Avadon: The Black Fortress Review

Eschalon: Book II

Developer:Spiderweb Software
Release Date:2011-02-28
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
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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.