Avadon: The Black Fortress Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Independent
Developer:Spiderweb Software
Release Date:2011-02-28
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
Spiderweb Software's Jeff Vogel is a veteran to the indie RPG industry of over 15 years. In that time, he has always stuck to making top-down, classic-style cRPGs, and he still hasn't deviated from that basic framework. Still, within that genre there can be a lot of variations. Linear or more free-roaming. Full of choice and consequence or more protective of the player. Party-based or single-player. Etcetera etcetera.

The studio recently released Avadon: The Black Fortress for Windows, after finishing up their Avernum franchise with Avernum 6 a year ago. Crafting sequels for a franchise always creates expectations. We always knew where a new Geneforge or Avernum would be set, roughly what character system it would come with, and how its progression would be structured. In launching a new franchise, especially an indie one, there is little that binds you in that way. Given a blank slate, I was very curious to see where Jeff Vogel would take his new franchise.

One thing that should be kept in mind is that while there are a lot of of things that make Avadon different from Geneforge and Avernum, there are a lot of similarities too. Like older Spiderweb games, it's still a top-down turn-based RPG, with a heavy focus on exploration and turn-based party mechanics. Like other Spiderweb games, it has no music but pretty solid sound design. The graphics are the best Spiderweb has done so far but there's still a lot of asset recycling. They are functional and sufficient for many players, but won't exactly tempt people expecting anything close to mainstream AAA graphics. The interface is intuitive and easy to use, especially for Spiderweb veterans.

Setting and Story

Avadon gives us fairly typical high-fantasy fare, presenting us with magic-rich, medieval-type nations struggling with threats of wretches (goblins) and titans (giants), as well as upholding unsteady alliances with dragons and other powerful factions. Even the world map looks like it could come straight from the inside jacket of a fantasy novel, with an alliance of five nations called the Midlands Pact sitting in the middle, bordered by fallen empires or wild lands threatening their security.

Where Avernum had its underground prison setting and Geneforge has its geneforging and rebellion, Avadon doesn't have an obvious hook. The franchise is named for the large fortress that sits at the junction of three nations, a power independent of each nation that acts to see that every nation follows agreed-upon rules and to aid nations that need help with border issues. This makes it pretty clear that the Avadon franchise is focused on the Midlands Pact, its internal and external issues, and the position the fortress holds there.

As hooks go, an alliance of five nations in a typical high fantasy setting isn't the most interesting one. And if you just play a bit of the game, you might get the impression the setting is really bland and unoriginal. But the Midlands Pact has more potential than is immediately obvious. The game does a good job of not making its long-term story goals obvious right off the bat, and refrains from rubbing its message in your face.

You progress slowly along the story to find more and more hints that the Pact is not as untroubled as the opening areas would have you believe. The five nations have a long history of strife and the Pact exists more out of necessity than mutual love. It is an uneasy alliance at best, and one forced both by external threats and by internal politicking. Like the best of fantasy, it is convincing because it is obviously realistic. You can instantly understand why the various issues highlighted in the game exist, from old border strife to uneasy alliances with necessary but unliked dragons. They're fantastical, but they're also plausible within the setting.

Similarly, the game spends much of the story highlighting what being a Hand of Avadon the position bestowed upon the player from the start really means. Because the alliance is not the steadiest, it is stressed how important the respect for the fortress of Avadon is. It needs a veneer of invulnerability, that you discover to be beset in a variety of ways throughout the game. As a Hand, you represent this "invulnerable" fortress, and initially this meets the kind of subservient responses you would expect. But as you move into new areas, where Avadon's grip is less strong, you meet open or hidden defiance, and learn more about its actual power and how its used.

I personally feel that this is the game's strongest point. A setting that looks like a boring old onion at the beginning carefully peels away its layers before your eyes in a (highly guided) storyline. The writing isn't always amazing and some NPCs tend to be too obvious exposition-dispensers, but the pacing of more and more details being unveiled, and the locations chosen to do so, are brilliantly set up to guide you so that major events in the storyline may still surprise you, but always make sense. They also create a situation where you are forced to choose between two sides, but they aren't clearly good or evil sides, instead providing realistic political choices for the player to take.
Progression and Choices

This kind of well-paced story is really hard to tell in anything but a linear narrative, which restricts some of the freeroaming known from Avernum and Geneforge. This is an understandable tradeoff, but I personally feel Avadon went a bit far in it. Locations can not be unlocked before an NPC does it for you, and the only NPCs that can do so are typically main plot-related NPCs or followers, with the story structured to see you constantly return to Avadon to be sent to the next area of the game's choice. Even within individual maps the entire experience of exploration is excessively guided, with frequent use of unpickable doors or impassable portcullises guiding you until the game feels the need to open them for you. There are some secrets to find, but for instance paths through dense shrubbery can only be found by quest-related NPCs opening them for you. Compared to Avernum, it feels very restrictive.

And it's not just the map doing it. To give an example from the story: I bumped into a group I knew had an ugly past with one of my followers. After a short cutscene (the game has a few of these, basically just taking control from you and playing out a scene in-engine), I had the dialog option to either egg him on to attack the group or tell him to wait. I tried one first, then reloaded and tried the other, and found that in both cases he'd stand frozen and ignore my command, because the story didn't warrant us having this confrontation right now. That is exceedingly frustrating way to offer a player the illusion of choice. Another example I remember is in trying my best to turn away from a main quest, until the NPC almost literally told me "but thou must!" and just pushed me into the quest. A third example: during my travels, I was sent to slay a beast. The quest is clearly set up to hint something isn't right here, and the beast is a tortured animal more than he is evil. Yet when I wanted to side with him over the clearly lying NPC during the final confrontation, the game gave me no choice. It only allows you to attack NPCs that it tags as hostile, never offering you the choice to deal with people that are clearly on the wrong side until it says you can.

These are some of the worst examples from the game, and it's usually more subtle or honest about choices. But it is a game that often seemingly offers you a choice, but quick reloading discovers the choice is a fake, irrelevant one. Similarly, the main plot has numerous occasions of you being tempted away from Avadon, and you can either respond to these attempts with interest or dismiss and even attack the enemy agent. Again, the storytelling here is really good, and unfolds at a great pace, but the choice and consequence mechanics are wonky at best. No matter what choices you make, you are still capable of turning around and heading in a completely different direction at the end. The only impact it seems to have is unlocking a kind of bonus option if your choices were "impeccable" throughout.

There are a bunch of choices open to you in the game that impact the ending slides, but they are always fairly obvious, and there are no real wrong choices that the player can be punished for. So even if a choice is real rather than just cosmetic, the game goes out of its way to protect the player from the consequences. In the narrative this makes more sense than it does in other RPGs, as being a Hand of Avadon allows you to act with a lot of impunity, but from a story structure it is new to Spiderweb games, and not a method I personally enjoy.

Character System and Followers

Protecting the players from consequences is a matter of accessibility, and the need for greater accessibility is a theme throughout this game. Where Avernum had expansive character creation, where you chose class, gender, portraits and stats for each of your party members, which you were stuck with throughout the game, Avadon has you pick one of four characters a male blademaster, male shadowwalker, female druid or female sorceress who you can name but not change in any other way.

Character creation is often a big part of the fun for RPG gamers, and the forced choice of gender and appearance won't sit easy with everyone, but it isn't problematic by definition. Often it is a good idea to allow a player to jump right into the story and then familiarize himself with the options in the character system later. That said, the Avadon system is a really simple one, and not one that needs that kind of protection.

There are four basic attributes, the function of each is described clearly and each has use almost exclusively for a specific character and build. As mentioned, there are four classes in the game, each starting with five basic skills. Three of these move into development branches: battle, power and utility. The other two are independent but often important skills, including the only non-combat skills, which are lockpicking skills available only to sorceresses and shadowwalkers.
You have some freedom in available builds, but not much. Each level you're given two points to increase a skill (at one point cost) or learn a new skill (at two points cost). If you want to increase the higher-tier skills, there related lower-tier skills have to have the same or a great level. To increase archery to level 2, you have to increase blade and path of the shield to two. The middle, "power" branch always has to be upped which works because they consist of essential passive skills before you increase the more offensive battle or more supportive utility branch, both of which allow you to unlock more and more useful skills. The system doesn't lack in providing interesting skills to use in combat, but it does limit you to either generalizing in all branches or specializing in power or utility. Specializations, which you unlock three times, add no real variety as they are just +1 bonuses to each skill of the branch rather than additional unique options.

This doesn't sound ideal to me, but for a good part is is a tradeoff. For one, this class system means leveling up feels significant, as each level up can unlock a new skill or ability. For another, it allows the develop to focus on balancing, with no class or skill being overpowered. The real problem appears with the followers. You have four followers in the game, none of whom are recruited in an interesting sequence, instead they are dumped on you in pairs early in the game. This kind of defeats part of the function of having followers instead of party creation, but they do offer a lot of commentary during the game, and each has a loyalty mission that is triggered at specific points during the main quest, each of which is set up to reveal more about the game world. They each have a specific function in the game's story, and like much of the game's narrative that part of it works very well.

It is the character system part of it that doesn't work as well. If one would compare it to Mass Effect, which similarly has two followers you can take along while the rest stay home and still level up somehow, the followers there aren't as big an issue because they don't resemble the class archetype purely, instead they have unique skills and more options for builds not open to Shepard. In Avadon, each follower is identical to the PC of the same class, in fact they look exactly the same except for some pallet swapping and different portraits. This means you can try almost every party build and certainly every character build in one playthrough. Heck, if you want to experiment, the game even has a freely available respec option a ways into the main plot.

I can't say I ever put much value to Spiderweb games specifically for their replayability, but the Avernum and Geneforge titles were very open for variety both in gameplay choices and character or party builds. Avadon has none of this. The sequence of quests and unlocking areas are always the same no matter what choices you make, while I discovered very soon in my second playthrough how discouraging the character system is. What's the point of playing as a blademaster when I already had a blademaster with exactly the same character build capabilities in my party last time? To put it bluntly, I feel this combination of simple character system, respeccing and four followers matching the classes were simply a mistake, and strongly hope future Avadons have a more complex character system and more interesting, unique followers.

Combat and Difficulty

With so many combat-focused skills, it is not surprising that combat is a major part of the game on top of dialog and exploration. Like the game's interface, combat will feel instantly familiar to Spiderweb fans. It is a top-down, turn-based affair where each combatant moves in a sequence determined by their agility stat. The PC and his followers can use close combat or ranged weaponry including magical staff attacks for the sorceress or druid, which use no resources or a variety of special skills and items. Enemies too have a range of basic and special attacks to their disposal, including a lot of spells and summoning abilities for the unique fights.

I'm a big fan of turn-based combat in games with parties or followers under the PC's control, and the basics work as well in Avadon as in any Spiderweb game. Jeff Vogel has steadily learned a lot about combat design, with regular but not overly large amounts of trash combat interspersed with interesting encounters and boss-fights, set up to play out as unique fights. Reminiscent of the latter Avernums, some of these get a bit gimmicky and need to be approached in a specific way decided by the designer. But even the gimmicky ones remain unique and interesting. Like his preceding titles, Avadon shows Spiderweb learned a lot about combat spacing and encounter design, and to me combat never felt like a slog through mob upon mob, like many RPGs turn-based or otherwise often suffer under.

That said, the tendency towards accessibility rears its head once more here. I'm usually not that skilled at tactics-heavy RPGs, but even for me "normal" seemed more like easy. Jeff Vogel himself noted himself, he's aiming at a normal difficulty that allows 90% of the players to finish, but I'd be surprised if as much as 10% would have much difficulty with this game on normal. Like most of his titles, Avadon spikes in difficulty late into the game, when the player should be more familiar with the system and have powerful builds. And even on normal there were certain fights at the very end that I found needed some attempts to pass without using up too much vitality or items. But still, this game suffers some under the "normal is the new easy"-standard that is prevalent through much of the mainstream industry, and I can imagine hard or even torment being a more suited setting for the audience Spiderweb games usually attracts. But that's fine, you can change them at any point in the game.
Yet I have to put yet another "but" here. In Avadon, your hit points regenerate outside of combat (at a fairly high rate), while your vitality can only be restored through potions or by going to the traveling pillars. These pillars aren't always available, meaning the difficulty in many parts of the game should stem not from the fight being hard to get through, but rather the fight being passable without using up too much of your precious vitality and items. So far so good, there's nothing wrong with that in principle and it works well for the tougher fights.

Jeff Vogel seemed well aware of the necessity of preserving vitality, not wanting to force players to regularly slog back to the pillar, which is just boring. For that reason, skills do not use huge amounts of vitality and there are regeneration pools at key points. That said, the value of vitality over health means trash mobs are exactly what the name implies: overly easy fights that do not require you to use any skills or items to get through. This sounds great on paper, until you realize exactly what it means. Whereas in Avernum such fights were all about preserving HP and using skills cleverly for every fight, in Avadon you can freely sacrifice HP even if you (die) the character just pops up after combat as long as one is left standing. This encourages careful players like myself to drag out trash combat, consisting of nothing more than you clicking on enemies to chip down their HP. I didn't experiment with difficulties and this problem deep into the game, but early on torment I could go up against an army of wretches can be passed without using skills more than a few times. On one side this is sensible within the system, and better than forcing the player to travel back to rest all the time, on the other hand this is a major mistake, as it drains trash combat of the already bare bits of fun they usually provide. As mentioned, there weren't too many trash mobs for me, and combat tends to be over quick which alleviates the problem, but if that's the best you can say about the majority of fights, then that's a problem. The decision not to regenerate vitality only serves a purpose if it leads to a difficult long-term battle against attrition, rather than encourage the player to keep trash combat as boring as he/she can.

Conclusion

Considering I spent a good part of this review highlighting some major problems, you might have the impression that I disliked the game. I did not. It is still a typical Spiderweb RPG at its core, and shows a lot of what Jeff Vogel learned in writing, pacing, and encounter design to its fullest. Whether or not you like it depends on two things: whether or not you like Spiderweb games, and whether or not you like a lot of BioWare's typical design choices. Because that's what Avadon is: Spiderweb at its core, but with a big BioWare pap smeared over it, with its greater accessibility, its use of followers, its cosmetic dialog choices, and its heavy emphasis on a linear narrative.

Avadon has a few big disadvantages that keep me from embracing it fully. For one, Spiderweb's previous two titles, Geneforge 5 and Avernum 6, were outstanding RPGs, Geneforge 5 being one of their best and Avernum 6 a Game of the Year candidate here on GameBanshee. Those are some lofty heights, and it might be unfair to expect Jeff Vogel to match such heights while simultaneously launching a whole new property. For example, a lot of its core systems and design decisions feel a bit rough, the vitality regeneration or limited class/skill system are decent starts for a new IP, but I think they need a lot of work to be really enjoyable rather than just functional.

The last disadvantage is a more personal one, and thus one that depends on your personal preferences. Spiderweb always filled a specific hardcore niche, and Avadon is one step outside of that very niche that his previous titles filled.  It has a less unique setting and a more accessible RPG system, which aren't what I was hoping for with a brand new franchise. Jeff Vogel has stated his admiration of BioWare before, and perhaps with the company becoming even more casual he fills a niche that BioWare is now leaving, but I feel like I can get RPGs that protect me from my own choices and offer a linear narrative and simple RPG system anywhere, while Avernum and Geneforge offered more unique content.

That said, a lot of the problems I listed are fringe problems that can be resolved with further refining, so I can't pretend the Avadon franchise has no potential. Rather, I can only hope the next title has more complexity and less hand-holding. With that being said, the extent of the game's accessibility, and the way it paces the introduction to the setting while taking a big step forward in the graphical department, makes this one of the easier Spiderweb games to introduce to newcomers.  And that was probably the exact intention.