The time has come to play Shroud Of The Avatar at last, the first new Lord British game I’ll have played since Ultima 9 back in 1999. There haven’t exactly been many others to choose from in the intervening 20 years and none whatsoever offering a single player experience. Around a quarter of that time been spent building up to Shroud and in my case the excitement of the Kickstarter wore off some years back if I’m honest. I’ve deliberately not followed the development whatsoever so I could play the game without any foreknowledge but I’ve certainly heard enough negativity to be apprehensive now it comes round to actually playing it.
In truth, I’ve never been overly optimistic about Shroud from the beginning. The obvious concern was the fact that Richard hadn’t produced a truly successful single player game since Ultima 7 way back in the early 90’s or any single player game at all since the late 90’s. Developing games is clearly going to be a different beast these days and we’ve seen plenty of other developers from that era flounder with far less ambitious titles.
Speaking of which, the joint online/single player experience seemed wildly ambitious for the budget. In terms of the games actually produced by 90’s era developers via Kickstarter, the ones I’ve enjoyed the most have been those that have been unashamedly retro in their nature. Games like Thimbleweed Park prove how successful that can be. I also loved Tesla Effect, a game which was pure fan service and being one of those fans I was all for this. I would have been perfectly fine if Shroud had used Ultima 7-like technology so the major effort could go into the story, dialog and world.
My first view of what was at the time being bandied about as “Ultimate-RPG” was during my trip to Austin some years back where I was fortunate enough to get a look around the Portalarium offices. This was before Shroud was announced and Portalarium were building up to their big RPG game via several smaller releases. The way I remember it at the time, Richard said he was keen to do something away from the fantasy genre having spent years with Ultima and there was indeed an array of sci-fi concept art for the game on the the wall of the meeting room. I was definitely surprised when about 8 months later Shroud was announced as it was a major departure from what had been in the offing some months back.
While there was always going to be a cloth map, Richard had been adamant months prior about not producing a boxed version since no one wanted them any more. Being partial to a big box myself, I argued the case with him but wasn’t swaying his opinion. Ultimately we did get a big box so something clearly changed his mind, with a cloth map and physical manuals including a look back at one of his old notebooks. It’s a really nice package and whatever people may think of the game, at least the packaging is appropriate. So many Kickstarters have failed to deliver on physical rewards that I’m reluctant to back many of them any more. The aforementioned Tesla Effect is a prime example.
As for what it’s like to play Shroud, I’m about 8 hours in which is far enough to offer a first opinion at least. To be blunt, I’m not enjoying it all that much, to the extent that I’m questioning whether it’s worth sticking with. I’m not going to say that it’s terrible, rather the experience has been insipid and uninspiring. Playing the single player offline mode, it reminds me a lot of Ultima 9 minus the excellent dungeons, music and detailed world. It’s not all bad, the world is certainly large enough from what I’ve seen and the graphics while dated can still make an impression at some of the more sweeping vistas. I’ve “borrowed” a couple of screenshots from the Shroud forums – the game certainly isn’t as ugly as some people would have you believe.
I would say is that the world has been much less interesting to explore than Ultima 9 with no real rewards for searching around the map and lots of empty spaces. The trappings of this being an online game are readily evident playing in offline mode. Rows of giant empty houses with for sale signs fill up every town. Every time I return to a map, the same monsters are in the same locations and you can even see them pop into existence again in these spots if you wait around for a while.
The storyline and dialog is probably what is holding me back from enjoying Shroud more than anything else. The dialog system is basically a combination of Ultima 4 and 6 with selectable keywords but also the option to type in anything you like. This is a decent enough choice even if the presentation here is sub-U6 given the lack of character portraits. The trouble is most of these characters have no character. Every NPC will spout reams of similar dialog, precious little of which holds any interest. The quests they will give you are the usual fetch this, kill that fare. The people you met in Ultima games were usually bursting with personality but it’s simply not been the case here. The game world appears to be far too large for it’s own good, given the size of the team working on this.
I’m less than clear on where the overall plot is heading. It hasn’t gone much beyond a load of apparently evil elves attacking everyone else for no clear reason and I’m supposed to fix it all somehow. I’ve spent the majority of my time simply building up lists of quests and then heading to the arrows on my map to complete them. This is exactly the sort of thing that wasn’t supposed to happen in Shroud the way I recall. Said quests are frequently bugged and I’ve been unable to complete several of them having fetched whatever item someone wants and then being unable to give it to them.
I’m not giving up on it yet. There are hints of Ultima particularly in the shape of an Oracle that I’ve talked to a couple of times who will tell me how I’m doing in terms of virtue. I can’t say I’ve seen many chances to obviously affect these values yet and imagine it will be expanded upon later. I do get the impression that there is depth to the world but that it’s not being presented to the player particularly well. Maybe going in cold wasn’t the best idea after all but I’ll be persevering in the hopes that Shroud will grow on me eventually. It has to be said that were it anyone else’s game, I probably would have given up by now but I’ll put in some more hours before I offer a full opinion.