I loved Ultima VII: The Black Gate so much that I became a massive PC gaming nerd, an RPG diehard, and ultimately an MMO junky. The open world, with characters that followed routines, had their own motives, and a story that delved deep into the darkest pits of what it means to be human… these are things that RPGs have been aspiring to do ever since The Black Gate came out some 26 years ago. Today, Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, looks to continue the epic-in-scope tradition, but the world has changed and many RPGs do the things Ultima once laid claim to. So now, just weeks from launch, how is Portalarium’s MMO/single-player RPG shaping up?
It turns out, a lot has changed in Shroud of the Avatar since I last gave it a go. Indeed, a lot has changed since our early access review months ago. For the most part, Shroud of the Avatar is a much better game today than it was back then, though the biggest hurdle remaining is undoubtedly the game’s UI/UX. In short, it’s just an awkward game to wield. The UI isn’t very attractive, which is a shame because the game’s visuals itself have received a massive overhaul and now look quite nice most of the time.
But aside from the somewhat archaic look of the UI and menus, not to mention its responsiveness, SotA does things that just feel too awkward in play. You still have to drag and drop items from your detailed-list inventory to your avatar paper-doll to equip items, though right clicking and clicking equip from a dropdown can work too. The map’s initial loading time is terrible, to the point where the entire game engine chugged. Nothing short of a total overhaul of the UI/UX would make it feel more natural and less confusing. Hopefully mods are allowed and in time, these issues will be fixed.
Now, I also think it bears mentioning that for my first time playing Shroud in ages, I chose to avoid the online MMO version, and instead pick up a new save file as an offline single player RPG. I expect that this may be where SotA feels less like an overly-monetized MMO for diehard whales, and more like a title akin to Gothic, ELEX, and other janky-but-loved open world RPGs. Shroud’s got a great story to tell, a sense of scope and depth that few games nail, and a freedom-filled skill and progression system that harken back to the Ultimas of old.
There’s an intense battle between those who think Shroud is terrible from an old experience with the game, and those who fiercely protect as their child, likely because they’ve spent thousands on the game as it’s been developed. I’m neither of these. I’m somewhere in the middle. I want Shroud of the Avatar to be an excellent Garriott-styled RPG first, and if it has a decent persistent world too, that’s just gravy. I’m put off by the sheer mess of a user-experience, but deeply enthralled by the size and scope of the world and story they’ve put together as we head towards launch. I just hate that I have to deal in type-to-talk in 2018. I know Lord Brittish and others adore this old-school style of NPC interaction, and I appreciate that you can just click keywords to move the conversations along, but it just doesn’t jive with the beautiful 3D world they’ve created. The world and its UI seem at odds with each other, and I just can’t get past it entirely.
You can play Shroud with mouse-look, but it doesn’t always work like it should, and I find myself reverting back to traditional WoW/EQ styled 3rd-person WASD controls. Combat is tab-targeted, but it works, and as you choose your weapons and skills, you can really make a nice layout of powers to use in a fight. Sword and board or finger-waggler, there’s plenty to choose from, including a mix of all if you so choose.
I’ve only dabbled for about an hour or two so far with the opening Highvale area, but already I feel like there’s a great deal of RPG-goodness to explore here. If Portalarium can keep the offline part of the game free from the hundreds-to-thousands of dollars for a house to live problem that plagues the MMO side of things, I’ll be content. It doesn’t change the fact that I find the Star Citizen-esque mAcro-transactions alarming, but if it can be kept out of my single player experience I won’t be too peeved.
And that’s kind of the realization I’m coming to about Shroud. If you can afford to be a whale, and want to take part in the community of the MMO, go for it. For most of us, it’s probably out of the question. Progress won't’ be wiped at launch, so you’ll be charging into a fully-formed eco-system you’ll never catch up to. But if on the other hand, you want a taste of a new Garriott-styled RPG, then the offline game will likely please you. That is, if you can get past the cumbersome and unwieldy UI.