The Shadow Sun has been a long time coming. Back in 2009, Canada-based developer Ossian Studios went all in on an idea for a story-driven western RPG for iOS. The goal was to break new ground for mobile players, to make an open-world game that people hadn’t seen before in the App Store. They certainly had the pedigree for it. Alan Miranda, CEO and founder of Ossian, had previously been a producer on games like Neverwinter Nights and Baldur’s Gate II at BioWare. His development team, which includes his wife, was largely drawn from the Neverwinter community in the mid-2000s, and since then they’ve been dedicated to making RPGs along that vein.
Whether or not The Shadow Sun succeeds in its mission to break new ground is a tough call. On the one hand, it’s one of the most immersive iOS-exclusive western RPGs on the market. On the other hand, it fails to adequately make a case for why it’s a mobile exclusive. Without any real innovative use of touch-screen input or on-the-go gameplay, there’s no reason not to compare it to console and PC RPGs. In that regard, The Shadow Sun doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen dozens of games do before.
Sword & Sorcery
What The Shadow Sun does succeed at is adventure. With the same spirit that makes pen & paper role-playing such a blast, the writers at Ossian Studios have done a fantastic job of creating an attractive, original world filled with player choices. The majority of the game takes place in and around Shar, a bustling city surrounded by desert and stricken by a zombie-like plague. The player, after selecting gender, class, and skills from genre-standard options, arrives in Shar in search of a diplomat who’s gone mysteriously missing. Both this main quest and a number of side quests offer multiple narrative routes, oftentimes presenting players with difficult ethical dilemmas.
At any given time players travel and fight with one of four total companions, each with a unique skill set. Some companions are good for unlocking chests and disarming traps. Others provide ranged support in battle. All four companions, while in the player party, occasionally weigh in on certain choices made during quests.
Also worth highlighting is The Shadow Sun’s original score, written by long-time Ossian composer David John. Whether the player is battling ruffians in a forgotten alleyway or shopping for exotic goods at Shar’s grand market, the game’s music is beautifully written and appropriately epic. Careful listeners might recognize more than a few notes inspired by classic BioWare games such as Knights of the Old Republic and Dragon Age.
In fact, The Shadow Sun borrows heavily from games like KOTOR in almost all regards, to the point where very little of the experience feels new. Its story is certainly original, but much of its gameplay feels flat and uninspired. Players use a virtual joystick for movement, which is tolerable in open spaces and infuriating in cramped ones. Combat involves little more than touching various abilities on your quickbar, waiting for them to refill, and repeating. I chose to play as a hybrid archer/mage, but because the game’s aggro system and AI didn’t really allow my companion to tank, 90% of my battles ended up being face-to-face melee. I had purchased every archer skill available, yet I was still forced to wear heavy armor and use a sword.
There are countless moments like this to be found in The Shadow Sun, moments where a mechanic comes tantalizingly close to working perfectly but ultimately fails because of something small. Magic is fun, but the game doesn’t seem to include mana potions. Companions can either approve or disapprove of certain player decisions, but the significance of their disposition is never made clear. Players can interact with nearly every NPC, but character models are used over and over again, even within the same small area. These production decisions are counterintuitive for a game that relies so heavily on story and immersion.
The Shadow Sun is held back by its roots. It attempts to utilize qualities that have made western RPGs massively successful in the past – storyline, characters, player choice. Ossian Studios has the experience to do this, and the hard work of its writers and developers undoubtedly shines through. At the same time, however, its dependence on these tried-and-true qualities leads to an aversion to trying new things. It doesn’t take risks. It looks and feels dated. Though it’s certainly a welcome addition to the App Store, The Shadow Sun doesn’t hold up to a broader context of modern RPGs.