the name ‘Frozenbyte’ doesn’t ring any immediate bells, that’s fine — but you should know they’re the studio behind the Trine series of games. I’ve played all three games cooperatively with a friend. As expected, we had a blast with the first two — if you haven’t played Trine 1 or Trine 2 yet, you know, blanket recommendation right here to get on that. But Trine 3 was… a different beast. The move to 3D has poor results for a game series known for carefully crafted 2D platforming experiences. Particularly the rope-swing physics, a strong point of both former Trine games, was wonky, glitchy, and unreliable. We wondered aloud at the time why Frozenbyte would have made this move: surely, we figured, they couldn’t have thought that this would make for a better Trine game?

And then Shadwen came along. A 3D-movement game based almost entirely on rope physics. And all of a sudden, we saw Trine 3 for what it likely was: an extended technology proof of concept, evidence that Frozenbyte could make ‘functional’ 3D movement worlds, stapled onto a beloved brand name.

So what I’m saying is, I really want to see if Shadwen was worth this.

(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low-medium. Mechanical, medium.)

(Game source: Bought it myself.)

Opening

One thing Frozenbyte is rightfully known for is crafting picturesque environments and skyboxes. It’s something you can see plenty of in their previous work — I promise this review won’t be continual Trine references, this is the last one — and the fact that there’s some in Shadwen‘s title screen is heartening.

Say what you will, but Frozenbyte’s art team knows how to play to their strengths.

The options screens are a little less fancy, but otherwise perfectly functional. Audio, language options, input devices, rebindable keys, a good set of the usual. In-game visual options are a little sparse, but that’s because Shadwen presents its expanded graphics options up-front. The splash loader even warned me that ‘my chosen settings might cause the game to perform poorly’, which caused me a hearty chuckle of unearned superiority. My PC, ‘perform poorly’. Tougher games than you have tried, Shadwen.

Anyway: subtitles are in the Language menu this time around.

I futz around with save slots and achievements for a bit, but there’s nothing immediately eye-catching. The only significantly interesting thing is the Difficulty menu, which does a thing I really hope more games start doing: explain what difficulty levels actually mean.

It gives a *very* bare overview of what happens, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Options set and difficulty chosen, I’m all ready to get started. Which means that it’s time to play the music, and it’s time to light the lights.

See?

Oh.

Smash cut to a mostly static cutscene. You know the type: it’s stylized concept art that waggles around a little to give the illusion of movement. And in this case, I’m looking at…

Hmm. Long hallway. Bunch of people lying flat on the floor. The only person standing is a woman with a knife. If this were a heroic fantasy, she’d be the only one left fighting off the unseen evil that took out all her friends.

This is *probably* that kind of story, right?

But then we cut again. Now the woman is approaching a wide-eyed king, knife drawn.

“What are you doing? Help! Guards!” The woman puts her knife on the king’s throat. “Save your breath, no one is coming to help you.”

There is also a little girl in the scene, for some reason.

Er… mother-daughter field trip? ‘Bring your daughter to work day’?

The woman grims (sic) at the frightened king. The girl gasps. The knife slashes! The crown falls on the ground…

“Now what,” the woman says, as the stares at the little girl, “am I going to do with you.”

Initial impressions

And then we warp back in time.

This much, to be exact.

>Be the little girl from before

You are now the little girl from before. You are carrying ONE (1) FILTHY PEASANT ROBE, ONE (1) SENSE OF YOUTHFUL OPTIMISM, and ONE (1) VISION OF IMPENDING DOOM.

‘Find your way to the chapel garden and the apple tree’, Shadwen tells me. Sure, I could go for some apples. ‘Move with WASD’. I push the keys, and movement happens. Then I stop pushing the keys, and movement ceases.

Movement ceases, and also everything else. Apparently Shadwen shares some of its DNA with the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years, in that time only moves when you move. When I stop moving, the world holds its breath: the edges of the screen turn grey, and blur inward.

It’s a little hard to see in static screenshots, as it’s a pretty subtle effect. It’s more noticeable in motion.

I move through the Ye Olde Medieval Village, which has no other distinguishing characteristics beyond being a Ye Olde Medieval Village. Houses of rough stone and rotting wood, thatched roofs, ineffective lanterns…

Oh, shit! A guard is lazily surveying the street ahead! I can’t let them see me, for reasons that I’m entirely unsure about! Let’s say ‘curfew’ or whatever. What do I do?

Ah! Excellent suggestion, video game!

I press Ctrl, and Unnamed Girl Me drops into a low crouching stance. You know, the exhausting-looking tiptoe stance that would probably just make you make more noise. But it’s video game shorthand for ‘stealth’, so it works for me. I sneak behind the guards, surprisingly plural, using nearby bales of hay for cover. I needn’t have bothered, though: all they’re doing right now is talking to each other about how shitty guard duty is.

Interesting conundrum: I kind of want to hear what they have to say. But time only moves when *I* move. I end up having to shuffle back and forth behind their backs, ‘silently’, in order to generate the kinetic energy that keeps the universe turning.

Just past the world’s most ineffectual street guards, I find another. This one is actually patrolling, though, walking down the street with a lazy, drunk-looking gait. Luckily for me, there are barrels and hay bales just on the road’s edge. Unluckily for me, there’s a big gap in-between them… and at the speed both me and the guard are moving, I’ll pass that gap just as they round it, too. What to do? I can’t just wait up the guard: after all, time only moves when I move.

Ah, okay. Turns out there’s a button to circumvent that. PROBLEM PRE-EMPTED.

A third stationary guard / patrolling guard introduces the time-honored concept of ‘hiding in haystacks’. Which, I mean: I’m a tiny girl and this is a massive pile of hay. It makes sense. Bushes are promised as a hiding spot as well. Thus be-hayed, I hold down the Q button for the twenty-or-so seconds it takes this goddamn slowpoke to wander over. And then, I slip on.

Let’s not stop to think *why* there’s a massive pile of hay just lying out in the street. I’m sure there’s a good reason for that sort of thing.

I pass a guard. I pass another guard. I pass two guards, talking about the horrors of war and how glad they are that that’s over — or is it? I pass a guard. Then I push a frankly enormous wooden box, with a levity and a speed that suggest it’s either a stage prop or some sort of oddly-shaped beach ball.

Little girl hiding in a large stack of hay: good, nice design, cool way to use environment and character in congruence. Little girl pushing a large wooden box: *less of all that*.

Pushing boxes — marked with fancy white outlines — can also serve to distract guards — marked by fancy white outlines. The movement and the noise draws their attention, at which point their outlines turn yellow. And they move in to investigate, I guess. They only stay confuzzled for a little while, but it’s more than enough for me to slip past.

The guards also continue the time-honored tradition of shouting their inner thought process out loud. ‘Is this a prank?… Ah, must’ve been nothing.’

Over the course of a few minutes, I use boxes, rolling barrels, empty bottles, and a metric ton of bushes, hay piles, and low fences to dodge one guard after another. I don’t really know where I’m going, still, but by god am I getting there undetected.

No, but I mean, I kinda *have* to. These guards have no patience for sneaky little girls.

Luckily, it turns out that by holding R, I can freely rewind time — putting myself in a position *before* I alerted the guards like a doofus.

Good thing I don’t actually have to think about where I’m going: while the world seems to suggest side paths and optional routes here and there, the actual path I can walk is 100% linear.

For example: this stairway down looks like it could be a cool side path. But nope.

Although, *sometimes*, I manage to use the level design in ways that seem unintended.

Finally, I reach the Chapel yard. There’s an apple tree there! There are apples on the ground! They’re marked with a white outline! I rush to pick them up.

Suddenly, Cutscene Guard!

Despite being careful, little-girl-me is nabbed by a guard through the power of cutscene as soon as I reach for the apples. The guard accuses me of thievery, and seems intent on venting some job frustration on a poor starving beggar girl. How will this situation resolve itself? The audience is on the edge of their seat!…

Smash cut to something completely different.

Meanwhile, the titular Shadwen is… oh. *Not* on a mission of peace and justice.

‘Shadwen is headed towards the Chapel to find a secret passage to town’. Thanks, Shadwen, for telling Shadwen — me — about the plans of Shadwen.

I am now the assassin lady from before. She controls much in the same way as the nameless little girl did, except for a few key differences. One, she can jump, significantly. Two, she has a long knife (or maybe a short sword?) ready for swinging. And three, she has access to…

A crafting system?

Apparently?

Shadwen starts her adventures in a ruined village by the sea. It’s all scenic burnt-out viking longhouses, bereft of any sign of human habitation… save for a bunch of immaculate wooden chests. Which either survived this devastation unscathed, or were placed here later. Either option is equally weird?… Regardless, I can loot the chests for belts, arrowheads, and rope. And easy-to-comprehend schematics for a grappling hook. Which, hey, wouldn’t you know? Is just what I need to get past this ruined village — the only way up is a precarious cliffside with a handful of wooden beams sticking out.

This is how rope physics work!

The grappling hook feels like… sort of a mixed bag. Right off the bat, I can tell that the rope handling in Shadwen is not significantly improved from Tech Demo 3. The rope hooks to wooden structures, sure enough… assuming I’m within in the incredibly particular ‘your grappling hook can hit this target range’. But when it does hook, I then just… swing. Unwieldly. I think I’m supposed to Bionic Commando my way over, but when I inevitably lose momentum, I have no idea how to pick it back up. Save rewinding time, and trying the jump again.

I eventually figure out that rolling mousewheel up and down lengthens and shortens the rope. And when I shorten the rope until I reach the stop, Shadwen the Shadwen protagonist sometimes climbs up the bar or platform. If the grappling hook hit the right spot. If it didn’t, she’ll hang there, grumpily. And if it did… half of the time, she climbs up too rapidly, like an overeager equestrian mounting their first horse, and falls straight off the other side. There does not seem to be a way to stop this.

Swinging, though.

I do like that the time-stop effect comes into play while rope-ing around. Apparently time doesn’t so much ‘move while you move’; it ‘doesn’t move at all as long as you don’t press any action buttons’. I can freeze myself in midair, reorient the camera, and pick a new grappling target all I want. It helps.

Eventually, through trial and error, I reach the town above. Which… hey, is exactly the town little Nameless Girl snuck through earlier! I now get to navigate the space as Shadwen. With her grappling hook powers, the giant wooden banner poles that dot the place make a lot more ludonarrative sense — travelling around town unseen, ahoy!

Note that I can attach to the banner poles and only the banner poles. Even though the grappling hook promised to work on ‘wood’, the wooden boards making up the houses dotted everywhere are 100% grappling-hook-free.

The inhabitants sprung for optional Grappling Hook Proofing.

I struggle to get through town on the banner poles, floaty physics and dodgy rope lengths continually depositing me back on the ground. Then I realize that there aren’t any guards around right now. So I just walk to the chapel. Stealth, ahoy.

I only fall beneath the borders of the world *once*.

At the chapel, I find that ‘the passage to town is blocked by a guard bullying a little girl’. Ah! The cutscene from before, now in live action! The game suggests that I should ‘deal’ with this guard, ‘one way or another’: a red left mouse button suggestively pops up.

I sneak behind the guard, point my crosshair at the back of their head, and press the left mouse button. Shadwen grabs the guard’s head, yanks it backwards, and slashes their throat in a shower of blood and gore.

Haha, NICE!

‘Hey,’ the game says, ‘that little girl, Lily, just saw you brutally murder another human being. This might have consequences. Maybe you want to, I don’t know. Rewind time? And try again?’

Ugh, fine. I rewind time, and…

And then what? I have no idea how to solve this problem through not-murder. There’s nothing around that I can use, is there?

Very close by to the bullying scene, I see a scaffold with a few boxes and a barrel. Aha! Maybe I can roll down the barrel, and draw the guard’s attention! And then drop a box on their head. Conk ’em out, or something. Even if they die, that’s technically not ‘brutal murder’. And Lily doesn’t see me do it!

I roll the barrel. The guard is alerted. He mutters something about more beggars, and walks closer to investigate. I prime my box pushing arms…

The game smash-cuts to a cutscene. “Don’t worry,” Shadwen tells Lily, “I scared the guard off.”

I was *straight looking at the guard*. They were *five feet away*.

What? Bull fucking shit you did! The guard was right there! Alerted! Looking for you! No amount of scaring was taking place!

Okay, fuck it. I rewind time again, reposition myself, and run my sword through the guard’s stupid lungs. Lily can deal with this. World’s a harsh place, sometimes you get murdered for bullying an apple thief.

A different cutscene happens. It goes on for a while, so I’ll summarize you the details:

SHADWEN: You have seen me kill someone. I should kill you. But I don’t like killing children.

LILY: Oh but I won’t say anything.

SHADWEN: Girl, you’d sell me to the guards for an apple and a half. No, there’s only one solution. You have to come with me.

No, really. Shadwen the trained assassin is bringing Lily the somewhat-moderately-sneaky orphan girl along on her mission to assassinate a king. I’m sure this’ll turn out useful and not at all a bad idea.

See? It’s already paying off!

Door thusly opened, our heroes…

…wait. Hold on a minute.

I’m starting to realize something…

I’m a trained assassin. I’m carting along a little girl into a town full of trained guards. And somehow, only three minutes in, I’ve twice already found gates that can only be opened by two people at once. Not to mention a convenient collection of haystacks and kid-sized bushes… And I know that Lily ends up in the king’s chambers…

Oh, god. I’m about to embark on the world’s longest escort quest, aren’t I?

Onto page 2. >>

3 comments

  1. I am intensely disappointed that none of the jokes in this review were a reference to Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time”.

    1. I don’t know enough songs to risk being known as the guy who does a song thing. I’d run out of material in like, a *week*.

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