Choose My Adventure: Exploring Shroud of the Avatar’s (not so) open wilds

    
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Hello, friends, and welcome to the penultimate installment of Choose My Adventure: Shroud of the Avatar. Last week, in addition to giving the game’s combat system a piece of my mind that I will never get back, I also asked you fine folks to vote on how I should build my character and how I should spend my playtime over the course of the weekend.

On the character build front, the vote went soundly in favor of melee-magic hybrid, which received a fairly sizeable 34% of the vote, though pure magic and ranged-magic hybrid both put up a decent struggle with 23% and 19% of the vote, respectively. Meanwhile, on the playstyle side of things, y’all resoundingly decided that I should put both questing and crafting on the backburner in favor of some old-fashioned exploration, which won with a commanding 51% of the vote.

So as always, I have done as you bid me to do, and I’m here this week to report back on my adventures, though in this case, “misadventures” is probably the more appropriate term. At any rate, let’s go ahead and get down to it, shall we?

I was hoping that after my time playing explorer in the game last weekend, I’d be able to come back to y’all this week with some grand, exciting tales of my adventures into the great unknown and the surprising discoveries I made there. Unfortunately, I have no such tales to tell. I think that the reason for this is that, outside of the civilization of towns and player-created settlements, Shroud of the Avatar‘s world of New Britannia seems to be remarkably empty.

Now, it might actually be the case that New Britannia is absolutely brimming with interesting locations to explore, each with its own hidden secrets for the intrepid explorer to happen across, and the problem is, in fact, that I’m simply not intrepid enough, but even if it isn’t empty, it certainly felt that way to me.

For those who are unaware, traveling between important locations — known as “scenes” — such as towns, adventuring areas, and the like, is done by way of an overworld map, which, for those of you who have somehow managed to avoid playing a game with an overworld, is a scaled-down version of the entire world with certain points of interest marked throughout.

Most of the scenes themselves that I came across were rather small — many of them weren’t even quite the size of a single “zone” in more seamless games — and while the game does a reasonable job at making sure that a given scene never overtly looks or feels confining, each has an explicit border, whether in the form of impassable walls (often disguised as a particularly dense line of trees or the like) or simply an invisible boundary line that, when crossed, takes you back to the overworld.

Because of this, I felt like there was often very little exploration to do in most of the scenes I was able to thoroughly explore, which ultimately ended up being only five or six. I went to way more than that, mind you, but most of them were inhabited by things that didn’t much care for my presence or, moreover, my continued existence. However, in the scenes I was able to explore, I felt like there wasn’t really all that much to be found, save for some resource harvesting nodes.

No mysterious caverns tucked away into the sides of mountains, no mysterious, crumbling ruins in an out-of-the-way forest clearing, nothing like that. It was a bit disappointing, sure, but I’d be lying if I said it surprised me, given the game’s early state. In fact, I would honestly be more than a little concerned if the devs were focusing on adding little surprises for explorers instead of adding and refining the game’s fundamental systems.

Even though my exploration was largely fruitless, there was one aspect that I found interesting: Much like in many traditional single-player RPGs that utilized overworld maps for travel, Shroud of the Avatar makes it possible for players to come across random encounters during their journeys in the overworld. Although it’s incredibly uncommon (or I’m incredibly unlucky), every now and then during overworld travel you’ll receive a notification telling you that something off the trail has caught your eye, and then you’ll load into a little mini-scene that has some sort of scenario in which you can take part.

For instance, the first time I got a random encounter, I was placed in a scene that featured some crumbling ruins that had been overrun with undead. I assume that there was probably treasure in said ruins, but a trio of undead archers who would constantly run from me the moment I entered melee range, fended me off with aplomb, so I will never know what fabulous riches might have awaited me.

The second time, I stumbled right into the midst of a bandit gang’s highway ambush. By this point in time, I had scraped together enough cash to buy myself a proper set of armor and a sharp new sword, so I put them down with relative ease and claimed my loot, which ended up being just a few spell reagents. Useful enough, mind you, as some of my more powerful spells (including my favorite, which sets my weapon ablaze for the duration) require them, but I’m not sure why the bandits thought it necessary to guard them with a solid dozen of their men, especially since the bandits themselves carried more gold than the reagents were worth.

And while we’re (sort of) on the topic of combat, I have a few comments to make in addition to last week’s tirade. In fact, I actually have something of an apology. Now, don’t get me wrong; I still think that Shroud of the Avatar‘s combat is painfully slow and unwieldy, and I still think it needs a pretty severe overhaul, but I discovered a few things over the course of the weekend that have, at the very least, managed to add some flavor to the game’s otherwise unpalatable combat.

As I said last week, the game’s combat relies on the usual tab-targeting, hotkey-mashing system that we all know and love — or just know, at any rate. What I discovered this weekend, however, is that there are actually a number of different options for setting up your hotbars that may actually, in my estimation, lead to some pretty interesting tactical decisions. So basically, here’s how it goes: There are these things called decks, which you can think of as being exactly like decks of cards, but in this case, each card is a skill. The selection of skills available to a given character at any given time is determined by that character’s currently equipped deck.

In the screenshot above, you can see the interface used to create and modify skill decks. Each deck has three main components: First, you have the aforementioned selection of skills — referred to in the game as “glyphs.” In the top panel on the left, you can see all of the skills that my character has learned and/or unlocked. The panel on the right lists all of the skills that I have added to the current deck. When this deck is equipped, only the skills listed in the right panel will be available for use.

“But Matt,” you may be saying, “it says that you have 19 glyphs equipped in that deck, but there are only 10 hotbar slots; what gives?” I’m glad you asked. The second main component of a skill deck is the hotbar layout, which you can see below the two glyph panels. As you can see, there are indeed 10 slots, each assigned to one of the number keys, as is the custom.

You may also have noticed, however, that there’s a little padlock icon underneath each slot that has a skill in it; that’s where the tricky bit comes in. Hotkey 1, 2, and 3 each contains an ability, and the gold padlock icon indicates that they are locked, which means that whenever I am in combat, those three abilities will always be available for use, and they will always occupy slots 1, 2, and 3.

Hotkeys 4, 5, and 6, on the other hand, are not locked, and hotkeys 7, 8, 9, and 10 have no abilities slotted into them whatsoever. What gives? Well, let’s start with 7, 8, 9 and 10: When you choose not to place an ability in a given hotkey slot, that means that, during combat, that slot will be filled by a random ability drawn from the deck; when you use that ability, it will then be replaced by another randomly-drawn ability, and so on. But why would you want to do that when you can just have a traditional, fixed hotbar by locking abilities in place?

Well for one, there’s the matter of versatility; you can have only ten abilities slotted and locked into place at any given time, but if you want to have a wider variety of abilities at your disposal at any given time, you can include more than ten abilities in the deck and leave a few hotkey slots open for those skills to be dealt into. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is that abilities that have been locked into place, as is the case with hotkeys 1, 2, and 3 in the screenshot, cost considerably more focus (the resource required to cast spells and use abilities) than abilities that have been randomly dealt from the deck into an empty slot.

Since the lock option applies on a per-slot basis, you can choose to have all 10 slots empty to receive randomly dealt abilities, have a fixed set of 10 abilities locked in at all times, or anything in between. In the screenshot above — which, just for the record, was put together just as an example and is not the deck I’ve actually been using — the abilities in slots 1, 2, and 3 are permanently locked into place and will be available for use at all times, but at the cost of expending more focus with each use; slots 7, 8, 9, and 10, meanwhile, are left empty, and will be filled with randomly-dealt skills from my deck over the course of combat. There’s also the matter of slots 4, 5, and 6, which have skills slotted into them, but are not locked. As far as I can tell, this simply ensures that, when the slotted skill is drawn randomly from the deck, it will be placed in that slot, but it does not make the skill available at all times the same way that locking a slot does.

So that was a bit of a drawn-out explanation. Sorry about that; it was a lot more difficult to explain than I thought it would be. But the point I was getting at, ultimately, is that, while this system by no means forgives the previously harped-upon sluggishness of combat as a whole, it certainly does provide it with at least a bit more depth than I had initially realized, since it requires players to make some interesting decisions in regard to balancing the focus-efficiency and consistency of their skill decks according to the needs of a given combat situation.

In accordance with last week’s vote, I have taken the first steps toward building my character as a melee-magic hybrid — a battlemage, we’ll call it for the sake of brevity. Since I started the game on the path of Mage-Truth, my character was already well-equipped with a number of (mostly fire-magic) spells, so I decided to just start with the basics and invested in picking up the first skills in the heavy armor and shield trees, but now that the time has come for me to start specializing further, I need you folks to tell me in which areas my specialties should lie. So, since we’re building a battlemage, I figured we could split the vote into “battle” and “mage” segments. Brilliant, right?

On the “battle” end of things, there are two main decisions to make: armor type and weapon preference. As I mentioned, I picked up the first skills in the heavy armor and shield trees, and I’ve been doing battle with chainmail, sword, and shield with reasonable success, but perhaps ye olde sworde and boarde is a bit too trite for your liking, and you’d prefer it if I branched out a bit.

As far as weapon skills are concerned, there are four trees to choose from, but one of them is for ranged weapons, and we’re not touching that crap, so effectively there are three skill trees to choose from: blades, which consists of swords and daggers, basically; bludgeons, which means clubs, maces, hammers, and, for some reason, axes (I always thought you were supposed to hit things with the sharp side of the axe, but hey, what do I know); and polearms, which consist of halberds, spears, and other such pokey implements. Weapons of each variety come in both one- and two-handed flavors as well, so I’ll need you to choose my fighting style as well: one-hander with a shield, two-hander, or dual-wielding.

CMA: Blades, Bludgeons, or Polearms?

  • Blades (35%, 49 Votes)
  • Bludgeons (and axes for some reason) (27%, 37 Votes)
  • Polearms (38%, 53 Votes)

Total Voters: 139

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CMA: With which fighting style?

  • Sword (or mace or spear or whatever)-and-board (23%, 32 Votes)
  • Two-hander (45%, 64 Votes)
  • Dual-wield (32%, 45 Votes)

Total Voters: 141

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The matter of armor is a great deal simpler: light or heavy? It’s that simple, really. Light armor includes cloth and leather armors, and while it doesn’t offer the same degree of outright physical protection as heavy armors such as chainmail and plate, it’s also far less restricting and therefore less likely to cause my spells to fizzle. The light armor skill tree also grants the ability to actively dodge in combat, but considering how unwieldy movement and combat have been so far, I’m honestly not sure if that wouldn’t be more of a handicap than a benefit. But hey, you’re the boss.

CMA: Light or heavy armor?

  • Light (Cloth, leather, etc.) (37%, 50 Votes)
  • Heavy (Chain, plate, etc.) (63%, 85 Votes)

Total Voters: 135

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Now, about the “mage” part: There are nine different schools of magic, and I’m not going to make you read another thousand words in order to go into each one in detail; most of them are fairly self-explanatory, but if you want to know more about the skills each school provides, here’s a link to the relevant Shroud of the Avatar wiki page.

The schools are Air, Chaos, Death, Earth, Fire, Life, Moon, Sun, and Water. It’s worth noting that each school, with the exception of Chaos, has an “opposing” school (water and fire, life and death, etc.), and increasing the attunement skill in one school — which buffs all spells within that school — makes spells of the opposing school less effective. I’ll be concentrating on the two schools of magic that receive the most and second-most votes, so I’m gonna let everyone choose two responses for this poll. Use your power wisely.

CMA: Which schools of magic should I specialize in?

  • Air (1%, 2 Votes)
  • Chaos (24%, 49 Votes)
  • Death (19%, 40 Votes)
  • Earth (4%, 8 Votes)
  • Fire (16%, 33 Votes)
  • Life (12%, 24 Votes)
  • Moon (14%, 29 Votes)
  • Sun (5%, 10 Votes)
  • Water (5%, 11 Votes)

Total Voters: 136

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I was really hoping to be able to take a look at player housing for the last article of this run, but unfortunately, I’m still nowhere near having the ludicrous sums of money required to buy a housing deed — much less to actually build a house — so I’m afraid that’s off the table. In lieu of that, I figure it’s probably a safe bet to spend some time diving into crafting instead. So the question is, which profession should I dabble in: alchemy, blacksmithing, carpentry, cooking, or tailoring? The choice, as ever, is yours.

CMA: And finally, which profession should I take up?

  • Alchemy (38%, 50 Votes)
  • Blacksmithing (29%, 39 Votes)
  • Carpentry (17%, 23 Votes)
  • Cooking (10%, 13 Votes)
  • Tailoring (6%, 8 Votes)

Total Voters: 133

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That’s all for this week, folks. Make sure you get your votes in by Friday, January 22nd, at 11:59 p.m. EST, and be sure to stop by next week for what will surely be a riveting conclusion to my time in Shroud of the Avatar. Until then, friends.

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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blackcatcrosses
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blackcatcrosses

Ironwu I think killing the ‘muscle memory combat sequence’ aka rotation is probably the best thing about this game.

blackcatcrosses
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blackcatcrosses

209vaughn CistaCista It’s also absolutely old school Ultima to do it that way.

209vaughn
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209vaughn

CistaCista The overland map is actually not that bad.  It really ends up being a pretty immersive form of fast travel.  But what is not good is small scenes.  So far it seems like it’s hard to get lost exploring and discovering, which is a staple of MMORPG’s in general.

This btw is coming from someone who is really excited about Sota and think that there are a lot of interesting things they are doing.

FunkyCold
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FunkyCold

sfrees80 I actually really liked the combat system once I got to a certain level and could fight multiple difficult enemies. It kept it fresh and exciting to me, rather than knowing that in X seconds, skill Y would be off cooldown, and I needed to press Z key to activate it….

To start with it feels odd and a bit dull but when I got lots of skills it heated the combat up. The other issues being mentioned I completely agree with (small zones, lack of content, non-immersive world..)

sfrees80
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sfrees80

That sounds horrible. It’s like the design team got together and brainstormed the topic: how can we make combat unpleasant in SotA?

Shadanwolf
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Shadanwolf

Seems to me  that I should forget about this game till 2017 then see it its still being worked on.

CistaCista
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CistaCista

I had high hopes that I would be playing this game with friends at launch, but that overworld system is really a stinker. It saddens me but I won’t be trying SotA out. I need an open world to adventure and live in.

JayPower
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JayPower

Dual pole arm wielding, light armor wearing, sun magic “Praise the sun!” casting cooking expert.

Bionicall
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Bionicall

Ironwu Not entirely true with respect to the ‘muscle memory’ comment. As Matt pointed out, you can choose to ‘Lock’ skills to your hot bar, but at the cost of these skills costing more (focus) to use. I personally have played with my entire hot bar with locked skills, and as far as I am aware, the only thing I miss out on is the chance to do combo’s. While locked skills also have an increased cooldown, these 2 downsides do not counter-act something that Matt didn’t mention in his article. Slug Glyphs. While heavy armour increases fizzle chance it also increased the number of ‘Slug Glyphs’ (not sure how true this in the current release). A Slug glyph meant that randomly during combat you couldn’t activate that hot-bar slot. Potentially if the RNG hated you, you could have your entire bar with these Slug Glyphs, meaning you stood around in combat dying and unable to do a thing about it. Worse still, if you were playing a tank-y type character, this was more likely than not. Hence for the tank types locking was the only way to go.

FacelessSavior
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FacelessSavior

Ahhh! So there’s the combat ingenuity I’ve been hearing about! Dunno how it feels, but I’m interested in anything that breaks from the tab-target, hotkey, norm. Another interesting piece Matt, well done. :)