There is a moment about an hour into Avadon that you realize that you’ve been taking it all a little too seriously. Up until this point you’ve been suckered in by the grim and gritty ascetic of the game and the impression that your character is a hard man living a hard life in a fantasy world where moral choices are never as easy as black and white, and instead immersed in the gray where you could discover you’re actually the bad guy in a lot of people’s eyes. And it is, don’t get me wrong, there’s a seriousness to playing Avadon that gives a real weight to the experience. Then you go to meet with a great dragon and encounter him bickering with his secretary, a put upon sort who’s bookish and can be quite sharp when pushed, and you realize that this game has a lighter side to it. In fact when it wants to be the humor can shift from satire to laugh out loud funny.
I have a confession to make, I have a soft spot close to my heart for Spiderweb Software, developers of Avadon: The Black Fortress. The first RPG I ever played was Exile, an expansive Western RPG that came packaged as one of many demos on a CD taped to the cover of a computer magazine back in the day (in the days when more than a single demo would fit onto a CD and when you got a CD instead of a DVD!). I was impressed with how huge the free demo was, almost a whole games scale in itself and the experience blew my little mind. Here was a genre where you explored whole worlds, you didn’t just hop and jump through zones on your way to the right hand side of the screen. There were tactical battles that frankly were too hard for me to properly play at the time, and I got to custom my party at the outset from a wide range of classes and races. In short I was hooked – though it would be JRPGs that really got me into the genre at a later date.
Since that time Spderweb Software has gone from strength to strength, and Avadon represents there first really ‘accessible’ title for everyone, since they have predominantly been focused on freedom of choice, open worlds and hard-as-nails challenges. I personally own the complete software library from this particular studio, and I am ashamed to say that I’m far from completing them all. They represent a significant commitment to play and I think that this is why Spiderweb has gone a tad unnoticed in the indy world of gaming to date. Avadon changed that.
Graphically Avadon is a two-sided blade. It looks great and has a very polished feel to it, bringing to mind a HD reworking of Balder’s Gate but with a better designed menu system and some of the best area layouts I’ve seen in years. Whole huge locations feel alive and are engrossing to explore as you push back some old-school ‘fog’ to reveal the full map and clear out the enemies. Monsters are semi-realistic in their design rather than being too fanciful and the character art for NPCs and player characters is spot on for the serious tone of the game whilst also offering up a slice of interest for each class. Nothing is dull but at the same time it’s not over the top. Handily the game gives you one party member of each available class and allows you to pick one to play as on top of that, so you get to try them all out at some point. I say there’s a bitter-sweet edge to this because when taken as a part of the whole Spiderweb catalog instead of as a game on its own it shares many assets with other titles, eating into the shine of the production. This won’t spoil you game but it might make you wonder where you saw something before or after playing. It’s possible you’ve played a later title in their range and this is where those graphics came from or that they’ve recycled an element or three. Spiderweb brings us high quality games at a regular rate by reusing some assets and its just something you will have to live with. Taken alone and out of context however and the game looks wonderful.
Sound and Music are a little less awesome, but still of a high quality. They are very much of the early Bioware template (the whole game has a Bioware feel to it, but in some areas outstrips even the masters of the WRPG) and as such can be quite loud and intrusive when a piece of paper slides into your inventory and the noise thunders through your computer. Music is unmemorable and used for multiple areas. Again sometimes this can thunder through your laptop, especially when the game is booted up for the first time and sends you scrambling for the volume to find a better level. Nothing feels out of place however and it all adds to the tone that the game builds around itself.
The story of Avadon is centered on the Black Fortress itself, a grim and forbiddingly huge structure that dominates the game. As a new recruit you make your way up the ranks as an agent of the fortress’ controlling figure, who you can ally yourself with or work to undermine as you explore ever more of the huge world around you. Forces are gathering that could spell danger and it’s your job to keep the peace in any way you deem necessary. Choice is the name of the game in Avadon and it litters the area with conversation trees that shape your experience and optional quests that alter the flow of the game. Larger quests and missions send you to locations that you play through more conventionally, but there is always something you can be doing to further your own internal goal for that session. Add an ally, scare somebody into working for you, gather gold or spread the influence of Avadon itself? The game is in your hands and I won’t sully the experience by giving away any more details than that. Each ally you recruit also lives in Avadon and they have strong, well scripted characters that will attract you to certain members of the party again and again because they best compliment who you want the be.
The game engine is split into two modes, exploration and combat. Exploration is predominantly mouse-driven and plays like an older D&D title where you explore areas, loot crates, break into homes and converse with NPCs. Battle is tactical in nature and turn based, with a great flow and a very easy to use interface that should get a standing ovation. Too many games clutter their interfaces in battle with useless information of require too many clicks of the mouse to get at what you want to do. This is a lesson in simplicity and elegance. I wish most triple A titles could handle tactical combat as well as Spiderweb software has done here. Attacks have areas of effect that includes friendly fire and monster AI shows some level of reasoning above ‘go for the weak’ but never feels like it is cheating. If you lose you will only have your own mistakes to blame as everything you need to win is right there in front of you.
Customizing characters comes through learning skills on their individual class trees and through upping stats through leveling and equipment. Special scarabs can be found that boost particular abilities or give passive bonuses, these are very helpful and help to keep a sense of power in you characters that might have otherwise been lacking. Otherwise it is a robust but traditional system we’ve seen done before and since.
Overall Avadon is a worthy game to sit on any desktop, and its found its way onto tablets and mobile devices in recent years too so its even easier to get hold of. A sequel, ‘Avadon 2: The Corruption’ has been released and I am assured that it is just as brilliant as the first, though I am yet to try it for myself. As far as I am aware there is no option to import existing save files from the first game, though I do personally think starting with The Black Fortress and moving on to the sequel would be helpful for most players as the world is laid out in detail in the first installment. If you enjoy games like Dragon Age that revel in huge areas to explore with multiple paths through the story but wanted something that had a more classic top down ascetic and wouldn’t eat your computer’s memory you’re on to a winner with Avadon. Indy rpgs sometimes feel like they are in the shadow of triple A releases, but Avadon feels like its a triple A title from another age with a fresh coat of paint, you won’t doubt that the men and women who sat down to craft this game knew their trade inside and out.