All the time through playing Shroud of the Avatar, I found myself wanting to like the game a lot more than I did. And my brain kept turning back to Minecraft, which seems like a worthwhile comparison to make.
Much like SOTA, Minecraft is a game strongly based on the concept of making your own fun. You are definitely making your own adventure in the game. But at the same time, it seems very relevant to point out that the game starts by giving you a clear set of parameters to work within. Monsters will spawn at night, there are resources under ground, you break things to get better things, and then combine those things to make still better things. From there on out, much of the game is devoted to figuring out how these various elements play off of one another.
So they’re both sandbox-ish titles in which you make your own fun. Except that one of them starts by showing you the fun that you’re supposed to be having and giving you a goal, and it does so with absolutely no story to guide you along that route. It shows you exactly the sort of game it’s trying to be and lets you start working at meeting it halfway. But SOTA never quite got there, at least for me.
The votes for this Choose My Adventure game were definitely tilted toward having me make my own fun, and hey, I am all about that. The problem is that the game never points you toward the fun. In fact, several parts of the game seem woefully user-unfriendly to the point of being borderline unplayable. I’ve grumbled about most of that over the course of several weeks, so it’s unnecessary to re-state all of that, but the problem is still there. It just never quite comes around to being fun.
You have a lot of grinding you can do, but not much indication of what you’re grinding for. The story lacks much in the way of pointers or guidance or even investment. Heck, starting out in the game I wound up in the aftermath of a massacre and had NPCs there telling me it was sad rather than my actually experiencing anything sad about it. There was no chance to feel sympathy for anyone except “oh, lots of elves are dead here.”
Compare that to almost any other starting experience. Blade & Soul, for instance, had a new experience when you started that rushed you at high speed through several stereotypical characters dying, and it didn’t really elicit much connection. But the effort was there to make you feel for these people, to forge that connection of “this is a sad thing happening” instead of having someone walk up to you and tell you “this happened and it was sad.” You had agency and connection.
So the story never really connected, and yet there was very little guidance about doing anything outside of that story. I could see that it was there, but even the game seemed to have little interest in showing it to me. Grinding was there, and there was a fun to that, but there wasn’t an end goal beyond grinding. Grind more stuff here, then keep grinding, then grind even more so you can grind harder things even faster. And all in a style that obscures most of how you’re gaining skills or abilities, so you never really seem to know how each bit of interaction affects anything else.
Everything seems built with an eye toward increasing “immersion” instead of providing necessary information, but looking at a page of stats doesn’t demolish my immersion, it enhances it. It lets me know if what I’m doing in the game is actually working. Why does the game seem so afraid to show me the fruits of my labor? I don’t know.
There’s also stuff that I didn’t actually even brush up against, like the player-owned towns. Yes, the wiki lists a lot of those as actual ghost towns. How accurate is that? I don’t know, but based on my own experience seeing only a handful of people running around even in the city, it seems plausible. While the concept is beyond neat, the actual execution is something else altogether, and it implies to me that either not many people are playing the game or that the player-owned towns are rather oversold.
There truly are some cool ideas for housing and having an open plot in SOTA, but the actual requirements for doing so seem prohibitive. That isn’t helped by the fact that the game doesn’t seem to actually be built for other people; it felt like a single-player title that had multiplayer access bolted on after the fact, probably a consequence of its original potential for offline play.
And the part that I kept asking, back and forth, is the eternal question of how much of this comes down to bad design and how much is just design that isn’t personally resonant for me. But after a month of playing, I’m honestly of the mind that even if this is exactly what all of the game’s backers wanted, there are just too many fundamental areas where the game is actively hostile to new players. So much of the game made me feel like I wasn’t wanted in the title at all, that all I had to do was grind to earn… a reward so vague as to be functionally nonexistent.
I’m going to assume that the game has some form of cosmetic outfit system, but I certainly never saw any sign of it. There’s lots of space to explore, but precious little reason given to do so; at no point did I even find myself think that heading down into one cave or another would produce some valuable upgrades. Why would I need better equipment? Why should I go work on crafting? What is any of this actually going to get me?
Maybe it’d have been easier there were some sort of a regular map or something, even just something to point me toward relevant points of interest outside of a community-designed out-of-game map. Or better storytelling, or clearer goals, or just something. Something to mirror that aforementioned Minecraft push of “here’s what you’re doing and why, go have fun with it.”
This galls me when combined with the sort of weasely statements akin to “the story is going to be complete, but the game isn’t launching at this point.” It feels like the game equivalent of far too many people I know in real life who have frozen themselves in perpetual adolescence, forever making changes but not actually working toward any sort of goal. Instead of reaching a point of standing up and taking responsibility for what works and what doesn’t, the game seems poised to just forever remain “in development” as if it can’t ever adjust or improve after launch.
But the real reason is that you can always claim that there’s a beautiful and magical version of the game waiting just over the hill as long as it’s still in development. Eventually, it’ll all come together and be fun and have a purpose, you’ll see! But that point only seems to get further away, not closer.
On some level I can understand why people would like the game. I can understand the appeal in broad strokes. But in practice, SOTA doesn’t seem to actually deliver on any of that appeal for a modern MMORPG player, moving instead into the territory of just retreading older design pitfalls without ever moving above them.
Another analogy that springs to mind. When Hasbro launched Transformers: Armada, one of its biggest goals from a toy design standpoint seemed to be based around going back to the mid-’90s and following toy design down an alternate path, one that favored blockier joints and gimmick-based design over the “highly posable, intricate transformation” style that had dominated the line since Beast Wars first showed up. It was a throwback, but it was a throwback with a goal, an attempt to follow a different sort of development.
Shroud of the Avatar feels like a throwback, but rather than trying to head back and try something new, it’s content to just be a throwback. It feels outdated before it has even launched, and while it has minor things to recommend it, the best thing I can say about it is that parts of it remind me of an old-school roguelike with more modern graphics. If that seems like damning with faint praise, it kind of is.
I know there’s a fun game buried under there somewhere, and I really want to like it. But as it stands, it’s just not sealing the deal. The inaccessibility of housing, user-unfriendly interface troubles, and copious grinding for no real end goal kills that fun dead pretty quickly as the title stands right now.
During the introduction, the core story conceit is that you get sucked into a vibrant world where you’d like to live. It’s a pity, then, that the actual game seems more like a series of paper cutouts masquerading as a world.
I fell into a burning path of fire
The next CMA title is not one that is going to involve voting… or, perhaps more accurately, it’s one that people already voted on months ago. Because it’s time to head to Guild Wars 2 for the expansion.
Back in the middle of exploring Neverwinter, you may remember that I posed a question to the community about revisiting games I know. The consensus – by a notable if not overwhelming margin – was to do so in the event that the changes to the game were substantial enough to merit it. And shock of shocks, I think that the GW2 changes are significant enough, seeing as how I haven’t played the game since before Heart of Thorns.
So I’ll be heading back into Tyria again… but we’ll learn more about that next week. For now, you can leave feedback in the comments below or send them along to firstname.lastname@example.org. Right now, I need to start thinking about which of these many class options I want to go with.