Shroud of the Avatar starts you out as the corporeal form of the Avatar, an individual who has been summoned to Brittania time and time again to save the world from impending destruction. You meet with Lady British, who tells you that even her husband has returned to deal with evil forces threatening the land.
Lord British is here too? Great, I can’t wait to see how the guy completely ignores me and leaves me with absolutely none of his nation’s wealth to tackle the problem that he’s let fester for the last however many years. The dude’s been a total waste of space for most of the Ultima series, and didn’t even bother showing up for the embarrassing display that was Ultima Forever, although Garriott was long gone by the time that embarrassment of a game was released.
After building your character and answering the Oracle’s questions, you go through the Moon Gate and immediately find yourself in a village that was just ravaged by elves. You come across a dying knight who asks you to take an amulet to Brigid in Resolute. Along the way, you pick up items and figure out how to wield a sword and strike a test dummy.
If there’s one thing I constantly hope that the gaming industry would take away from Richard Garriot’s games, it is to show even a modicum of the respect that Garriot has for role playing and building worlds. I’m talking about putting in more effort than just designing an enemy and plonking him down on a field and calling it a day.
There are numerous areas just in the tutorial zone that you are likely to completely miss out on if you try to power your way through it. For instance, did you know that it is possible to find a healer who tries to cure the wounded soldier? It is, but unless you bypass the gate and head down another path, then talk to the guy and get on the subject of the dead and dying, you’d never know. He can’t save the soldier, but the game appreciates you taking the effort and rewards you as such.
It’s the little things that make the game that much more real feeling. You don’t know anyone’s name until you ask them or they tell you, and generally they won’t right away. Sure, you can weasel your way around the system by clicking on buzzwords or grunting your comments like a caveman, but if you want to dive into the world and type “what is your name?” you can. You won’t learn everything by following the underlined words, so you eventually have to play along if you want things like quests.
Now let’s talk about difficulty.
Are you kidding me? I’m not even out of the tutorial zone and already I’m getting my ass handed to me because the game decided it was high time to throw me into a three on one cluster f-you know, I’m not going to let this discourage me. This wouldn’t be an Ultima game if it didn’t start you out completely ill-equipped for the most basic task at hand. I need to get back into the mentality of RPGs where you need to git gud or get out, and having the game eat your lunch and then stab you in the face with your own fork is exactly the message the game needs to send to players that they aren’t screwing around.
Is it frustrating? Absolutely, but it makes the reward all the sweeter when you’re forced to put in work towards it. That said, nothing will make you smash your keyboard quite like that feeling when you see your attack miss, then miss, then miss, miss again, miss a fifth time, miss, miss, miss, and finally hit two damage only to miss, miss, miss, miss, you get the picture.
But push come to shove, Shroud of the Avatar overshoots Difficult Lane and lands right in the middle of BS Valley. In short: enemies are too densely packed and take too long to kill in respect to how fast they respawn. And to top it off, enemies just seem to waltz in from random areas of the map. You’ll be fighting two archers only to have a wolf and two random other bandits just rush in and start attacking you. So you start taking them out but by the time you finish the guys you killed earlier have respawned and joined the fight again. It’s a never ending cycle in some spots!
Experience in Shroud of the Avatar comes from a pool system. By killing enemies and completing quests you add to the experience pool that then goes toward leveling up skills as you use them. So yes, you do have to quest in Shroud of the Avatar in order to level up. The higher level the skill, the more it will draw from the pool in order to level up. In order to level up efficiently, you’re going to have to put locks on skills and decide where your priorities lie.
So it might come as a bit of surprise when I sum this up by saying that I love this game and my enjoyment is getting higher as I play. The more you fight, the better you get, the higher your stats, and the more punishment you can take out and withstand. Considering how much time I’ve invested into just the first area, I feel like this is going to be a very, very long game.