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Shadow Realms, the new BioWare RPG, has a lot of strong and unique ideas

Aug 25 // Brett Makedonski    @Donski3

How will they all come together?

Anytime you sit in on an early look at a new videogame, the presentation's sort of structured the same. Throughout the introduction to the title, the developers always -- always -- pepper the speech with catchy phrases about the approach that they wanted to take, their influences, and what they want to elicit from the players.

BioWare's showing of its newly announced Shadow Realms at gamescom 2014 fell right in line with these expectations. What makes it noteworthy is the sheer amount that the studio hopes to accomplish. After listening and talking to developers from BioWare at gamescom, it's evident that they have big ambitions for Shadow Realms. It's a title that aspires to do a lot of different things in a lot of different ways, and it's unclear right now how some of it will be executed. But, there appears to be solid framework to build around for now.

The initial pitch for Shadow Realms is a videogame adaption of pen and paper RPGs. The developers cited their love for an experience where you never know what's going to happen and is completely unique every time as the reasoning behind this. They're porting this sort of dynamic feel to Shadow Realms by letting a human mastermind the dangers that the team of heroes will have to face.

Teams of four will be pitted against one overpowered opponent called the Shadowlord. These four players (made up of Warrior, Wizard, Assassin, and Cleric classes) fight through arenas as the Shadowlord throws enemies, traps, and challenges at them -- much like a Dungeon Master would. The Shadowlord can also opt to join the fray himself by possessing one of the baddies; this is indicated to the team by casting a glow around that particular enemy, letting them know that it should probably be their main priority.

Throughout the course of battle, both sides get increasingly more powerful. Being god-like in nature, a well-played Shadowlord inherently has the advantage. To (somewhat) counter this, the team is given the ability to change their loadouts at checkpoints so that they can tailor their approach to combat. This also serves as a way for BioWare to let players play however they want. Cognizant of the tendency to get pigeonholed into traits of a particular class, the developers insisted that it's okay to play as a "uzi-toting Wizard."

We didn't have the chance to go hands-on with Shadow Realms, so it was tough to get a feel for how the action played out. The modern gothic setting looked interesting enough and the ordinary person character models were welcomed, but beyond that, we don't know how it controls. Of the people that did play in our demo, the Shadowlord was victorious. We asked a developer how this might bar off progress if the heroes are continually unable to beat a Shadowlord, and were cryptically told that "Even when you're defeated in Shadow Realms, you won't be upset."

That's where there's potential for the largest disconnect in the game. BioWare's touting that Shadow Realms will have a deep and unique story where players experience their own tales of humor, betrayal, and romance. It seems as if much of this will take place in an overworld setting, with players popping into battle to further the narrative. It's unclear if this will come off as seamlessly interwoven with combat leading to bigger plot points, or if the two will be disjointed.

For all of the unusual approaches that BioWare's taking with Shadow Realms, possibly the most drastic is that the game will be released episodically. Truthfully, it sounds as if the studio's are trying to capture some of Telltale's lightning. With all of the purported branching moral choices and cliffhangers that were said to be found throughout, BioWare seems focused on offering a new gameplay take on the style that Telltale recently popularized. The developers so much as stated that their intention is for players to have a "watercooler" mentality with Shadow Realms where they can't wait to talk to their friends about the game's most recent happenings. They also thought that some would "binge play" as if it were a show on Netflix to get caught up on the releases.

Something that BioWare wasn't too eager to talk about is their monetization plans for Shadow Realms. One developer expressed the studio's caution by simply saying "We want to be the good guys," as far as pricing models go. He offered that the game will initially be released with a lot of content, which will probably pave the way for smaller chunks. However, no one would give suggestions as to how long each episode will be or how often content will be released.

All-in-all, BioWare has a lot of strong individual ideas for Shadow Realms. The asynchronous multiplayer could be a hit for both sides -- the heroes motivated by teamwork and enhancing their character, the Shadowlord motivated by an obvious god-complex and some narrative elements unique to him. The modern fantasy setting is one that's not overdone and could offer something beyond the tropes that define the genre. And, the episodic release model could do wonders for the plot of an RPG. But, we'll have to wait until 2015 to see if BioWare can make all of these strong ideas gel into a cohesive experience.


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Brett Makedonski // Associate Editor
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