PAX Prime 2014: Shadow Realms Could Be Bioware’s Most Engrossing Game

With Dragon Age: Inquisition close at hand and a new Mass Effect game on the horizon, it’s a good time to be a Bioware fan. Yet despite the promise of new games in these popular franchises, the most exciting thing that’s been announced this year is Shadow Realms, a brand new IP from Bioware Austin (the team behind Star Wars: The Old Republic). It’s been nearly five years since the company has worked outside of their established brands, but history shows they thrive when exploring new territory. In many ways, Shadow Realms seems like the biggest departure the company has ever made from their comfort zone.

Bioware’s writers and designers love them some genre fiction. Since their inception, all of their games have fallen into one of two camps: High Fantasy or Science Fiction. Even outliers like Jade Empire and Sonic Chronicles merely take those genre tropes into slightly different settings. For a company founded by nerds of the 80s, this makes sense – after all, Star Wars and D&D were cultural touchstones for that generation. But genre fiction has changed. Recent years have seen the rise of Contemporary Fantasy – stories like Harry Potter and American Gods that inject supernatural elements into a modern setting. Games have started to explore the genre too, with titles like The Longest Journey and Fate/Stay Night. Now Bioware is taking its own stab at the genre.

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Embra is a magical world that exists parallel to our own, ruled over by the Radiant Empires. For centuries Embra has been under attack by the Shadowlords, malignant wraiths who command armies of monsters and demons. As a human who’s recently awakened to their own magical potential and been thrust into their war, you and three companions are tasked with fighting these evil creatures. What makes this different from other Bioware games is that your companions, not to mention the Shadowlord, are all controlled by other players.

4v1 multiplayer is on everyone’s minds these days, with Evolve stealing the spotlight at every event where it’s been shown (even PAX). It’s tempting to lump Shadow Realms in with Turtle Rock’s upcoming FPS behemoth, but they’re very different games. In Shadow Realms, the opposing player more takes on the role of a Dungeon Master, as opposed to the boss monster at the core of Evolve. Though the Shadowlord can possess monsters to fight heroes head-on, it can do more damage by laying traps and running interference as they try to fight.

For the players’ parts, combat feels a lot like Dark Souls, with a heavy emphasis placed on carefully-timed attacks and precise dodge-rolls. Each class – there 6, up to 4 of which can be brought into any given mission – has its own abilities and play-style. Some do battle with blades, others magic, and others summon minions to fight for them while attacking from a distance. Unlike in Bioware’s other fantasy games, where success or failure is governed largely by statistics, here you’ll live or die on your skills and reflexes.

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Outside of missions, Shadow Realms is a strictly single-player affair. You won’t have to walk around with companions and vote on dialogue choices like in SWTOR. The game tells a fairly traditional Bioware story full of intrigue, moral conundrums, sex, and betrayal. The difference lies in how the story is told: Shadow Realms will deliver its narrative episodically, with new content released on a regular basis. Bioware likens this delivery to keeping up with your favourite tv show, and reasons that the water-cooler and forum conversations you’ll have with your friends as the story progresses will make for a more social experience.

Between versus multiplayer, episodic storytelling and a contemporary setting, Bioware is trying out a lot of things they’ve never done before with Shadow Realms. Indeed, no one has ever attempted anything quite like this. It’s exciting to see a big developer try something so new, but it’s also a little worrying. I’ve talked before about how episodic stories are inherently different from contiguous ones, and it remains to be seen if Bioware’s writers will be able to make that leap. There’s also the question of multiplayer balance. It may be that I just suck at playing the Shadowlord, but it seems right now that heroes have a distinct advantage. Asymmetrical balance is tricky, and at the moment Shadow Realms can’t really compare to the fine-tuning of Evolve. If Bioware can pull this off, though, it could be the studio’s most unique and engrossing game to date.