Choose My Adventure: Trying on the Shroud of the Avatar

    
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Hello friends, and welcome to the new year’s first installment of Choose My Adventure. As you may have noticed, I took a bit of a hiatus back in December in order to focus on the tempest that inevitably results from the confluence of final exams, the holiday season, and my superhuman ability to procrastinate, but now I’m itching to get back in the proverbial saddle. For this month’s series, I’m going to be throwing myself headlong into Shroud of the Avatar. For the uninitiated, Shroud of the Avatar is the first project from development studio Portalarium, which was formed by creator of the Ultima series, part-time astronaut, and famed virtual-assassination-victim Richard “Lord British” Garriot.

As one might expect from the man who brought Ultima and its many sequels and offshoots into the world, Shroud of the Avatar is a fantasy RPG that boasts, according to the game’s official site, a classless character system, a player-driven economy, “skillful combat” (whatever that means), non-instanced and finite player housing, and more. It’s also notable, at least the fantasy bookworms in the audience, that the game’s story — along with some tie-in novels — is being penned by Tracy Hickman of Dragonlance fame. Although the game is currently in, as its Steam store page describes it, an “early access pre-alpha” state, I thought it might be a fun little jaunt into the unknown for the first CMA of the year, so let’s just give it a go and see what happens, shall we?

Before we get started, I want to go ahead and lay down a blanket disclaimer here, just for the sake of my future sanity. When I was trying to decide on a game for this month’s columns, I was a bit hesitant to put Shroud in the Choose My Adventure spotlight despite the fact that I thought it would be a good bit of fun, given its ambitious scope and emphasis on providing players a great degree of freedom of choice. I (obviously) decided to just do it anyway, but I don’t want anyone to mistake this series as a “review” of any kind, so allow me to make this completely clear: This series is not a review of any kind. Everything that you read in this column and those that follow it will be based on the “early access pre-alpha” version of the game and should be taken with an appropriate number of grains of salt (consult your physician if you’re unsure).

OK, now that I’ve sufficiently covered my posterior, let’s get down to business! The business itself, I’m afraid, is going to be rather quick this week. Although this is often the case with the first-week installments of each new CMA series before things really kick off, the early stages of Shroud of the Avatar present only one truly pertinent choice to be made, and on top of that, I have no idea what the ultimate significance of said choice may be (if there is any at all). In light of that, I’m going to let y’all make the call anyway, just to be on the safe side.

Usually, the first week of a new CMA series is when I ask you gentle readers to choose all the myriad details of my character, such as his or her race, class, and so on, I’m afraid that isn’t the case this time around. Before you begin stocking up on torches and pitchforks, let me explain.

Character creation in Shroud of the Avatar comprises nothing more than customizing your character’s physical appearance and name. Shroud of the Avatar has no classes, and characters can be nothing but good ol’ boilerplate humans (unless a particular crowdfunding stretch goal is met, in which case Elves will be added as an option as well), so there’s not really much reason to ask you to vote on anything in regard to character creation. I will admit that I was kinda tempted to just let you vote on how far to the left or right I should move each customization slider, but then I decided that figuring out the logistics of creating such a poll were more trouble than it would be worth.

So with nary a vote to guide me, I went ahead and rolled up a character. For those of you who are interested to know about the game’s character creation system, I suppose I can say that I found it to be… adequate. I don’t mean that derisively in any way, mind you; it’s just the best word to describe it. You can choose your character’s gender, skin color, hair color, hair style, eye color, and height, and then there are sliders to adjust key areas of the face — eyes, nose, chin, etc. — in more detail, and that’s about it. It wasn’t the most elaborate or robust customization system I’d seen, and that was fine with me — I’m not the kind of player who likes to get particularly wild or crazy with customizing my character’s physical appearance beyond the basics. And besides, the game’s in pre-alpha (just to reiterate), and I somehow think that developing the game itself is a bit higher on the priority list than adding fancy bits to the character creation process.

At any rate, once my character was created, a perfectly average human male — average by epic fantasy hero standards, anyway, which is to say he resembled someone like me in the same way a McDonald’s burger patty resembles a finely marbled cut of Wagyu beef — I was dumped into the world before an NPC by the name of Arabella, who told me she had been waiting far too long for my character’s return. When I initiated dialogue with her, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Shroud’s NPC dialogue implements a feature that has fallen — rather disappointingly, in my opinion — out of use since the days of yore.

Rather than simply choosing your character’s responses from a list of formulated dialogue options or, worse yet, being presented with a window full of hastily written text that you’re probably going to skip over anyway when you go straight to hitting the “accept quest” button, you communicate with NPCs by typing messages into the chat window, much as you would if you were chatting with another player. Certain key words in the NPC’s dialogue text will be underlined, denoting that you can ask the NPC for more information on that topic. Sure, you don’t have to insert the key word into a fully formed line of dialogue — you can just enter the key word by itself or just click the underlined word in the chat box itself (if you’re some kind of heathen) — but where’s the fun in that? OK, maybe it’s just me, but I took the time to respond to the NPC’s dialogue with appropriately phrased remarks, the necessary key words strategically inserted to advance the conversation.

That approach resulted in some quirky, faintly amusing exchanges, such as an instance wherein Arabella told me (with key words appropriately underlined), “Outlander is the common name for those like you, who are not from this world.” Of course, rather than following the obvious plot-advancing keywords, I decided to press her for information on “name,” which led her to reintroduce herself to me, probably wondering why the prophecies never mentioned that the Avatar she was awaiting would have such severe short-term memory loss and if she should be concerned. And thus I committed myself to the role of prophesied savior/rapid-onset amnesiac.

Just for giggles, though, I broke character once when she mentioned the keywords “New Britannia” in order to ask her, “What the [expletive deleted] is a New Britannia?” I never made it past the age of thirteen, sue me. To Arabella’s credit, she did answer my question, but she also made a point to chastise me, saying, “Thou shouldst show more virtue in thine speech, Avatar!” Shame on me, sure, but how was I supposed to know NPCs were so averse to the occasional f-bomb? And as an especially pedantic aside, Wiktionary tells me that “shouldst” is in fact the archaic past tense of “shall,” and “should” would have been said as “shoulde.” If you’re gonna fall back on the old “fantasy setting equals arbitrarily inserted Shakespearean English” trope, at least use correct arbitrarily inserted Shakespearean English.

At any rate, after I had thoroughly interrogated Arabella on every key word she saw fit to put before me, I finally got around to asking her about my destiny that she had supposedly been sent to guide me to. In return, she asked me a hypothetical question: If I were entrusted with delivering a purse of uncounted gold coins, and along the way I came across a kindly beggar, would I remain true to my word and deliver the full sum of coins or spare one for the beggar? Look, I love a good game of “What If” as much as the next guy — especially the version that my brain likes to force me play just as I settle in to sleep — but when I’m asking someone about my supposedly mythical destiny that they’ve been dropping cryptic hints about for the last five minutes, I don’t really think that’s the ideal time to start.

But fine, I’ll play along; after all, my poor, scatterbrained character probably doesn’t remember most of the last five minutes anyway. So I tell her I’d help the beggar, of course. It’s not my gold, man, what do I care? Then she asks me another: If I were engaged in a duel to the death and had my opponent dead to rights, would I deal the coup-de-grace or allow him to yield? Sure, I tell her, I’d let the poor sap yield, but only under the condition that he tell me what the hell it was that we were dueling over, anyway. And then a third and final question: If I were a soldier charged with standing sentry atop a tower, not to leave my post at any cost, but I saw my friends nearby were about to be overwhelmed, would I stand my watch as I had been ordered or would I forsake my duty to save the lives of my comrades? What do you mean, “orders”? I don’t remember any orders.

After my answers had been given, Arabella revealed that what this little game was, in fact, a sort of litmus test to see which of three paths I was best suited to take. According to her, I was a shoe-in for the path of “love,” which apparently is the way of the Ranger, though she also gave me the option of overturning her patented “Would You Rather” method of career aptitude testing in favor taking the path of courage as a Fighter or the path of truth as a Mage. And that, dear readers, brings us to the single choice of indeterminate significance that I mentioned earlier.

Since Shroud of the Avatar features a classless progression system, I’m not entirely sure what my selection at this point will determine. It might be that it decides nothing more than my starting equipment, or it might be that it determines my starting location, the quests available to me, or indeed the fate of my very mortal soul. It’s probably not that last one, but since we are talking about a game from Richard Garriott, I think just about everything else is fair game. So what’ll it be, folks? Which virtue should I espouse: Ranger-love, Mage-truth, or Fighter-courage? Not that I really understand why shooting someone with an arrow is somehow more loving than whacking ’em with a sword but less truthful than blasting them with magic, but hey, I’m no philosopher.

CMA: Mage-truth, Ranger-love, or Fighter-courage?

  • Mage-truth! (44%, 126 Votes)
  • Ranger-love! (39%, 113 Votes)
  • Fighter-courage! (17%, 50 Votes)

Total Voters: 289

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Like I intimated in the opening paragraphs, that’s the one and only decision I’m asking you to make this week, but I have no doubt that there will be plenty more choices to be made next week when I leave Arabella and her silly questionnaires behind in favor of the wider world of Shroud of the Avatar. As usual, be sure to get your votes in by Friday, January 8th at 11:59 p.m. EST, and I hope you’ll stop by again next week when perhaps we will discover the significance (or insignificance, as the case may be) of the choice y’all make. Until then, folks!

Welcome to Choose My Adventure, the column in which you join Matt each week as he journeys through mystical lands on fantastic adventures — and you get to decide his fate. Be gentle (or not)!
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209vaughn
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209vaughn

PaganRites This is my most anticipated MMORPG in my view.  This game kind of has a more mature player base, with a lot of community events, player driven towns etc.

But I would agree that sound and combat is the worst part of the game right now.  They did hire a new senior sound engineer so better sound effects will start coming in the near future.  Better combat sounds alone would make the combat “feel” better.

TonySan
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TonySan

You mean like you just did?

shawklive
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shawklive

TonySan Mortam No shit. That is why they said they won’t be purchasing an alpha again. No point stating the obvious just to look like an ass.

TonySan
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TonySan

Mortam It’s a bug… In Alpha… You should know that before you ever pay for Alpha.

Mortam
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Mortam

I bought a founder pack and can’t play because of a massive graphic bug. No refund is available – so yeah this game left a bad taste for me. Last time I ever pay for Alpha.

Cambruin
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Cambruin

cures chriskovo JimGriffiths I remember my friend and I buying it at the same time. He went for the CE, as he always does. Neither one of us had expected to drop it within a week though. I’m sorry, but I’ll never recover from Ultima 8, 9 and Tabula Rasa. Exactly how far out of touch does one have to get before he loses credibility?

organiclockwork
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organiclockwork

Craywulf JimGriffiths I actually loved Tabula Rasa, I just thought that Ultima was probably the greater of his achievements, and I thought three titles were enough for him ;P

PaganRites
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PaganRites

Craywulf JimGriffiths I loved it.  Fought beside Garriot in the game actually.  Good times.  It needed some more baking time, and was really starting to get there when NCSoft pulled the plug.  Love that Garriot sued the crap out of them for doing so (and he won).

PaganRites
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PaganRites

Bionicall Yes, the Truth Path is in and the quick start for a Mage.

PaganRites
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PaganRites

Original Kickstarter backer here, I’ve been playing SotA for quite awhile.  I only recently really put considerable time into the game because development is at the state where I am really starting to enjoy the game (I’m talking the multiplayer element, which has surprised me in how great it has been).  Housing and crafting are excellent, and the community is easily a rival to LOTRO and fFXIV which I consider to be the best in the genre.

Only two things are keeping me from absolutely loving the game.  Combat is clunky.  While it has come a long long way, and I can live with it, I think Portalarium can do better and hope that they do.  If they can nail combat I think the game’s draw will expand greatly.

Secondly, avatars just look pretty awful.  While clothing and accessories are very well done (I’m entirely happy with this aspect of the game) facial features, and lack of choices in customization are fairly poor.  I run into myself several times an hour because everyone looks the same.  I don’t know if this is actively being worked on, or a huge limitation of Unity 5, but I really hope avatars will be much better by launch.

If I had any other gripe it’s that the world is very instanced.  I think the game environment itself looks fantastic, and there is quite a bit of character to each zone.  However, for an RPG the instancing is quite heavy and immersion suffers.  This of all my complaints I can live with though.  It’s just a minor gripe.

There is no question I am happy I backed this project.  Ultima III is what got me into gaming in the first place, and I’ve played every Garriot game since.  He is someone I greatly admire and have a ton of respect for, and his legacy in the genre is possibly unsurpassed.  

Looking forward to the single player RPG and what stories New Britannia will bring!