Avadon: The Black Fortress is the latest release from veteran independent RPG developer Spiderweb Software. After years of releasing titles in the familiar settings of Exile/Avernum and Geneforge, Jeff Vogel is launching a brand new IP and a whole new setting with Avadon. Following the Macintosh launch on March 1st, the game is currently running in beta for a late April PC release - which is the version that afforded me the opportunity to pen this preview.
More than anything, Avadon will feel instantly familiar to Spiderweb fans. It brings some welcome graphical additions to Spiderweb's catalogue, while also recycling and updating a lot of graphical assets from older Spiderweb titles, and all of these are presented in the traditional top-down 2D perspective. Combat is a pure turn-based affair, with the player's party and individual enemies taking turns to attack or use abilities. All of it – from the pacing of exploration and combat to the interface – will feel instantly familiar for anyone who has played pretty much any Spiderweb title, particularly an Avernum title. For that reason, I want to talk about just two things that are noticeably new: the setting and the character system.
The setting of Avadon centers around the Pact, an alliance of five nations (the Wyldrylm, Holklanda, Dharam, Kellemderiel and the Kva). Avadon is the name of a large fortress that sits high in the mountains on the shared border of the Kva, the Wyldrylm and Holklanda. Under the guidance of the unfortunately named Redbeard, it is one of the more important spots of the Pact, policing each of the five nations. To do so, Redbeard sends out his agents (called Hands) to ensure everyone lives up to agreed-upon rules (such as safe main roads), and to resolve conflicts between nations or problems the nations have with the independent and sometimes wild areas bordering the Pact, from the ancient Tawon Empire to the Titan Peaks.
On the surface, Avadon's setting is fairly standard high fantasy fare. Whereas Avernum was unique in being set in an underground prison colony, and Geneforge unique in the importance of the geneforge technology, Avadon doesn't have something as obviously setting it apart. It offers fairly typical fare, with late medieval style nations fighting off goblin-like wretches, giant titans, robbers or hostile nations. The wilder parts of world have forests or desertscapes inhabited by giant spiders, wolves, hellhounds, and the like. Even demons and dragons make appearances, though the latter tend towards the neutral, or are at least wise enough not to make enemies out of the Pact.
It's in the Pact that the setting's potential is most obvious: the Pact is not simply a flawless, good-guy alliance. The five nations have long histories of conflict or open warfare with one another, while the Pact itself is considered a necessary evil by many, maintaining a tenacious peace by holding everyone to the same rules. But inside and outside of the Pact there are people that consider its rules arbitrary, who think that the Hands of Avadon are given too much freedom and are thus open to corruption.
Jeff Vogel shows a deft hand at storytelling by not rubbing any of this in your face. Instead, you start the story as a young Hand, rushed into action due to (initially scarcely detailed) events putting pressure on Avadon's position. The game's events send you to four different regions in the game world: Avadon, Dhorl Stead in the non-Pact area of Khemeria; the border of the Kva and the wretch lands; and Castle Vebeaux and the contested Beraza woods between Holklanda and Kellemdriel.
The areas – as well as the followers you pick up – are carefully picked to highlight specific weaknesses of the Pact. By sending you to the southern Kva first, the player gets a sense of the power of Avadon's authority, and the importance of its reputation and aura of invulnerability. The non-Pact area shows that open defiance to fortress does exist. And finally, the Bereza woods is a contested area that is claimed by both Holklanda and Dharam, and shows the fragility of the peace enforced by the Pact.
The game's story slowly unveils a conflict brewing, and as the player resolves many smaller conflicts he or she uncovers more of the bigger picture. It soon becomes clear the player has a choice to make between two sides, though he has some room in deciding how to handle the situation. Neither side is clearly the "good" choice, each choice has its advantages or disadvantages depending on how you feel about the things you've learned during your travels, and your beliefs about the advantages and disadvantages of a strong centralized authority like Avadon. It is reminiscent of Dorikas' story in Avernum 5, but more well-crafted in the details and the plot's pacing.
The character system is considerably different from anything Spiderweb Software has done before. Whereas Geneforge was a solo title and the Avernums saw the player create four characters for a party, Avadon emulates the BioWare tradition of having the player create a single character who then recruits several followers.
The game offers only four classes, and character creation consists of you picking one such class: male blademaster (warrior type), male shadowwalker (rogue type), female shaman (healer and summoner), or female sorceress. Early on in the game, you are presented with four followers, each of which matches one of the four options at character creation, which means that your character is always a duplicate of one of the early available followers.
Two things are customizable as far as the protagonist and his or her followers go: the attributes (strength, dexterity, intelligence, and endurance) and thirteen class-specific skills, the majority of which are combat skills. You start out at level one with all of your attributes at set values, and can add one point to an attribute of your choice per level-up. Likewise, you start out knowing only the most basic skills at level one, and get two skill points that can be allocated with each level-up. Increasing a skill costs only one point, while unlocking a previously unknown skill costs two points.
The basic skills don't have any attribute requirements, but if you wish to increase or learn more advanced skills, then you will have to increase the lower skills to appropriate levels as well. For instance, if a blademaster wants to increase his archery training, then both melee training and path of the shield need to be at at least at the same level that he wants to increase his archery training to.