(PC Review) Avadon: The Black Fortress

Developer: Spiderweb Software
Publisher: Spiderweb Software
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
Reviewer: Nick Stewart

Overall: 8 = Excellent

Minimum Requirements:
P4 800Mhz, 512 MB RAM, 200 MB free hard drive space, 32 MB video card

Jeff Vogel is one of the more interesting developers out there in the current computer role-playing game (CRPG) market.  Through Spiderweb Software, he makes games as you might imagine them circa 1995–large open worlds, simplistic visuals, and extremely strong writing. At first blush, entries he’s cranked out in his two biggest series—Avernum and Geneforge—can be tough to consider, given the decidedly old-school look and feel. Once you strip back years of eye-candy-laden RPGs and give them an honest go, however, you tend to find some of the best genre gameplay on offer. As such, it’s a real point of interest to note that Vogel has released Avadon: The Black Fortress, a new venture unconnected to his other efforts and one with some interesting ideas of its own.

As the name would indicate, this fantasy-themed game is centered around the lofty spires of Avadon, a nigh-impenetrable fortress that sits at the very heart of the Pact, a truce that is nervously held between various neighbouring countries who have strong urges to do each other in. That they hold back from doing so is largely due to their fear and respect of the men and women of Avadon, which is charged with maintaining the integrity of the Pact, and will do so with extreme prejudice if necessary. As a newly anointed Hand of Avadon, such tasks now fall to you as you and your party navigate a broad swath of political intrigue and unrest, not to mention assassins, murderous creatures, and of course, a dragon or two. This also includes safeguarding Avadon itself, and its leader, Redbeard, a seemingly kind but firm man who also holds one hell of a grudge against anyone who dares to cross him. Without giving too much away, there are any number of forces at work who have an interest in seeing the Pact fall to pieces, and it is amidst such a landscape that the player finds themselves through the heart of the game.

Those who have dabbled in previous Spiderweb Software titles know full well that it’s the writing that holds up a vast percentage of the overall playability, and that’s something that holds true here as well–in the best way. While you won’t see anything on the same level as the real classics such as Planescape: Torment, Vogel’s games have always held certain plot-related nuances and complexities that often elevate the above-average dialogue and descriptions into something sort of special. This is a good thing, as there is no shortage of the written word present in Avadon–indeed, like all Spiderweb titles, it is a very text-heavy game, and so it is a relief that it is as well done as usual. Between the deep undercurrent of political wrangling and strife running through the core of the game and the more-than-serviceable characterization of those individuals involved in that world, Avadon pulls off its central pillars of plot and writing quite well.

Of course, despite the finer points of diplomatic allegiances, Avadon is still a fantasy RPG, and with that comes no end of combat. Fighting here is a turn-based affair, with each character afforded a set number of action points that can be used by movement, spellcasting, or weapon use. It’s also the prime arena for using the many skills that are specific to each of the four character types, which essentially boil down to fighter, assassin, mage, and shaman. Each has a specific skill tree that allows you to invest talent points earned through levelling into a variety of passive ability boosts, new skill acquisition, and improvement over old ones. Interestingly, most classes have some measure of self-healing, so there isn’t too much need for a “designated healer” role as is typically required in most RPGs. While the fighter is your standard tank, and the mage your standard area-of-effect damage dealer, the shaman and assassin (sorry, Shadowwalker) have specific abilities that render them useful in varying scenarios. The assassin has the ability to teleport and stun foes, for instance, and otherwise hamper them in interesting ways. The shaman, conversely, can summon pets as necessary, while also tossing out the occasional offensive spell. It’s a decent mix of classes that doesn’t offer too much combat-related complexity while still keeping things interesting enough to give each their own unique edge and distinctive feel in combat. Even more interesting is the fact that you can choose from among a small pool of different potential companions as you set out on your journey, meaning you can mix and match potential party members depending on your own skills and needs. It’s a rather nice ability that keeps things somewhat fresh as you continuously return to the field.

It should be noted that rather than some of the more open-world environments that have characterized Geneforge and Avernum, Avadon is much more linear. From your “hub world” of your home fortress, you are sent out into the various corners of the various Pact countries to resolve their issues, protect the Pact, or otherwise solve problems that need solving. As such, you’re sent from one “zone” to the next in sequential order as you resolve the various aspects of the main quest you were asked to wrap up, returning each time to Avadon before hopping out to your next location. That said, each zone—in reality, a different country of the Pact—has some non-linearity built into it, in that you’re given the standard range of quests that can be resolved should you so choose, and in whatever order you wish. Each zone even has a number of different sub-zones to allow for some decent exploration, though most of these are typically tied in some fashion to the central plot thread that sent you there in the first place. It’s jarring at first, but a nice, solid means of ensuring that the story remains strong and coherent while also allowing for some passable amount of freedom.

The idea of Avadon as its own character and thriving setting within the game is reinforced very early on, and it’s only more and more so as the game progresses. As the hub to which you return between missions, Avadon offers you the opportunity to store any extra goods you’ve accumulated that may be weighing you down, sell those goods, resupply, purchase new weapons or armor, and even augment your tools with special stat boosts or abilities. Your trips back to Avadon also let you meet and chat with the various characters you can ask to join you on your journeys, in itself an interesting option that further fleshes out their personalities, though these have a habit of emerging as you take them with you on your questing. In a Baldur’s Gate-style throwback, your people will make conversation with you as you all wander through the world–a nice series of ongoing character development that actually make you care about the folks you can drag along. All told, it contributes to a feeling that you’re part of something bigger, a world filled with people that have their own agendas and motivations. It might not be totally alive, but it certainly puts forward a decent facade.

These impressions are important, because it’s this thick sense of atmosphere, along with the solid writing, that helps to elevate the game beyond the sound and graphics. Not that the visuals are bad, necessarily–indeed, Avadon is likely the slickest-looking game to come out of the Spiderweb Software shop. The hand-drawn art for some of the still shots, character portraits, and story segments are something you’d expect to see on the cover of a fantasy novel, and the in-game graphics aren’t too shabby either. Environments, characters, enemies, and even inventory items are all wonderfully done; there are even some small visual flourishes that add a bit of character, such as falling rain or the explosiveness of a fireball. Although the music is non-existent, the sound effects are certainly serviceable, with cold wind whistling through the trees as you stalk growling beasts in a lush forest, for instance.

The interface has cleaned up a great deal as well, with all sorts of useful shortcuts that have made their way into the game from the various other Vogel efforts through the years. If you’ve ever played any of his games, you’ll be almost instantly familiar with how this one plays. There are a few items that have been improved upon, the most interesting of which is how the inventory is handled. The game has added a “junk bag” that allows you to set aside everything you’d like to sell into a separate, nigh infinite area that can later be sold in a single shot to vendors. This allows you to keep your inventory for the use of managing equipment, healing items, and other items of interest. It’s a great addition that deserves to be widely seen in other RPG titles, and nicely rounds out what makes for a fairly solid package.

Avadon: The Black Fortress
isn’t a great game, but it’s definitely a good one. It flings you forward into a new fantasy realm rife with political intrigue that feels unlike most others on offer, and gives you the opportunity to carve your own choices out of this somewhat non-linear role-playing experience. The use of the titular fortress as a sort of hub world and home base is an intriguing move that really reinforces the sense of being part of this swords-and-sorcery-themed police force, and the many improvements to the graphics and interface help to keep you focused on the atmosphere and plot. In all, Avadon is a very worthy experience, though those who actually remember the days of divining the secrets of Lord British’s sandalwood box will likely get the most out of it; still, it is a solid game and well worth a try for true RPG fans.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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