Shadow Realms hands-on: blowing up heroes as the evil ghost of Bomberman

Tyler Wilde at

Hi, this is me.

I'm not sure how a 'fan event' can also be the first time anyone in the room is playing the game they're meant to be fans of, but that didn't stop BioWare. Earlier tonight I joined a bunch of preemptive fans to play Shadow Realms, Bioware's new 4v1 action RPG—and I got to be the one. Not Jet Li (I wish), but the Shadowlord, an invisible creature who floats around the dungeons dropping traps and possessing monsters. And I was a real dick about it.

At first, all I could do was drop time-delay bombs, set spike traps, and possess monsters. The mouse sensitivity was set way high, and I'm not too effective in ARPG combat—I don't have that mental alarm clock that screams 'cooldown over, press one immediately!'—so I didn't do too much monster possessing initially. I know my weaknesses. My minions were doing fine on their own, anyway, and I was enjoying the only combo I had: catch someone in a spike trap and drop a bomb while they're immobilized.

I have to wonder if that was incredibly annoying for the heroes. When in games do bombs and spike traps ever appear out of thin air? I wasn't so much a dungeon master as a troll who's using hacks—or maybe the invisible, evil ghost of Bomberman. It seemed like they were having fun, and I was definitely having fun stalking them, but I felt a bit mean. I am kind of mean though, so that worked out fine on my end.

This is my enemy.

After the heroes reached a certain checkpoint, I got a new power. I liked this one a lot. Doppelganger, as its name implies, let me spawn in the form of a hero, with all of his or her abilities. I only showed up as an enemy to the players if I took damage—otherwise, I could run around whacking them with sharp things until they noticed something was up. Despite my slow ARPG fingers, I used this a lot. My goal was to stop the players from reaching the end of the dungeon, and the only way to do that was to make them use up all of their revives. There were some light tactics involved: mainly, go for the weak.

The players each have a bunch of healing potions, so they can stay standing for quite a while, but if they're incapacitated one of their cohorts has to use up a revive to bring them back. Naturally, I always targeted players with the lowest health and fewest potions, and the doppelganger was an excellent way to get some cheap damage in.

Later, I unlocked a hulking 'bane wolf.' I couldn't spawn as it all the time, obviously—a long timer regenerates traps and abilities—but often enough that they had to get tired of seeing it. His best attack is a charge with a long wind up that, if I managed to land it, knocked the players back and stunned them. Hey, don't cry about it, players, I'm just doing my job as the human difficulty level.

This is my friend.

At this point, I was still setting spike traps and dropping bombs as fast as I could, too. I started getting nervous. They still had a couple of revives left, and it was feeling like they were getting close to the end. They were, but I didn't know about the boss fight.

Instead of possessing the boss—honestly, I ignored it so much I couldn't tell you what it looked like—I focused on using my abilities to harass the players and pick on the weaker ones. I got to be the super irritating extra minions that distract you from the big baddie you're trying to kill: you can't ignore them, but you also know they'll never stop coming if you don't beat up the boss.

When the boss fell down stunned, as bosses like to do, they gathered around it to attack. So I camped its body and dropped bombs. When they were running around zapping and whacking it, I became a doppelganger and threw ranged attacks at them unnoticed. When they were getting fatigued, I brought out my bane wolf. In the end, I didn't even see the final blow. The boss took out the last player for me while I was disoriented for a moment.

I won. But did it feel like a victory? Yeah, actually, it definitely did. One of the players shook my hand, and I'm not sure if there was any resentment in his "good game," but being pummeled by bombs that come from nowhere and enemies that look like allies has got to be a little frustrating, right?

As for Shadow Realms' episodic story, the presentation given before I played was vague. The modern setting creates "opportunities for storytelling"—the dungeon wasn't modern at all, but I assume that's because the players were inside the titular Shadow Realm. The episodic structure means you'll "actually experience the story as it rolls out," which is precisely what an episodic structure means. There will be both romance and betrayal, and that stuff will happen in single-player instances, according to lead Jeff Hickman, who spoke to Eurogamer about it. It's a "BioWare story"—although it sounds a little to me like storytelling is part of the BioWare brand, so it had to be included in an otherwise Left 4 Dead-like game.

I can tell you this: the crowd was loving it, and if they weren't somehow fans when they went in, I imagine a lot of them did leave that way after all. At one point, I heard cheers coming from the other side of the room. I looked over and someone said, "Wow, the Shadowlord over there is destroying them." I was jealous, so I doubled my concentration and made sure to be as big a jerk as possible.

You can sign up for the closed beta on the official site, and it's starting soon. To find out what it's like to play as one of the heroes, read Tom's preview from Gamescom.