It’s been a reasonably long time since a game latched onto my innermost sense of childlike wonder – that is, until I lost 30 hours of my week building a fortress town in Enshrouded’s meadows before I even started its main quest. This action-RPG survival sim draws a mish-mash of inspirations from games like Valheim, Minecraft, The Elder Scrolls, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and all those ideas come together in a way that’s already engrossing at its Early Access launch. Its gob-smackingly gorgeous high-fantasy art style, vast open world, intelligent crafting systems, seemingly limitless base building, and satisfying character customization are impressive, but also marred by a few bugs – both literal and figurative – a lackluster story filled with decent-at-best puzzle design, and clunky action combat that’s off to a middling start. And yet, across 62 hours soaking in its rustic fantasy charm, it was easy to forgive those hitches and gleefully get lost in its depths with a friend.
In classic post-apocalyptic RPG fashion, the world of Embervale has officially ended, its human inhabitants are mostly gone, and a mysterious fungal Shroud covers much of the landscape – twisting its denizens and making everything caught within look like Xen from the Half-Life series. What exactly is the Shroud, you ask? I’m still not completely sure, but if I cared enough to find out, I might read the stream of lore tidbits I’ve picked up along my journey via scattered notes.
These notes and journal entries are interesting enough, but aside from a short opening cutscene and a few quest-related dialogues, they provide pretty much the extent of any explicit storytelling Enshrouded does after you – the Flameborn – spawn in the Cinder Vault at the southernmost tip of its expansive world and then blaze off on your own path. But hey! At least my home base is looking mighty fine. It’s complete with a working farmland where I grow crops for healing potions and crucial stat-raising food items, a lived-in-looking village to house my NPC allies, and even a network of caverns and tactically placed grappling hook anchors making each area more accessible.
The best part is how alluring yet straightforward it is to build stuff like this, especially given how much real estate your custom bases can take up within Enshrouded’s entangled web of RPG crafting and survival systems. Besides, maybe the real main story was the base I built along the way. Building is essential to the process of exploring Enshrouded’s map, which lets you construct bases almost anywhere. To supplement that building system, there are tools like mining picks and rakes that conveniently let you gather materials and shape the land. It’s fantastic that you can use a pick to quickly terraform almost any environment and even create new passageways through, for instance, a collapsed cavern or up the side of a once-impassable cliffside.
But once you build a Flame Altar out of a few common resources and place it down, you can begin plopping down your own structures, furnishings, crops, crafting stations, NPCs, and so forth. This is necessary in order to make progress while exploring the map, since – aside from a few sparsely-located fast-travel towers – the only places you can quickly teleport back to are your custom bases. But more importantly, doing so unlocks the use of the nifty Construction Hammer. Like everything else in Enshrouded, you’ll need to find or craft one for yourself in the equally handy crafting menu, but once you have it in your possession you can easily place or remove voxel-based blocks in any number of configurations, using the ALT and CTRL keys to quickly navigate between prefab shapes and block types.
All the available prefab shapes make it simple to quickly build entire structures, but it’s even neater that you can place individual blocks on a much smaller scale to create unique designs. I also love the fact that the blocks meld into the environment organically – it gives structures built with several block types a sense of character, as if they carry an actual history, rather than looking like they’ve been thrown together moments prior in Enshrouded’s excellent building UI.
And if you want even more blocks to play with, you’ll eventually need to forge your way further out and embark on quests – usually given by the five NPC crafters, each unlocked by breaking them out of Ancient Vaults in the early hours of Enshrouded’s central questline. But those mainly serve to point you in a general direction, and more often than not, most of Enshrouded’s discoveries happen when you stumble on a piece of lore in a remote location, pointing you to a dungeon or an area with a hidden treasure or a jumping puzzle. That’s most often where new block types and other crafting materials are stashed away, and once you find them, you can craft them again back at base in addition to any new recipes you’ve unlocked.
Lost In a Shroud
Unlike in other RPGs, no one’s pulling any emotional strings to propel you to the next objective. There’s no “critical path” in the traditional sense, meaning if you want to travel further out beyond the current biome – of which there are currently four as of its Early Access launch – you’ll need to keep upgrading your Flame. That’s the force that keeps your avatar alive even in the lethal and otherworldly Shroud that covers vast swaths of the map.
Surviving within the Shroud is extra challenging since you only get a limited duration to stay alive whenever you delve into it. A countdown timer begins at the start of every visit, only restoring itself when you resurface or find hourglass capsules. But if you take too long inside, you eventually die. Granted, this is just a minor inconvenience if you’ve set up a base nearby, since dying only makes you drop some of your loot before sending you back to the nearest Flame Altar or, if you’re lucky, one of the few checkpoints scattered around. It’s fair, then, that you can’t fast travel to safety while inside of the Shroud, adding a welcome layer of danger to what might otherwise be straightforward excursions into the wild.
Upgrading your Flame means the Shroud is less capable of killing you, but you’ll need to grind quite a bit to get there, and in that aspect Enshrouded could do with a little more hand-holding. Very few NPCs dot the landscape other than those you rescue and place in your base. Without proper guidance, it’s possible to spend hours running in circles looking for certain items without any notion of their whereabouts – like amber, which is peskily hidden in small pockets of the second biome’s Shroud area, where it’s already difficult to see anything thanks to all the fog and spores obscuring your view.
At least there are enough tutorials in your journal to get you started with Enshrouded’s wide variety of systems if you get lost. Plus, when you finally do upgrade your Flame level, you get more minutes on the clock – and all that additional Shroud survivability means you’re granted access to distant, higher-level biomes like the dry plains of the Nomad Highlands and the sand-strewn desert expanse of the Kindlewastes, both of which are blocked off by higher-tier Shroud zones and make up the current endgame.
Once you venture far enough beyond the starting areas, Enshrouded’s decently-sized bestiary begins to take shape. Two of my favorite opponents are the devastating, dragon-like Wispwyvern and the overpowering Vukah Brawler – both of whom present a balanced challenge and drop powerful gear after you beat them.
Stumbling around each of Enshrouded’s hand-crafted points of interest, which are heavily themed around the biomes they’re located in, can also turn up tons of one-of-a-kind items, crafting materials, and equipment – like a shiny set of armor I found in the capital city which trades Shroud survival time for an increased chance to land critical blows, or a glowing blue sword I found buried in an abandoned village. These are usually powerful enough to keep progression feeling steady, but Enshrouded’s rather slow experience point-based leveling system takes time to warm up before you reach its hard cap of level 25.
Gaining experience is often mind-numbingly slow, especially since it’s mainly relegated to combat, but I was delighted to find its nuances do eventually begin coming together once you reach level 15 or so. Mixing and matching several of Enshrouded’s intermingling web of skill trees, inspired heavily by those in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, I managed to build my Flameborn into a powerful, wand-and-shield wielding Battlemage with a unique fighting style that let me exploit several magic damage bonuses to do ridiculous amounts of fire damage. This system is flexible enough to let each player theorycraft their way into a traditional role – like tank, healer, and DPS – while experimenting with Enshrouded’s enjoyable variety of skills and items.
Simply running around Enshrouded’s map and finding new stuff is enough fun to carry it, and even when going on short expeditions to gather large quantities of resources, it can often feel like every bit of effort helps since there are no traditional NPC merchants to sell you anything. That’s right: every item in this world is either found or crafted. Everywhere you haven’t yet explored is covered in generic open-world fog of war, but it’s liberally strewn with abandoned villages and forts, map-expanding Ancient Obelisks, those fast-travel towers I mentioned earlier, and so forth. Elixir Wells provide a speedy kick of dungeon-delving fun, usually compelling you to descend into the Shroud for a few minutes at a time to find and knock down the local Shroud Root, clearing the Shroud out of a small area in exchange for a few extra skill points.
On the same note, if you just want to leave the building and crafting to your friends – assuming you’re playing online – you can get away with ignoring that stuff altogether and instead spending most of your time expanding your map, which is conveniently shared with everyone on the same server of up to 16 concurrent players. And you don’t even necessarily need to spend any time in the Shroud if you have enough buddies on a multiplayer server doing the heavy lifting for you. Not to mention everything there is to do and discover above ground, too.
Ironically, those points of interest I mentioned earlier are at their best when they’re treated like high-fantasy set dressing to hide loot and fight some monsters in before sending you on your merry way. Conversely, Enshrouded is at its worst when it tries to introduce puzzles of any sort, and a good chunk of Enshrouded’s areas are gated by uninspired challenges that involve flipping some switches to open a nearby door while skirting around traps. But there’s rarely much thought involved in any of those. Most are designed with the solutions immediately in sight or – predictably – just around the corner past a few spike traps. I often found it easier to cheese my way past these traps by gliding over them, making Enshrouded’s often brainless puzzles amount to nothing more than extra busywork it would be better off without.
But at least these luke-warm puzzles are a minuscule part of Enshrouded’s overall experience. It’s way better when you and your buds find a nice, twilit hilltop after a long day of questing, spelunking, and crafting – where you can chill out around a campfire and drink in that perfect view of the castle town you’ve been building for weeks. Whether you’re adventuring or designing your dream base, almost every part of Enshrouded’s art style is visually captivating, making it dangerously easy to lose yourself in its homespun fantasy world. From the very first moment after leaving the Cinder Vault, Enshrouded ensnared me with the picturesque rolling green pastures of its starting biome, which stretch off into the horizon and gradually become a collage of vast, snow-capped mountains and imposing sand dunes. Right down to each loose cobblestone in my castle’s foundation, I’m consistently amazed at how vibrant and alive this world is when the graphics settings are maxed out.
Sometimes I would sit next to a campfire on an overlook above my base to catch the exact moment the virtual sun rose above a distant mountain peak; illuminating my torchlit village and glimmering off the nebulas of rolling fog. Enshrouded is capable of looking like this and running consistently, with smooth transitions between near and distant landscapes, very little texture pop-in, and few dropped frames. But that’s assuming you’re playing it on the right set of hardware – I was doing so on a desktop equipped with a 4070 Ti, a Ryzen 3900x, and 32 gigs of RAM. My friend joined me on a gaming laptop with only marginally inferior specs, which should have theoretically worked almost as well. Instead, they described a much less polished experience where they constantly ran into all sorts of unexplainable technical issues, like persistent frame dips, crashes to desktop, and their avatar repeatedly being shot out of a tunnel they’d been mining and dying somewhere on the opposite side of our base.
Dungeons & Dugouts
It’s great that I could build a glider and a grappling hook to move around the open world quicker in the absence of any rideable mounts, but due to a finicky control scheme that feels at odds with itself, neither feel particularly great to use right now. It will often make me launch into glider mode when I meant to jump, or cause me to accidentally swing off the side of a cliff when I just meant to loot something off the ground. These problems are most egregious on a typical mouse-and-keyboard setup, but in Enshrouded’s defense, it wasn’t until I eventually tried playing with an Xbox One controller – much later in my playthrough, mind you – that the controls began to make sense.
It’s extra disappointing that you can’t use the grappling hook wherever you want, since it relies on grappling hook anchors that feel a bit like the ones in the Ratchet & Clank series… when they work, at least. They’re sparsely-located, and using them costs an exorbitant amount of stamina, meaning you’ll generally only get to swing from one point to the other until you upgrade your grappling hook and increase your stamina, which can take a while.
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Even after putting resources into upgrading both the grappling hook and the glider to higher-tier versions later in the campaign, both still feel stunted by Enshrouded’s stamina system. Depicted by a green wheel that rapidly depletes when you do anything other than jog (a la The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom) Enshrouded’s stamina pool is unfairly limited until you eventually bump up the Endurance stat with food items and stat-boosting skills. Partially in Enshrouded’s favor, its web of unlockable skills is so diversely stacked with interesting moves that it sucks I need to invest my limited skill points into things like double-jumping and a stamina drain reduction while gliding to make Enshrouded’s movement feel good at all.
Its clunky movement and unreliable controls bleed into its middling hack-and-slash action combat system, which reminds me of what you’d get if you constructed a Frankenstein’s monster of combat elements from other third-person action games. It has Breath of the Wild’s finicky target-lock camera mixed with Elden Ring’s brutally aggressive enemies and top-heavy weapon animations, but its blocking, parrying, and dodge-roll just aren’t snappy enough to keep up most of the time.
One aggravating enemy type found in the Shroud loves to hover around the battlefield and shoot homing missiles at you every few seconds, which can often feel unfair when my avatar struggles to maintain enough stamina to dodge those attacks while fending off a never-ending swarm of insects spawning in from all sides. That’s just one frustrating example, but doing pretty much anything in combat – whether parrying an opponent’s sword attack, dodging an unblockable blow from a big boss, or casting a spell with my staff – uses some amount of stamina, plus some mana in the latter’s case. That means it can often be tough to anticipate when I’ll run out of either resource, leaving me a sitting duck in the onslaught of carnage.
This is made exponentially more challenging by Enshrouded’s overly aggressive enemy AI, which attacks relentlessly and often ambushes me in unpredictably large groups, giving me the impression these encounters are tuned for much speedier controls. It’s also a little annoying that every piece of equipment (aside from armor) has a durability meter – including legendary weapons, which seemingly have the lowest durability scores of any items in Enshrouded’s open world for some reason. It’s great you can auto-repair everything in your inventory once you get to a workbench or an anvil, but the former is only available at a custom base and the latter is often too rare to rely on. Plus, once you’ve used up your stash of potions in combat, you’re gonna need to find or craft those all over again back at base.
Reaching the Flame level cap of six and unlocking Enshrouded’s endgame areas means doing lots and lots of crafting. This all ties back into those helpful NPCs I mentioned earlier, who will often send you on fetch quests to collect the next piece of crafting equipment, like the Carpenter’s tools or the Blacksmith’s smelter. In the meantime, Enshrouded requests a rather large stockpile of patience while you set up a sophisticated pipeline of material refining stations that feed into one another and eventually breathe life into its deep crafting ecosystem. For instance, crafting armor at the Blacksmith requires tons of wood and dirt, which you’ll need to burn into charcoal, which is then needed to eventually smelt ore into ingots.
But everything I just mentioned has its uses in other parts of the crafting pipeline; for instance, dirt is also important in farming and alchemy. Meanwhile, wood is a key ingredient in carpentry. Cultivating a steady stream of each of these resources equates to many repeated cycles of looting, mining, cultivating, refining, and crafting. That can occasionally get tedious, but at the same time, it’s exciting to unlock the next piece of crafting equipment and all the new recipes and base-building possibilities that come with it. Those systems bind all the different parts of Enshrouded’s moment-to-moment gameplay together, and since NPC fetch quests generally make up most of the main story, they’re not going to offset Enshrouded’s slow pace if you’re not already enjoying the grind.
However, Enshrouded’s most brilliant features are hidden behind its crafting systems. Going back to my Blacksmith example, ingots and charcoal are useful byproducts of Blacksmithing that are then used to build furniture at the Carpenter, and you’ll need a steady supply of wooden logs, planks, and hardwood to make the coolest-looking decor. There’s a similar interplay between each of the five NPCs and their respective crafting stations, and eventually you can unlock some truly interesting recipes that make use of everything you’ve hoarded. This level of interconnectedness keeps every raw resource and item useful until the end – which is an important consideration since there’s no currency and you can’t sell anything you have an abundance of.
But these chains of material production all happen passively and take real time to complete. Since there’s no system to automatically ferry materials between production sites, this means you’ll often need to strategize your expeditions to take up enough time to buffer out long cycles of refining materials, crafting, and managing your treasury of items afterward. In that sense, running a functional base in Enshrouded can sometimes feel a lot like running a farm in Stardew Valley. At least you can build as many chests, place as many crafting stations, and plant as many crops as your stronghold can physically fit – though, after awhile, I started regularly experiencing crashes to desktop when my main base got too busy.