Shroud of the Avatar: A good example of a bad beginning

With the official launch of Shroud of the Avatar — a game that has been in a persistent world state for at least a year now — I made a vow that I’d come back and give it a good try. At the very least, I’d check in with it. I even thought about doing a first impressions piece for Massively OP, but then when I got some time with the game, I had such a negative experience that I knew I wasn’t going to get far enough to even justify such a piece.

I came to it with some energy and curiosity, looking forward to seeing what I could glean out of this Ultima Online spiritual successor. On paper, it has a lot that interests me: a really strong legacy, a more immersive world, a PvE-focused experience, and actual effort toward alternative systems and roleplay. But an hour into the game, and I felt trapped. I couldn’t wait to log out and put this behind me.

What happened?

The first couple of hours in any MMORPG are absolutely crucial to get right. You have to hook the player while introducing them to the game world, entertaining them, and teaching them the new systems. And to be fair, the best thing that Shroud of the Avatar does is integrating character creation into its own little pocket zone that teases and hints at some weirdness (mechanical oracle, little watcher robots, a bridge between Earth and this other planet, a moon that exploded) while seeding a few of the game’s elements.

I honestly liked the keyword-focused NPC dialogue system — it feels interactive and much more like old-school RPGs than the streamlined MMO quest text. You could sort of fool yourself that you were talking with the character. And I also appreciated the nod to Ultima with the moral dilemmas that the Oracle gave you, although those are (pun intended) ultimately meaningless since you can choose your path regardless of your answers.

But it was in the opening zone — or “scene” as this game calls them — that SOTA started to lose me. The game doesn’t handle well, and that comes through in a lot of little interface and control actions. Jumping is weird and wrong. You have to hit an additional key to go into combat mode, which got me into all kinds of trouble when I kept forgetting to start and stop that at key moments. Combat itself was plodding and disconnected.

And while there were some general directions, I felt like the area wasn’t as focused or informative as it could have been. Should I be picking up everything I see? Is there a story I should be absorbing here? And why do the elves look like something out of a horror novel with their bald heads and beady black eyes?

Compared to how much I loved exploring the opening moments of Project Gorgon, which also encouraged you to look around, experiment, and interact, Shroud of the Avatar simply didn’t click with me. It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t telling me all that I wanted to know, and it was loading me down with questionable inventory and these inventory documents that read like someone took a tech manual and ripped out pages to deliver piecemeal.

Another quibble: There was no zone map. I saw that you could collect maps for areas, but I never had one of the places where I was at, so I had no external point of reference for travel. I hoped that my character would perhaps make up her own map, but nothing doing. It’s amazing how much a lack of a mini-map or zone map changes how you play — and not in a good way.

By the time I was in the second area, I pretty much gave up hope. Oh, there were MMO staples, like questing and killing, but again it felt sloppy and weird. SOTA does its own thing its own way, and I get the impression that the devs were trying to reinvent the wheel instead of absorbing what worked well in similar titles. I had no idea how to best level up my character. I was a mage who only had one attack spell that worked on a 10 or 15 second cooldown, leaving me helpless unless I wanted to wack at things with a staff for a while. Should I use a staff? Or is a sword OK? I had no idea.

I probably would have benefited from reading up on a beginner’s guide or watching some player do a tutorial on YouTube, but you know what? If a game in 2018 can’t teach you properly while you play it, then that’s a failure on the part of the devs. I shouldn’t have to do homework to know how to play a game and derive enjoyment of it.

From my very limited perspective, Shroud of the Avatar isn’t as engrossing or connected as it should be. And it really should be, which is the shame here. It has so many elements I really do look for in online games, but something went askew in the development process, and I’m wondering if Portalarium was listening too hard to its “yes” fans and customers and not enough to its critics.

Oh well. There are plenty of other game worlds that want my time and attention and are willing to bring me into them without this level of frustration.

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11 thoughts on “Shroud of the Avatar: A good example of a bad beginning

  1. David Bass (@doctordake) April 6, 2018 / 10:37 am

    “I’m wondering if Portalarium was listening too hard to its “yes” fans and customers and not enough to its critics.”

    This line stuck with me. I think a lot of in-development MMOs fall into this trap, whether they’re a kickstarted ‘indie’ studio or a full-blown AAA published one. It’s very hard not to, since those are the people the most engaged with you as a developer. And it’s very hard to say no to them, because you’re scared of losing your core audience.

    It’s something I never figured out how to balance properly, honestly.

  2. DDOCentral April 6, 2018 / 2:35 pm

    I tried SOTA about six months ago during one of its free trials and also came away with the impression that the game was a confused mess. I was hoping that the game might improve between that time and its official launch, but apparently not.

  3. Bhagpuss April 6, 2018 / 2:40 pm

    I haven’t gotten around to logging in to SotA (free trial version) yete although I did patch it when it launched. I remember quite enjoying it when I pootled around there for a while in one of the late betas though. Certainly don’t remember it being as off-putting as you describe – I wonder if it’s changed? I might try and get an hour or two in this weekend to check it out.

  4. Mortam April 6, 2018 / 5:01 pm

    I have a founder pack that cost me $45. Yup, that was money well wasted. The game is just awful, and i can’t make myself play it.

  5. JoshOtavio April 7, 2018 / 10:55 am

    Richard Garriott, Starr Long, Chris Spears and the whole studio, they are the perfect definition of the modern industry, second this arrogant millionaire.

    Richard Garriott on why “most game designers really just suck” – ttps://www.pcgamer.com/richard-garriott-game-designers-suck/

    Nowdays, Richard Garriot resembles the decadence who ruined John Romero after he left Id Software, after the first Quake. He talks too much, promisses way too much, critizing, etc… but is selling a mediocre game.

    Of course, different of John Romero who kill Ion Storm, Garriott is ruining his legacy with all sorts of bad pratices, years after his glory days, he is basically unknown for a lot of new gamers, who are learning that he is a prick, thanks to his toxic community within the game, following the cult leaders.

    This is not about industry veterans, is about mercenaries.

  6. 3devious (@3devious) April 7, 2018 / 12:56 pm

    Hey, don’t blame us! Some of us have been kicking their butts for years about this stuff. If you really want to help gamers out put out everything that was said here without the personal attacks (they are just going to say that you guys are haters targeting the game unfairly.
    I told them. You guys are not as harsh as I’ve been with them and I’ve even had the stones to tell them that in person.
    The looks on their faces that someone would roll up to them and tell them what most people are too polite to say in public is always worth the price of admission. (The downside is that people think you’re crazy.)
    When other people review the game with what we’ve been telling them for years, it seems to actually resonate with them. (As if people who just want a fun game to play have no interest in having them listen to their feedback or anything.)
    Keep it up, keep it SFW so I can go to them and say SEE!? I TOLD YOU!!!

  7. Elfwine April 8, 2018 / 3:30 am

    Having just had a look at the elves in SotA, my initial reaction was rather one of horror. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement.

    They are definitely not elves similar in any way to Tolkien’s widely beloved mythology, nor is their creation and history remotely typical of elven tropes in modern literature, games, or art. Even the race’s world niche is an antithesis to what is generally ascribed to elvenkind and culture.

    I can only conclude that the design decision was for reasons I cannot fathom.

    Was this an effort to take an rpg stereotype and completely role-reverse it so as to make them an exclusive feature found only in SotA? Or to make them so off-putting as to actively discourage players from wanting to RP such?

    It is one thing to explore and introduce new game mechanics in different ways to do new things, and quite another to take what is generally accepted and shape it into an unfamiliar and alienating form. Is this not counter-productive to attracting players?

    I was willing to give the unusual combat system and other quirks of the game the benefit of the doubt, but now… well to be honest, I have personal limits to what I am willing to tolerate in a medieval fantasy world.

    SotA is approaching those limits.

  8. Markus April 8, 2018 / 2:02 pm

    RMT – Richard Making Trades

    No refund is what hurts, because the game is about filler, minus QA, during the sucking of all the air this bubble is holding.

    is like someone who wasted too much money with politics, trying recover using almost the same process as a political partie does, lying and milking idiots.

    There are lots of bad products online, unfortunelly a lot happening on the indie scenario.

  9. betsy April 17, 2018 / 12:32 pm

    Its interesting you mention project gorgon. Ive tried that. For a game thats 9 years in the making and still looks like the designers made it in 1980 and are shoe horning it into unity, Im surprised to hear you say sota is worse. However, the PG pair have made a lot more quests and skill depth. However the community is a shockingly foul mouth bunch who argue and cuss about pretty much everything.. and when some poetry event even includes religious slurs and the dev running it doesnt put an end.. this isnt a good thing.

    Sadly everything in life is what you make of it, so if sota didnt work for you perhaps you tried the wrong thing for you. Are there faults in sota? sure, but arent there with almost every thing you look at.. an ideal rpg mmo for most of us is a hint of this, with some of that, and a dash over the other.. No one game is perfect.

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