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.
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.