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

Review: Tale of ALLTYNEX Trilogy

As I type this, I’m downloading the Final Fantasy XIV 4.0 patch and awaiting the release of that game’s new expansion. It’s during downtime like this that I tend to dig through my library and pull out something that can be played start-to-finish in a reasonable amount of time. In keeping with my current theme of games from the late-90’s era, I came across a trilogy of arcade-style schmups (shoot-em-ups) called The Tale of ALLTYNEX. This trilogy consists of three games: ALLTYNEX Second, RefleX and KAMUI. I’ve had these titles sitting in my Steam library for some time, but I’ve never paid them much attention. If I remember right, I got them as part of an indie Japanese game bundle several years ago. Last weekend, I found myself with a desire to step away from all the deep and complicated RPGS that tend to consume the majority of my game playing, and jump into some old school, bullet-hell arcade action. So I installed these games and went in completely blind.

Unless you’re really into the Japanese indie scene, you’ve probably never heard of these games. So, let’s take a moment to bring ourselves up to speed. This trilogy contains a set of games created by Japanese developer Siter Skain. This collection was actually made possible via a project on Kickstarter. It contains the following titles:

ALLTYNEX Second – This game is a semi-modern remake of the Japanese 1996 arcade classic ALLTYNEX.

RefleX – A 2008 remake, this time of an indie freeware game called Reflection from 1997.

KAMUI – A 1999 Japanese PC game, based on classic shoot-em-up arcade titles.

Originally, each of these games were separate entities with each successive game being largely inspired by the one that came before it. Now, they have been compiled and somewhat re-imagined as a loose trilogy. Oddly enough, due to the various remakes, the newest games are actually the oldest chronologically.

As mentioned above, the first game lore-wise in the trilogy is ALLTNYEX Second.  Essentially, you play as the pilot of a “superfighter” starship.  In this title, mankind’s  orbital defensive supercomputer, ALLTYNEX suddenly goes rogue and uses its control over all of all of Earth’s military hardware to wage war on humanity. As a result, the human race is forced to flee the planet and regroup on the far reaches of the solar system. In a last-ditch effort to reclaim the planet, a team of  “superfighters” are dispatched to destroy ALLTYNEX.

This game is very well done. It feels just like one of those old quarter-pumper arcade machines, and thanks to moderns graphics, it makes the genre look better than ever.  It embodies the classic Starfighter schmup gameplay: swarms of enemies, rapid fire, bullets everywhere.  The player can choose between their regular blasters or a special shield that both protects your starship as well as damages enemies.  The gameplay is intense and not particularly easy – but few bullet hells are. The nearly unlimited continues make the game accessible for even a casual player. From start to finish the game can be completed in under an hour by an experienced player.

Next up is RefleX. This game is very similar to the others. It’s an overheard bullet hell/schmup. But unlike the other entries, you don’t have multiple lives. If your ship is destroyed, it’s game over. Luckily, the starship here is protected by a reflective shield. Enemy bolts will bounce off the shield and back towards the sender. This provides a whole new level of strategy to the game.

RefleX actually has quite an in-depth backstory, but to find all the juicy details you will have to dig through the manual. (The Steam version does have a PDF manual).  Essentially, you are a member of a resistance group that is rallying against an overbearing government. What’s unclear, at least to me, is how this ties in with the first game… has humanity retaken Earth and now bad guys are running the show? Despite several similarities, it just isn’t made very clear.

Finally, we have the third game in the trilogy, KAMUI. Despite being the last game in the series, this title is the one that shows it’s age the most. Which, considering the other two are remakes, I guess that’s to be expected.

This is the game that actually manages to tie the other two titles together. It features story elements from both ALLTYNEX and RefleX and presents a final battle between the resistance and a new militarized version of the ALLTYNEX AI.

Despite being the most dated of the three, I think KAMUI is my favorite of the trilogy simply because it reminds me the most of those old arcade-style shoot-em-ups that consumed so many hours of my youth. Which, is odd in itself considering KAMUI was a PC title.

Difficulty: Hard–  Most schmups and bullet hell games are infamous for their high degree of difficulty. These games are no different. Unless you’re one of those machine-like professional gamers or some kind of savant, you’re going to die a lot. Luckily, the games are pretty forgiving in that you are granted nearly unlimited continue credits. So, in reality, as long as you are persistent you can manage to complete the games regardless of overall skill. This still doesn’t change the fact that the game itself is difficult in it’s own right.

Story: As a whole, the storyline shared between these games is surprisingly rich. This is true despite it being largely absent from the games themselves. Schmups are not typically known for being rich is lore and storyline, so for this type of game any real attempt to provide one is welcome

Originality: Back in the 90’s games like these were a dime a dozen. These days, they have become a bit a niche category. Despite being based on a tested and tired model, the games in the ALLTYNEX Trilogy manage to stand out in their own little ways. For example, the ricochet shield from RefleX is a pretty unique feature. Little things like these keep the games feeling semi-fresh in a pool of stagnant copy-cat titles.

Soundtrack: One of the high points of all three of these games are the fantastic soundtracks. All these of titles come complete with a groovy, high-energy techno-like score. The music is catchy and appropriate. It does a fantastic job of keeping your blood pumping for the split-second twitch action that games like these require.

Fun: I can imagine that many people would find games like these to be frustrating and overly difficult. But that is something that fans of bullet hell games have come to expect and love. So you’re either going to enjoy this type of game or you’re not. For people like me, I don’t really consider myself to be a fan of these types of games, per se. But I do enjoy them for the nostalgia factor. And, I can appreciate them for what they are.

Graphics:  Being a trilogy of games from different eras, the graphics are a mixed bag.  Kamui and RefleX, are both still stuck in the 16-bit era. While ALLTYNEX Second has a much more modern, polished look. 

Playcontrol:  Even though these games support keyboard controls, take my advice and plug in either an Xbox or Playstation game pad. Games like these were made for controllers. Personally, I found a trusty old Xbox 360 controller to be perfect to all three games, with no real issues.

Downloadable Content:  None

Mature Content: Sci-Fi violence.

Value:  Each of these games is available separately on Steam for $8, or together in a bundle for $20. If you’re a fan of this genre, the $20 pricetag may be well worth it. But, these games are on sale frequently so a bargain shopper can usually snag them on a deal.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Even though I don’t really consider myself a fan of the shoot-em-up genre, I found a lot of enjoyment in these three games. It was really a nice break our of the norm for me. Everything from the fast-paced action, to the visuals, to the soundtrack really scratched an itch I had been having for some retro arcade action. My biggest complaint about the collection is that the original versions of ALLTYNEX and RefleX were not included.

Available on: PC (Steam)