Since its launch in 2018, Sea of Thieves has been on a dazzling upward trajectory, expanding and evolving with endless invention and reinvention. One of its most fascinating evolutions though, has come in the way it's sought to marry the innate freeform chaos of its emergent sandbox with more structured narrative-driven experiences - experiments that reached spectacular heights with last summer's Pirate of the Caribbean crossover, A Pirate's Life, which set a breathtaking new standard for the sheer cinematic potential of stories in Sea of Thieves.
Shrouded Islands, the now-available first instalment in Sea of Thieves' new monthly schedule of limited-time story episodes, is not A Pirate's Life in scope, ambition, or polish - but nor was it ever likely to be given the strict monthly cadence Rare has committed to. Regrettably, though, this opener also suffers in comparison to Rare's previous, smaller-scale Tall Tales too. While those brought new ways to play or fresh twists on existing mechanics within the pleasing framework of a focused, compelling story, Shrouded Islands is a looser, lighter, less interesting experience, that, as the opening gambit in a bold new era of ongoing storytelling, fumbles half-heartedly into the spotlight when it should be a bellowing statement of things to come.
If you've only ever popped onto Sea of Thieves for the occasional bit of pirating, you mightn't be aware of the surprisingly rich lore that exists in the background - entirely understandable given that it's traditionally only ever been told in fits and starts, with a bit of a scenery change to the map here and the occasional Tall Tale to propel a plot point forward there. For a game with so much narrative potential, story has always lingered awkwardly to the rear, and that's where episodic monthly Adventures come in, forming part of a multi-pronged plan - sitting alongside major seasonal gameplay additions and more backgrounded mysteries - Rare hopes will make for an enticing, ongoing proposition that brings a much richer sense of life to Sea of Thieves' world and helps sustain momentum across seasons.
It's a fantastic idea, both in principle and practice - we've already seen Rare successfully pull off something similar once before, in the tale of a lowly NPC, Wanda, who transformed from weaponsmith to the scourge of the seas across several real-time weeks in 2018. And things got off to a promising start last week too as, in the run-up to Shrouded Islands' arrival, a seismic event rocked Sea of Thieves' world. One of its bustling outposts was found deserted, engulfed in a sickly green fog, with signs of a bitter battle fought and lost. It was a major moment for a beloved location, successfully teasing grand adventure and mystery to come.
And Sea of Thieves' new fog-gripped landmasses really are yet another wonderful bit of ambient environmental work for the game - broken, smouldering buildings swallowed up by swirling fog, starkly illuminated by shafts of light peeking through the gloom, all underscored by an unsettling soundscape that shifts between ominous whine and chilling siren song.
Unfortunately, Rare may have played its best hand too early for this initial adventure. For a week, players had the opportunity to explore the sublime desolation of Golden Sands Outpost and its neighbours, ultimately robbing Shrouded Islands of its biggest 'wow' moment. And without the surprise of those wonderful atmospherics, there really isn't much left that shines, with the Adventure sadly proving to be a rather limp narrative scene-setter married to some undercooked action. Your initial task to investigate Golden Sands and discover clues about its fate all sounds very exciting at first, but the reality is far less captivating when it turns out that, after a whole lot of sailing to get there, all you're expected to do is pick a compass off a table. Meanwhile, the much-hyped in-game debut of an important lore character (discovered following your second task: climb a hill) falls flat as Rare struggles to convey the moment's significance through a rather awkward mix of limited voice work and text.
In many ways it all feels like a return to Rare's earliest Tall Tales, which generally suffered from the same sense of being late to the pirate party, each story dumping players into the aftermath of far more exciting events rather than placing them at the heart of the action - a failing later Tall Tales have remedied with gusto. Granted, things do pick up in Shrouded Islands' meatiest sequence when, following another lengthy sail across the map, there's a more substantial bit of exploration on a third fog-shrouded island. It begins as a gloriously sinister set-piece, sending crews creeping through the swirling fog and scouting out spectral forms that point the way forward. Suddenly, though, chaos as players embark on a frantic dash to locate a series of lanterns in amongst the gloom while hostile phantoms constantly spawn in from all sides. But with the battle complete, the adventure soon reaches an unsatisfyingly abrupt conclusion.
Not that getting to that point was quite so straightforward in my play-through; inevitably, only moments into Shrouded Islands' big set-piece, the usual shared-world frustrations resurfaced, borne out of Rare's continuing insistence on pushing players together for story content rather than ring-fencing it away from PvP play. I get the theory behind it, I really do - bring people together and who knows what exciting interactions will occur! - but while there are plenty of occasions player encounters can bring a welcome change of pace, it's an absolute disaster where story is concerned. Nothing kills narrative momentum faster than crossing paths with other crews in Sea of Thieves when it's all but guaranteed to end in a miserable war of attrition.
It's the in-game equivalent of having someone constantly throwing popcorn at your head while you try to watch a movie - you'll inevitably reach a point where you're so fed up, you simply lose all interest in what's happening onscreen and just want to go home. Sadly, until Rare properly incentivises positive co-operative play to even the balance between potential friendly and aggressive player interactions, this will never not be a rubbish way to tell a story.
The big concern, though, is that without the sustained interruption of PvP across multiple attempts, my completion time for Shrouded Islands would have barely registered a blip on the clock. Sea of Thieves' previous attempts at regular events - usually consisting of a fairly repetitive shopping list of tasks to complete as a means to keep players amused between big content drops - mightn't have been particularly thrilling, but they did at least have meat, dovetailing nicely into the regular flow of play and shaking up the action with a new objective to focus on for a week or so. In contrast Shrouded Islands is an incredibly slight thing, coming in at well under an hour from beginning to end. It's a little baffling, then, that this first Adventure eschews one of Rare's neatest additions to the similarly styled Tall Tales, which incentivised repeated run-throughs with minor optional objectives - do this thing, find that thing. Busywork, most certainly, but still pleasantly entertaining goals to strive toward until the next big thing.
Shrouded Islands is only the start, of course, and Sea of Thieves is the absolute perfect vessel for the kind of ongoing storytelling treatment Rare is attempting here - its world is a gorgeously rich canvas with near-infinite room to grow. It's a little disappointing, then, that this first Adventure seems blighted by so many familiar problems - from passive plot participation to a lack of substantive interaction - that Rare's brilliant later storytelling forays have long since resolved. True, it arrives without the swell of excitement surrounding a new content season, and I'm certain its air of insubstantiality would be less conspicuous when bolstered by a whole new box of toys to play with. But if Shrouded Islands is indicative of Rare's big gambit to sustain momentum throughout each new season, it feels like there's still work to be done.
Shrouded Islands will remain available until 3rd March, with the story's next chapter arriving alongside Sea of Thieves' Season 6 on 10th March.