Last week I did a quick hands-on preview of The Shadow Sun, expressing enthusiasm with very few reservations. Now that the game is released, and I’m free to discuss it, my feelings are … the same. This is the first original RPG on the App Store that isn’t a port or a pale imitation, and it is actually worth playing.
Type of app: Action Role-Playing Game (RPG)
Platform/where to buy: iPad/iPhone; available in the iTunes App Store
Developer: Ossian Studios
HOURS OF ADVENTURE
• A 10-15 hour adventure
• Explore over 70 unique areas and uncover 200+ unique items, hidden secrets, and ancient treasures. A handy journal tracks your quests and a detailed codex notes new characters, places, and creatures you encounter.
• An original orchestral soundtrack and amazing soundscape will immerse you into this dark fantasy world.
• Create your own character and customize their attributes and appearance.
• Choose from among 30 attacks, spells, and skills
• Solve quests in multiple ways
• Ally with one of four companions to adventure alongside you
• Graphics scale with device
• Words on all iPads, iPhone 3GS or above, iPod Touch 3 or newer
Since I have been writing about The Shadow Sun since 2010 and Ossian has been pretty tight with details, I have gotten loads of questions – especially since last week! So I figured that the best way to review the game was to step through the areas that I know people are interested in understanding.
First off, it is worth noting that The Shadow Sun offers in-app purchases, but they are neither required nor necessary for the completion of the game.
You can buy a hint book, or ‘starter packs’ for a Mage, Warrior or Rogue. The hint guide is a complete walkthrough and hint guide, as well as a Ring of Knowledge which speeds up level gains by boosting experience gained by 5%.
The starter packs include a special quest and some items that are helpful at the early part of the game. For example, the Mage pack contains a wand, robe and a stone that replenishes your mana, as well as a Mage-specific quest. The Rogue pack gives you the opportunity to play games of chance, and the Warrior pack rewards completion of the quest with powerful vampiric weapons.
When you start the game, you need to create a character. You can choose from a preset character or create your own. The preset characters run the expected mage / warrior / rogue archetypes, as well as an ‘all-around’ build and an archer. The characters are mixed between male and female, which doesn’t matter as there are no gender bonuses.
Whether or not you want to use the pre-created characters, it is worth looking at how Ossian chose to create and configure them to learn what matters in the game.
When you create a character you first choose gender and some appearance traits, then allocate points in various attributes such as Strength, Dexterity and Intelligence. The game provides contextual help for all of the choices in terms of what attributes matter for which character types.
You also get a pool of points for skills, which will greatly impact your effectiveness in playing a character in the game. Each skill has three levels and certain requirements, with the first level available without prerequisite. For example, Open Lock skill level 2 requires a Dexterity of 6. Most skills also require a minimum character level.
The Skills are separated into five areas – weapons, attack, magic, rogue and general. In the weapons area you can choose long and short blades, armor, shield and ranged weapons. Attack gives you devastating melee and ranged attack options. Magic allows you to command the elements and erect a protective barrier. Rogue skills allow you to access hidden and locked areas and to remove traps. General skills can boost your health or mana, award you more experience or dialogue options.
From there you name your character and off you go!
Level Up / Advancement
As noted you get a pool of points to allocate when you create your character. You also get points at each new level to spend on attributes and skills. There is no time at which you MUST level up (unlike on the ship in Knights of the Old Republic where first level-up is mandated), so you can choose to level-up mid-dungeon if you want, or you can strategically plan your levels and save points. One reason for this would be as a Mage to only spend a point on dexterity when you are able to get to the second level of Open Lock.
The most important point about character advancement is – it matters. When you put a point into Strength, or take your Fire skill to the next level, you will see an immediate difference. The game places locked doors and chests and difficult traps around that will become increasingly difficult – and it will give you a reason to return to certain locations.
The spacing of levels in the game just felt ‘right’ to me. I know that is a non-specific statement, but whereas in Knights of the Old Republic you tend to gain levels too quickly and many times in Gothic II I was desperately waiting for the next level to gain more learning points for skills, I found that new levels came regularly and provided an immediate benefit as I progressed.
Oh, and one other thing: in the video you will see my character get killed. There are a few things at play – I left my companion in the hallway (blocked), but I also didn’t level up before what is a rather challenging battle for a level 1 character. More importantly, the game will allow you to build a terrible character that is utterly useless and dies frequently. I had fun doing that with characters with warrior skills but no strength or endurance. It is easy to make excellent characters, but like most RPG fans I appreciate the flexibility that allows you to fail.
Gameplay / Combat System
The Shadow Sun is an action-RPG, but is also story-based. This has several ramifications, so let’s break them down.
As a story-based RPG, you have some freedom of action and plot progression. Once you complete the introduction and leave your hub, you get sent to the overworld map of the city and can choose your course of action. You will initially find your travel somewhat restricted in some places as you have a primary quest, but soon enough you will have the run of the city – and then beyond the city!
The story itself consists of a main quest and side-quests. The main quest is somewhat linear, but you can largely complete it however you want. The side-quests are entirely optional but add tremendous amounts of fun and depth to the game. Exploring is definitely rewarded – but then anyone who has played an Ossian game before knows this!
The combat system is a 3rd person real-time action RPG, but there are key time elements underlying the entire system. For example, if you just stand there and let an enemy attack you will see that their actions require them to have a cool-down before the next attack. Similarly, when you cast spells or use a combat skill, you will need to wait before using that same skill again. And when you run out of endurance / mana you will need to replenish it before using another skill.
I love the combat system in The Shadow Sun – you get the visceral feel of action combat, you lose the fidgety feel of aiming on the iPad, and you get the tactical feel of having to plan your attacks based on mana supply and cool-downs.
You also have limited control of your companion – you can put them into attack or support mode, which will alter how they position themselves and what they focus on during combat. On the subject of companions, you get multiple options to choose from after certain points in the story, and will always have someone who is a complement to your chosen character type.
Controls, Interface & Graphics
Controlling any 3rd person action game works pretty much the same way – left stick for movement and right side for camera control. Instead of a right stick, you use the right side of the screen. You can use both sides simultaneously to look around as you move, but since you do not need to aim at your target – the game auto-targets or you can tap to attack a specific enemy – the precision of the camera is less critical than in a FPS game.
The Shadow Sun has a broad set of on-screen controls, but adopted a smart auto-hide system. When you are exploring the world, you don’t need to see your combat options or quick-use items, so those item bars are hidden. You can still tap a small tab to pop them out, useful for healing or using an item outside of combat. Once you are in combat mode the menu bars automatically pop onto the screen. It is one of those seemingly simple things that quickly becomes essential to how you play the game.
The one concern I expressed in my preview – and with Ossian — was that the graphics were decidedly NOT cutting edge. I saw opinions in threads on a few sites after the official trailer launched that were … um, harsh. Personally I would put the graphics of The Shadow Sun on par with Neverwinter Nights 2 or a similar game – not on par with the Infinity Blade games, for example, but then again those games are lacking pretty much all of the RPG elements of The Shadow Sun.
That said, I have absolutely no problem with the graphics of The Shadow Sun. Characters are well done, as are items. You will never have an issue seeing what is going on or who you are dealing with. I would use a game like NWN2 as a benchmark to set your expectations.
Role Playing & Replayability
Playing the game as Warrior, Mage and Rogue, and choosing different companions for the entire time provides a significantly different game experience. I have now replayed the game several times, totally completing multiple times as a mage, a couple of times as a warrior and once as a rogue, with smaller sections replayer even more as I checked things out.
And I have yet to get bored. I am not saying that this is one of those massive Skyrim experiences where you can get lost for months playing – but it IS a game that will sit on my iPad for the next several months and I will replay on occasion to scratch that RPG itch in a way nothing before on the iPad has managed.
A big part of this is the OTHER stuff you do aside from the main quest. There are tons of side quests available, some as ‘kill the rats’ type things, others are multi-stage tasks that will not be clear at the start, still others will force a seemingly obvious choice upon you that you will later feel the consequences from and perhaps wish you had explored different options. There are even some that force you to really work to see all of the different possibilities.
And while there isn’t a ‘light side / dark side’ quest path, the game sets up plenty of room for you to chart your own moral path through the quests, and your companions will agree with some choices and vocally oppose others. And speaking of companions, they are not mindless henchmen, but instead have their own thoughts and opinions and side-quests to explore.
When The Shadow Sun was announced it was a light in the eyes of iOS gamers – a REAL RPG being made just for US! Now more than three years later, has that light dimmed? Not really, surprisingly enough. We have gotten a couple of excellent Spiderweb ports (Avernum, Avadon), the open world Elder Scrolls clone Aralon and Shadowsword games which are a bit too RPG-lite, and the port of Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition (with BG2 coming soon).
And … not much else, really. There have been some really good games released for the iPad, but very few that have been remotely satisfying for the RPG fanatic. So let me be clear – The Shadow Sun is NOT an 80-hour game, it will NOT cause you to uninstall Gothic or Dragon Age, it will NOT result in people buying an iPad JUST to play the game. However – if you are an RPG fan and have an iPad, you will not be wasting your money buying this game.
The Shadow Sun has been a long time coming … but after playing it I am confident in saying it was worth the wait.
Would use again/recommend?: Definitely! I thoroughly enjoyed the story, setting, characters, combat system, and the breadth of quests available. The game cost as well as the extra few dollars on in-app items keeps the maximum amount under $15, which is a very reasonable price for this amount of quality gaming.
Suggested changes/wish list for updates: Nothing
Source: Publisher provided review code, In App items were personal purchases
Price: $9.99 download (on sale for $7.99 through December 28th)
Here is my hands-on review: