Review: The Shadow Sun

Despite the name, Cutthroat Alley is actually pretty well gentrified at  this point. Students, and all.

Despite the name, Cutthroat Alley is actually pretty well gentrified at this point. Students, and all.

It’s reasonable to be skeptical when a title drops on iOS that, implicitly or explicitly, is going for that “console feel”–as if said feel was synonymous with quality. Trot out the gripes concerning twin-stick control issues, chug-a-lug performance, and uninspired design.

What then to make of The Shadow Sun, the long-in-the-works offering from Ossian Studios and Bioware vet Alan Miranda? On one hand, it’s a fairly traditional fantasy RPG with all—or at least some—of the skill-buying, dialogue-navigating, and dungeon-running that one would expect in its console equivalent. Then again, it’s also on iOS. And it runs pretty well. Yeah, faux-sticks and all.

The most striking thing out of all The Shadow Sun’s competent handiwork is the story. Spoiler: the combat, skill-ups, companion system, loot, and other odd mechanical bits at play here aren’t groundbreaking or great, though they may be good. Ditto for the visuals, which at the very least didn’t seem to cause any performance dips on my device, even in some of the game’s larger and more populated areas.

But the tale here—one of an ambassadorial visit to a plague-stricken city-state—is smarter and more subtle than your average self-aggrandising “lone savior of destiny” runaround. Here, you’re just some guard (albeit an exceptionally talented one) pressed into overtime when the fella you’re meant to be guarding gets embroiled in the magical-political upheaval which has the desert people of Shar by the collective throat. Enter our demagogue of a villain, who’s turning the plague (“Aya’s Wrath,” Aya being a Sharian god) into an impetus for war against the Northerners (also enter our narrator, who’s totally going for That Guy From Baldur’s Gate). Oh, and, right, you’re a Northerner. We’ll stop with the synopsis there.

"So... would that be... the villain? It is. Right, right. Death eyes. Gotcha."

“So… would that be… the villain? It is. Right, right. Death eyes. Gotcha.”

The world of Shar, as well, is one not often depicted in fantasy titles. Next to the dreary grays and played-out medieval tropes of so many RPGs, the Golden City is a shiny, sweaty, lived-in place, populated by the god-fearing and the fear-mongering alike. And, as a bonus, everyone knows you’re not from ’round here. It harkens back to TES: Morrowind, the way Shadow Sun makes you feel never quite comfortable or at peace, just through tone. And while the vibe is a little more Ancient Egypt than Vvardenfell, and runs the risk of cliché with its tale of a populace moving towards holy war with the North, The Shadow Sun, again, is a little too clever for something that broad, and in time veers the narrative in a more textured, morally gray direction.

You’re still going to be murdering things, though. My avatar was a tricky, aloof, magically-talented government agent of an archer, the sort I imagine would talk loudly in pubs about the “action” he’s seen and, when asked what sort of “action,” would say something like “the kind that’ll put hair on your sister’s chest and then turn that hair gray,” all while fixing a withering stare on whatever twerp (who’s never even had to reload a crossbow while readying a flame strike spell at the same time) is asking the dumb questions.

So a jack-of-all-trades, then, and this is surely a strength in The Shadow Sun: players are free to spend their copious skill points and attribute points as they like. No classes, no restrictions beyond the modest stat requirements for certain skills, and no real penalty to having, say, a glass cannon build that double-dips into archery and ranged magic. The small stable of AI controlled companions—tank guy, ranged guy, magic/stealth lady—are good enough to soak up damage for any play style, though you only get to travel with one of the gang at any given time.

"EXCUSE ME SIR ARE YOU A MERCHANT PERCHANCE? YOU ARE?!?!"

“EXCUSE ME SIR ARE YOU A MERCHANT PERCHANCE? YOU ARE?!?!”

As great as all this sounds, it’s also bears mentioning that, well, it’s not exactly hard to invest points in multiple areas of expertise in Shadow Sun—in fact, it’d be hard not to. The game doesn’t have all that many skills to pick from. Thirty spread evenly over five main categories, true, but with just three levels each, and this includes rather mundane stuff like barter, luck, magic boosts, and other general passives. It’s not downright stingy, but even after just nine levels (out of a seemingly possible ten, or so) I felt I’d sampled much of what the game had to offer in terms of character building.

Still, the combat is far better than it has any right to be, considering the control scheme. Move with the left-bottom of the screen, attack with the right-bottom, swing the camera (likely wildly) by dragging anywhere else, etc. We all know well enough this has been done before, poorly, but in The Shadow Sun it’s not nearly as big an issue as in, say, a more action heavy title. Combat instead feels more like nice MMO battling: floaty when it comes to moving around, but precise when it comes to attacks and throwing down the special moves (arrayed in a hotbar at the bottom of the screen, with healing and damage-boosting potions on the left) that will keep an encroaching plague victim; a nimble, Anubis-like assassin; or a teleporting mage off you for a few seconds longer.

It helps that the AI—though sometimes aggressive—is overall pretty dopey, and that targeting is semi-automatic (though there can be difficulties, control-wise, when you and the targeting disagree over which foe ought to be priority). Most key, though, is that abilities in The Shadow Sun are designed with combos in mind. Powers synergize nicely, and some are even more damaging if deployed in the right order. For example, my Swiss Army cipher had a spell which could reduce a foe’s strength and armor class, a bow attack which could stun enemies, and an earthquake spell which could knock down and stun entire groups. Damn if you don’t feel lethal deploying two or three moves such as these in a row, before finishing off the remnants with a volley of, now, more effective base attacks.

Damn things just have an unending hunger for tasteful wickerwork...

Damn things just have an unending hunger for tasteful wickerwork…

The Shadow Sun also doesn’t play the usual RPG game of completely immunizing certain foes to your moves in a cheap stab at creating difficulty. As far as this one’s concerned (barring some late-game exceptions), if you can stun-lock a foe into submission and beat ‘em while they’re down, then congrats. To some, this might make The Shadow Sun seem a bit easy. To others, it might make it seem respectful of the player’s ability to interact intelligently with its systems. Either way, it’s still enjoyable.

One excellent battle had our hero exorcising a dark force (called “The Taint” and, yes, you may laugh) [I did, thanks –ed.] from a local quarry. An evil, possessed, disembodied stone head (!) has a AOE shout attack which can stun you, and leave you vulnerable to attack from the noggin’s strong-but-slow minion. You can hard counter this move by finding and interacting with some special clay in the quarry, or by carefully maneuvering around and keeping your distance from the heavy while peppering the head with attacks. The former tactic is heavily recommended in dialogue with an NPC, but you don’t have to do it, and the latter is, arguably, more satisfying play — on the player’s terms.

If there’s one main problem with a title like The Shadow Sun, it’s that the game is concise. Not unbearably short, mind you, but the epic chords it’s trying to strike clash somewhat with its length and depth, and this depth problem extends to every aspect of the game: loot, leveling, locations, and so on. Even the cleverness of the story is somewhat tempered by a cliffhanger ending which hints a little too strongly at the Continued Adventures of Hero Heroington. What you’re really getting here is one good act out of what could have been a longer, three or four act RPG. If that’s a problem, fair enough, but if you treat The Shadow Sun as a sort of gamey pulp fiction, you’ll find it’s just deep enough. Wanting more of the same out of a title is far better than just wanting more.

The game was played on a 3rd generation iPad for this review.

Pocket Tactics Rating

4 Star Rating

4/5 Stars