A Mobile Gem
Ossian Studios’ The Shadow Sun is a rare bird in Mobile gaming. In the main, Mobile gaming does not have vast, resource-rich development houses like Bethesda working on Android RPGs, nothing on par with the Elder Scrolls franchise has yet reared its head. And yet, a few intrepid Android developers have opted to try and build 3D, open world role-playing games for mobile. Most of these titles fall under the umbrella of crapware and play like an undergraduate’s failed senior project, and yet, there are a couple of exceptions.
The Shadow Sun is such a game. Set in a convincing, original game world conceived of by the developers at Ossian, The Shadow Sun offers up an RPG that, while flawed, presses almost all of the essential RPG buttons. The title, ultimately provides a fun and rewarding gaming experience that ranks among the best Android RPGs we’ve seen this year.
An Original Open World
You play an agent of Eldwyn or Northern Kingdoms. You’ve been tasked with investigating the circumstances under which a number of your country’s diplomats have disappeared. While your avatar’s homeland appears to be the typical Medieval Europe analogue that dominates Western RPGs, most of the game takes place in Shar. Which in a refreshing turn resembles a Medieval Middle East.
Yes, we’ve seen this setting before. We have yet, however, to see it delivered with the attention to detail found in Ossian Studios’ depiction of Shar. From your first glimpse of the city’s gates, with their gold friezes and blue-tinged stone, resemble the famed gates of Ishtar of Ancient Babylon, to the various districts inside the city, to the desert locales surrounding the city, it becomes apparent in the game’s opening scenes that the folks at Ossian invested a fair amount of time and resources into providing The Shadow Sun with a realistic and authentic setting.
Got Moral Ambiguity?
Ossian’s attention to detail extends beyond the title’s setting. The game’s writers have taken pains to invest the denizen’s of Shar with moral ambiguity. What’s more, the city and its denizens have been invested with an identifiable culture. For example, in a side quest, you’re tasked with assassinating Pasha Nook, a purportedly evil merchant. You find yourself killing your way through the man’s household guard. When you finally confront Mr. Nook, the merchant explains with surprising calm that the character who contracted you was, in fact, his wife. His spouse you find was an accomplice in all of the crimes she’d listed to recruit you in the first place. He offers to pay you twice what his wife has offered if you’re willing to let him go free. His only real requirement is that you refrain from judging the people of Shar too harshly. He goes on to explain that people are violent all over. In Shar, he says, they’re just more upfront about it. It’s a nice touch to a run-of-the-mill quest and not unique in this mostly well-written game.
The game’s three NPC companion characters add an additional layer to NPC interactions. The game’s more morally gray quests happen via your companions. Moreover, each has his or her own moral compass and will react positively or negatively, increasing or decreasing their loyalty stat, depending on whether or not you behave in a way that aligns with their general outlook. The companion loyalty system has enormous potential to create the illusion that players’ actions are affecting the game world. Unfortunately, by the time most RPG fans are about halfway through the game, they’ll likely be wishing there was more of it.
Unfortunately, in our playthrough of the game, the degree to which you actually experience the results of increased loyalty were too few and far between. Also, the range of behaviors that three characters allow for seemed a bit limited. You can proceed in a warm and fuzzy manner and please Abbadas the eunuch. Acting like a hardass lover of the proletariat will please Davorn, the pirate. Alternatively you could act like a self-centered scumbag and please the only female character, Zehira. You can only access the romantic story thread if, as a male character, you please Zehira with onerous behavior, or if you’re playing a female you please Davorn by acting like Robin Hood.
For a lot of RPG fans these sorts of RPG elements are the crème de la crème of interactive storytelling. The concept, however, suffers here because only a few modes of behavior ever cause anything to happen. Though neither original not contextually meaningful, the loyalty mechanic is a great idea. To a degree, it even works. But halfway through the game, most RPG gamer will likely be nonplussed over the loyalty system..
The skill system is a mixed bag as well. In true open-world RPG style, you don’t set a class at the beginning of the game and then shepherd your avatar through a class-specific skill tree. Instead, you set your attributes at the onset of the game and choose skills that jibe both with said attributes and your preferred play style. On the one hand, it does what it’s supposed to do. You can easily craft your avatar into what would elsewhere be considered a hybrid class, mixing mage, thief and fighter skills. However, skills are unfortunately in no way interconnected and each one has only three tiers. This means that while The Shadow Sun offers a balanced and measured character progression, you will have likely chosen every skill you’ve ever going to use in-game by the time you’ve achieved level 4.
While we encountered a few minor bugs, most weren’t worth mentioning, except for NPC pathfinding. Both of my brave companions seemed dead set on following me into every room, dead end, corridor and closet. The blind leading the blind dynamic proved persistently annoying. I sometimes felt that half my urban exploration involved forcing my companions to back out of a room. However, it must also be said that it was easy to overlook in context.
Kinda Sorta Coming up a Little Short
Ultimately, the main drawback here is its somewhat limited storyline and systems. The Shadow Sun employs the smaller is better made-for mobile paradigm. The approach has its palace. And yet, many indie developers are increasingly creating high-end titles via the Unity engine and porting them across several platforms, including mobile. At the same time, we often see ports of seminal AAA games like Xcom and Civilization Revolution. At Hardcore Droid we remain on the fence about this trend. Certainly an epic quality is an integral aspect of a Western RPG. By the time the game wa sove, we could not help wishing for a larger game. We found ourselves pining for a richer and more satisfying skill system and more complex and rewarding NPC interactions.
The game’s documentation refers to future expansions. Our hope is that Ossian will use the success it is likely finding with The Shadow Sun to weave into the next iteration more choice-driven quests. We’d also love to see a few more modes of NPC behavior. In short, if Ossian Studios should deepen and broaden this smart role-playing game. If they did, The Shadow Sun would undoubtedly be the all-time great mobile RPG that it deserves to be.
While the shortfalls cited here are mostly about making an open-world RPG more bite-sized, these flaws are not deal killers. And while we hope that Ossian sincerely considers broadening and deepening the next iteration of The Shadow Sun, mobile games at this point in time remain on another plane from PC and Console titles and must be assessed accordingly.
At the end of the day, The Shadow Sun is a smartly rendered, quality mobile RPG that is a lot of fun to play. The game’s intelligent writing and vivid environments are superb. The game’s leveling and skill systems are functional and engaging, its combat compelling, with a number of spells and fighting skills triggering cool effects and satisfying animations. What’s more, for a small indie title, the game sports a trove of loot and a smoking AAA soundtrack. Most importantly, all of these elements dovetail with one another seamlessly, creating a whole that makes for what is, by any measure, a very fine indie RPG.
Is it Hardcore?
Though its brevity results in a number of shortfalls, The Shadow Sun remains an excellent mobile role-playing game that both RPG fans and non-fans will undoubtedly enjoy.