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Avadon: The Black Fortress

"...anybody who pines for the days of the older, massive classics and decries the state of the new streamlined, big-budget RPGs needs to put their money where their mouth is and buy this game."

They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To, Or, You Kids Get Off My Lawn

Even if you haven't played Dragon Age 2, you probably have an opinion about it. With the possible exception of Final Fantasy XIII before it, I can't remember any game in recent memory that proved so divisive among the RPG community.

The genre seems to demand allegiance to certain design ideologies. Do you prefer Western-style RPGs or Japanese-style RPGs? Do you like random battles or not? Do you prefer this series or that? Do you like old school or new school? The latest issue to stoke the fires of debate seems to be over "streamlining". What do you think of traditional towns being eliminated in FFXIII? What do you think of all the recycled environments in DA2? What do you think of all the single button mashing in DA2 or all the autopilot in FFXIII?

Obviously more nuance exists here, but in the wake of Dragon Age 2 in particular many fans of the old school began to declare that their type of RPG was dead – in fact they'd already been saying that with Mass Effect 2. To some, Bioware's emphasis on "streamlining" meant that we'd never see the likes of a Baldur's Gate again.

But I'm here to tell you that's simply not true. You just might need to look a little harder.

Since 1994, the small Seattle-based Spiderweb Software has been independently producing RPGs of fine quality. With a tiny staff and a small budget, founder and designer Jeff Vogel operates in the open, with no secrets between himself and his user base. His blog, The Bottom Feeder, chronicles the trials, tribulations, and occassional triumphs of running a small independent studio making the types of huge, old school RPGs that so many gamers say they want. Avadon: The Black Fortress, Spiderweb Software's most recent offering, not only signals the start of what Jeff Vogel hopes is a brand new series of games for the company in terms of narrative, but also introduces a revamped, turn-based combat engine departing from previous series.

Let me be blunt as early as possible. If you fall into any of the following categories, you need to play Avadon: The Black Fortress yesterday:

1) The streamlining of RPGs irks you.

2) You like gigantic narratives with choices that are distinctly in the "gray" area of morality.

3) You remember Baldur's Gate 2 as one of the best games ever.

4) You remember Planescape: Torment as one of the best games ever.

I'm telling you this right now so you can go over to the website and start downloading the absolutely huge demo (I'm talking hours) immediately. In fact, you should probably do this even if you don't fall into any of the above categories because maybe you'll learn something about the way the old school rolls.

The World of Lynaeus: Shades of Gray

Avadon: The Black Fortress takes place in the land of Lynaeus. Lynaeus consists of "The Pact", an alliance of five nations that makes up most of the continent, and the "Farlands", a conglomeration of barbarian territories that makes up most of the remainder. "The Pact" is enforced by a powerful man known as Redbeard, who rules from – you guessed it – a black fortress known as Avadon.

Avadon carries the authority to do anything necessary to ensure the Pact is protected against any and all threats, both internal and external. The forces of Avadon are broken into three groups: "Hearts" advise Redbeard, "Eyes" gather information, and "Hands" perform missions in the field. You are a Hand of Avadon, which means your job on paper is to carry out missions for the good of the Pact. However, in order to do that, you are free of the Pact's laws, giving you an immense amount of authority to decide how to handle matters – and if you want to make a little extra coin on the side, Redbeard certainly doesn't mind as long as you're not acting directly against him (or as long as he doesn't find out).

Even at very early stages, from a narrative standpoint your character has a TON of power. As a bonafide Hand of Avadon your word is law, even if it contradicts the laws of the Pact itself. You are the judge, jury, and often executioner. This allows the story to provide tons of morally complex problems and dilemmas right away – from the very beginning you will be tasked with getting a prison break under control. There are difficult choices to make about what to do with some of the prisoners, choices that don't have a clear right or wrong answer.

If you need color-coded dialogue wheels in your RPG to let you know whether the decisions you are making are "good" or "evil", this game will frustrate you. Often more than a half-dozen possible dialogue options present themselves, not all of them with necessarily obvious results. The dialogue works like the old Baldur's Gate series or, for gamers younger than myself, Dragon Age: Origins. You're not going to get your hand held here if you want to do the good and just thing. Just like in real life, sometimes it is hard to know what the good and just thing IS, despite spending the 40 or so hours it took me to work my way through the game the first time (while missing at least a few of the side quests) in Avadon. In my opinion Avadon: The Black Fortress contains one of the strongest RPG narratives I've seen in a long, long time.

The game looks very attractive for a shop the size of Spiderweb Software. This means that I highly recommend you try the demo first to make sure the graphics don't take anything away from your enjoyment. If you need the latest cutting-edge graphics, then the way this game looks may turn you off. Personally I think the game looks very good for its price point, especially considering the amount of content, but it's not going to win any awards for graphics. Extra care is taken in the first few minutes of introducing the world to provide the player some very attractive and detailed hand-drawn still screens while the first bits of the story unfold, but otherwise you don't see drawings of that quality except during loading screens. Again the developer is clearly limited in its resources here - obviously much more time was spent on creating an incredibly robust game world with carefully balanced combat encounters, rather than on making things look as beautiful as possible. But I simply can't go without mentioning that the graphics are certainly a weak point that may turn some away.

Sound in Avadon is sparse, and what audio exists doesn't add anything special to the overall tone of the game. With the exception of a single opening theme track (which ain't half bad), there is no music whatsoever. Background noise consists of rather generic "town noise" when in town, "nature noise" when in the forest, the sound of a blade being unsheathed when combat starts - but otherwise things are pretty quiet. The sounds don't get in the way but they don't add a great deal to the experience either.

Killing in the Name

As a Hand of Avadon you're a badass. And as a badass you're going to have to kill some things once in a while. There are four character classes you can choose for your main PC: Blademaster, Shadowwalker, Shaman, and Sorceress. The Blademaster handles your typical tanking stuff – lots of defense, lots of health, and lots of abilities that draw enemies away from squishier party members. Shadowwalkers are your classic rogues that look kind of like ninjas. Shamans have shapeshifting, some healing, and battlefield control abilities. The Sorceress blasts things with big elemental damage. You will meet one potential NPC companion from each class, so no matter what class you choose for your main PC, you'll still have a chance to play with the other classes.

Each class has a unique skill tree, with some fun twists. Even though the skill trees are relatively small, you have a great deal of customization depending on how much you power up each skill. All skills also have additional powers that become unlocked by assigning enough points to them, but the trick is that no ability can have more points in it than the two skills that connect below it. On top of that, at certain experience levels you gain the ability to add a point to a "specialization"; this adds an extra point to every branch on the left, middle, or right of the tree.

The game takes place in a top–down, isometric view reminscent of the aforementioned Baldur's Gate. While walking around non-hostile environments (or if no enemies have spotted you), everything takes place in real time. You can pause the game any time, which is useful if you are setting up an ambush, but in most cases the game will be auto–pausing for you when an enemy spots you.

During combat everything becomes turn-based. Each character or monster has a certain number of "action points" (AP) that can be spent doing things like moving, attacking, using inventory items, or using special abilities. Using items plays a huge role in more difficult battles because it takes fewer AP to use an item than an ability in most cases, allowing you to execute multiple attacks. Spells and abilities that add AP become absolutely essential for tougher fights.

Whenever it is a specific character's turn, a grid appears. This allows you to click somewhere on the grid to move there. If you select a weapon to attack with the grid shows you how far your reach, ability, or spell extends. This makes casting spells with the Sorceress a very simple affair as you can see precisely who will get caught in the effects of that fireball you're about to drop.

Special mention needs to be made about the level of care that clearly went in to every encounter in this game. One of the things that for me was a huge, huge turnoff in Dragon Age: Origins was the placement of trash mobs and the utter tedium that went along with fighting them. A great deal of effort has clearly been made in Avadon: The Black Fortress to make sure that combat stays exciting and interesting for the entirety of the 30-40 hour playtime. The trash mobs are fun to kill, but there is just the right mix of challenging monsters thrown in to keep things engaging. If you play on higher difficulty settings you will get your tail kicked once in a while, but at no point does the game ever feel unfair. Strategy will always win the day.

Even as simple as the system appears on the surface, there are several extremely memorable boss fights where the environment around you plays a factor. One particularly well–designed encounter had me running for my life as the corridors behind me filled with water, all while I was fighting off foes trying to keep me from reaching the rapidly closing gates. Even with simple graphics and a fundamentally simple combat system, it just goes to show that encounter design can play a huge role in making RPGs fun. I often feel that encounter design in particular has taken a huge back seat in more modern games, with designers believing that just hurling nifty–looking foes at you to destroy with cool powers is enough to keep the average gamer interested. Avadon: The Black Fortress never takes the cheap way out.

May It Spawn Many Sequels

Whatever road you decide to walk towards the conclusion of your story in Avadon, you get the feeling that this game only scratches the surface of the narrative possibilities in Lynaeus. I enjoyed every second I played of this game, so much so that I played it again. Although I've made a number of comparisons to Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment in this review, it is difficult for me to say if it is as good as those games. I suspect not, but anything seen through the lens of nostalgia will always have an advantage.

But nobody else seems to be making games like this anymore. I've read many poor reviews of games like Dragon Age 2 and heard a lot of complaints (on this website and others) about the state of gaming and how it either won't evolve or has evolved in ways that perhaps we don't want. Anybody who pines for the days of the older, massive classics and decries the state of the new streamlined, big-budget RPGs needs to put their money where their mouth is and buy this game or at the very least spend a couple of hours with the massive demo.

Will this type of game ever be popular enough again to warrant big time companies throwing big time budgets behind it? I don't know. If this game existed 10 years ago would I give it an Editor's Choice award? I'm honestly not sure.

What I do know is this: despite the million dollar game budgets that have taken us to this age of gaming, we are still in a place where a studio like Spiderweb Software exists to give us Avadon: The Black Fortress. This game reminded me of some of the best games I've ever played. Perhaps most importantly, it made me want more. Despite the fact that it probably won't be for everybody, and despite the fact that the mainstream may have moved away from this type of game forever, I'm still giving it an Editor's Choice award. You're free to disagree – I'll read your email once I finish this quest.


© 2011 Spiderweb Software Inc. All rights reserved.




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