"The Shadow Sun makes the mistake of trying to be all things to all people."
The Shadow Sun is a western style RPG from Ossian Studios. I know that's not a snappy opening, but my well of inspiration is drier than a desert at the moment. I could, perhaps, use that as an analogy for my experience playing The Shadow Sun. An RPG in a fantasy realm, inspired by a colorful period of history and set in regions shrouded in mystery sounds like fertile ground to base an exciting fantasy off of, right? The potential there is astounding. The end result, though, does not realize that potential. The Shadow Sun is a competent RPG that doesn't do anything inherently wrong, but plays its hand a little too safely and is merely decent when it could have been something truly special and inspired.
This single-player adventure takes place in the desert kingdom of Shar. This fortress-city is a hotbed of danger, deviance, corruption, and twisted secrets. The rich live disgustingly decadent lives, the poor live in abject poverty, coin is scarce and cutthroat backstabbing is very common. Nothing is ever what it seems in this realm and everyone, be they local or foreign, must always be on their toes.
Your character, created using rudimentary character creation tools, is a soldier from the North. He or she (I made my character female) is on a mission with his/her partner Ashe (a female soldier who wields a mean crossbow) to escort an emissary to Shar's parliament house. His purpose is to parley with Shar's leaders about the outbreak of a dangerous plague, possibly fueled by dark magic, that's turning ordinary people into bloodthirsty cannibals.
Unfortunately, Shar's relationship with the North is hostile, and the emissary you're guarding is a foppish buffoon. Once upon a time, the people of Shar had favorable relations with the North, but the poisonous rhetoric of a charismatic prophet has 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 starts with you, Ashe, and the emissary marching into a suicide mission. To say that things go very wrong very quickly is an understatement, and before you know it, you're unwittingly embroiled in the darkly twisted mysteries and conspiracies of a land that wants you eradicated.
The plot gets the job done, but it has the potential for a more intricate narrative. Characters don't develop all that much beyond their initial archetypes, and the story itself is fairly boilerplate. It also suffers from uneven pacing. The lion's share of plot progression takes place during black and white 2D cutscene stills between chapters, and a lot happens in these short moments, making story progression feel choppy rather than smooth. Moments that should be poignant are practically glossed over. Between these cutscenes, everything drags. Sure, exploring the city's seedy underbelly and exposing subplots that play into the bigger picture is fun, but when the plot direction became vague and the game more open-ended, I lost interest and was often bored playing mundane fetch quest after mundane fetch quest for piddling amounts of coin and experience. I was hoping for a more fleshed out narrative with streamlined plot direction.
The Shadow Sun makes the mistake of trying to be all things to all people. It's impossible to simultaneously be a tightly focused character and narrative driven adventure and
be a semi open-ended sandbox style game. It's better to pick one direction and do it really well than try to be a jack-of-all-trades but a master of none. Personally, I think the game would have been more engaging as a tightly focused, linear, character driven drama with a masterfully written plot of political intrigue, like an Arabian Nights version of Vagrant Story. That would have given The Shadow Sun the excitement and sense of urgency it badly needed.
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 enough on the iPad. There are seams and blockiness here and there, but nothing worse than other 3D iPad RPGs. 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. Shar's people generally have more realistic rather than stylized designs. The designs themselves are not the most appealing, and some characters' skin have an unnatural sheen, but they get the job done. In terms of settings, any of the underground locations (sewers, caves, or prisons) are the most atmospheric and fun to explore due to being more mazelike than above ground locales. The way subterranean locations play with lighting definitely make them feel appropriately dank and alien.
When it comes to sound, my immediate thoughts usually turn to music and voice acting, but in The Shadow Sun's case, the best sonic aspect is the sound effects. Slimy sound effects in the sewers, screams of torture in the prisons, predatory noises of vicious animals in caves and the like are what make already foreboding places feel even eerier. Music is all but absent here, unless there are enemies nearby, in which case the sudden jolt of a battle theme can occasionally startle you. Once engaged in battle, the clanging of weapons, the cracking of insectoids' exoskeletons, or the satisfying fleshy "thunk" of a kill are what make battles fun. The Arabian-inspired music is appropriate for its setting, but does nothing more than merely accompany the atmosphere. The voice acting consists of short clips throughout the game, except for the fully narrated 2D cutscene stills that punctuate major story progression. The voice acting itself is a mixed bag, though. Sometimes accents are inconsistent, meaning that some Sharians deliver their lines with Middle Eastern accents whereas others maintain western accents. In addition, the NPCs that accompany you out in the field have occasional dialogue clips that they annoyingly spout ad-nauseum when you're standing still. This is not a game dependent upon its voice acting, so if it were absent, I probably would not have noticed.
The gameplay is 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. Environments are not too cumbersome to navigate, and dungeons become progressively more mazelike as the game progresses. The menu interface is standard fare as well, containing an equipment menu, a codex of characters, a log of events, system preferences, maps, and the like. 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. In addition, shops don't have an equip screen or a screen with which I can compare the stats of a potential purchase to the equipment I'm already wearing. Again, since money is very tight in this game, I want to be well informed before I buy something.
Combat is similar to that of many western style RPGs, where battles occur in real time, but players can pause the action if need be. Once an enemy is targeted, players press an action button to use their weapon, similar to a console game. This works far better than the "finger swipe" slashing seen in other games. There are also two easily accessible menu bars that allow item use, quick switches between weapons (useful when you want to quickly switch between a ranged weapon and a blade on the fly), 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, Davorn the sand pirate's special skill is taunting an enemy to draw it to him, and switching between that and him using his regular weapon is easy enough.
In general, combat is intuitive and familiar. Also helpful is that HP and MP gradually recover as you're standing still. While this may sound like it makes the game easy, do remember that money is very scarce and healing potions are not always readily available in shops, so you will always have to ration out your use of supplies. Useful supplies to have on hand are various "weapon coating" vials that temporarily imbue your weapon with a power like poison or fire. A normal weapon may barely pierce insectoids' exoskeletons, but add the "alchemic fire" weapon coating, and your attacks will be a lot stronger.
The biggest plus point regarding combat is that once enemies are eliminated from hostile areas, they do not regenerate unless a sidequest triggers it. For example, one trip through a series of sewers primarily contained giant spiders, and once they were gone, subsequent trips through the sewers contained none. The only time those sewers received new enemies was when an NPC offered to pay me to eliminate a recent outbreak of rats. Of course, once I killed all the rats, the sewers could be traversed uneventfully again.
My biggest issue with the gameplay lies in the camera. It responds sluggishly to my finger slides, does not always pan smoothly, and the auto-camera mode does not always position itself where needed. This is especially frustrating during battles when I'm surrounded by enemies and I can't see them because the camera is hung up on a wall rather than being behind me. At the very least, a quick press icon to zoom out a little farther than normal during battles would have been nice.
The Shadow Sun is a competent RPG, but there is a veritable sea of competent RPGs out there. Granted, it is an original RPG designed for the iOS platform and not a port of a classic PC title, but there is little here to make me recommend this over classics like Baldur's Gate or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. The Shadow Sun has a lot of potential and could have been a great game, but it makes the mistake of trying to be both a tightly focused adventure and a semi-sandbox game and not succeeding at either. The Shadow Sun is yet another in the long list of games I've played that I wanted to like, but ultimately did not enjoy. That being said, I do want to see what Ossian Studios comes out with next, because they have the potential to create a truly memorable iOS RPG.