Tuesday, 16 May 2017

What's Going On? : Shroud of the Avatar

Somewhat to my surprise I find myself warming to Shroud of the Avatar. I played for a couple of hours today and it was an oddly compelling, if confusing, experience.

I find the whole "pre-alpha" thing disingenuous to say the least. I'm sure there are plenty of parts missing. There may be mechanisms that don't work, whole systems yet to be included. I know it's supposed to be a story game and the story isn't done yet.


Never mind all that. It's more than playable as it stands. I've played final betas a week before launch that were buggy, chaotic messes compared to this. In fact, I have yet to run into a bug. It's often clunky but it all works.

The overriding impression remains not one of a brand new MMO in early development but of a much older game from a time when many of the modern conveniences we take for granted had yet to be invented. The infamous text parser SotA uses for questing is only the most obvious example.


Looting, for example, is old school, click the corpse on the ground. Bank vaults are unique to the town in which you fill them. If you find yourself lost in the dark you have to take a torch out of your backpack and walk around holding it in front of you.

As for fighting, well, it's early days but so far I haven't died once. Quite literally all I've done since I found a rusty sword and put my bow away is to hit auto-attack and chain-cast my single self-heal. So heroic is my character that, when he found himself cornered in the crypt by a Thug and two Archers, his health already low from the arrows he took in the back as he tried to run away, he was amazed to find himself able to auto-attack all three of them to death before they could finish him off.


With just that trusty, rusty sword and a torch in his other hand, so he can see what he's doing, he's seen off skeletons, bandits and fireball-hurling mages. The only thing he couldn't handle was the caiman that unexpectedly charged his ankles as he stood pondering on a boardwalk over a swamp.

What, you may very well ask, was a caiman, native in our own  world to Central and South America,  doing in the shallow waterways of what appears at a casual glance to be a northern European forest? Don't look at me. I didn't stop to do field work. I ran away!


There's a strange, almost surreal mash-up of East and West everywhere in Shroud of the Avatar. Villages that look to be taken straight from the European Town Planner's Handbook c. 1450 brush up against ruined country estates with gateways guarded by what look like Chinese Guardian Lions. In the country peasant chic is in while in the big city on the coast the fashions and faces take an oriental turn.

As for the local tech level, your guess is a good as mine. It's not just the steampunk factor, those mechanicals I mentioned last time, or the hot air balloons tethered above the docks of the player-run town. Everywhere, timeslips abound.


There does seem to be some background to all this only I don't know what it is. When you fire up the game for the very first time you're treated, if that's the word, to a lengthy animated introduction and a fervid voice-over. I tried to tune it out but some of it leaked through my mental barriers.

I vaguely recall the player-character being shown as a Crowleyesque dilettante, inadvertently sucked into another dimension after meddling with things best left alone. Something along those lines. That would account for the book I found in a bookcase in the crypt under the Soltown cemetery, the one that mentions cameras and telephoto lenses. I'm guessing that was written by another "Outlander" from wherever it is my character came from - contemporary Earth, presumably.


All well and good but it does nothing to explain the Watchers. These sinister hoverbots cruise the paths and alleyways of Soltown, that small, ostensibly archaic village buried in the forest. They swoop up to you like something out of a movie loosely based on an idea by Philip K Dick, scan you with a scarlet ray, then leave. Whatever tech they're using it's a long century past our own, let alone the faux-nineteenth required by the steampunk trope.

Let's give Portalarium a pass on all this. Assume it makes sense when you follow the story. Even if it doesn't it's certainly entertaining. The pertinent question is, am I having fun?

Yes. Well, to a degree. The oddness is definitely appealing. The mechanics are comfortable. There's a lot to see and do. And yet...

I wonder if it might just be me. If this was fifteen years ago, maybe even ten, I would have been more willing to make an effort. I was actively seeking out this kind of labor-intensive, quasi-convincing virtual world back then. SotA may not be Vanguard when it comes to immersion (precious little is) but it's giving it the old college try.


As I discovered when I briefly tried The Elder Scrolls Online a year or two back, though, I fear I may be getting too old for "realism". The relentless earth tones, the convincing body armor, the scruffy, muddy streets...they don't heat the blood the way they once did. If it wasn't for all the the weirdness I think I might have lost interest and wandered off after the first session.

I could go away and read up on the lore but honestly I'd rather not know. If I go on playing, which isn't certain but equally isn't unlikely, I'd sooner pick away at the seams from inside. Knowing there's a proper Story with a capital "S" at the heart of this project, if anything, puts me off.

Sometimes not knowing what's going on is the best part.

2 comments:

  1. I am glad it is coming along. I was in on the Kickstarter back in whenever ago, peeked in with one of the early, very raw builds, and said I would check back when it was done. Sounds like maybe something I'll be in the mood for come winter. It might actually be done-ish then. (I suppose I should read the weekly email update they send me... at three different addresses... but I can't bring myself to care that much.)

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    1. You can never tell whether the content will suddenly run out at higher levels of course but certainly down at the low end there seems to be a fully-functioning MMO there. NOt sure I'm going to pursue it very far - there are other upcoming games that interest me more - but it's on the watch list now at least.

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