A few hours in
Did I embark on the world’s longest escort quest? The answer is yes and no.
I played a little bit more of Shadwen. Not overmuch: eight or ten of the (relatively long and multi-segmented) ‘levels’. I’ll tell you right now that the game didn’t quite grab my heart from the start. That doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting game (or I wouldn’t be writing this review), but keep in mind that I’ve seen at most 50% of it. If I say things later that you True Shadwen Fans in the audience know to be wrong, there’s your explanation.
‘Jarenth, that’s a pretty accurate percentage you’re throwing out there.’ Yeah, it is, isn’t it? There’s a reason for that.
The thing about Shadwen is that, on the previous page, I gave you the tutorial base of it. 3D over-the-shoulder movement, grappling onto pre-ordained structures, moving through the city with visual stealth and audio guile, ‘to kill or not to kill’, wonky-ass rope physics.
But fairly early on, Shadwen uses that base set of systems to do a pretty interesting thing: it more or less evolves into two different games.
I’m going to use the words ‘moral choice system’ here, and you’re probably going to groan. The bane of our ‘meaningful choice’ existence, am I right? Moral choice systems are renowned, deservedly, for boiling down the various complex of human interaction to a simple Good/Evil choice. With associated subtle forcing you to stick to a certain path — looking at you, Infamous.
Shadwen‘s moral choice system is refreshingly down-to-earth in that respect, in that it only ever boils down to a single question: do you kill? There are many guards in the castle, and associated area, and you need to get yourself and Lily past them all. You can do this with murder. You can do this with not-murder. In that light, I’m pretty okay calling those two extremes ‘good’ and ‘evil’ — or at the very least ‘neutral‘ and ‘evil’, given that you’re still essentially abducting an orphan girl to help you murder a king. But, you know. Degrees.
It’s entirely possible to mix the two gameplay styles up, of course, and only occasionally murder. In practice, I find that kind of thing is rare, though. Many people pick one path at the outset and stick to it. And from that choice are borne the two games that Shadwen can become: The One Where You Kill Folx, and The One Where You Don’t Kill Folx.
If you play the peacenik route, you control the character that I will henceforth refer to as RadWen. RadWen doesn’t kill, because RadWen doesn’t need to kill. She’s too good for bad.
If you play RadWen, then Shadwen-the-game becomes a combination puzzle-escort quest. There’s Lily to consider, see. Narratively, you’re bringing her along for reasons I can’t pretend to remember; mechanically, she opens doors for you. Now, Lily’s pretty smart: she knows better than to get caught out by guards, knowing what’ll happen if she’s seen. So Lily hides.
In RadWen-mode, Lily is your primary game objective. Lily is smart enough to hide from guards, by ducking into nearby hay piles or bushes. Lily is also smart enough to ‘know’ the way to the nearest two-person exit door. So what Lily does, when left to her own devices, is try to make her way to the exit door, one hiding place at a time. Technically, you can direct her in this, pointing at different hiding spots and pressing T to command her. But Lily also has sort of an internal pathing logic going on, wherein she’ll try to move from one hiding spot to another, better one — decided on by herself. Usually cleverly so, although I’ve had her stubbornly walk backwards once or twice. And she only moves, of course, if she can find and move in a path that has no guard coverage. So if there’s a guard overlooking the staircase she needs to climb up, she’ll stay put. But if someone of something were to distract that guard…
In this mode, you’re fifty percent watchmaker, fifty percent agent of chaos. Your job is to distract the guards in just the right way to allow Lily — and yourself — to make it to next double door / checkpoint. This can mean knocking over bottles or pushing boxes to make noise, using your grappling hook to pull down high objects, ‘breaking’ objects with your knife, or even briefly letting yourself get spotted before ducking back into cover. Lily will make use of any openings you create. Assuming they’re actually as good as you think: if Lily makes it halfway to a next checkpoint, but then suddenly a guard turns around…
Now, I’ll be honest: I haven’t played much of this mode. The way Shadwen‘s save system works, you can ‘redo’ earlier levels, but what you do has no bearing on the story you’ve unlocked so far. At the end of every level, you get a little story beat, which — I think — is coloured by Lily’s perception of you. I was a total jerk, so all my story beats were her going ‘you’re an evil monster’ and me going ‘yeah, more or less’. Even when revisiting these levels in pacifist mode later, this doesn’t change. You can select a new save slot to play a different story… if you’re willing to go through the whole tutorial again.
What little I played of RadWen, it looked like the nonlethal gameplay was a pretty neat idea, that only sometimes totally goes to shit. The game is pretty good at making you feel like an underequipped knife-wielding Batman: perched high on the wooden beams that stud this entire place, you careful plan out the misdirections that will let your partner in crime move about unseen. A rolled barrel here, a thrown box there… carefully step out of the bushes, drawing the guard’s attention, then step back in and lose his sight forever. And then…
Oh, wait. The guards turned around because the noise source wasn’t quite as relative to their position as you thought. Now there are four guards crowding around the hay pile you and Lily are hiding in and they’re not going away soon. Hope you like sitting still! Either to let them return to their previous position, or because you’re rewinding time.
Levels are generally set up with a bunch of ‘obvious’ distraction opportunities, like raised boxes or barrels ready to roll. When you try all this and it fails, it can start to feel like there’s no non-murderous way out. Still, the system is both robust and wonky enough to give you plenty play room. I’ve mentioned twice before that you can very briefly be seen before the game counts you as actually spotted — which is still and forever an instant game-over-better-rewind. And by incrementally shoving boxes around, you can make a lot of passage happen.
But, again: limited exposure. If all goes well, I might be able to give you some more in-depth insight on RadWen mode later down the line.
I, however, played a different game. On the other side of the coin from pacifist RadWen, is a Shadwen who thinks that murder is a totally acceptable method of problem resolution. If those guys didn’t want to get stabbed, they shouldn’t have signed up for guard duty, am I right? The Shadwen that embraces her inner maniac I call BadWen, and her, I have the most experience with.
And if you go BadWen, Shadwen-the-game is no longer a careful sneaky misdirection puzzle, but a hilarious murder engine. Nominally, you still want to get Lily to the Arbitrary Progress Barriers. In practice, though, she is quickly forgotten, a mechanical afterthought that occasionally shows up as a distant white outline. Your real mission in every segment, should you choose to accept it, is to kill everything that could ever spot you.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. BadWen can’t take a guard in a straight fight; not necessarily because she can’t, but because once any guard raises the alarm — say, by shouting loudly for help, announcing your position to everyone in three miles — it’s game over. Instead, you rely on backstabs, unexpected attacks, and the occasional bit of mechanical help.
The honorable backstab is, of course, a classic. *Shunk*, *rip*, dead. Makes some noise, and obviously you can only do it on solitary guards; I’ve found that almost every level has a segment that starts with one of those, just in case you feel like having a laugh. You can also take out solitary guards with a high jump attack, landing on their unexpected helmets dagger-first.
Then there are boxes and barrels. Did you know dropping a heavy barrel on someone’s head kills that person? Shadwen knows. Or, at least, Shadwen works that way. Unlike some other games I could name (*cough* Dishonored *cough*) Shadwen has no ‘non-lethal takedowns’, or anything like that. If you want to get by without killing, you better flex your stealth muscle. But inversely, if you want to be a maniac, go ahead and drop that box on their head! They’re totally dead!
And then there are the items.
Remember the crafting system from the tutorial? That’s still here. Throughout the levels, Shadwen can find more picture-perfect chests. These chests often contain a selection of ‘crafting materials’: more arrowheads and belts, poison, gunpowder, live mice. And sometimes they’ll contain schematics, too. You can learn to make such cool things as a proximity mine, or a larger proximity mine, or a laser poison dart tripwire, or a sticky bomb. Or a noisemaker.
The crafting system is… weird. Weird, and out of place. In neither gameplay mode, it feels natural to stop what you’re doing and explore the level for hidden chests. And the chests are hidden, to various degrees: most of them are really easy to miss. They’re somewhat easier to get as BadWen, as exploring a level fully is easy when everyone who could spot you is dead. This probably also explains why most of the toys you find are geared towards mayhem: they’re made for the Shadwen timeline that leaves none alive.
I can’t quite get a grip on how I’m intended to use these items. It’s hard to judge how rare they’re supposed to be, and when I’m supposed to want to employ them. On every large group? When I hit a chokepoint? Right after I find a big chest? Whenever I feel like it? I don’t want to run into the supposed-to-mine group of soldiers and find out I’ve run out of bloody mines. There are better ways this system could have been implemented, I think.
Still, as a system in and by itself, it has some merit. It engenders creativity beyond the default ‘throw a box, wait for enemies to walk away, try to backstab, rewind if failure’. You can place mines on patrol routes, then wait for the noise to draw another guard. You can sneak up to a group and place a mine closely. Or — in one situation, I attached a timed sticky bomb to a high box. Then I cut the rope holding up the box, causing it to fall down. The noise attracted all three nearby guards to come take a look — at which point the hidden bomb exploded, killing them all.
Being BadWen is fun. At least in the early levels. Lily totally forgotten, you just gleefully murder your way through each and every level: identifying lone guards and groups, formulating strategies for scattering them, them taking them out. And as new enemies are introduced, the game makes a token effort at keeping itself from going stale. It doesn’t quite work. The enemies are still relatively same-y, and the re-use of environment and art assets becomes noticeable quickly. Although I do like the slowly deepening darkness as the levels progress.
Eventually, I think, this is what caused Shadwen to not-grip me. Or to lose me, bit by bit. Both gameplay modes are fun: RadWen is a clever puzzle, and BadWen is a hilarious murder fantasy. Both gameplay modes have their strengths and their weaknesses. Both gameplay modes appeal for a different reason, if and when they appeal. But both gameplay modes take place in this… rather dull, generic-feeling Medieval England fantasy world. It’s all brown and grey houses, brown and grey tombs, brown and grey tunnels, with a slowly deepening blue filter and the occasional splotch of orange light. Almost all enemies look the same, all hiding places look the same, the chests look the same, the doors look the same…
Shadwen is not a super interesting world to inhabit, is I guess what I’m saying. It doesn’t necessarily need to be, if the gameplay is fun enough. It wasn’t for me: after a while, even the coolest leap-attack guard-murder lost its appeal. But that might just be me; I don’t deal with repetition well. Or with strange, crowbarred-in crafting mechanics. Or with ludonarrative dissonance like Lily standing out in the open and not getting spotted. Or with exceptionally dodgy rope physics, which feel like a barely-controlled tempest in the making at the best of times.
If the gameplay is decent-going-on-sour, and the world looks like a B- Unity Asset Store project, the story could have been what clinched Shadwen for me. You can probably tell it isn’t, though. There… really isn’t much of a story? Shadwen attempts to go for slow-reveal mysterious world-building, which is a dicey proposition at the best of times. Lily and Shadwen only talk during intermission loading screens. And eight missions in, I still don’t know anything about either: who Shadwen is, why she’s killing the king, who Lily is, why she was daring to steal apples from the chapel…
Intermittent world-building is instead provided by talking guards. I’ll admit, I have a bit of a soft spot for this. Of all this game’s storytelling, this is probably the part that landed best for me. Shadwen tries quite hard to humanize its guards, by having them tell little stories to each other. Sometimes about how much they hate the poor. Sometimes about how they just want to get back to their family. Sometimes about whether or not the person they have a crush on likes them back. You know: clever little ways to convey the idea that ‘these are people and you should feel bad killing them‘. And most often, they’ll talk about the game’s meta-plot: an evil king, a burned forest, and ‘dark spirits’. Which are conveniently blamed whenever the guards can’t work out why that hay pile rustled, or why that barrel suddenly rolled off the roof. ‘Must’a been the dark spirits what done it’.
No conclusive evidence right now on whether or not the guards also blame the dark spirits for all the daggers through their backs, but I’ll get back to you on that?
Final thought: why the fuck doesn’t Lily just bail?
Shadwen occasionally comes up with new mechanical contrivances for why Shadwen would want to keep Lily around. You’ve already seen the double-lever doors, but there are also doors only Shadwen can open, and doors only Lily can go through, before throwing a lever and letting Shadwen in…
But when I’m BadWen, I’m essentially kidnapping Lily under threat (and implied later promise) of murder. Why the hell doesn’t she try running off at the earliest opportunity? I get that she doesn’t bail immediately: I promised her vengeance and she knows I can see her outline. But she just now walked through a door I can’t possibly follow. Just stay there until Shadwen gives up and leaves! She’s got better things to do than wait you out!
Anyway. This is the sort of thing that tends to snap my immersion in a game if that immersion is already relatively fragile. It was in Shadwen. Mechanically, the game is honestly pretty interesting: the moral choice idea is as well-implemented as these ideas are ever likely to get, and I really like that the divergent gameplay modes feel meaningfully different. I’d have liked a better mechanical implementation of the rope, and some more thought into the role of the crafting system. But overall, the gameplay works fine enough. It’s just that it exists in a dull, repetitive world, host to a story that’s only marginally interesting when told as worldbuilding fluff. The puzzles and the murders were enough to keep me going for an initial stretch; but when that stretch ran out, I found that Shadwen hadn’t built enough immersion and goodwill to replace it.
Maybe it will for you? Like I said, I don’t do repetition well. If your immersion can stand up to more strain, or if either gameplay type sounds like more fun to you than it did to me, Shadwen might be right up your alley. Mechanically, I wouldn’t know of many games that do what it does in the way that it tries to do — that alone could justify taking a look. It’s available on your choice of retailers for about €17.
Jarenth enjoyed the time-frozen jump-murders a lot longer than he expected. But alas, all good things must come to an end. Find more good things on Jarenth’s Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?