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Shadow Realms: Hands-on with Evil

Previews By Gareth Harmer on August 17, 2014

I am the Shadowlord, a malevolent entity from the dark world of Embra. Four human heroes have entered my lair, one of many Shadow Realms that cluster on my world and yours. With their newfound powers and magic, they think they can defeat me, that they can push back the Shadow Legion. But, with minions under my command and traps at my call, I will unleash brutal defeat upon them.

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I also have an ace in the hole – BioWare Design Director Gabe Amatangelo is giving me a few pointers while I play. The studio’s new IP pits four heroes against a single Shadowlord, with players filling the roles on both sides. Just as with classic tabletop RPGs, the idea is that people are unpredictable, and so every encounter or scenario will feel different. Even so, Amatangelo has several more reasons why he thinks players will keep returning to the nightmare.

From the first few moments of combat, Shadow Realms felt instantly familiar – a few years of active MMOs like Guild Wars 2 and WildStar have honed my muscle memory. There are tells and telegraphs to look for, although these are generally at the subtler end. Right-click dodge is already in, and double-tap (I’m told) is on the way. A limited action set of four abilities forces choices about how you want to play, but also means that the game is controller-ready. But the best bit is that the controls are almost identical whichever side you choose.

As slow-moving demons shamble into the room, I welcome the players by throwing a skull bomb into their huddle. A red circle appears on the ground – they have a few seconds to dodge – but it forces them to scatter into my minions. My incorporeal form is invisible to them as I prowl around like the bad guy in a dungeon crawler, but I’m relishing the role. I take possession of a nearby demon, my blue crown of power appearing over its head, alerting the players to my presence. My abilities also change – I can now cast fireballs, and start gleefully throwing them around the room.

The heroes respond quickly, obliterating my brief mortal host with a hail of attacks. Now that the room is clear of Shadow Legion, the barrier drops, allowing them to progress further. I quickly dash ahead, placing a spike trap just behind the doorway. The first one to move in triggers it, so I follow it up with a bomb while they’re impaled on the spikes. One of the players is now downed, requiring a precious Revive to get back up. The team of heroes only has two, so this early rush has cost them dearly.

While it doesn’t feel like a typical BioWare RPG, Shadow Realms will still have some of those classic studio elements. We’ll be able to create characters, choose their gender, appearance, and one of six classes, before bringing them into the modern-day fantasy setting. Creative Director James Ohlen also explained that there would be a “BioWare-quality story,” with cinematic storytelling that includes game-impacting choices. And, much like other RPGs, we’ll be able to level up and gain new abilities as we progress.

In another first for the studio, Shadow Realms will be delivered episodically, much like a TV series. Ohlen described how the story would unfold over time, running the gamut of flirtations, romances, consequences and betrayal. He added that the benefit of episodic releases is the community involvement in anticipating the new content and speculating where the story will go. And, if you get left behind, you’ll also be able to catch up without missing anything.

As the heroes progress further, they reach a checkpoint, gaining further revive tokens and unlocking extra abilities. I also gain a further one – in addition to my bomb and spike trap, I can now create a doppelganger of any hero. I instantly use it, going ham on a weakened hero with the abilities they have themselves. I can hear the commotion on the other side of the room as they try to work out what’s happened, and grin wickedly.

Both heroes and Shadowlords will have access to new abilities and equipment as they level up, unlocking them for use in an action set. Equipment will also have an impact  - battle axes, swords and sigils will all work in different ways. Amatangelo hopes that this will allow players to tune and experiment with classes, encouraging replayability through deep combat customization.

We enter another room, this time with pre-made traps that I just have to arm. I rush forward and do so, quickly taking out another hero. The demons in here are more numerous, with some toting heavy armor and greatswords. But then I spot the perfect weapon – a hulking Banewolf. Taking possession, I leap towards a hero, who instantly turns and flees up some stairs. I give chase, the stone bannister crumbling beneath the massive creature. I grin again as they realize they’ve reached a dead end, and charge forward to attack.

This time, the Shadow Legion won, but Amatangelo added that players would be rewarded whatever the outcome. It’s not clear what form that would take – Shadow Realms is in very early alpha at present – but it will likely take shape with input from fans. He stressed that transparency will be central to Shadow Realms’ development, referencing the “old-school days of BioWare.”  A business model hasn’t been decided yet either, but will likely involve input from the emerging community.

At this very early stage though, Shadow Realms is a fun, fresh experience that has a nice blend of new ideas and nostalgia notes. Powered by the Frostbite 3 engine, it’s already looking great and feeling slick, and early focus testing has clearly helped. It remains to be seen if the studio will hit the replayability it’s striving for, but the potential is definitely there. If you’re interested in taking a peek for yourself, alpha signups are open.

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