Dark or Light

Review in Progress #1 - First Steps in New Britannia

Gareth Harmer Posted:
Columns 0

The launch of Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues is a rare and curious event. Heralded as a spiritual successor to the classic Ultima series, and with Richard Garriott as Creative Director, this independently built title is firmly built on some old-school foundations. But does classic charm translate into an MMO worth exploring? In our multi-part review, I’ll be tackling that very question.

SOTA has certainly managed to build up a fanbase of enthusiastic players, raising significant funds through crowdsourcing and early access. However, after a strong debut on Kickstarter, it’s fair to say that the Steam reaction has been lukewarm. Now that indie studio Portalarium feels ready to head into full launch, it’ll be a chance to shrug off some of those early preconceptions.

Even so, the competition is intense. Open-world sandboxes threaten the player-owned towns and villages, and ‘vanilla’ re-launches of other titles promise to scratch that retro itch. But, with the allure of an incredibly flexible classless system, and an interesting NPC interaction model that adds mystery to the adventure, our first impressions indicate that Shroud of the Avatar should carve out a significant niche of fans.

Portal Through the Fourth Wall

We’re all familiar with the traditional fantasy RPG tropes, of taking on the mantle of a hero saving the nation from peril. Straight out of the gate, Shroud of the Avatar twists the idea, pulling you through from one world to another in some bizzare amalgamation of The DaVinci Code and Sword Art Online. It’s a neat way of explaining the spangly powers and ability to cheat death, even if it’s presented by an Illuminati-style intro video.

As a result, everything from designing your character to selecting a starting location happen in-game as part of the introduction. However, while choosing both a first and last name gets a welcome nod, the options available for creating a character are not so great. The usual sliders are present for facial tweaks, but the end result is more of a play-doh being than living creature.

Despite this drawback, SOTA then handed me a quirk based on the classless design. Instead of choosing how I wanted to play, a mechanical face named the Oracle asked me how I’d respond to a bunch of situations. Based on that, it recommended that I try out the Virtue of Courage, and swing around a sword in the hill fort of Highvale. Of course, I could have been destined to be a follower of Truth or Love, but picking up more Mage or Ranger-based skills is easy to do, as I discovered later.

With the next step of my journey decided, it was time to head through a Lunar Rift and travel onwards. While getting to Highvale was as simple as a jump into the void, my journey was about to get a lot more complex.

Conversation Starter

I arrived in the aftermath of a fierce battle, with bodies of the dead or dying scattered around the abandoned fort. I’d barely taken a few steps before a voice cried out - a Knight, slumped against a stone pillar and clutching a grave wound. I asked him his name - Gawain - and how I could help. He pressed an amulet in my hand and begged me to head to a town called Resolute, find the Knight Commander, and hand it to her. After hastily scribbling some notes in my journal, I pressed on, curious to find what else I’d discover in this crimson-sodden land.

While it sounds trite to describe it, this is what questing is like in Shroud of the Avatar. It’s about having conversations with NPCs, asking who they are, if they need any help or assistance, or if they’ve heard any rumours. You can sometimes get away with a single word suggestion, but other options might require a little digging. Yes, it takes longer than finding the big yellow exclamation mark, skimming the text and tapping OK, but it also roots you in the world much more. After all, how else would you find out that the local witch has a taste for elven tea leaves?

On the other hand, combat is the familiar experience most of us are used to. There’s a set of skills that can be dragged to an action bar, which itself has a limited number of slots. I started off with a single sword skill that augmented my auto attack, and a single heal too. Attacking is as simple as selecting the target, getting in range, and tapping ability keys. Rinse, repeat.

SOTA’s special sauce here is in how skills level up. Each skill has its own XP bar, and the more you use it the more you gain in that skill. It even works on practice dummies - smash away at the wood for a while and watch your skill climb. It takes the pain out of grinding mobs at these early stages, and means I have something to do while deciding what tasks to tackle next.

Skills for Kills

On first impression, it feels as though there’s an abundance of depth in how Shroud of the Avatar offers a completely classless system. As I headed around the outskirts of Highvale and discovered a snow-covered monastery high in the hillside, I also found an Adventure Trainer who’d help me expand my repertoire of skills.

It turns out there are two different sets of skills to learn in SOTA - one batch focuses on adventuring (combat, magic and strategy), while the other is all about crafting (gathering, refining and production). By the time I reached the trainer, I’d become proficient enough in the use of blades to pick up a few new abilities, but not without spending a few gold coins first. I also learned how to use a shield and some new tactics to help defend myself from incoming attacks - something that would become useful very soon.

As I browsed through the various skill trees available, it gradually dawned on me just how complex this thing is. Overall, Shroud of the Avatar has 20 Adventuring schools - including 9 schools of magic and 7 for physical combat. Each tree has maybe ten or so skills underneath it, all with their own XP bar and level counter. At first glance it looks a little intimidating, but there’s also huge potential for making your character just how you like it. It’s the kind of thing you could get completely lost in theorycrafting, which I guess is the point.

With skills freshly learned, I decided to spend some time putting them to good use against a practice dummy, levelling them up so that they’d be more potent in the field. You see, I’d heard a rumour from some of the monastery guards that a bog-creature was lurking in the forests down in the valley below, and I had just the tools to find out if it was true. With a bit of luck, I’d be hauling back the corpse of ol’ Mushroom Head and put an end to those stories once and for all.

The Modern Retro

With a limited budget, Shroud of the Avatar had to compromise somewhere, and nowhere are those compromises more evident than in how the game looks. Built using the Unity engine, it was never going to win any beauty contests, but the choice of a pseudo-realistic art style means that SOTA feels dated before it’s even launched. Although the polygon count is relatively high, the rigid ground clutter and trees, lack of cloud shadow and minimal animated or variable lighting makes me feel like I’m part of a static diorama rather than in a world full of life. It’s like stepping back to the turn of the millenium, and that’s not always a good thing.

On top of that, the overlaid user interface is an incohesive hot mess that fails to mix fantasy skeuomorphism with clean simplicity. MMO interfaces have come a long way over the last decade, and an old-school game can still have a retro interface without throwing a jumbled collection of scout badges and POG caps at the screen. The Skyrim-style compass bar at the top of the screen is a welcome concession to progress, but it’s like putting a letterbox on a jar full of marbles: helpful, but also not.

I mentioned the character models earlier, but NPCs also have the same problem. More than that, they all seem to have the same kinds of outfit. Wander down a strip of player housing and all of the NPC traders seem to be fresh from the same clone vat. Mooch round a town, and you’d swear there was only a single tailor in town with a thing for yellow robes. It seems a shame to spend all this effort giving characters a unique personality and dialogue when they all look very similar.

I’d gripe about the animation as well, but you get the idea by now. This is a new game wearing an old skin, for both better and worse. Luckily, the breadth of content and depth of choice make up for the artistic shortcomings.

Acoustically, the NPC grunts and noises can be a little disconcerting. There was one time when I was in an abandoned farm fighting off frost geists, and the female guards rushing to help would alternate between a chorus of grunts and wails, as if Skrillex had decided to use seagull samples for his next studio album. By contrast, the background music I’ve found to be mostly inoffensive, with some pleasant melodies that have me humming along and only one track that has me reaching for the mute key.

Start to Continue

After reaching the ten hour mark, I started to get quests for completely new locations. While it was great to have a reason to explore the wider world (it’s huge!) some wandering left me feeling a little boxed in. Shroud of the Avatar has this neat trick where the world map is another playable area, and I found myself jaunting around like a giant in a miniature version of the zone. However, I found my journey blocked on all sides by mountain passes and desert gorges filled with impossibly tough creatures, and no clear way around.

Eventually, I did some research, and I found that the Lunar Rift - the same method I used to arrive in Highvale - could be used to bounce around a number of locations in the continent. That glowing bubble in the dirt was my ticket out of here, and to regions loaded with new quests to discover.

If anything, it was a reminder that Shroud of the Avatar isn’t a game that offers everything on a plate. Those first impressions reminded me of the grand old days of MMOs, which a whole bunch of us miss as we look back with our rose-tinted goggles. When I had to hold conversations with NPCs to get quests instead of looking for a symbol over their heads. When I would go out mining for rocks and ores, then slowly drag them back to the town. When I would be part of a vibrant player township and economy, not just a message board community.

But then I snap back to the present, and remember the convenience of being able to get a quick gaming session in between work and family. The feeling of being able to identify bitesize activities that contribute to measurable progress, like getting better loot or inching along a reputation bar. For all we complain about the ‘dumbing down’ of MMOs, the quality-of-life improvements are significant.

Even so, there’s something about Shroud of the Avatar that’s managed to grab my curiosity. For all I gripe about it being a leathery old skin draped over a sprightly game engine and decorated with gaudy glass jewelry, there’s something about the way and the how that makes it compelling, as if it’s humming a tune that’s just on the edge of memory. Whether that’s enough to sustain my interest longer term as the novel uniqueness gives way to familiarity remains to be seen.

If all this sounds as intriguing to you as it did to me, Portalarium is offering a free trial so that you can check it out for yourself. Meanwhile, I’ll be back after the Easter weekend with a verdict on Shroud of the Avatar, once I’ve sunk many more hours in the world of New Britannia.


Gareth Harmer

Gareth Harmer / Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer has been blasting and fireballing his way through MMOs for over ten years. When he's not exploring an online world, he can usually be found enthusiastically dissecting and debating them. Follow him on Twitter at @Gazimoff.