"Thus far, The Shadow Sun is proving to be a solid iOS RPG."
First announced in 2010, Ossian Studios' latest iOS RPG, The Shadow Sun, has been three years in the making. The wait is almost over and the game will finally hit the App Store before Christmas this year. An exclusive iOS RPG (meaning it isn't a port of a PC or console title), The Shadow Sun promises a unique RPG experience with its distinctive setting and the pedigree of its development team (some of whom worked on Baldur's Gate and the Neverwinter Nights games).
This single-player game is a western-styled RPG that takes place in the desert kingdom of Shar. Shar takes inspiration from Middle Eastern fort-cities during the old spice trade era, but with elements of fantasy such as magic and original fauna, like the short-trunked elephants favored as beasts of burden over camels. As expected, things are never what they seem in this mysterious and secretive land that keeps everyone, locals and foreigners alike, vigilantly on their toes.
Players create their avatar of a soldier from the North accompanying his/her partner and an emissary on a mission to speak with Shar's leaders about the outbreak of a dangerous plague that's turning ordinary people into bloodthirsty cannibals. Once upon a time, the people of Shar had favorable relations with the North, but the poisonous rhetoric of their charismatic leaders have made the denizens hateful of Northerners and the average Sharian believes that Northerners are godless heathens who conspiratorially wrought the plague upon them. By the same token, many Northerners believe that Sharians are uncouth sorts whose repressive laws undermine the will of the people. In other words, the game pretty much starts with you, your partner Ashe (a female soldier who wields a mean crossbow), and a foppish buffoon of an emissary marching into a suicide mission. To say that things go very wrong very quickly is an understatement, and your adventure will inevitably involve unraveling the twisted secrets of one of the most dangerous, devious, and downright corrupt places you've been to.
The Shadow Sun uses the Unity 3D engine to bring Shar to life. The 3D polygonal characters and the 3D polygonal backgrounds they interact with look and animate nicely on the iPad. There are some seams and blockiness here and there, but nothing worse than the game's contemporaries. Stylistically speaking, the desert setting is sparser and obviously less lush than the greenery associated with typical fantasy fare, but that's what gives the setting its uninviting atmosphere since, after all, the land and its people do not want you there. Speaking of people, they generally have more realistic rather than stylistic designs. I do not know yet if I will interact with other sentient races from Middle Eastern lore, like djinn (genies) or scorpion men, but these fantastical beings and creatures promise more creative design.
Adding life to Shar and its inhabitants, both benevolent and hostile, is the trifecta of music, voice, and sound effects. The atmospheric music takes compositional and instrumental influence from traditional Arabian styles and adds that sense of mystery to the adventure. Sometimes, though, music is eschewed in favor of atmospheric sounds, like those that add creepiness to the dank sewers. The best sound effects are reserved for battles with the resonant clanging of weapons. The voice acting consists of short clips throughout the game, with some key story moments featuring more prominent voice work. The only issue I hear thus far is inconsistency with accents, meaning that some Sharians deliver their lines with Middle Eastern accents whereas others maintain western sounding accents.
The gameplay will be familiar to anyone who has played an RPG before, though it's optimized for the tablet format here. Character movement can either be done with an on-screen directional pad or by touching where you want your character to go; it's the player's choice. Combat is similar to that of Final Fantasy XII's semi-realtime combat. Once an enemy is targeted, players press an action button to use their weapon, similar to a console game, though different weapons have different recovery times depending on their size, weight, and nature. This action-button paradigm is far more favorable than "finger swipe" slashing. There are also two easily accessible menu bars that allow item use, quick switches between weapons, and use of magic spells or techniques (which have a recovery time.) Another factor in combat is your chosen AI companion (you can have only one at a time.) Each companion has a distinct weapon and special skill that has its uses in various situations. For example, Ashe's special skill is her armor-piercing technique and switching between her using that or straight-up fighting is pretty easy. Issuing commands for the AI companion also pauses what's going on, which is nice. In general, combat is fun and intuitive, though sometimes the camera gets hung up on places and does not always pan smoothly with my finger slides.
The rest of the menu interface is standard fare as well, containing an equipment menu, a codex of characters, a log of events, system preferences, maps, and all that good stuff. The interface gets the job done, but sometimes gets cluttered because weapons and armor are all lumped into one category rather than subcategorized into weapons and different body parts for armor.
Thus far, The Shadow Sun is proving to be a solid iOS RPG. The gameplay is fun, the atmosphere is distinct, and the storyline holds promise. The Shadow Sun should be available in the App Store later this month and there is no word yet as to any possible PC or console versions.