Shadow Realms: BioWare’s brave multiplayer RPG, Preview

Shadow Realms is BioWare’s bold new game: a fantasy RPG set in the modern world that attempts to recreate D&D’s dungeon master player relationship in a fast paced multiplayer environment. It’s also a soap opera that will unfold over numerous episodes, like a berserk, fast moving Telltale series with romance, moral decisions and regular cliffhangers.

Earth is under assault from a mirror world called Embra that’s rich in magic but low on technology. Players flit between mundane modern existence and the monster plane, giving BioWare an opportunity to create anachronistic conflicts across both worlds. “You can imagine fighting in some classic fantasy areas the dungeon, the deep dark forest, the castle on the hill,” says studio general manager, Jeff Hickman. “You can also imagine fighting in the subways of New York or on the streets of Paris, or the tundra of Siberia. We have a cool opportunity here. Wizards with hand grenades is pretty cool.”

My wizard did not have a hand grenade, sadly, but he neatly captured the conflicted aesthetic BioWare is going for. He looked like a chiseled office worker with a wand tucked into his belt. This Hogwarts alumnus turned male model can teleport around the battlefield with his right click dodge, and toss spells with the number keys. Character abilities, equipment and appearance will be customizable, and the wizard is ultimately designed to become Shadow Realms’ Constantine, complete with flappy coat and grizzled chin.

Earth is under assault from Embra, a mirror world rich in magic but low on technology
Episodes are built around conversational narrative sections and dungeon runs that pit a four player squad of modern wizards, rogues and warriors against a games master figure called The Shadow Lord. This invisible, player controlled agitator flies around casting spells, placing traps and summoning creatures in an effort to troll the team to death. It’s Shadow Realms’ most important innovation. He won’t have the narrative control a DM would have in a tabletop RPG, but the impact he has on combat encounters is significant.

“Imagine you have an adventure area we call it a Realm and as players are playing through this thing, at its simplest form the Shadow Lord says there are two doors in a room: that one will open, that one will not,” says Hickman. “We can change the flow of this environment. That’s as far as we’ve got so far, toward that ultimate goal.”

The Shadow Lord graduated from an irritation to a real menace as we progressed through the three-stage dungeon. Like the heroes, he’s controlled from a close third person perspective, and his abilities are restricted by cooldowns. He summons bombs and spike traps to scatter the party dodge if you hear the metallic clink cue. If you see a monster surrounded by a dark aura then it’s under the Shadow Lord’s direct control, which means it’s stronger, tougher and (hopefully) smarter than its kin. The Shadow Lord can also pop out of a possessed form at will to cause mischief elsewhere.

There is plenty of room to use these abilities creatively. Drop a trap on a wizard after a few consecutive dodges and he’s unlikely to have the mana to escape. Our team rushed to rescue a downed enemy at the end of a fight, only to flee in the face of a sudden fire bomb. In the disarray the Shadow Lord used its scariest ability, and inhabited a summoned doppelganger of our rogue a jacketed woman dual wielding hand-scythes. We quickly took the clone down, but it provided a surprising impromptu mini boss fight at the end of an encounter we thought we’d ended.

The torch lit tomb we explored looked a little plain in its pre alpha form, but culminated in a challenging boss fight on a rocky arena hovering inside a swirling maelstrom of magic. There we fought a bat winged ogre boss, and eventually fell to hordes of undead summoned by the beast and the Shadow Lord. We didn't have a dedicated healing class so we had to rely on our limited supply of medpacks,

shared by the entire party. These were replenished at checkpoint monuments that need to be activated by all party members simultaneously. BioWare fans will enjoy the “gather your party before venturing forth” prompt you get for hitting a checkpoint ahead of your allies.

The Shadow Lord can pop out of a possessed form at will to cause mischief elsewhere
It’s an exciting proof of concept, and a rare attempt to bottle the magic of tabletop RPGs. There are sticking points, of course: what if your group gets lumped with a bad Shadow Lord? For RPG fans used to roleplaying a single hero, will there be incentives to pick up the Shadow Lord  role? As a victim of the Shadow Lord’s machinations, I hope his abilities evolve over the course of the campaign, and that he gets environment-specific ways to mess with the team. The unpredictability of 
the doppelganger summon turned an entertaining but forgettable battle into something special.

BioWare promises plenty of character customization and ability progression that will span Shadow Realms ’ episodes, but specifics regarding the story, and the Shadow Lord’s narrative role within it, are not yet settled. There is also a logistical issue with a long episodic campaign structure that makes it difficult for players’ experiences to diverge, which would be a key factor in making them feel that their decisions matter.

The team is grappling with these questions now, but has decided to release the combat alpha to the public far in advance of release. The Shadow Lord concept is fresh, and requires extensive testing to ensure no one in the encounter is having fun at everyone else’s expense a classic dilemma for tabletop games masters, too. I worry that RPG fans will be put off by regular multiplayer interludes in
a game that otherwise plays like a classic BioWare RPG, but the prospect of the studio taking on a modern fantasy setting should be enough to overcome this. It’s a great premise that The Secret World badly mishandled back in 2012. It’s time for BioWare to do it right.

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