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In multiple forms of entertainment media, doing things independently or "indie" is easier than ever. These days, all a musician needs to record and produce his or her own CDs is some computer software and some rudimentary recording equipment; equipment that is more affordable than it was, say, a decade ago. Sure the quality of the recording from a "basement studio" won't be as polished as that done in an expensive professional studio, but it can still be pretty good; the point is that an artist can produce decently recorded music him or herself without having to shell out big bucks to rent out professional studio time. It's easier and less prohibitively expensive to go the DIY (Do It Yourself) route than it was a decade ago.
The same analogy holds true with gaming, especially RPGs. How many of you out there have played RPGs and thought about doing one yourself? Well, there are tools out there for you to do that, such as the various RPG making software programs. One designer named Amanda Fae and her team has utilized RPG creation software and an "indie" ethic to establish Amaranth Games- an independent development studio for her projects. Some of her projects include a point-and-click game called Gaea Fallen, an Ys style RPG called Ahriman's Prophecy, and Aveyond. Aveyond is a direct sequel to Ahriman's Prophecy but it stands on its own quite well. Aveyond is an RPG reminiscent of 16-bit masterpieces such as Final Fantasy 6, featuring beautiful 2D visuals, great music, memorable characters, a solid storyline, and loads of that intangible "mojo" that allow certain RPGs to give us those warm fuzzies.
The story of Aveyond takes place after the events of Ahriman's Prophecy. Ahriman's Prophecy chronicled the coming-of-age journey of a village girl named Talia Maurva who eventually became an immortal druid priestess and stood up to the demon lord Ahriman's evil. Aveyond starts out with a wounded Talia being bullied by one of Ahriman's minions in the 'dream' world. It seems she had not completely defeated Ahriman and he's back for revenge. Using her last ounce of strength, Talia beseeches a butterfly to go to the 'real' world and find "the girl." The butterfly catches the fancy of Rhen, an ordinary village girl out playing in the meadow. She follows the butterfly into a portal, picks up the injured Talia, teleports back into her meadow and calls her dad over. It seems her dad somehow knows Talia but is unwilling to say how or why. Meanwhile, Ahriman welcomes a traitorous human sun druid into his realm of demons and concocts a plan to have Talia kidnapped and enslaved by a cruel master.
The next day, Talia innocuously gives Rhen a ring. What Rhen doesn't realize is that this is a special ring that druid priestesses normally never remove. While mischievously playing in a nearby cave with her friend Peter, Rhen encounters a slave trader who thinks she's the priestess. Rhen is then subsequently kidnapped, removed of all her possessions (including the ring), and sold as a slave to a cruel family on a distant continent. For 3 months, Rhen is a pitiful slave whose body and soul are all but broken. It's a torturous existence, but somehow Rhen keeps herself alive. Her worst tormentor is a detestable boy named Lars whose aptitude for magic gives him an air of superiority. He never fails to boast about his acceptance into Shadwood Academy- an elite magic school. One fine day, Rhen sees Lars bullying another slave boy and proceeds to hit him with a stick. However, as Rhen wields the stick, she somehow draws magic power from it and whallops Lars with a spell. A pair of strangers witness this and though they are there to collect Lars to go to Shadwood, they take the gifted slave girl as well. So that's how Rhen earns her freedom and a new lease on life. No longer is she just a normal village girl or a slave; she now has the potential to become a legendary sword singer and a new hope to an ailing world... now if only she can survive school where Lars is determined to make her life a living hell.
The story goes well beyond Rhen's time at the school and chronicles her epic quest to save the world. She eventually is named by Talia as the chosen one and must bring all the druids of the world to the Sun Shrine in Aveyond to stop Ahriman's evil. Sure the tale as a whole is standard RPG fare, but it is well written. I always wanted to know what would happen next. The tale is an epic fantasy like RPGs of yore, featuring moments of earnestness as well as moments of levity. Though character development isn't super deep, the cast is quite memorable and there are even NPCs that are amusing as well.
The plot direction is usually clear and there is a journal section to help you keep track of the quests and objectives you need to do. However, the game isn't on-the-rails linear, save for maybe the first handful of hours. There is a lot to see and do and the game gives you a healthy amount of freedom in terms of picking your quests, developing some of your characters, and even who you recruit into your party in some cases. The "find druid and bring him/her back to the Sun Shrine" are the quests you must complete in order to trigger the final battle, but the bulk of the game is in all the various sidequests that encourage exploration, logical thinking, and often lead to interesting discoveries. The game boasts over 50 different quests, but you will not see them all in one playthrough because the decisions you make in some of the quests may close out other paths. Many sidequests are linked to each other and some even to the main quest. To a lot of people, myself included, the idea of chained fetch quests in RPGs is quite distasteful. I found them excruciating in some of the Breath of Fire games, but I had a lot of fun with Aveyond. Go figure. Oh, and the game has four endings from which you get to chooose.
I quite liked the graphics. The colors are bright and vibrant without being garish, and all the environments look wonderful. I believe many of them were hand-drawn by Amanda Fae and her team. The environments also tend to be pretty expansive, so you'll be doing a LOT of exploring in this game. Battle graphics are less impressive but get the job done. There are no super flashy spell effects, detailed sprite animations, or anything like that. In some ways this is preferable, because extensive flashiness would just slow things down. The graphics won't wow those weaned on the graphical prowess of Chrono Trigger and beyond, but they are visually pleasing 16-bit style 2D graphics. The character designs are interesting in that while the sprites have a Japanese anime look, the character portraits have a more western art style.
The sound is excellent. The team of composers who created the music in this game did an excellent job. Even in the default MIDI format, the compositions have varied instrumentation and perfectly reflect the situations and environments. There is even a downloadable "goodie" from the Amaranth website that has all the music in MP3 format, so you can hear the music in the game in its full glory. Granted, the default MIDI music is excellent, but the fact that Amaranth offers this as an option is lovely. It really shows that they have a lot of love for their product and for the fans who play it. There is also excellent use of sound effects. When you're in a town, you hear voices and the hustle & bustle that comes with towns. In forests, you hear the chirping of birds and other woodland creatures. The music and sound effects really bring the game world to life.
There really isn't much to say about gameplay. It's standard turn-based RPG gameplay. You can see the enemies on screen before engaging them. This is great, because I think random encounters are an outdated practice. The thing is, after you're done with a battle, you don't get the spoils right away. You have to walk over the enemy corpse and press the action button to loot it. It's different from the norm, but seems like inconvenient busywork to me.
There are other rough spots in the gameplay that keep it from the polished echelon in which the larger development houses dominate. Firstly, there is no way to escape from battles. This is a grave oversight, in my opinion. Every RPG should have an escape option from battles, because there will be times when you either don't have the energy to fight a tough enemy or you don't want to waste time fighting a weak one. This leads me to my next complaint. This game is very old school in that you need to level grind big time. I despise level grinding. It tries my patience. It doesn't help that only characters in the active party gain experience. While this is realistic in that those who battle earn experience, it gets annoying to keep the lesser used characters up to par. Luckily, the Amaranth website does offer downloadable goodies to ease gameplay, such as starting the game at level 30 with a ton of gold and some nice weapons. I played the game for about 8 hours from scratch and the need to level grind tried my patience. Then I started a new game using the aforementioned goodie, and the game became a lot of fun and my progress was much smoother. However, this isn't a "get out of jail free" card, and you will find enemies late in the game who will still be able to decimate your party if you're not careful and do some level grinding. Even with my party around level 60, the final dungeon was tough and the final boss was borderline impossible without pure luck.
Another rough spot is that not all the towns have inns. When I first entered the area of Aveyond to find the Sun Shrine, the enemies gave me a pounding and once I found the little forest town of Teacup... no inn for me to restore my HP/MP at; and the inns don't resurrect dead party members. Oh, and I found the control a tad sluggish, regardless of whether I was using a gamepad or the keyboard's arrow keys. Still, it's great that gamepad support is available because I find it counterintuitive to play a game of this nature using the keyboard, though the keyboard interface is decent.
Still, for an independently developed turn based RPG that can offer you 25+ hours of questing time for about the cost of a music CD at the record store, Aveyond is a great choice. And with all the downloadable goodies on the Amaranth website, you're getting mucho bang for your buck here. What's even better is that you can download the prequel, Ahriman's Prophecy, for free from them. We're talking another 25+ hour RPG with a great story. This is what "indie" is all about. By gamers, for gamers, and the kind of direct love towards fans you don't get with the more "corporate" big boys.
Independent developers like Amaranth deserve the gaming community's support to bring out awesome products like this. Sure, Aveyond may not be the most polished RPG in the world, but it offers pleasing visuals, great music, an engaging story, that feel of exploration & discovery that can only come from an RPG, and a ton of heart and mojo. And when it comes to RPGs, what more could you really want? But don't take my word for it. Download the 10 hour trial demo for free from Amaranth Games and see for yourself whether Aveyond is up your alley or not. There are even hints that an updated version of Aveyond with even more goodies might become available.
Well... what are you waiting for? Stop reading and go! What have you got to lose, except some of your free time?