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When we at RPGFan learned that there was yet another generic Diablo-esque Action RPG coming out for the PC, we weren't excited. Lots of people have done it before. But what did get our attention was that the game was developed by ClockStone. "Who is ClockStone?" You ask. We didn't know either. As it turns out, ClockStone is a small game development studio based in Austria; furthermore, "Avencast" is their first big project, and it's been in development for a few years now.
Then, we saw some screens and gameplay footage. That definitely piqued out interest. Now the game is out, and we've played it from beginning to end. The game is not without its flaws, but overall, this game is a huge success, especially as a first-timer's project.
How does this game look? In a word: beautiful. However, they also require some high-end specs. We tested Avencast out on a couple of different systems, and what we found was some reassuring news. Some PC games, even after turning off all the shading and bloom effects, just won't run on the bare-minimum specs. The "recommended" PC setup is about all you can play the game on, and even then with some slowdown. Our tests showed that the game looks and runs great on high-end gaming PCs, but even on a regular PC (by today's standards) running the bare minimum requirements, the game can run smoothly and still look pretty good. The biggest issue was load times between areas, and this was only an issue for our less-impressive machines.
Everything in-game is full 3D, of course. You play entirely in 3rd-person mode. Character models are decent, and some of the monster designs struck me as unique. For example, a gaunt, two-headed demon in a humanoid figure has its two heads adjacent, but faces in opposite direction. Definitely a scary sight, and a formidable opponent to boot. Dungeon/environment design was also strong, but I have one major complaint: no ceilings. This is due to a very limited camera, which I will discuss later in the review.
The game also features these interesting FMV cut scenes reminiscent of those in Baten Kaitos. A beautiful 2D still background is placed, with a "camera" panning in different directions from time to time. Still 2D character images are placed over it, and are moved from place to place as though a puppetmaster were controlling them. Now the interesting part is that they also put grain and sepia over all of this, giving it a very "historic" feel. The game's narrator (the man who adopted you when you were an orphaned youngster) speaks through these cut scenes, as one who is remembering something that happened long ago. Choosing to do these cut scenes in this way was a risky move, but it paid off. They are very enjoyable to watch, and they work wonders for bringing a certain mood to the game.
Music is sparse, and meant to be background/ambient throughout the game. ClockStone outsourced their music production, and while the music is good, it is standard "PC RPG" fare. Most people agree on this point; you hear one, you've heard 'em all.
All dialogue in the game is voiced, and the English cast was surprisingly good. We don't know why localization crews for most console RPGs can't find the right people, but Lighthouse Interactive found good folk to have these archmages and daemons sound just the way you'd imagine they ought to sound.
Sound effects were a little weak. Some sound effects just didn't seem to jive with the actions surrounding them. Certain spells, and some enemy attacks, made noises that didn't sound the way one would expect them to.
The story was easily the weakest part of Avencast. You play the part of a young adept, sent to the magic academy of Avencast to become a full-fledged mage. The early portion of the game sends you on "training" missions, to prepare you for the final examination. It feels a bit like a Harry Potter clone at this point. Think about it: a young magician sent to a magical school to learn how to wave a wand around and cast spells. Well, it could be considered a common backdrop for a fantasy setting, but with the height of the Harry Potter craze just having reached its peak in the past few years, one wonders if ClockStone borrowed a few ideas here and there.
After the training missions, the true story starts up. The academy is over-run by daemons from another world. How this portal became opened, and what must be done to close it, consists of the majority of the rest of the game. There are some great plot twists, but they are, again, rather cliché. Much of the game's "true" story borrows from the concepts of the original Shining Force, particularly hero's origin, and the hero/villain relationship.
Putting aside the cliché content, praise must be given to ClockStone for decent execution of the story. For such an overused (some might say "timeless") story arc, the way the developers present it to the gamer is excellent. The FMV cut scenes, as mentioned earlier, are excellent. In-game cut scenes and voiced dialogue are also great, and the timing of these events are impeccable. Finally, there are "diversion" events (some required, some optional) that present very original ideas. It's enough to make one wonder if ClockStone doesn't have some other great ideas up its proverbial sleeve.
Lighthouse Interactive promotes this game as a fast-paced Action RPG. And that's exactly what it is. The majority of the time playing the game is spent in battle, and the battles play out in a fun and fast-paced way. There is little that we would consider "groundbreaking" about the gameplay, but for a small developer putting out their first game, they did a great job making a solid Action RPG.
Everything you'd expect is there: physical attacks, ranged magic, skill trees, summoning, stat-building, equipment, hotkeys and shortcuts for abilities (as well as unique "combo" input for each and every skill), and some useful dodging skills. Your character can do small jumps in any direction, or double-tap in a direction to do a long-distance roll. Being a mage, the only weapon with which to fight is a staff. But it's amazing what all these mages can do with a staff (think of the "battle mage" class from Bethesda's "Elder Scroll" series). Veteran gamers can efficiently build this mage to fight better with physical or magic attacks (ClockStone called these "blood magic" and "soul magic" growth paths). However, even a novice can come up with unique combinations. For example, a fairly reliable "freeze" spell can stun an enemy for a few seconds, during which the player is free to throw down strong magic, or just bash away with the staff.
With all of that said, there are also puzzles. There could have been a bit more puzzle work and a little less keyboard-mashing mayhem, but generally, for a 20 hour RPG, the puzzles helped to balance the action. Some of the better puzzles included a "beam of light reflecting off of mirrors" area, a "walk on the right tiles to proceed" area, and an "input the proper runic characters at different places in the room" area. If you're not a good puzzle-solver, beware. Regardless of the difficulty level set, the puzzles do not change, and some of them require a bit of thought. Above all else, they require your utmost attention during key dialogue, and a rummaging through your inventory at quest items with explanations of the obstacle at hand may help as well.
Yes, as we just mentioned, there are difficulty settings. They can be changed at any point throughout the game. But we found that, even on easy, the game is fairly challenging. "Normal" will be a breeze for veteran gamers, but no one is going to get through "hard" without seeing many, many "game over" messages. This isn't a huge problem since you are free to save at any time, but the frustration factor may be enough to send you to the options menu and clicking "easy" to get through the better part of the game.
The default control scheme is a little awkward. Directional movement is based on a WADS setup, but the camera is a real problem. The camera's horizontal control is based entirely on the mouse, zoom is + and -, and vertical control is PageUp and PageDown. However, one can never actually look up. There is no ceiling, and the camera is limited to a mere 60 degrees of vertical motion (from a "top-down" aerial perspective to about 30 degrees above the central axis which is your character). We found this to be very frustrating, and if ClockStone could change one thing about the game, this would be it.
Also, even with minimal lag, there was some unresponsiveness in controls, even with high-end PCs. Button-mashers beware: you need to consider what you're clicking, and how many times you're clicking it, if you want to keep your actions under control. There are times that you'll need to check a menu during battle, and if you aren't careful, you may try to continue fighting thinking that you've hit the button to close the menu, but indeed, the menu is still open. And since, in two of the three "character control" settings, the mouse does not shift from the center y-axis, you need to rely on keyboard commands to open and close windows. This can be a daunting task.
We were, and still are, impressed with ClockStone's first major release. And they should be congratulating themselves on a job well done. Seriously, watching the game's end credits scroll, it was amazing to see the same key group of six or seven people appearing over and over, showing that the majority of the work put into this game was done by a small staff. We're hoping they keep making games with the sort of integrity and creativity they demonstrated with this debut title.
If you're looking for a short, fun, single-player romp through magical realms on your PC, this game is a great choice to satisfy that urge. And don't hesitate to buy it just because you think your computer isn't "good enough" for a game with decent graphics. As long as you make the minimum requirements, you can definitely enjoy this game.