It’s been over a month since I last checked in about Shroud of the Avatar. In that time, there’s been heated debate on our forums about Portalarium’s KickStarter-backed indie title, covering everything from the core mechanics, to whether it even qualifies as an MMO. I’ll be getting to both of those questions later on in this wrap-up, but it clearly demonstrates how divisive this is. One player’s perfect experience is another’s critical miss.
That conflicting opinion can even be seen as far back as our ‘early access’ review. In August 2016, Markus Rohringer praised the diverse sandbox but was disappointed by dated visuals and minimal content. In the 18-plus months since that initial steam debut, has Richard Garriott and team managed to turn things around?
The answer, predictably, is complicated. On the one hand, there’s now an abundance of content blended with an intriguing dialogue-based quest system that definitely scratches a lore-heavy itch, and some deep mechanics and systems that offer huge choice. But, on the other hand, clunky character animations, dated visuals and a primitive user interface all combine to make the novel or retro seem tedious and tired. Like running through a blissful meadow while wearing lead boots, the charm can wear off.
A Welcoming Beginning
Back when Shroud of the Avatar first lurched into Early Access, it was rightly hammered for having virtually nothing to welcome new players, and a lack of quests to discover while playing. It’s criticism that Portalarium took to heart, spending some significant effort in building a new player experience that introduces the Avatars and how they are prophesied to change the landscape of New Britannia. As I mentioned in the first part of my review-in-progress, it’s a technique that worked brilliantly to pull me in.
That cycle of build, rebuild and polish has also extended to the various locations across the continent of Novia (or ‘scenes’ as Portalarium likes to call them). Three paths have been woven around particular virtues of Truth, Love and Courage, coming together in a saga surrounding the all-seeing Oracle. Not only that, but there’s a collection of side quests to discover in the adventuring areas, each of which offering their own rewards. It’s sufficient that I don’t feel I’ll start running out of content even though I’ve clocked up some 30-odd hours in the game. Even more, it feels like I’ve barely scratched the surface.
So why the gripes? I’ll get into more detail shortly but, basically, it’s in the underlying mechanics. Progressing combat and crafting skills is a long and grind-heavy process, leaving me feeling like it’s holding me back. It wouldn’t be so bad, but the combat itself is unsatisfying and tedious, lacking in weight and momentum. And, partly due to that early access, I can’t help but feel like an imposter at launch, late to a party of adventuring heroes.
Massive or Not?
While there’s no clear-cut definition of what’s considered an MMO (Garriott himself once put a minimum threshold of 500 players in one zone - a feat that many modern MMOs would struggle with), there’s a generally accepted experience that most of us expect. Part of that is a persistent world shared amongst a massive number of players, with social structures that support groups of players and content for them to participate in together. A shared economy and sandbox components add to the experience, with town traders and player housing featuring in abundance.
So, in many respects, Shroud of the Avatar does qualify as an MMO; it’s even tagged as such on the game’s own Steam page. However, that’s not to say there’s no drawbacks. Each town, adventuring area and dungeon exists as its own ‘Scene’, carving out a small part of the world and with a small-ish number of players. Stringing these together is an overworld map, where it’s still possible to spot others out travelling. But the result is a feeling of lots of ‘pockets’ of world, rather than one cohesive experience.
Adding to the confusion is a planned single-player offline mode. Proposed since the early days of SotA’s development, this option would allow players to experience the story without any of the multiplayer featured getting in the way. Although, at this point, you have to wonder why anyone would want to.
The bigger question is whether Shroud of the Avatar feels and plays like an MMO, and for the most part it does. At most of the major towns or cities I’d see other players completing quests or crafting items, or even simply performing music. Chat is lively and generally supportive, and guilds are actively trying to help and recruit new players. My only social gripe - finding groups for more challenging content - has literally just been addressed in the latest update with the addition of an LFG tool.
Retro or Rehash?
Over the last year, classic MMOs have experienced a surge in popularity as players have desperately chased that spark of charm that pulled them into the genre. The mantra - ‘they don’t make them like this any more’ - is often thrown up. And yet, with skill and progression systems inspired by old-school RPGs, Shroud of the Avatar is exactly that: a rebuild of some classic mechanics in a more modern setting.
Depending on your point of view, this has its pros and cons. As I’ve touched on previously, questing is made much more interesting by providing detailed interactions with NPCs. Exclamation marks or overhead symbols are gone, and dialogue is in the form of free text with some guided options. A guardsman’s nameplate would change to Sergeant Bash after asking for his name, and it’s only by asking about rumours that I might stumble on a quest. It might seem like an ordeal, but it works wonders at rooting me in the lore.
Unfortunately, there’s two areas in which these old mechanics break down. The first is with bugs - quest log entries might not update on progression or completion, leaving me scurrying around the map. The second is with grinding, in every aspect. Whether it’s skilling up in weapon or armour usage to take on tougher foes, or collecting materials to make better gear, there’s a heavy reliance on the repeatable loops of monotony.
I wouldn’t normally have a problem with grinding away to progress my character, as long as the combat itself is satisfying. Unfortunately, in Shroud of the Avatar, that isn’t the case. Whether it’s swinging a sword or casting a spell, offensive actions have very little weight to them, and the animations themselves feel clunky and repetitive. Poor combat sounds amplify that disconnected feeling, with my character’s abilities making all kinds of unusual whooshing noises instead of the typical strikes and shouts of battle.
That’s not saying everything about combat is disappointing. While the skill-up process itself is grindy, the skill trees themselves are incredibly flexible. Want to play a Paladin-type? Then simply level up in Blades, Shields, Heavy Armour and a touch of life magic. How about a rogue? Go for light armour and sink points into subterfuge. Completing mobs and killing quests build up a skill point pool, which are then gradually allocated to skills the more they’re used. It’s a neat system that molds itself around how you play, but requires time and effort to sink into it. Hence the grind.
Last Decade’s Leather
Back in my first look, I described Shroud of the Avatar as a modern game engine (Unity in this case) with the skin of an older game thrown over it. Although time has passed, it’s a description that stuck, as the appearance is just as dated as the game mechanics that underpin SotA.
Yes, the continent of Novia could look better, but that’s not my most significant complaint. If anything, my biggest disappointment is reserved for the hot mess of a user interface that combines inefficient skeuomorphism with primitive iconography, producing an amateurish and inelegant result that does no favours for the game. It’s a sort-of retro but mostly ugly misfire, and Shroud of the Avatar would benefit hugely from ripping it up and rebuilding it from scratch.
That unrelenting disappointment is only strengthened by the synth-heavy musical score. Sometimes catchy but often annoying, it feels like a throwback to console-era RPGs with chintzy tunes that mostly didn’t matter. Today, we know what good sounds like, and more often than not the game gets muted.
The Value Question
At roughly $40, Shroud of the Avatar has a major challenge in demonstrating that it’s better value than other MMOs and RPGs on the market. With Steam Sales now biting, that’s a tough ask to meet, if it weren’t for the strong community and consistently regular monthly updates. The world of New Britannia is constantly changing, which certainly counts for something.
But then there’s the in-game item Add-ons Store, which features some astronomically eye-watering prices. Want a castle or grand ship to call your own? That’ll be $300 please. Need a place to put your property? Some of the most expensive locations in player-owned towns weigh in at $1,600 dollars. With supply limited due to how the world is designed, and the significant advantages players get to owning property in prime locations, and it’s clear to see the direction being taken by the developers, even if some players are setting up free rental options.
Which is why, ultimately, Shroud of the Avatar is difficult to recommend. Yes, Portalarium’s MMO has some interesting ideas, and the approach to story and questing is certainly enough to hook me. But there are other RPGs out there with just as compelling a story, and other MMOs who provide updated content on just as fierce a schedule. But, and possibly more crucially, they also have a healthier respect for the player’s wallet.