The water level was rising quickly behind us, but there were yet more enemies to fight in order to reach safe ground. Nathalie valiantly succumbed to a mixture of the rushing torrents and Wretch limbs. It was just me and Sevilin left. Then, a break in the melee, a chance for escape. But my brave companion was encumbered, his foes were too much. I had a choice. Aid him and risk us both being drowned by the rapids, or teleport to safety. There was no time for careful deliberation; I had to act fast or lose it all. With a little guilt, I chanted the incantation and flashed to higher ground.
This is but one strong memory from my playthrough of Avadon: The Black Fortress. It’s moments like these that stand out in games, and make you reminisce with pleasure. The developer should design such opportunities to allow for emergent experiences, but it feels like that idea has lost ground recently with more story given games like Dragon Age 2. It takes a special vision to hark back to the classic role-playing games of the past, and Avadon is just such a game.
From indie developer Spiderweb Software, Avadon is the latest creation of Jeff Vogel. A particular focus on narrative and gameplay over pretty graphics is what sets Spiderweb RPGs apart. Avadon, the first in a new trilogy, is no exception, though it does try to streamline the experience. The question is: does a loss of player freedom result from such a design focus?
Tell Me a Tale of Yore
There is a strong narrative running through The Black Fortress, as with all Vogel games. Avadon is the name of the citadel from where the Pact control the continent of Lynaeus. Those who serve in Avadon are above the laws of the Pact, but carry out justice on those who falter. What is immediately obvious when you start Avadon is that there is a rich world with many, many facets. It may appear a little generic given the abundance of dragons and sorcery, but Vogel inserts enough character into the world to make it unique.
You take the role of a Hand, the warrior class of Avadon. You are but fresh meat, and are quickly sent on some gruelling tasks to prove your worth to Redbeard, the mysterious commander of The Black Fortress. There are no cut-scenes here, nor voice acting. Instead you have to read in order to get the story, the characters, and the charm. If you take the time to read through all the text options, you will be rewarded. Not only do you learn about the world of Lynaeus, but you understand the characters more. There are some great one off discussions with your party members that are not to be missed. There is also plenty of intrigue to keep one hooked. It’s clear that despite the well-worn fantasy tropes, a lot of effort has gone into making a vibrant and full world.
Fancy cinematics are not a priority, and are obviously not in the budget. Neither are up-to-the-minute graphics; Spiderweb even ask artists for use of their sprites. The sound design has the least effort put into it, with essentially no music and grating ambient sound loops, though combat noises such as enemy deaths are satisfactory. To Vogel these are all unnecessary dressings, and may even detract from the effort that has gone into the narrative and game design. It’s a budget game that concentrates on what matters.
Tis but a Flesh Wound
At its heart, Avadon is party-based RPG, with many choices on offer. You can play as one of four archetypal heroes: Shadow-walker, Blademaster, Shaman, or Sorceress. These are also the heroes that will make up your party as you venture from Avadon, though you can only take two with you on any one mission. Each class has a rudimentary talent tree through which you can specialise. For example, I made my Shadow-walker a master of stealth and combat, whereas the other Shadow-walker in my party concentrated on long range attacks. However, I tended to only take the Blademaster and Sorceress, as there are multiple ways to heal (negating a need for the Shaman/healer class) and ranged damage is never quite as satisfying (unless it’s magical). This does mean that I missed a lot of additional story points, but it allowed me to play in exactly the way I wanted.
Unlike other more classic isometric RPGs, Avadon doesn’t begin with you assigning talent points. Instead you start as a meagre foot soldier who obtains ever more powerful gear and learns new tricks. The talent tree may be rather simplistic with three interconnecting branches, but how you spend the points allows for a lot of tweaking. It is definitely a streamlined system, one where the concentration is on the combat itself, and not a multitude of numbers. Some may take issue with this, but for a more casual RPG player it’s perfect. Avadon is an easy game to get sucked in to, but it can still be punishing for the unwary.
I played on Hard (no other way) and some fights were exactly that. Because it’s turn-based, positioning plays a huge role in every fight. One of the many boss fights (which are, in general, superb) had a mage teleporting around the room, making it very difficult to pin her down. You can’t rush in and expect everything to be fine. You need to bring your whole arsenal into play. Potions in particular are a key factor for combat. You constantly have to assess the right time to use abilities: is now a good time to heal, or should I use a stun? On the surface the game seems minimal, but the rule set provokes many types of interesting challenges, with a multitude of ways to solve them.
A Diamond in a lot of Rough
However, it’s not all fun and games. The interface does take some getting used to. It’s ugly and unintuitive. The inventory system in particular is odd. You have to press the ‘g’ key in order to access items lying on the ground, which gets very tedious. Bringing up your inventory is also a little perplexing, as you have to constantly switch between each characters pack. The combat can also be trivialised, as it’s very easy to make a misclick. Everything works, but the convoluted player input mean you have to get used to the quirks.
There is also a very perplexing design choice in regards to player health, energy, and ‘lives’. Health in Avadon regenerates when out of combat, which immediately reminds me of the Decline in the shooter genre. It appears to be ‘casualised’, but it works, and health potions instead become central to the moment-to-moment fights. If a party member dies in combat, they will reappear if and when that fight is completed. This is somewhat forgiving, but the combat itself is not, with plenty of randomisation and brutal enemies. The energy system is called Vitality, and gets used for special abilities. It also seems to never run out, or at least it lasts long enough for the player to return to Avadon and regenerate. This is the strongest case towards Vogel pandering to a simpler audience, but as a whole it allows for more flow.
A Classic RPG for the Masses
To answer the earlier question, Avadon does allow freedom. There are enough choices in how you make characters, and plenty of incremental decisions during fights. You can zoom through the main story, or diverge for side quests and random dungeon encounters. It is far from linear, and the hub nature of the world means new places to explore are constantly unlocked. The dialogue even presents some fascinating choices; say the wrong thing to a dragon, and it can end disastrously.
This is the first Vogel RPG to be released on Steam (there are even achievements). Surprisingly, it’s cheaper than on the Spiderweb website. It’s clear that Vogel is looking to make some money, and a lot of the design decisions reflect a need to open up his audience. It’s is no Geneforge, but if you want a game that provides a rich story with meaningful mechanics, all wrapped up in a quirky art style, then Avadon is definitely worth a purchase. It’s a warming example of Indies fighting Decline. Don’t expect a Dragon Age 2 epic, but be thankful for exactly that.
- Plenty of choices abound. You really have to bring everything to the table in order to win fights, particularly the many boss battles.
- A rich plot with plenty of twists and memorable characters.
- It’s a more accessible cRPG, and available for cheap on Steam.
- The interface is ugly and clunky; you have to search for how to best utilise it.
- May not have enough depth for many, and could be seen as pandering to a more casual audience. If you like your stats, this is not the place to get them.
- The sound is rather generic and lacking.