PAX Prime 2014 Day 2 Recap
Bioware – Shadow Realms
Going into the convention I honestly had no clue what Shadow Realms was. For reasons I can’t now explain I thought it was a top-down roguelike in the modern horror fantasy vein of The Secret World. Turns out its some sort of unholy mixture of genres and settings that few developers have put the work in to capture before. And boy is Bioware putting work in. This game is breaking more than one wall down in their quest to find an untapped niche in the online gaming market.
The general concept is as follows: a brawler action combat MMO in which you queue up with three other players to tackle a dungeon and earn loot. These missions tend to take you through real world settings as well as a Gothic fantasy parallel universe known as Embra. The wild part about it, at least if this gameplay feature survives the extensive beta its surely about to face, is that you can equip your hero up with a mixture of gear looted from both the fantasy world and real world. As a result you can end up looking like something out of a dark fantasy MMORPG, a militarized spec-ops gunman, or some sort of freaky variant of the two that would be fit in better with the viking rock metal scene than in an online horror game. With spellcasters walking around with a sidearm Uzi wearing a typical dress shirt and tie as the average character, Shadow Realms is likely to get some serious attention from gamers just off its visuals.
Seriously, these guys would fit right in.
But back to the gameplay, it likely doesn’t sound too ground breaking from what you’ve heard of before. So here’s the twist that will make you pay attention. The progression of this game is not a simple PvE affair, but rather a PvPvE. Nope not talking about the other 3 players stabbing you in the back at some point, but rather a system best described as an active dungeon master rolling into your dungeon to see to it that your failure is their progress.
Living the Dark Dreams of a DM
My first time touching the game involved this solo vs four experience. Rather than one of the fantasy realm walkers, you exist as a phantom. A super creepy Japanese horror level phantom that, for the better of your opponent’s sanity, is invisible to them during gameplay. You cannot take damage as a phantom and are free to stalk your opponents (hopefully taunting them for the sake of Twitch.tv at some point), while plotting their demise.
Said plotting involves possessing dungeon monsters, laying traps, tossing bombs, forming into a doppleganger of one of the heroes, powering up and summoning monsters, and likely much more as the game progresses. In our demo though you only began with a simple spike trap that would give players a quick warning when they stepped onto it before countless spikes impaled them, as well as the bomb trap which you could throw anywhere near your phantom, and watch explode and knock down any target too slow to get away from it. The possession skill is also available at any time, and takes some practice as each creature in the game has its own set of special abilities, attack styles, and health. There’s a lot of tactics involved with deciding if and when to unleash your possession skill, as you exchange your specter skills for the duration of the possession with the skills of the monster you inhabit, and if you choose to leave a lesser monster early, the creature is discarded, giving your foes one less opponent to have to worry about thanks to your poor judgment.
When (if) heroes manage to defeat all enemies in a zone and push forward to the safety zone, they will receive a full team revive, and extra revive kits used to help each other up when downed. The dungeon master on the other hand will continue unlocking more abilities, becoming a greater threat with each passing zone. Not only will it take a master mind ninja to succeed at the dungeon master, but also an experienced knowledge of the levels from multiple run throughs. Granted I set a record of annihilating the entire team of heroes in about 7 minutes flat.
The synergy is there for the dungeon master to truly wreak havoc if the team of four aren’t cautious. Even simple possessed minions are capable of combining and even knocking heroes back into a well placed trap the DM planted prior to possessing the mob. The doppleganger ability is particularly dangerous as prior to taking damage, the players see you as one of their allies, an illusion that can persist for some time as the levels are quite large and the confusion of battle can easily separate an unwary team. So was the case in my victory as I became a clone of the enemy’s sorceress who was being pinned down by two skeletal warriors with low hp in a corner. I managed to take her out with a swift fireball before catching up with the rest of her team.
The girl behind the keyboard seemed particularly perplexed by what happened, and said nothing, granting me the chance to bide my time and prepare for my big reveal. As soon as the Cleric spotted the downed and bleeding out sorcerer on the other side of the room, it was too late as a charged laser blew him apart. My associate attending the event, Scott, was fast enough on the draw to pin his assassin’s blade into my chest and push me into a wall long enough for the fourth member of the party, a warrior utilizing a massive sword, to put my doppleganger down.
Not wasting any time upon returning to my spec(tate)ter form, I immediately dropped a spike trap on my doppleganger’s corpse, cutting both attacks down to a sliver of hp. The Warrior panicked and rushed to try to revive the Cleric, but a swift bomb blast placed on the Cleric finished him off as well. With most of their revive kits wasted in the first couple of rooms, and now none left in inventory, Scott’s Assassin made a run for the check point to try to revive his team. All monsters in the room were down and I only had a single spike trap and single bomb left available, as these attacks cap out at three and have a long recovery time after use. I rushed past him to place a spike trap to the side of the staircase leading out of the room, and tossed a bomb trap at the base of the stairs just as he approached. He swiftly dodged to the left of the bomb, but nicked the corner of my spike trap in the process. Before his eyes could adjust following the role, the corner of the trap impaled him for the last of his health, bringing the match to an end.
Fight for your Right to Party
The experience on the hero end is quite different, and felt a bit like a third person vision of The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot, complete with perilous trap dodging, enemy slaying, and barrel smashing. It was an eerie experience to be sure, as I knew that haunting specter was likely breathing down the back of my neck waiting for his chance to strike. Taking up the mantle of the Cleric, I was a vital addition to the team as the primary healer and unleasher of CC related spells. I could life drain from a distance to devastate most weaker monsters and keep my hp high. I had an AoE skill that would root any foes in place, giving allies time to reposition out of many of the dead-ends the dungeon was filled with. My most devastating attack involved a fiery explosion that scorched everything around me in a sphere, but with the cost of an extremely long cooldown time to keep me from acting as too much of a dps class. The skill required a two second wind-up as well, meaning it was easily interrupted if too many foes were on my tail already, or if the specter was observant enough. My opponent was rather trigger happy when it came to tossing bombs my way while channeling the skill, forcing me to dodge out of its use more often than I got to actually utilize it.
As a method of forcing the healer into the fray rather than hanging back and cheesing the system with passive free heals, my ultimate ability was a powerful all party heal limited by an energy resource supply rather than a cooldown. With enough of the resource I could spam it to fully heal everyone, but to get it to that point, I had to kill quite a few monsters, often at the expense of some of my own life bar. Unfortunately I didn’t get a good look at the other class kits, but everyone seemed to have the same indicator in the middle of their hotkeys, so a similar function encourages active participation for everyone.
As our team struggled deeper into the Heretic Fortress, we ran into more minions and a few mini-bosses that brought the serious pain. One bull like demon could hit you with a running tackle that would drag you a good distance across the stage (and away from your teammates!) before their buddies pounded you into the ground. Traps seemed to be popping off endlessly towards the end as the DM’s resource pool grew and grew. Thankfully everyone is given a few self-heal items that can even be used while stunned as I often was taking damage faster than my life steal ability and party heal combined could keep me up. Then at last we reached the portal to the other realm of Embra for the final showdown.
There are few online games that you can refer to that carry the epic feel of the boss fight we faced. TERA comes to mind, though with the inclusion of a thinking reacting opponent on the other end, you never feel the same feeling of safety that comes from learning a boss’ pattern and prepping for it. Again Shadow Realms encouraged active head to head combat by spawning an infinite number of minions into the fray, allowing our opposing Shadow Lord all the possession opportunities he could want. The boss itself was plenty powerful and smart even without possession, and tended to chase us into corners in an attempt to knock us from the floating meteor we battled upon to kill us off with infinite fall damage.
With a little luck and a lot of teamwork we persevered to be the 14th team out of close to 40 press demos to overcome the Shadow Lord. In the final version this would lead to unlocking more story revolving around the secrets of the Shadow Realms, as well as granting players experience to unlock new abilities and change up their playstyle options.
Roadmap to Success
Unfortunately we have no idea about how prevalent paying for power or anything similar will be as the business model remains something still brewing in the kettle. Hard to believe a development studio in this day and age is actually thinking about gameplay before monetization, but then again with gameplay this engaging and fun its clear Bioware is well outside the box on multiple fronts of this game.
What we do know is they are envisioning the game as a sort of episodic progression of the overall story to be revealed to the community on a regular basis and perhaps be earned later on when reaching certain points in the game’s progression. This would be complete with plenty of cookies, hints, and items of speculation subtly hidden into the story telling vehicles to keep the community constantly guessing and engaged with the social media and forums. Perhaps these episodes will be paid? It seems the logical way to go about this sort of game’s development while maintaining a steady revenue stream.
Either way, the game is already incredibly polished for something in alpha and public sign-ups are even available now. There’s no reason to wait as from what I experienced, the gameplay is already almost entirely bug free and a pulse-pounding blast to test. If I gave awards out for PAX, Shadow Realms would be the clear winner of the Most Anticipated LAN Drinking Game as the sheer amount of trash talk potential between Shadow Lords and heroes in this one is not to be missed.
We now have new screenshots for Shadow Realms! Check out our game profile to see the latest from PAX.
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