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.
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.