Shadow Realms is the next RPG to come out of Star Wars: The Old Republic developer BioWare Austin. With Shadow Realms, BioWare hopes to recreate the tabletop RPG experience by pitting a group of four players against a fifth player playing as a ‘Shadowlord’ who essentially acts as the mission’s dungeon master.
Shadow Realms is an action RPG where you’ll be able to create your own character, select your gender, customize your appearance, and take part in all the typical BioWare RPG trappings, such as participating in conversations and making impactful choices, romance, betraying others and being betrayed yourself, etc. This story will also be doled out episodically, like a TV show, with the intention of making the story itself a social experience that is well suited to generating the sort of ‘water cooler talk’ that popular TV shows are known to create.
This story will mostly be delivered through the game’s singleplayer experience, meaning you’ll have your conversations and make important decisions outside of the game’s actual missions. This is a lesson learned from Star Wars: The Old Republic and other games that try to do story in a multiplayer environment, which often results in players skipping through cutscenes or ‘spacebarring’ as it’s called in SW:TOR. Basically, you’ll get to fully digest and enjoy the story of Shadow Realms without feeling rushed to skip things when playing with friends.
Once you’ve gone through all your story stuff and you’re ready to jump into the next mission, you’ll be matched up with four other players. Three on your team and one playing the Shadowlord (or you can choose to play as the Shadowlord). Each mission is an instanced dungeon romp where your goal is to make it to the end and defeat the boss all the while the person playing the Shadowlord does everything and anything they can to stop you. Shadowlords have a ton of tools at their disposal, too. They can determine the types of creatures that will be in the mission, possess any of these creatures at any time, lay traps, alter the available routes players can go down, and even create doppelgangers of your teammates to use against you.
Each of the game’s six classes (Warrior, Assassin, Wizard, Ranger, Cleric, and Warlock) as well as the Shadowlord all feature their own progression paths. You’ll level up, earn gear, unlock abilities, and spend talent points to customize your loadout for whatever goal or play style you’re looking for. If you want to be a massive single target DPS Assassin, you can do that. The same is true if you want to focus your Assassin on crowd control.
If you feel like your DPS Assassin is wasted on a group full of DPS but lacking CC, you can go ahead and switch to your crowd control focused Assassin loadout at the next checkpoint. Another interesting thing BioWare is doing with Shadow Realms is the fact that gear is mostly class agnostic. Assassins may start out dual wielding blades and light armor, but if you want to go ahead and be an Assassin with heavy armor and a two handed sword, you’re welcome to go that route as well.
For our demo matches, I did opt for the Assassin class since I tend to gravitate towards that style of play. Ability wise, your loadout will consist of four active abilities (three normal and one sort of ultimate ability) and a couple of passives. My Assassin came loaded out with a teleporting backstab, a fan of knives attack, and a piercing drill move that lunged me forward through enemies. Left click is your basic attack and right click is your dodge. Dodging uses up energy, so timing your dodges is important, and the lighter your armor, the more energy you’ll have for dodging. Being that I was wearing light armor, I couldn’t take many hits, so the name of the game was to sort of bob-and-weave through groups of enemies, striking quickly and flipping away from reprisal. It was chaotic, but incredibly fun. Typically, I would drill through a group of enemies (or large single target), backflip away, shoot out a fan of knives, and then teleport back onto my target and slash a couple of times before repeating the same sort of rotation. This made me incredibly slippery and hard for the enemy Shadowlord to deal with.
Not only did I have to be mindful of my positioning with regards to swarming enemies, but I also had to keep in mind that the enemy Shadowlord could be laying traps for me at any given moment. I had to be quick on my dodge button to escape a number of spike traps laid out for my team and eventually our Shadowlord was clever enough to lay fire bombs behind me, anticipating me dodging away from his spike trap only to have me land into similarly painful fire bombs.
If you do get hurt though, you’ll have a limited number of potions you can use to heal yourself, or if you’re downed, the team can use a pool of available Trauma Kits in order to bring you back to your feet if they can get to you in time.
My party managed to work our way to the demon king boss at the end and defeat him on our first try, but our Shadowlord learned from his mistakes on our second go around and sought to divide and conquer us once we again reached the final boss fight. Clever use of possession of the boss itself as well as doppelgangers of my own teammates forced us to separate from each other and leave us vulnerable to being downed while our teammates were unable to assist as they were dealing with their own problems. We played a couple of matches and while the map and enemies were the same, the experience varied with each match and there were many surprises to be had. It’s easy to see how the game could be a whole lot of fun with friends and the experience felt exceptionally polished for this early stage of development.
Speaking of development, BioWare is also taking a different approach to development of Shadow Realms. The studio intends to get the game into players’ hands as soon as possible (alpha kicks off within a month or so) and the team is eager to leverage this method to get feedback fast and early. Seeking to develop the game in tandem with its fans, we were told there’s no pride lost in being proven wrong about anything in the game. If players can prove something isn’t good enough or otherwise not working well, the team wants to hear it and make the necessary changes. The hope is that this process will result in a tighter and more compelling experience when the game officially launches late next year.