This new base class clocks in at 37 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages of SRD, leaving us with 33 pages of content, so let's take a look!
This review was moved up in my review-queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreon.
All right, so another take on the shapeshifter? This'll be interesting! Chassis-wise, the class gets d10 HD, 4 + Int skills per level as well as proficiency with light and medium armor and simple and martial weapons. They get full BAB-progression as well as good Fort-saves. At first level, the class gains a pool of primal energy equal to the class levels. Primal energy can be spent or invested - reallocating these points is a standard action and spent points replenish after 8 hours rest. At 5th level, points may be reallocated as a swift action, at 10th level as an immediate action.
Starting at 1st level, the class gains visages, which are prepared - 2 at first level, scaling up to 13 at 20th level. Visages prepared may be changed via 1 hour of meditation. This can be done up to twice per day: The first time, this fatigues the shapeshifter, the second time it exhausts the shapeshifter. A new visage level is unlocked at 3rd level and every odd level thereafter - so yep, there are 10 levels of visages. Visages, somewhat oddly-named, can be considered to be less pronounced modifications of the body of the shapeshifer - they represent a cross between talents and spells - like talents, they provide continuous bonuses, but like spells, they must be prepared and can be switched. It is an interesting set-up and one that actually makes the class feel distinct. We can find electricity damage added to unarmed strikes, extra arms (sans combat capability, thankfully), the option to squeeze into tight spaces, natural attacks and armor - interesting tricks here! Primal energy may btw. be invested in natural attacks to upgrade them to primary attacks and the shapeshifter may grow mouths from legs, horns from hands, etc. and thus may have multiple variants of the same natural attack. Have I mentioned fleshpockets? Firing spines?
The flexibility these options offer and the choices available make the shapeshifter a potent class from the get-go, one that quickly increases and allows for the duplication of summon spells, use primal energy to heal, boost saves, create deadly toxins, grow internal extra brains...the abilities grow progressively strong, but know what's absent, for the most part? Means to regain primal energy. While switching and passive abilities are free, the big whoppers and more potent tricks also mean that the flexibility decreases - I have rarely seen a class that makes you want to spend a resource so badly...and not spend it at the same time! While the highest levels allow for very limited energy regaining via autophagy (no, you can't cheese it). The section, just fyi, is massive.
Starting at 2nd level, the shapeshifter gains predatory focus - he can study a target within line of sight as a swift action, gaining an untyped bonus of +1 to atk versus that creature, which increases by a further +1 at 7th level and every 4 levels thereafter. In addition to this bonus, predatory focus has an additional effect, with 8 choices available. These include bonuses to critical confirmations (which upgrades to autoconfirms at 15th level), ignoring parts of DR (taking different types of DR into account) or bonuses to Knowledge checks. The power levels of these choices oscillates quite a bit. Slightly problematic: Using focus as part of an initiative check. Does this count as a swift action? does it end being flat-footed? I assume no, but I'm not sure. On a cosmetic side-note, a sidebar has been formatted as another ability here, which is, formatting-wise, a bit annoying.
Starting at 4th level, the shapeshifter gains the power to consume the essence of a creature via the mantle class feature. In order to do so, they must kill a creature who is the target of the predatory focus, gaining the mantle associated with the creature. A mantle requires an amount of primal energy to work, requiring investment. Only one mantle may be active at any given time and investing primal energy is either a swift action or used in conjunction with the shapeshifting ability that allows for primal energy reallocation. The ability, while working smoothly, could didactically be phrased a bit better: As I see it, you may gain the mantle upon slaying a creature with the focus, but it only becomes activated upon investing primal energy. I admit to being first slightly confused by the sequence here in absence of a duration for the consumed essence, but yeah. Consider this just me complaining at a high level.
A total of 9 such mantles are provided and their activation costs range from 1 to 3 primal energy. It should be noted that these provide scaling benefits and thus also increase the activation cost at higher levels - with the exception of two mantles, who only have a fixed cost. Mantles grant abilities at 4th level, 9th level, 13th level, 17th level and also sport a capstone ability each. There are interesting abilities here - let us take the aberration mantle, as an example: If you make a Will-save, the prompting creature must succeed a save against the same DC or be affected by confusion for one round. 9th level provides a very potent debuff: Targets suffer -2 to saves to resist fear effects and the shapeshifter gains a +2 bonus to Intimidate as well, with both scaling - and creatures affected by the shapeshifter's fear-effects take an equal penalty to AC, attack and damage rolls. In combination with some options out there, this can make for pretty crippling debuffing. 13th level yields a morale bonus suppressing aura and at 17th level, they are aware of such bonuses and may flip them via primal energy expenditure into penalties - pretty cool! As a capstone, they get a bonus after slaying foes that may be granted to allies.
The Mantle of the beast nets either Fight or Flight when below 1/2 maximum hit points: The former lets you reroll minimum damage (not just weapon damage - that should have a caveat) and increases the damage output by 1, while Flight makes them no longer provoke any AoOs from creatures they are aware of...which is VERY, very strong. The abilities activated may btw. be switched as a swift or immediate action. This duality extends to the options at higher levels, including double rolls for attack or saves. 13th level provides the option to add a full attack after a crit confirmation, with a bonus, no less, and when in flight mode, they may perform immediate attack actions when subjected to a critical threat. This mantle is exceedingly potent, to the point where I wouldn't allow it - and yes, I am aware that the 1/2 max hit point caveat is intended to provide motivation to not have these constantly unlocked, but making abilities available all the time sans this bloodied-style limitation and making them less potent would have imho made this one run more smoothly.
The construct mantle, with save rerolls, SR and 13th level spell immunity that is powered by primal energy expenditure makes for a really cool and potent anti-magic defense option (with high-level options to converse dispersed magic into force damage bursts!) - really like that one! The mantle of the dragon nets draconic tricks (properly codified claws, natural armor and energy resistance (or DR) based on the dragon used to trigger the ability. The free 9th level breath weapon may look like a bit much, but subsequent uses require primal energy expenditure and cooldown, preventing spamming as well as imposing a hard cap. Once again, a well-wrought mantle. Fey can yield an immediate action Bluff feint, including self-granting concealment, with higher levels allowing the use of the ability when a foe misses. Alternate effects like dirty tricks are unlocked as well. The mantle of man is also interesting - it focuses on better social skills and features some cool social tricks, like using primal energy to not have creature attitudes worsen towards them or undermine hostile mind-influencing magic. Nice one!
The ooze mantle allow for the free movement into the square of other creatures and may even attack creatures within them - here, a sidebar dealing with reach etc. would have imho made sense to explain the various interactions that this uncommon option provides. At higher levels creatures that share squares with the shapeshifter at the start or end of the round take acid damage - and at following levels, Con damage is added to it (with a save to negate) and this damage nets temporary hit points, 20 per creature within...which is eminently cheesable. Can someone hand me the bag of kittens for massive amounts temporary hit points, please? The plant mantle nets tree stride and photosynthesis as well as high-level terrain control - no complaints there. The undead mantle begins with the negative energy affinity-like positive/negative energy change (healed by negative, harmed by positive) as well as temporary hit points. At higher levels, they can add negative energy damage to attacks, replenishing the temporary hit points of the mantle. These hit points are also used as a resource for becoming e.g. incorporeal at 13th level. Once again, an interesting mantle!
Beyond the base class and its various mantles and visages, we have 3 archetypes - one for the barbarian, one for the druid and one for the rogue, all of which can be summed up as losing a bit of their base tricks in favor of access to the visage engine of visages up to 7th level. Two feats allow other classes to dabble in the engine, while two other feats net temporary hit points for polymorph-spells casting casters. Fleshy Foxhole is OP - it lets you use items while merged with your form, which can prevent means of destroying them. Similarly, and I did not think I'd say that at one point, the Extra Primal Energy and Extra Shapeshifting feats, which net +4 primal energy or +1 visage (or two, if they're lower than your highest level visage) prepared are BRUTAL. They are both so good, taking another feat is basically pure foolhardiness, which is not a good sign as far as I'm concerned. While they have caps of how often you may take them, I'd strongly suggest capping them unless you're playing a really high-powered game.
Editing and formatting have two sides herein: On one hand, I was really impressed by the rules-language. While its wording deviates from a couple of standard conventions, it manages to get complex concepts done right and does so, as a whole, sans serious hiccups. On the formal editing level, we have minor plural hiccups, doubled letters and the like, so not so perfect there. Layout adheres to a solid 2-column full-color standard with original pieces of full-color artwork - many of which are actually quite cute, like the little oozes on the ooze-mantle page. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
Designer Dayton Johnson had a really tough job here: One) I have literally analyzed more than 5 base classes dealing with the subject matter...and if I take archetypes into account, it gets worse. Two) He did not go the easy, standard route - the class does NOT use the eidolon chassis or that of the aegis or similar classes - instead it presents its own subsystem with a vast assortment of unique abilities, many of which are actually rather creative! This is NOT a phoned-in class - it is unique and creative.
In particular, the resource-management that lies at the heart of the shapeshifter is a true joy to behold: The game of switching visages is absolutely amazing and seriously fun, with a ton of combos hardwired into the class - it feels, at times, almost like a class penned by Bradley Crouch in that regard, and I mean that as the highest form of compliment! At the same time, the free access to all visages once the respective level unlocks, combined with the mantles, makes the shapeshifter a VERY potent class in the hands of an experienced player. GMs running a gritty or less high-powered game should consider implementing alternate restrictions, perhaps limit the visages available and nerf some of the mantle options a bit. What I'm trying to say is that the nitpicker within me could make a case that this class may be too strong, but I honestly don't want to. Why? Because I really love how it plays. While I will adjust the chassis and details of the class for my game, the playing experience presented by the shapeshifter is rather impressive - if I were to rate just the engine and how it behaves, I'd consider this an easy 5 stars. However, I do have a couple of complaints regarding some options herein and their power and similarly, but to a lesser degree, the glitches do annoy me a bit.
How to rate this, then? Well, for me as a person, this is a 5-star+ seal file for the engine tweaks I'll take out of it and for the actually creative and interesting options it has. As a reviewer, though, I do have to take my balance concerns and the hiccups into account, though, and from threat range increases that lack the stacking caveat to the other tricks, there is quite a bit to be potentially munchkin'd. I could rate this down to 3 for them, but that would not even remotely do this justice. Just note once more: This is a VERY potent option and not for low-powered games!
All in all, this drags my official verdict down to 3.5 stars, rounded up since it does not deserve being called mediocre - it is an exceptional, creative class, though one that imho needs a bit polish from the GM. If you don't mind the editing and are confident you can balance and tweak it, then get this ASAP - this is one cool class!