As with Tim’s Iron Fish preview from the other week, the portion of Shadwen I’ve been playing is a very brief, very early one. In fact it may even have one-upped Iron Fish there by labelled itself as PRE-Alpha.
Luckily that doesn’t just mean “sketches Frozenbyte have made during some phone calls”. It can be run through in minutes (if you’re hurrying), but this Shadwen build is a pretty tight, technical proof of concept. The sort of short level developers might put together for impatient journalists to play at a trade event.
Best known for the gorgeous, puzzle-platforming Trine series (which was going marvellously until financial problems meant Trine 3 had to be put out in truncated form), Frozenbyte are now giving stealth a go with Shadwen.
Mechanically, Shadwen shares plenty in common with others at the more stringent end of the genre. Being heard or spotted by a guard will grab his attention (denoted by a white outline for suspicion, a red one for “you’re screwed”), and remaining in view for any extended period of time will result in game over.
If that happens, it’s time to rewind. And I don’t mean that figuratively.
Shadwen is going to get a lot of comparisons to SUPERHOT, for the fairly straightforward reason that it uses the very same “time only moves when you do” concept as that title. Whether this game was ‘inspired’ by the SUPERHOT tech demo or developed in complete independence, I don’t know. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The end result will be two games with this clever premise; one an FPS, and one a third-person stealth title.
In this particular pre-alpha build, a quick rewind will pull you out of the game over state and back to a point where you can form a different plan of approach.
Being able to effectively pause time (simply by not moving) allows for a lot more precision in your actions. Prior stealth games like Thief: The Dark Project or something more recent like Styx have always let you assess your choices while lurking in a dark corner or on an overhead rafter. But Shadwen lets you do this whenever you please, merely by releasing control (and, if needed, intentionally let time pass with the Q button).
It wasn’t much in evidence in this straightforward, early demo, but the potential is there for setting up rooms full of dense, overlapping patrol routes that would be overwhelming to tackle in real-time, but a viable challenge when you control the passage of time. Even in this brief build it was possible to pull off some skin-of-the-teeth maneuvers, replicating some sort of medieval Nordic version of The Matrix.
An important component of your assassin kit is a permanent rope-grapple device, which can attach to pretty much wooden strut or column you can find. With this, it’s possible to reel yourself up to high beams or, indeed, miscalculate the slack on the rope and accidentally leave yourself dangling in the middle of a room full of guards. Embarrassing, but easily rectified with a quick rewind.
Using the same technique, it’s possible to pull boxes across the floor (or down, from storage racks). Useful for making a distracting noise, and useful for dropping on top of people.
Boxes can also be pushed by hand to fashion some quick, make-shift cover. As long as nobody is in ear-shot to hear the rather suspicious sound of a box being adopted as an assassin’s impromptu hiding spot, that is. And even that could be used to your advantage.
Shadwen’s plot involves a chance encounter with a child (Lily), who winds up following you in your overall quest to give a mystery King a damn fine stabbing. The implication here is that Lily will act as your moral compass, possibly making you think twice before murdering an entire estate full of soldiers. With time manipulation at your command, all the tools will be there for a stealth master to make it through without ever harming anybody (even with a stray box); the question is whether you’ll answer that challenge.
If you’re worried that Lily’s presence sounds like the ominous prelude to a gigantic escort quest, I don’t think that needs to be a concern. The crux of this pre-alpha demo was opening a shortcut door that would allow your small companion to circumnavigate everything the player just went through. That’s hopefully a trend which Frozenbyte intend to continue throughout the game.
Making any sort of final critique of such a small demo would be fairly pointless, but it can be said that Shadwen’s pre-alpha build achieves its intent in conveying the premise and early functionality of the title. As with SUPERHOT and its recontextualisation of familiar FPS actions, the concept of having such precise, tactical control over your moment-to-moment actions opens the stealth genre up to some interesting possibilities. The main hook is in place. Level design, expanded gadgetry, the handling of fail states, and (ideally) a decent narrative are what will further define Shadwen’s chances of success.