When it comes to classic CRPGs, few games can compare to the heralded Ultima series. It was a franchise that helped define a genre of games for generations to come. Crafted by the legendary Richard Garriott, each game that bore the Ultima title attempted to break new ground in nearly every aspect of gameplay. For many years, the series was successful at doing just that. However, corporate deadlines and economic pressure caused the later games in the series to suffer from a number of quality issues. Meanwhile, Ultima Online, the original ground-breaking MMO, saw unprecedented success. In fact, it still operates to this very day and continues to have a respectable-sized playerbase. But for fans of the single player games, time has not been as kind. It has been twenty years since the release of Ultima IX, and there’s little hope that fans will ever see another game that bears the Ultima name.
All is not lost. Longtime fans of the Ultima series should take notice! In 2013, Richard Garriott re-emerged with an announcement. He had started a new development studio and he planned to launch a Kickstarter campaign to help fund a new game that would be the spiritual successor to Ultima. This game is Shroud of the Avatar. His plan was a bold one. Over the course of several years he would release a total of five episodes bearing the Shroud of the Avatar name. The first entry, Forsaken Virtues, entered alpha testing in 2014.
Being a Kickstarter project, the game was initially funded by fan-made donations. Backers would receive both early-access to the game as it was being developed, plus a final copy once the game was completed. Also, depending on the amount pledged, backers would also be rewarded with a number of exclusive perks (both digital and physical). The campaign was a success and Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues saw an official release in the spring of 2018.
On a personal note, I became aware of this game shortly after it was announced. But I did not contribute to the Kickstarter campaign. Instead, I chose to purchase the game once the early-access version went public on Steam. During those early days, I only spent a scant amount of time checking things out and getting a feel for how things worked. The game was changing drastically from month-to-month so I decided to put it on the back burner until things stabilized. (However, I could not resist logging on during the “end of the world” party, right before the game officially went live.) I didn’t give this game my full attention until fall of last year.
So, now that we’ve had a brief history behind Shroud of the Avatar, just what is this game all about. Well, that’s not such an easy question to answer. SotA is a very unique game. It’s a new game with an old feel. Even a cursory glance will reveal this to be a modern title. But, once you take a closer look, it becomes obvious that this game wasn’t designed with most modern players in mind. This is a very niche game. And its one that’s really only going to appeal to a very specific type of player. First of all, it doesn’t hold your hand. With a few rare exceptions, there’s no big obvious on-screen cues telling you where to go and what to do. Once you’ve completed the very short introductory level, you’re plunged headfirst into a vast open world – and you’re on your own.
The premise behind the game will be familiar to anyone who has experience with the Ultima series. You are “The Avatar”, a human from Earth who has come to a long-forgotten land. In this game, you find yourself in the world of Novia. Upon entering this new world, players will meet with a mysterious being known as The Oracle. The Oracle poses a series of questions to the player. The answers provided will determine which “path of virtue” the player will undertake. Essentially, this determines the player’s starting zone and first round of quests. Again, if you’ve played any of the old Ultima games, this will make you feel right at home.
One thing that modern players may find odd about this game is the amount of reading that takes place. Like the Ultima games that came before it, players are able to have conversations with NPCs. This means there’s lots of reading and even writing involved. Players will need to listen closely to the information provided by NPCs and even ask questions in order to uncover plot points or quest hooks. Aside from a few important breadcrumbs, almost all of the game’s sidequests will need to be uncovered through deep NPC interaction. It’s easy to miss most of the sidequests in the game if you ignore the NPCs. This may be off-putting to some, but personally, I really enjoy this sort of thing.
Also, unlike most modern RPGs, players are not assigned a specific class. Instead, experience points can be doled out to level up whatever abilities a player sees fit. Let’s say you have no interest in magic. Well, you can ignore magic all together and focus on just melee combat. Let’s say swords and axes are not your cup of tea, there’s always ranged weapons. Or, you can decide to mix and match – and go with a combo spellcaster/archer. It is entirely up to you, the player, on how you wish to develop your character. Again, this is something that I think is lacking from most modern games.
This open-ended feel is a main theme that permeates the majority of the game. SotA is very much a sandbox style game. You can loot corpses, pick up stray arrows, break barrels, steal food from the local tavern, whatever you like. Of course, actions have consequences (albeit weak ones).
Now would be a good time to mention another very interesting aspect to this game. When playing Shroud of the Avatar, you can choose to either play in a single player mode or with a multiplayer experience. Single player mode, is just that. You experience everything that game has offer by yourself. There’s no other real-world players to help you. Of course, this also means there’s no other players interfering as well. For some of the game’s harder content, you can recruit AI-controlled NPCs to join your party. It’s a nice touch, But, multiplayer mode is really the way this game was designed to be played.
SotA works best when played with others. You can interact with other players, form parties, join guilds, – everything you can do in other MMOs. Also, SotA features player-owned land. This is something the game really gets right. Taking a page from Ultima Online, players can build houses almost anywhere in the game world. These houses can be visited and seen by anyone playing the game. Aside from that, it is also possible for players to build entire towns and cities. These appear on the overworld map and can be entered by anyone. Many of these player-owned towns are designed with newbies in mind. (For example, The Outlander Welcome Center – a city designed to help gear up and teach new players the basics of the game)
Community is a very big part of Shroud of the Avatar. In fact, it sort of has to be. The game itself is… and, I hate to admit this, but it’s lacking in a large number of areas. The storyline content is pretty simplistic and easy to breeze through once you’ve gotten your feet wet and your head wrapped around the basics. The combat in the game may seem complex at first, but in reality, its mindless. On top of that, most of the enemies pose little challenge to experienced players. In a nutshell, at the present time, there’s really not a lot of “game” in Shroud of the Avatar. Most players engage in community driven activities to pass the time; dance parties, role playing, etc. It seems like the developers have caught on and actually embrace this. The new content being added to the game tends to focus on just this very thing.
When SotA initially launched, it operated on a buy-to-play model. But recently, the game has switched gears and is now completely free-to-play. Anyone can experience the full game at no charge. Of course, that means micro-transactions have been introduced. Thankfully, much of the paid DLC is social in nature; emotes, housing decor, etc. (Interestingly enough, all of which is available for free in the single player game). But there are a few exceptions. Additional character slots cost $5, you can purchase a special item that allows to participate in the Universal Chat channel for $3, just to name a couple. SotA has also become famous for some its insanely expensive cash-shop items. Want to change your character’s name? That will be $25. Want a deed to a fancy player-owned town? That will be a whopping $500!
I understand that something as unique as owning persistent virtual real estate is going to come at a cost. But, some of the pricing just seems over the top. Many players have also expressed concern over just how money-hungry the development team seems to be. What worries me most about the situation is that it doesn’t seem to stem from greed. But rather from necessity. If we’re being honest, the company behind Shroud of the Avatar is not doing so good. When Portalarium Inc. first announced the game, they were rolling in donated cash. They did the right thing and took that money and invested it into the game. However, slow development and deteriorating public support has taken its toll on the company. First came the layoffs, then the developers announced they had shuttered their physical offices and now work on the game exclusively from home. If we’re being completely honest, this is NOT a good sign. It’s taken five years to bring the SotA to its current state. There’s supposed to be four more episodes of content in the coming years… I really don’t see that happening. In my opinion, this is a game that’s on life support. I would not at all be surprised if by the end of the year, development on the game ends completely. Thankfully, if that actually occurs, there’s always the single player mode – so it won’t be a complete bust.
So, with all that being said, is Shroud of the Avatar worth your time? Well, if you’re an old Ultima Online grognard, or a fan of classic CRPGs, then yes. You owe it to yourself to take a look. The game is free so there’s nothing at all to lose. But, if you grew up on MMOs like World of Warcraft, you’re going to be in for a shock. Shroud of the Avatar will prove to provide quite a steep learning curve. The only other real obstacle this game presents comes in the form of technical issues. SotA does have a tendency to be somewhat crashy. How much so varies greatly from release to release. Also, the game feels largely un-optimized. Players with older machines should expect to suffer from poor performance. Despite these issues, there’s actually a lot to enjoy with this game. My recommendation is to forget everything you think you know about fantasy RPGS and go into the experience with an open mind. Take your time, don’t rush. Explore the in-game lore. Read (or even write!) books found around the game world. Participate in the community events and get to know other players. Despite from rather iffy game design, SotA offers some very unique community-focused gameplay. This what online interaction was like back in the old days. And I have to admit, it is something a part of me missed greatly. In that regard, my hats are off to Portalarium. I hope my concerns are wrong. I want this game to be successful. Despite its flaws, there’s a lot to love in the world of Novia.
Other Games In This Series:
Ultima Underworld I – Ultima Underworld II – Underworld Ascendant
Savage Empire – Martian Dreams