Review: Phantasy Star

When I was growing up in the 80’s, there were two types of kids. Nintendo kids and SEGA kids. I, like most others, was firmly committed to Nintendo. But, those kids that stood with SEGA always had a reputation for being extremely loyal to their underdog console. I’ll admit, my exposure to SEGA consoles was limited. But I never regretted my alliance. Well… mostly. If there was one thing that might have tested my loyalty, even for a moment, it was Phantasy Star.

Phantasy Star was SEGA’s premier RPG. I remember seeing an advertisement for it in a magazine and immediately wished I could get my hands on it. Everything about the game appealed to me. The colorful graphics, the Wizardry-like dungeons, you name it. This was a game that seemed tailor-made to match my interests. But, despite my desire to play it, I never had the chance to experience it for myself – until now. For quite some time now, SEGA has been re-releasing classic games under the banner: SEGA AGES. These releases feature retro SEGA games either in their original form, or enhanced for more modern consoles. Over the years, Phantasy Star has only seen a limited number of releases in the west. The most obtainable way to play the original game was a collection for the Game Boy Advance. But, the only way to experience it on a home console (aside from the original SEGA Master System) was via the imported PS2 title: Phantasy Star Complete Collection. Thankfully, players no longer have to result to overly expensive imports. SEGA has finally released an enhanced version of the game through the Nintendo Switch store. For anyone who has always wanted to experience the game, this is the version that I recommend.

Usually, when it comes to retro games, I’m a bit of a purist. I don’t mind the graphical or audio enhancements that are usually found in re-releases. But I take great offense to any additions that radically change the way the game is played. The Switch version of Phantasy Star is a rare exception to this rule. First of all, it’s important to note that if you want to play the game as it was originally released,  you can certainly do that. But the SEGA AGES release also includes a few welcome options that makes the game a little easier to digest for modern players.

First of all, if playing in “Ages Mode”, enemy encounters are less frequent than they were in the original game. Also, both experience points and gold are accrued at a higher rate. This may seem like cheating, and I guess in a way it sort of is. But if we’re being honest, most RPG fans would simply turn to the tactic of grinding away experience points early in the game, for hours on end, to make blowing through the last half of the game a breeze. This tweak basically takes away the grind so players can dive right in to the meat of the game. Again, this enhancement is completely optional. Second, the “Ages Mode” also features an auto-map system for the game’s first-person dungeons. Yes! Phantasy Star features grid-based dungeons (something I absolutely love). Back in the day, players would have to sit down with a pad of graph paper and map out these dungeons step-by-step or risk getting lost in the labyrinth. Now, this really isn’t a bad thing. Personally, I used to love mapping dungeons in Wizardry. But now, the game does it for you. Yes, you still have to explore the dungeons yourself for the auto-map to start working. But you no longer have to set the controller down and pick up a pencil and pad of paper. It’s just more convenient.

So now that we’ve covered some of the most important changes in the game’s re-release, just what is Phantasy Star all about? Well, as you have probably guessed, it’s an RPG. But one that mixes fantasy with Sci Fi. The story for Phantasy Star is simple. It takes place in a far away solar system. The system is ruled by a tyrant named Lassic. As time has gone by, Lassic has only become more and more brutal with the citizens that inhabit the planets in his system. As a result, a rebellion has sprung up. One day, a rebel soldier launches an attack on Lassic’s forces and is killed in the process. The rebel’s sister, a young girl named Alis, vows to take revenge on Lassic for the death of her brother. This is where the game begins. The player controls Alis and she explores the various towns and planets in the system, seeking allies and clues on how best to overthrow the ruthless King Lassic.

From here, Phantasy Star plays just like nearly any other RPG. Alis must talk to NPCs, decipher clues, recruit party members, obtain new weapons and armor, learn new skills, etc. A large portion of the game is played in an overhead view, much like the early Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest games. But, as I mentioned earlier, when descending into a dungeon, the game shifts to a first-person view.

The thing I think I like best about Phantasy Star is the perfect blend of science fiction and fantasy. The game will feel right at home to anyone that enjoys classic-era RPGs. But it also projects an element of something somewhat unfamiliar at the same time. It really works well. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the series has to offer. It’s a shame I waited this long to dive in to the Phantasy Star experience. If I had grown up with this game, there’s no doubt I would have become a lifelong fan. It’s a near perfect example of first generation console RPGs.

Difficulty: Medium –  If playing this game in “Ages Mode” on the Switch, you’re in for an admittedly laid back experience. The changes made to the game make it much easier than it was back in the old days. If playing the game without all of the updates, you will find more of a challenge. However, as is often the case with old RPGs, it’s very easy to grind your way to an overpowered state early in the game if you’re patient. Doing so makes the game a cinch. So in reality, if you’re willing to grind, Phantasy Star shouldn’t prove too challenging.

Story: The story for this game is not exactly unique. PC games had long been mixing together classic fantasy and Star Wars-like sci-fi for years. But this was the first time it had really been seen on a home console. The story itself is pretty basic, but very well done. I feel there could have been a bit more depth. But overall, this doesn’t end up detracting from the game in any way.

Originality: Again, the mixing of Sci-Fi and fantasy was a bit of a new concept for many players at the time. Plus, Phantasy Star has a very “anime” feel to it – in a time before anime was popular. All of this made for a pretty unique experience for players at the time of release.

Soundtrack: The music for this game is catchy, but sometimes it feels a bit out of place and quirky. Even so, I have to admit that I found it quite enjoyable. If playing this game on the SEGA Master System, you’re going to be in for a slightly disappointing experience. The music for the original US release pales in comparison to the Japanese version (which was boosted by the FM Sound chip). Thankfully, both the PS2 and Switch versions of the game feature the better of the two soundtracks.

Fun: As a fan of RPGs, I found this game to be very enjoyable. It pushed all of the right buttons. The story, the visuals, the gameplay – you name it. Phantasy Star is a blast.

Graphics: For an 8-bit RPG, Phantasy Star looks great! People can say what they want about SEGA, but that system boasted some pretty impressive graphics. This game is a perfect example. The monster sprites are detailed and the overhead map makes great use of color. Good stuff!

Playcontrol: Fair warning here – I’ve never played this game on its native hardware. So I have no idea how it may feel with a SEGA controller in your hand. But, when playing on the Switch I experienced the game with both the Joy Cons (on the screen and on the handle), and with the Pro Controller. The game controls were responsive and accurate no matter what hardware I used. Standard RPG fare here.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Fantasy violence.

Value: Finding a copy of the GBA or PS2 collections these days can be a bit difficult. If you do, you’re going to have to open your wallet. I’ve seen some of them sell for $80-$130. Thankfully, the Switch release is only $7.99. For that price, you simply can’t go wrong.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – If you like retro RPGs, this is a game worth checking out. For years, Phantasy Star was a gem that many gamers knew existed, but only a rare few had a chance to enjoy. Thankfully, that has changed. If you’re curious what all the hype is about, there’s never been a better time to find out. Let’s hope SEGA continues the trend and releases some of the other games in the series this way.

Available on: Switch eShop

 

Other Games In This Series:

Phantasy Star   –   Phantasy Star II   –   Phantasy Star III   –   Phantasy Star IV

Phantasy Star Online    –   Phantasy Star Online II   –   Phantasy Star Online III: Card Revolution

Phantasy Star 0   –    Phantasy Star Nova

Phantasy Star Universe    –   Phantasy Star Portable   –    Phantasy Star Portable 2

 

 

Third Party D&D: Creature Codex (Kobold Press)

Recently, I posted a review for a third-party D&D supplement from Kobold Press; Tome of Beasts.  Today, I want to discuss the second monster book in their series – Creature Codex.

Like its predecessor, Creature Codex started as a Kickstarter project. The campaign was a brilliant success! In fact, it even met several stretch goals resulting in a few additional supplements that were released all at the same time. These additional releases include the Creature Codex Lairs (a series of dungeons/adventures centered around some of the monsters featured in this release), and Creature Codex Pawns (a collection of cardboard pawns for use in play). For the sake of this review, I’m only going to be looking at the main Creature Codex book and its contents.

First of all, let me start by saying that a number of the monsters included in this book were designed to compliment Kobold Press’ existing Midgard campaign setting. That being said, it’s very simple to adapt them to any game. In fact, most of the monsters included in this book fit in well just about anywhere. Of course a number of them are new takes on existing monsters. For example, there’s new breeds of orcs and ghouls. There’s a slew of new angels, devils, demons, golems, etc. But there’s also quite a few unique additions included as well. So if you’re looking for something new to toss at your players, look no further. Almost every monster in this book felt fresh and useful in one way or another. There’s only a few notable exceptions that stand out. For example, “Bar Brawl” – which is not a monster at all. Instead it’s a literal bar room brawl that’s somehow rolled up into one encounter. Interesting, yes? Something I plan to use in my games? No.

As expected with any release from Kobold Press, everything presented here is top quality. All too often third-party supplements end up feeling unbalanced or even worse, hokey. This is not the case here. Each of these monsters feel like they were skillfully designed and playtested to death. That’s a very good thing. I was so impressed with the contents of this book, that I think I’m going to take a look into some of Kobold Press’ other releases as well. Seriously, you can’t go wrong with this supplement.

Creature Codex is available on Amazon and most retail bookstores where D&D material is sold.

Collective Review: Ninja Gaiden Trilogy

Wow! It has been quite some time since I reviewed an NES title! This is mainly due to the fact that I played the majority of the NES games on my list years ago. Now, that I’ve started my Retro Rewind posts, I can finally catch up on a number of classics that slipped through the cracks. When I glanced over my NES backlog, looking for un-ticked entries, the three Ninja Gaiden games were some of my most glaring omissions. This trilogy is a classic from my youth. It was a pleasure to go back and enjoy these titles again after all this time.

Despite being a smash hit for the NES, the Ninja Gaiden series actually has its roots in the arcade.  The arcade version was a 16-bit side-scrolling beat-em-up that was infamous for its difficulty level. In many ways, the game itself was very reminiscent of the arcade Double Dragon titles. The player controlled a nameless ninja that would combat enemies in various US cities. The player could climb walls, swing off lamp posts and use a variety of weapons. Ninja Gaiden was a major success and as you might expect, a home version was just around the corner. Of course, the 16-bit Super NES was still a couple of years away. This meant that the home version of Ninja Gaiden had to be re-written for an 8-bit system.

Arcade Version of Ninja Gaiden

Despite being technologically inferior, the NES version of Ninja Gaiden is almost universally heralded as a more memorable game. The game tells the story of Ryu Hayabusa, a young ninja who is in search of his missing father. His journey brings him to the United States where he learns that a terrifying cult is attempting to bring about the end of the world. His father was attempting to put an end to this group when he mysteriously vanished. From this point on, Ryu teams up with the C.I.A. in attempt to finish what his father started.

In a move that was unique at the time, the storyline for the game is told in a series of cutscenes that are played at the beginning and end of each level. These scenes featured impressive graphics for the time and did an impressive job of keeping players invested in the game.

The game itself is a side-scrolling platformer that is somewhat similar to the early Castlevania titles. Ryu must leap over obstacles, combat enemies, and collect power-ups/special weapons. At the end of each level is a boss. Defeating the boss ends the level and progresses the game’s story. Being a ninja, Ryu can also grab on to flat surfaces. In first game, players are unable to climb, but can still launch special attacks while grappling. Even though you cannot climb up and down vertical surfaces, it is still possible to “catch and release” your way around. Meaning, Ryu can jump, land on a wall, then drop, flip up and catch the wall again at a higher or lower location. Learning this technique is difficult. But once mastered, you will be able to grab and repel Ryu around with ease.

Ninja Gaiden is often remembered for its difficulty. The game actually starts off fairly easy. But the difficulty does a slow burn until it finally boils over in the last two levels of the game. As a child, I admit to raging quite a bit at this game. But as with many platformers, it’s all about trial and error and muscle memory. So with discipline it’s certainly possible to see through to the end.

Ninja Gaiden

Naturally, the success of Ninja Gaiden resulted in a sequel. The second game picks up about a year after the first chapter. After the defeat of the cult leader Jacquio, in the first Ninja Gaiden title, a new enemy has appeared; the mysterious Emperor Ashtar. After Jacquio’s earlier defeat, Ashtar is hellbent on upping the ante to enslave the world to his dark god. As part of an investigation into this threat, Irene (Ryu’s love interest from the original game, and also agent of the C.I.A.) is captured. As you might expect, Ryu is recruited to rescue Irene and put an end to Ashtar’s plans.

Ninja Gaiden II takes everything that is great about the original game and improves on it. This time, Ryu is able to climb up and down walls without needing to “latch and release”. There’s also a handful of new skills and weapons at the Ryu’s disposal. One of the most prominent of these is the “Shadow Clone” ability that provide Ryu with a spectral phantom of himself that mimics is every movement.  This game also features cutscenes between levels and continues the series’ tradition of brutal difficulty.

For many, myself included, Ninja Gaiden II is the high watermark of the trilogy.

Ninja Gaiden II Cutscene

The third game in the series, Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom, actually takes place chronologically between the first and second game. In this game, Irene is believed to have been murdered and Ryu is the prime suspect. Ryu conducts an investigation into her disappearance. His mission leads him to a secret fortress where he uncovers a terrifying government plot. From a storytelling standpoint, this game drifts away from the much of the imagery found in the first two titles. In this title, the focus shifts from “doomsday cult” to “bio-terror conspiracy”. In many ways, this new direction resulted in a game that seems out of place with the rest of the series in terms of storytelling.

Despite having a slightly different vibe, the gameplay in Ninja Gaiden III is nearly identical to the other two titles in the series. The big addition this time is Ryu’s ability grab on to overhead objects and swing around. (This is actually reminiscent of what is seen in the original arcade version of Ninja Gaiden).  This game also continues the series’ trend for extreme difficulty. But this time even ups the ante by limiting the number of times players are able to continue. The game itself is very well done, and I suppose deserves some praise for trying to take the series in a slightly new direction. But in the end, it has a hard time comparing to the first two games. Instead, we are left with a game that tends to be overlooked by players in favor of it’s predecessors.

When I sat down to do this review, it had been many years since I spent any time with these games. The nostalgia trip was amazing. The Ninja Gaiden series represents “Nintendo hard” at its finest. If you’re a fan of retro-style platformers this is a series that deserves your attention.

Ninja Gaiden III

Difficulty: Hard –  All three games in the Ninja Gaiden trilogy are known for their high degree of difficulty. Ninja Gaiden II is often considered to be the hardest, followed by Ninja Gaiden III, and finally the original game. Personally, I feel that the third chapter is actually the most difficult of the three. But in truth, all three games are nearly equal in their brutality. If you decide to take on these games and see them to completion, just remember to breathe and try not to throw your controller.

Story: The storyboard-style cutscenes in all three games are very well done. Of the three, the first chapter is probably the best storywise. The second entry is quite good as well, but a bit predictable. The storyline for the third game is unique, but it does seem a bit out of place with the rest of the series.

Originality: The Ninja Gaiden games don’t really provide much new in terms of gameplay. The movie-like element in which the story unravels was pretty unique at the time, but the games themselves didn’t really break any new ground. Thankfully, this doesn’t really detract from the fun.

Soundtrack: All three games boast a score that is both catchy and unique. Even though the games are obviously martial arts oriented, the music is not Asian-themed. Instead, most of the tunes tend to be upbeat and speedy. This actually works well as much of the action in these games is fast-paced. The result is a fitting and groovy soundtrack.

Fun: Gamers who enjoy platformers are going to like Ninja Gaiden. The biggest fun-killer here is going to be the difficulty level. Of course, if you’re enjoying these games on an emulator or through the Switch/Virtual Console the temptation to use savestates is ever present. As always, I advise against cheesing your way through games. There’s nothing quite like the sense of triumph of finally conquering a real challenge.

Graphics: The graphics in all three of the Ninja Gaiden games are a bit of a mixed bag. The cutscenes are wonderfully done and represent some of the best art you’ll see on the original NES. The games themselves leave a little to be desired. The color palate always felt a little washed-out to me. There’s just something about them that I can’t quite put my finger on. Regardless, all three games look pretty much the same with very little to distinguish one from the other.

Playcontrol: For the most part the playcontrol on all three of these games is pretty well done. The controls are responsive and accurate. The biggest gripe comes with the first game and the way wall-jumping in handled. It just feels a bit stiff and un-natural to me. But overall, no real complaints.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Fantasy violence.

Value: Finding these games for purchase today can be a little tough, even digitally. Currently, all three titles are available on the Wii U virtual console for $4.99 each. To be honest, this is still a pretty good price. Currently, the first Ninja Gaiden is available as part of the Nintendo Switch Online service.  (Priced at $20 a year)

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – The Ninja Gaiden trilogy, as a whole, is a classic representation of old school action gaming. The games are challenging, fun, and interesting. Of the three, the first game is best for the story, the second for it’s gameplay, and the third for its uniqueness.  Together, they average a three out of four in my book. Even though they are single player titles, games like these are great for playing side-by-side with a friend, passing the controller back and forth. They are tough. But that only makes conquering them all the more rewarding.

Available on: Wii U Virtual Console  (Ninja Gaiden also available on Nintendo Switch Online)

 

Other Games In This Series:

Ninja Gaiden Trilogy

Ninja Gaiden (reboot)    –   Ninja Gaiden 2  (reboot)

Nerd Fuel: Community Coffee – Founder’s Blend

Recently I complained about the lack of new coffee options at my local grocery store. This led me to venture out of town in search of some new varieties to sample. As a result of my efforts, I have found a number of new (at least to me) and exciting flavors and blends to share with you all. Today, I’m going to take a look at a new release by Community Coffee. I’ve discussed their Cafe’ Special blend in the past and I was extremely impressed by it. So, when I found out they now have a special “Private Reserve” label, I was more than eager to try it. For this review, I picked up a box of their Private Reserve: Founder’s Blend. These Private Reserve coffee are special blends made to be commemorative. The intent is to honor one thing or another, thereby creating a coffee that is supposed to capture the essence of whatever it is they are celebrating. Sounds intriguing and artful? Yes. Realistically gimmicky? Probably. Regardless, I was intrigued enough to give it a try.

This coffee was crafted in attempt to honor the founder of Community Coffee, a man known as Cap Saurage. It is a blend of several different African and South American sourced beans. It’s a medium roast that’s a bit on the darker side, but with a rather mild aroma. The flavor is also fairly mild, with little bitterness. It’s good. But to be honest, it doesn’t stand out from many other “house blends”. However, it does have a unique smoothness that would make it ideal for an iced coffee.

I like seeing these coffee companies venturing out into new territory. Without a doubt, this a very high quality product. But there’s very little about it that makes it stand out against the competition. The extra dollar or so that they are charging for this “premium” label doesn’t really seem justified when I find most other signature blends to be just as well crafted. Regardless, it’s certainly worth picking up if you want a higher quality “please everyone” coffee. Good stuff, but not unique enough to rave about

Score: 3 out of 4

Would Purchase again?: Maybe. Definitely a good brew, but not particularly better than their Cafe’ Special offering which is available for a lower cost.

 

Spring 2019 Update

A few months ago, when I completed my initial playthroughs for the PS1/N64 era, I introduced the “Retro Flashback” series of articles on this site. This was my way to sort of play catch up before starting to dive into the next generation of gaming. So far, I’ve covered the golden age of video games with coin-op classics and a look at the Atari 2600. Next, I touched a bit on the NES and the Sega Master System. From there, we took a look at some classic PC games, which is what actually opened the can of worms that led to “Project Ultima”. At any rate, having completed Project  Ultima, I’m now ready to pick back up where I left off.

In the next couple weeks, I’ll be taking a look at a handful of classic games for the NES and the Sega Master System that I missed the first time around. Then, we’ll revisit the SNES before finally moving on to the long awaited ps2/xbox/GC portion of my backlog.  We’re getting there…

DLC Review: Final Fantasy XV – Episode Ardyn

Just when you thought you’d experienced the last that Final Fantasy XV had to offer, SE drops the final downloadable episode for the game. That’s right, this is it. The final DLC for FFXV; Episode Ardyn. Yes, I know. For a while there was a talk of a whole new slew of downloadable content. But, in the end, it was ultimately decided that the game would finally wrap-up with the telling of Ardyn’s backstory.

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, Ardyn is main villain in Final Fantasy XV. His backstory was glossed over somewhat in the main game. But attentive players were able to pick out enough details to get the gist his origins. Now, with the release of this episode, fans are able to get a much clearer picture. Actually, if you really want to see the whole shabang, you might want to first check out the official prologue anime here: Episode Ardyn Prologue . This short anime feature provides and even closer look at Ardyn’s life before he became the villain we are all familiar with. Once you’ve fully digested the contents of the anime, you should be all set to embark on this newest chapter to the FFXV story.

As with all of the episodic entries so far, players will get to see the world through the eyes of this new character. There’s a short introductory phase that serves as a bit of a tutorial. This is then followed by the main scenario in which Ardyn makes his way to royal palace to lay the smackdown on King Regis and his court. Ardyn has the unique ability to be able to “daemonize” foes. This means he can absorb their power, making him virtually immortal. Ardyn also has the ability to command and control Ifrit, the fiery summon of legend. These combined powers certainly make him force to be reckoned with (and quite fun to play).

As mentioned above, using Ardyn’s ability to absorb his enemies power is very important. Doing so will earn AP, which can then be used to unlock improved stats and abilities. Also, Ardyn can visit various clothing stores around Insomnia to obtain new hats (he’s really a big hat guy). Different hats boost stats and abilities. With this in mind, it’s certainly worth your while to explore the various parts of the city and complete all of the optional objectives. Truth be told, there’s really no need to do this. The scenario is not particularly difficult, but it’s sort of fun to barrel through insomnia smashing every up. So, why rush through it?

If you’ve played any of the other DLC scenarios, you know that completing them usually results in some special perk transferring over to the main game. This tradition continues with Episode Ardyn. Completing the DLC will unlock a new outfit and special sword. Of course by this point, most players have completed the main game many times over, so a new weapon isn’t particularly helpful – but it’s still fun to have a little added bonus.

Episode Ardyn really makes for a great capstone to the FFXV epic. The content in the add-on did seem a bit short. But, it is highly replayable and quite fun. Plus, for a $10 price tag, I’m not going to complain too much. Fans of the game will certainly find enough here to make the purchase worth it.

 

Overall Impression: A short and sweet scenario that showcases one of the most intriguing characters in the game. Good combat, great storytelling.

Value: Like the other DLC chapters, this one is short. But it is very re-playable.  Like the other DLC entries, there’s some additional modes to conquer for those that can’t get enough. The price for this entry is a little higher than the others, $10.00. But in my opinion, it is still well worth it.

Main Game:  Final Fantasy XV Review

 

Shroud of the Avatar

 

When it comes to classic CRPGs, few games can compare to the heralded Ultima series. It was a franchise that helped define a genre of games for generations to come. Crafted by the legendary Richard Garriott, each game that bore the Ultima title attempted to break new ground in nearly every aspect of gameplay. For many years, the series was successful at doing just that. However, corporate deadlines and economic pressure caused the later games in the series to suffer from a number of quality issues. Meanwhile, Ultima Online, the original ground-breaking MMO, saw unprecedented success. In fact, it still operates to this very day and continues to have a respectable-sized playerbase. But for fans of the single player games, time has not been as kind. It has been twenty years since the release of Ultima IX, and there’s little hope that fans will ever see another game that bears the Ultima name.

All is not lost. Longtime fans of the Ultima series should take notice! In 2013, Richard Garriott re-emerged with an announcement. He had started a new development studio and he planned to launch a Kickstarter campaign to help fund a new game that would be the spiritual successor to Ultima. This game is Shroud of the Avatar. His plan was a bold one. Over the course of several years he would release a total of five episodes bearing the Shroud of the Avatar name. The first entry, Forsaken Virtues, entered alpha testing in 2014.

Being a Kickstarter project, the game was initially funded by fan-made donations. Backers would receive both early-access to the game as it was being developed, plus a final copy once the game was completed. Also, depending on the amount pledged, backers would also be rewarded with a number of exclusive perks (both digital and physical). The campaign was a success and Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues saw an official release in the spring of 2018.

On a personal note, I became aware of this game shortly after it was announced. But I did not contribute to the Kickstarter campaign. Instead, I chose to purchase the game once the early-access version went public on Steam. During those early days, I only spent a scant amount of time checking things out and getting a feel for how things worked. The game was changing drastically from month-to-month so I decided to put it on the back burner until things stabilized. (However, I could not resist logging on during the “end of the world” party, right before the game officially went live.) I didn’t give this game my full attention until fall of last year.

So, now that we’ve had a brief history behind Shroud of the Avatar, just what is this game all about. Well, that’s not such an easy question to answer. SotA is a very unique game. It’s a new game with an old feel. Even a cursory glance will reveal this to be a modern title. But, once you take a closer look, it becomes obvious that this game wasn’t designed with most modern players in mind. This is a very niche game. And its one that’s really only going to appeal to a very specific type of player. First of all, it doesn’t hold your hand. With a few rare exceptions, there’s no big obvious on-screen cues telling you where to go and what to do. Once you’ve completed the very short introductory level, you’re plunged headfirst into a vast open world – and you’re on your own.

The premise behind the game will be familiar to anyone who has experience with the Ultima series. You are “The Avatar”, a human from Earth who has come to a long-forgotten land. In this game, you find yourself in the world of Novia. Upon entering this new world, players will meet with a mysterious being known as The Oracle. The Oracle poses a series of questions to the player. The answers provided will determine which “path of virtue” the player will undertake. Essentially, this determines the player’s starting zone and first round of quests. Again, if you’ve played any of the old Ultima games, this will make you feel right at home.

One thing that modern players may find odd about this game is the amount of reading that takes place. Like the Ultima games that came before it, players are able to have conversations with NPCs. This means there’s lots of reading and even writing involved. Players will need to listen closely to the information provided by NPCs and even ask questions in order to uncover plot points or quest hooks. Aside from a few important breadcrumbs, almost all of the game’s sidequests will need to be uncovered through deep NPC interaction. It’s easy to miss most of the sidequests in the game if you ignore the NPCs. This may be off-putting to some, but personally, I really enjoy this sort of thing.

Also, unlike most modern RPGs, players are not assigned a specific class. Instead, experience points can be doled out to level up whatever abilities a player sees fit. Let’s say you have no interest in magic. Well, you can ignore magic all together and focus on just melee combat. Let’s say swords and axes are not your cup of tea, there’s always ranged weapons. Or, you can decide to mix and match – and go with a combo spellcaster/archer. It is entirely up to you, the player, on how you wish to develop your character. Again, this is something that I think is lacking from most modern games.

This open-ended feel is a main theme that permeates the majority of the game. SotA is very much a sandbox style game. You can loot corpses, pick up stray arrows, break barrels, steal food from the local tavern, whatever you like. Of course, actions have consequences (albeit weak ones).

Now would be a good time to mention another very interesting aspect to this game. When playing Shroud of the Avatar, you can choose to either play in a single player mode or with a multiplayer experience. Single player mode, is just that. You experience everything that game has offer by yourself. There’s no other real-world players to help you. Of course, this also means there’s no other players interfering as well. For some of the game’s harder content, you can recruit AI-controlled NPCs to join your party. It’s a nice touch, But, multiplayer mode is really the way this game was designed to be played.

SotA works best when played with others. You can interact with other players, form parties, join guilds, – everything you can do in other MMOs. Also, SotA features player-owned land. This is something the game really gets right. Taking a page from Ultima Online, players can build houses almost anywhere in the game world. These houses can be visited and seen by anyone playing the game. Aside from that, it is also possible for players to build entire towns and cities. These appear on the overworld map and can be entered by anyone. Many of these player-owned towns are designed with newbies in mind. (For example, The Outlander Welcome Center – a city designed to help gear up and teach new players the basics of the game)

Community is a very big part of Shroud of the Avatar. In fact, it sort of has to be. The game itself is… and, I hate to admit this, but it’s lacking in a large number of areas. The storyline content is pretty simplistic and easy to breeze through once you’ve gotten your feet wet and your head wrapped around the basics. The combat in the game may seem complex at first, but in reality, its mindless. On top of that, most of the enemies pose little challenge to experienced players. In a nutshell, at the present time, there’s really not a lot of “game” in Shroud of the Avatar. Most players engage in community driven activities to pass the time; dance parties, role playing, etc. It seems like the developers have caught on and actually embrace this. The new content being added to the game tends to focus on just this very thing.

When SotA initially launched, it operated on a buy-to-play model. But recently, the game has switched gears and is now completely free-to-play. Anyone can experience the full game at no charge. Of course, that means micro-transactions have been introduced. Thankfully, much of the paid DLC is social in nature; emotes, housing decor, etc. (Interestingly enough, all of which is available for free in the single player game). But there are a few exceptions. Additional character slots cost $5, you can purchase a special item that allows to participate in the Universal Chat channel for $3, just to name a couple. SotA has also become famous for some its insanely expensive cash-shop items. Want to change your character’s name? That will be $25. Want a deed to a fancy player-owned town? That will be a whopping $500!

I understand that something as unique as owning persistent virtual real estate is going to come at a cost. But, some of the pricing just seems over the top. Many players have also expressed concern over just how money-hungry the development team seems to be. What worries me most about the situation is that it doesn’t seem to stem from greed. But rather from necessity. If we’re being honest, the company behind Shroud of the Avatar is not doing so good. When Portalarium Inc. first announced the game, they were rolling in donated cash. They did the right thing and took that money and invested it into the game. However, slow development and deteriorating public support has taken its toll on the company. First came the layoffs, then the developers announced they had shuttered their physical offices and now work on the game exclusively from home. If we’re being completely honest, this is NOT a good sign. It’s taken five years to bring the SotA to its current state. There’s supposed to be four more episodes of content in the coming years… I really don’t see that happening. In my opinion, this is a game that’s on life support. I would not at all be surprised if by the end of the year, development on the game ends completely.  Thankfully, if that actually occurs, there’s always the single player mode – so it won’t be a complete bust.

So, with all that being said, is Shroud of the Avatar worth your time? Well, if you’re an old Ultima Online grognard, or a fan of classic CRPGs, then yes. You owe it to yourself to take a look. The game is free so there’s nothing at all to lose. But, if you grew up on MMOs like World of Warcraft, you’re going to be in for a shock. Shroud of the Avatar will prove to provide quite a steep learning curve. The only other real obstacle this game presents comes in the form of technical issues. SotA does have a tendency to be somewhat crashy. How much so varies greatly from release to release. Also, the game feels largely un-optimized. Players with older machines should expect to suffer from poor performance. Despite these issues, there’s actually a lot to enjoy with this game. My recommendation is to forget everything you think you know about fantasy RPGS and go into the experience with an open mind. Take your time, don’t rush. Explore the in-game lore. Read (or even write!) books found around the game world. Participate in the community events and get to know other players. Despite from rather iffy game design, SotA offers some very unique community-focused gameplay. This what online interaction was like back in the old days. And I have to admit, it is something a part of me missed greatly. In that regard, my hats are off to Portalarium. I hope my concerns are wrong. I want this game to be successful. Despite its flaws, there’s a lot to love in the world of Novia.

Other Games In This Series:

Akalabeth    –    Ultima    –    Ultima II    –    Ultima III    –    Ultima IV    –    Ultima V    –    Ultima VI    –    Ultima VII    –    Ultima VIII    –    Ultima IX

Ultima Underworld I    –    Ultima Underworld II    –    Underworld Ascendant

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

I’m on Twitch!

It’s official. I’m on Twitch! I’ve updated the “Stream” button at the top of the site with a link to my official Twitch page. But you can also follow this link: RetroSensei on Twitch!

At this time, my streaming schedule is pretty inconsistent. I typically stream on weekdays between the hours of 2:00-4:00pm EST. I hope to have a more concrete schedule in the future.

Currently, I’m focusing on streaming two games Shroud of the Avatar and Fallout 76. For now, I’m going to concentrate on old-school style RPG games. But I do plan on branching out in the future.

I’m streaming simply for the enjoyment of it. My goal is not for profit. So feel free to follow me or subscribe. There will never be any hassle. I hope you enjoy.

 

Nerd Fuel: Folgers 1850 – Pioneer Blend

Maybe I’ve never come right out and said it. But, generally speaking, I don’t usually enjoy your run-of-the-mill everyday coffee. I’m talking about your standard mass-market grocery store coffee; Folgers, Maxwell House, Hills Bros, etc. To me, most of them taste pretty much the same. They’re not bad, but they’re not particularly good either. They are just not for me. I suppose that seems hypocritical, considering one of my favorite K-Cup coffees is “Donut Shop”, a brew designed to be just that: mediocre. But, even though Donut Shop is a very “safe” coffee, it is still made with quality ingredients.

So yeah, every grocery store coffee just doesn’t appeal to me. With that in mind, I never thought I’d be reviewing a coffee by Folgers. But recently, at the insistence of my wife, I picked up a box of Folgers’ 1850 – Pioneer Blend. In case you are not aware, the 1850 sub-brand is Folgers’ answer to “craft coffee”. They claim that the 1850 label represents their best brews yet. Needless to say, I was skeptical. So, is it really that much better? Or just a clever marketing ploy? Let’s find out.

First of all, I will admit that this Pioneer Blend is indeed much more interesting than plain old Folgers Coffee. It’s a medium roast coffee with a bold and balanced flavor. The flavor is surprisingly complex with a rich, nutty aftertaste. I have to admit, I was shocked that at how enjoyable this coffee was. I didn’t expect anything more than the same old Folgers, but in a fancy new package. This is certainly not the case. There is indeed something happening here.

This coffee is essentially the equivalent to your common “house” or “signature” blend. In fact, I found it to be pretty much on par with many other high-quality house blend coffees. It’s certainly something that I could enjoy on a regular basis. I daresay it ranks right up there with Laughing Man’s 184 Duane Street Blend – one of my favorite house blend coffees. In fact, it’s made me curious enough that I think I’ll try some of the other 1850 offerings by Folgers in the near future.

Score: 4 out of 4

Would buy again?: YES! I can’t believe I’m saying this about a box of Folgers… But this is actually an amazing cup of coffee. This has become a new favorite in our household.

Third Party D&D: Tome of Beasts (Kobold Press)

It’s been a couple of months since I talked about Dungeons & Dragons. This has been primarily because of two things. First, it’s been extremely difficult for me to find time to play with my current work schedule. In fact, my family and I have not had a session since October. Second, there’s been no new products released in 2019. So with that in mind, I wanted to take a moment to discuss what is probably one of the highest quality third-party products for Fifth Edition D&D; Tome of Beasts by Kobold Press.

Tome of Beasts is actually a product that was made possible thanks to a wildly successful Kickstarter project. It contains over 400 new monsters for D&D 5E. Many of the beasts included in this book are completely unique, giving DMs something new and exciting to throw at their players. Of course, there are also handful of monsters from previous editions of D&D that, at the time this book was printed, had not yet made their official debut in Fifth Edition. (For example, the Red Cap – a classic D&D baddie that wasn’t officially brought into 5E until the release of Volo’s Guide to Monsters.)

Anytime you deal with third-party products you never really know what to expect. Traditionally speaking, there’s always been a number of really good quality supplements available to those interested enough to seek them out. But as any old DM can tell you, there’s also plenty of third-party releases that are barely worth the paper they are printed on. Thankfully, this is not one of those books. Over the years, Kolbold Press has earned a reputation for putting out some real quality material. Tome of Beasts is a prime example of that.

The monsters included in this book range from the exotic (Ravenfolk and Lich Hound) to the mundane (Swamp Snakes and Night Scorpions). Of course, there’s also a handful of new variants for everybody’s favorite monsters; Giants, Devils, Golems, etc.

I’ve had this book in my library for a few years now. During that time, I spent countless hours pouring over the beasties contained within and planning out fun and creative ways to spring them on my players. This is a collection that I highly recommend to any DM that wants to surprise their players with something they’ve never seen before.

Tome of Beasts is available on Amazon and most retail bookstores where D&D material is sold.