From the Steam Store description alone, you can tell that there are rather a lot of ideas bouncing around inside Enshrouded. Described as a ‘co-op survival action RPG’, this is a game stuffed to the gills with different mechanics and systems. It boasts NPC quests, mining, crafting and farming; combat skill trees and intricate base-building – and of course, a vast open world filled with dozens of hand-crafted dungeons and castles. All of which can be explored with the help of a grapple and glider, in a way very reminiscent of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
As a melting pot of different genre influences, Enshrouded is certainly an ambitious project in terms of scope, made all the more impressive by the fact it’s still only in Early Access. Yet after 27 hours with Enshrouded in its current form, I’ve found that my initial excitement for the game has waned. I’m now struggling to find the motivation to continue – and despite all the flashing quest markers on the map, I’m feeling a little directionless within its world. There are several factors contributing to this sense of ennui, but I think I’ve boiled it down to one defining reason: Enshrouded simply feels too safe. As a survival game it lacks a sense of peril, and because of this, it forfeits the opportunity to create some truly memorable moments.
To be fair to Enshrouded, there’s still a decent world to explore here, and the game is pretty impressive on a technical level. For fans of soft lighting and moody mists: prepare your hard drives, you’re going to be taking a lot of screenshots. While Enshrouded has some moments of jank, there’s a surprising level of polish in everything from the animations to the nifty building system. Things start in a positive manner, too, with the player introduced to the world through a generic-but-functional fantasy opening, before being popped outside to admire an enticing panoramic view. See this vast world below you? You can explore all of it! See that mountain? You can glide off it! It’s hard not to feel excited when presented with a vista like this, and the opening stages of the game deliver on this promise of exploration and adventure.
As a Flameborn – a member of a dying race whose ancestors messed up the world with their greed for a powerful magical resource – you are tasked with reclaiming the realm of Embervale from a horrible pestilence. This involves solving puzzle towers, and venturing down into foggy areas called The Shroud to battle monsters, find loot and complete quests. When walking around in this poison fog, a timer starts above your head, giving you around five minutes to complete your mission before you need to get the hell out of there. It feels a bit like scuba diving, but with some really feisty wildlife. When things are still fresh and new, it’s initially quite fun to poke around these shrouded areas to uncover ruined villages, battle monsters, and follow a trail of pages to unlock new equipment.
Enshrouded also wastes no time in introducing you to one of its greatest strengths: its building system. Like other games in the survival genre, your base is where you craft and upgrade equipment, and for this reason Enshrouded requires you to establish one at the very start of the game. As you venture through the world, you collect friendly NPCs who can be ‘summoned’ to hang out at your crib, where they give you quests and help you craft items. Each NPC has a designated profession, prompting you to build houses themed around their occupations – and so without even realising it, you end up creating a small village. The building system allows for a surprising level of intricacy: you can quickly establish the shape of a structure with large build pieces, then painstakingly edit single bricks to create complex decorative effects.
Even on my earliest cottage building, I found myself adding window sills, overhead beams and recesses – you know, just to jazz things up a bit. The game seems to smooth over and ‘fill in’ the texture around blocks, creating surfaces that look convincing even when you’re messing with your walls on a granular level. The terraforming is similarly flexible, allowing you to scoop up pretty much any form of dirt or stone, which is perfect for creating hobbit holes.
Annoyingly, there are some awkward extra steps involved in the building process: you have to manually craft building blocks at a workbench, for instance, while decorative items must be crafted and put in your hotbar to be placed. But overall, it’s an exciting system that opens all sorts of possibilities for grand, fantastical designs. I can imagine that with a large group of players, creating a town together would make for entertaining chaos – particularly given that the game supports up to 16 people at once.
Another major component of Enshrouded, of course, is its combat – which I can perhaps describe as solid but not particularly remarkable. Broadly speaking, you can approach this as a melee fighter, magic user, or ranged archer. For the most part, the fights are about managing large groups of enemies to avoid being overwhelmed – something that becomes rather difficult when you’re playing solo, or if you’re a magic user. Meanwhile, in coop mode, my friend and I were able to steamroll most of the monsters we encountered (until we took on enemies a level above us in the capital city, and found ourselves being one-shot killed). So it seems there’s still some balancing work to be done to even out the difficulty curve, both in solo and coop play.
Enshrouded’s skill tree does add some interest to the combat, however, providing goals to work towards and allowing you to lean into a particular playstyle. My personal focus was on the battle mage branch of the skill tree, which allowed me to unlock a ‘blink’ ability to dodge my way out of sticky situations. Because I gelled so well with the blink ability, I started looking for ways to strengthen it in other branches of the skill tree – increasing my stamina in the athlete branch, for instance, and improving my overall endurance. Mercifully, Enshrouded has a respec feature, and for a small amount of runes you can try an entirely new build – something that I always appreciate in games, as there’s nothing worse than being locked into a playstyle you hate. By about 20 hours into the game, however, I found that I had unlocked all the nodes in my battle mage branch, so perhaps the skill tree could be expanded to provide further options.
Where Enshrouded starts to really undermine itself, I think, is in being too forgiving with its systems and mechanics. It feels like the game is scared to inconvenience players, and because of this, there are no real consequences for mistakes. When you die, you only drop crafting materials and runes (currency), while retaining all your weapons, armour and tools. You are then typically respawned at a location very close to where you died. Given that crafting materials and runes can be re-earned with ease – and you’ll likely stumble across your body again, anyway – it makes death feel pretty trivial. As a result, there’s no real sense of fear when venturing into new areas, as you risk very little when overstretching yourself.
This over-generosity extends into the game’s survival elements, where prep work feels optional rather than necessary. You’ll probably need to bring along some food and potions when taking on bosses, but it’s entirely possible to run through the world like a wraith without food or sleep – and rarely be punished for it, as you can sprint away from trouble. There is a rested buff to encourage sleeping, but I found the benefits of this to be pretty marginal. Hunting and gathering expeditions, meanwhile, are rarely necessary, as you can simply hoover up a large number of ingredients during regular outings through the world. And due to the prevalence of food, farming isn’t a particularly vital activity. It feels like the game’s survival elements are only lightly connected to the rest of the gameplay.
If you want to head home for a quick refresh, this is also exceptionally easy to do. Enshrouded has a very lenient fast travel system, where so long as you’re not standing in Shroud or being attacked, you can teleport to player-built altars and ‘completed’ puzzle towers. On paper this sounds great, but it has an unintended side effect: there is never any need to build a second base. Seeing as you can pop home and head out again immediately, why move all your resources from your first established home? In my playthrough, I simply had the one village I built right at the start of the game – in the spot I was instructed to place it – and was never given a gameplay reason to construct another. I imagine this could result in quite a lot of people all setting up camp on that cliff at the start, and never moving from there. The fast travel system effectively discourages you from starting anew, or building fresh structures with more advanced materials.
Over time, all this adds up to create a feeling that Enshrouded’s world is without threat, thereby removing any tension and making the experience as a whole feel flat. In the game’s worldbuilding and lore, too, it seems you have no adversary – you’re simply tasked with recovering the realm without facing any real opposition. There’s no sense of urgency, other than the NPCs telling you to get out there and fight. The world slowly begins to lose its shininess, as between points of interest, things can feel quite empty. The enormity of the biomes means there’s little environmental variation to freshen things up, while the towns – technically each hand-designed – start to feel rather cookie-cutter. By the end of my playthrough, I had explored about a quarter of the game’s entire map, but wasn’t feeling too pumped about venturing out any further.
In its current form, the lack of consequences means Enshrouded’s gameplay doesn’t feel particularly gripping. Which is a shame, as it has plenty to offer in its building systems, and in the potential silliness of its 16-person multiplayer mode. That said, Enshrouded is still in Early Access, and it’s likely to undergo a fair number of changes as developer Keen Games tweaks things and responds to player feedback. I hope that during this process, Keen Games considers introducing a higher level of threat to Enshrouded (perhaps through difficulty modes), and finds a way to make the game’s survival elements feel more significant. In the meantime, Enshrouded is still a decent way to while away the time with friends, particularly if you all just want to play fantasy Lego. And if you’re after a chill survival game – well, you’d be hard pressed to find one that’s more serene.
A copy of Enshrouded was provided for our impressions by Keen Games.