Since its beginnings in 1994, Spiderweb Software has focused on bringing classic story-rich role-playing experiences to gamers. The earliest Exile games were rudimentary and seem quaint now, but the Avernum and Geneforge series have offered gamers comparable experiences to the best so-called ‘AAA’ games for a lower price. Of course, the focus is on story and character and combat system over graphics and sweeping soundtracks, so it is subjective to what you are looking for out of a game. I had written an article for a defunct site years ago about why Avernum IV was better than Oblivion in all the ways that matter to hardcore RPG fans. Now I am back, and can tell you without a doubt that for any fan who has loved Bioware in the past, Avadon: The Black Fortress has MUCH more to offer you than Dragon Age 2. Read on to see what I mean.
Spiderweb Software brings you Avadon: The Black Fortress, the first chapter in a new, epic fantasy saga. You will serve the keep of Avadon, working as a spy and warrior to fight the enemies of your homeland. As a servant of the Black Fortress, your word is law. Experience an exciting fantasy role-playing adventure and battle a conspiracy to destroy your people.
Avadon: The Black Fortress Features:
– Epic fantasy role-playing adventure in an enormous and unique world.
– Four different character classes, with dozens of unique spells and abilities.
– Uncover the fascinating history of Avadon and the land of Lynaeus.
– Many different endings. Your choices will change the world.
– Dozens of side quests, hidden dungeons, and secrets to discover.
– Hundreds of magical items to find. Use powerful crystals to make your artifacts even more powerful.
– Huge adventure with lots of replay value.
I have been fortunate to be part of the beta test teams for both the Mac and PC versions of Spiderweb Software’s games for the past few years. Beta testing is not the glorious life that some would have you think – certainly you get a copy of the game before anyone else and don’t have to pay … but there is loads of work involved.
First you need to actually read EVERYTHING – not the usual skimming done for most game, but actually make sure there are no typos or consistency errors. You also need to repeat battles using various tactics to test the balance and how well things work. Then you need to restart areas or even the entire game based on certain changes made to core game elements.
All in all … a lot of work that forces you to get intimately knowledgeable with a game – and very often sick of playing it! This is why my reviews for the Avernum and Geneforge games tend to lag by several months, something I mentioned in my Avernum VI review! In case I am not being direct enough, the fact that I am reviewing Avadon: The Black Fortress less than two weeks after it was releases says quite a bit about my feelings for this game.
OK, let’s get this out of the way right up front – you will not confuse this game with Dragon Age 2 in terms of graphics, nor did Jeff Vogel suddenly get Ian Zur or Jeremy Soule to score the project. Also, there is no voice acting – none.
But … take a look at the screens! This is clearly the best looking Spiderweb game to date, and for me has surpassed the Eschalon games for my favorite indie visual game design. You can see all of your characters in the detailed isometric view, with portraits and dialog avatars that are even higher resolution and more detailed. The dungeon designs provide a great sense of atmosphere, with varied color schemes and richly detailed art for interior and exterior environments.
The music and environmental sounds are appropriate for the game and add to the atmosphere. Well, that is partly true. Each area has environmental sounds appropriate to whether you are in a city, country or dungeon. The sound effects for battle and combat effects are also very well done – there is no steel sound for wood here! Many of the sounds are familiar from previous games, but there is no real reason to change them.
Regarding music, similar to Dungeon Lords there is a single piece of music which is played during the opening menu and introduction when you start the game. Once into the game itself … no more music. This meshes with Jeff Vogel’s common practice and repeated statements that he has no use for music in games. The title music is a fairly standard high fantasy orchestral theme that repeats for as long as you are in the title or opening.
Avadon: The Black Fortress starts you off with a choice of four character classes: Blademaster, ShadowWalker, Shaman, and Sorceress. All you do is choose an archetype, rename the character if you want and get started. In that way it is much like Dragon Age 2 – and I can see the basic appeal: rather than agonizing over setting up a character or party before getting started, these games allow you to simply choose a path and wade into the game immediately. I think it is perfectly balanced here as it gives you a choice, launches you into the game, but still gives you plenty of choices for character development later on.
Given I trashed Dragon Age 2 for this, why is it that I like it in Avadon? Because in Dragon Age you need to wade through pages of ridiculous Sims-like appearance items that have nothing to do with a role-playing game. If you want to get me into the game, just do it!
Once you have selected and named your character in Avadon, you read the several page introduction to the story. You learn about Avadon, about the Pact, and about Redbeard. There is enough detail to get you engaged, but not too much that it becomes boring. That isn’t always an easy balance – games like Dungeon Lords (sorry to keep using that, but … ) talk you to death about seemingly trivial conflicts and expect you to care. Avadon lays out the basic details in a way that is intriguing without feeling overplayed. Vogel has been vocal about wanting to get people engaged in the game quickly and easily without losing depth, and with Avadon I feel he struck the perfect balance.
The Story and Characters
One thing that you get in trade for the ‘next gen graphics’ when you play a Spiderweb game is excellent writing and an intricate story with fully formed characters.
As you learn in the beginning, as a ‘Hand’ of Avadon you are entrusted with the best of everything – and nearly limitless power and authority. You are part of a Pact of five nations, whose purpose is to maintain balance and order and make sure to hold back and weaken the outlying factions seeking to destroy those nations and gain power to rule the land. It is a tenuous balance, made more difficult by a series of unexplained events that are causing turmoil in the land, and of course happen just as you walk into Avadon! Dealing with these events and their impact within the balance of power will become your focus.
In most role-playing games you get some amount of personality defined for the main character either prescriptively or through dialogue. You also will get the main characters you interact with described and fleshed out. Seldom does it go much further – the only time most games give a characters a personality is if you need to interact, and even then all you get is the minimum requirement. That has never been true for Spiderweb games – Vogel has always meticulously described a wide array of characters at all levels in the game.
So in Avadon I wasn’t surprised to find that characters from the very beginning were described in nuanced detail, that even during the introduction and tutorial I was seeing that there was more than one side to every story, and that there was much I had to learn about how things REALLY worked in Avadon! But as I explored further into the game, talking to everyone as usual, I was still amazed as I found non-quest related trivial characters in odd locations with interesting stories and events and backgrounds for me to discover. In many action RPG games it is all about finding the ‘phat lewt’ … in a Spiderweb game these chance encounters are the hidden treasures to seek!
Oh – and one more word on characters worth fully exploring: Nathalie.
Of course there are some weaknesses in the story – like most Spiderweb games the main quest flow is mostly linear, needing to finish one mission to open up the next quest, and so on. The side-quests are optional and can be extremely difficult at times (or trivial at others), but fully allow you to conquer them at your own pace and convenience. My other problem was the reliance on a certain over-used fantasy trope as a key game element … Geneforge in particular showed how innovative Vogel could be, so this was disappointing (no, I’m not going to spell it out now as it is a spoiler). Fortunately it isn’t a big deal.
Combat System & Battles
Avadon uses a turn-based combat system that will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played a Spiderweb game in the past, and easily accessible to fans of turn-based role playing games in general. There is a combat mode and adventure mode you can toggle with a keypress, and choosing adventure mode allows real-time movement and unrestricted action. Once an enemy is in range and has spotted you, the game drops into combat mode automatically.
In combat mode each character (ally and enemy alike) has a certain number of action points and initiative. Initiative (speed) determines who goes first, second and so on. Once it is your turn in combat, you can spent your action points between movement, attack, spells, skills, potions, equipment changes, and so on. When you no longer have any actions remaining, turns pass to the next character and so on. Attacking will automatically end your turn, so if you want to move or do anything else you need to do it prior to an attack. When all characters have exhausted their turn, a new round begins, and this continues until one side has defeated the other.
Your encounters will have you facing off against so-called ‘trash’ mobs as well as more dangerous enemies, against giant rats to mages and warriors and deadly giant creatures, and will range from quick & easy to nearly impossible – and every single one feels like it matters and adds something to the experience. Wait – doing trash battles ‘adds something’? Yes – any RPG fan knows that you will need to engage in combat as well as quests in order to gain experience to get new levels and skills. Vogel has been battling the monotony of the ‘trash mob’ in recent years, and compared with many games I have played recently he is absolutely succeeding.
As you work your way through Avadon you will encounter many boss and sub-boss characters who will present a greater challenge to your party. This is a good thing – unlike the ‘trash’ mobs, these encounters will force you to use your skills and tactics, and perhaps occasionally fall in battle once or twice before defeating your enemies. If you choose a lower difficulty even these battles will be trivial, but on Normal difficulty these should be a satisfying experience for most gamers.
There are a couple of brutal battles in the game – the sort that reminds me of facing Jon Irenicus at the end of Badur’s Gate II. You will need to really prepare and think your way through … and probably still die in your first attempt! But the battle isn’t impossible, and as a result the end game is satisfying … instead of like the end of Risen!
Spiderweb’s two previous game series – Avernum and Geneforge – took different party approaches: Avernum had a balanced party without a main character, whereas Geneforge was very much single player focused. Avadon forges a middle ground, with a clear main character acting as the leader in a party-based adventure. You manage all of your party’s development, which lets you focus on taking them in certain directions in order to form a well-balanced party.
As you gain levels you are granted points to put to attributes such as strength, intelligence, dexterity and endurance. These impact the damage you do with melee or ranged weapons, your defenses and resistances, and your magical abilities. These points have an immediate impact on gameplay, where a single point to strength can make the difference between taking out an enemy in one round versus two.
You also get to allocate points to your skill tree along several branches with dependencies for many of the skills. If you are a mage you might take a firebolt spell, and then advance it for several levels to make it more effective. You could also choose Focus Mastery, which makes all of your magic more effective, but not as much as just putting points to a single skill.
One thing missing from the overall development is a diplomacy path. In the Geneforge games, which were single player focused, you could become a very charismatic leader and use your skills to influence outcomes of just about every situation. In Avadon you don’t have that path, and as I initially went through the game that bothered me. Since I have played it through three times now, it makes more sense – you are a Hand of Avadon, with way too much power and influence anyway, and therefore adding to that situation in a way that would be worthy of a skill point spent would greatly imbalance the game. In other words, it seemed odd, but upon reflection is actually a solidly justified part of the game design.
The other thing I have heard complaints about was the lack of a general lock-picking skill, with only the Sorceress and ShadowWalker gaining the skill. To an extent this makes sense as one would be a thief and the other get the spell – but it leaves out the BladeMaster and Shaman. This forces you to augment your party with others to carry that skill … and wait, but isn’t that pretty much the way you would normally build an adventuring party? You’d have a rogue for locks and traps, a charismatic character, a tank and a mage? So again while I can understand the complaints to an extent, the choice actually makes sense and is easy to overcome in the normal course of building an adventuring party.
Role playing is expensive – this has been documented. For every branch that a developer throws into a dialogue tree they need to flesh out the entire plot ramifications, fill out the characters and dialogue and everything else. As a result there are two methods typically used – phantom branching and short-term branching. In short term branching you get to make choices, see their effect within a small section of the game and potentially have some mention of them later on, but ultimately all paths lead back to the same final battle with the same binary choice.
Phantom Branching is very common and simply fills your experience with choices you can make that seem to build out the type of character you are – you can make harsh statements or generous ones, greedy choices or selfless acts. But these games are built for a single playthrough and therefore even within that same quest everything always turns out the same. At most you’ll get some mention of the actions, but these are simply ‘fill in the blank’ statements with no far reaching impact.
So it is a breath of fresh air that you truly make changes and choices in Avadon. Make no mistake, since the main quest-line is linear as I said earlier you are headed on the same path to the same final confrontation, but as you make more and more choices in one direction or the other they add up, your reputation is altered and the world before you subtly shifts. It is wonderful to have a game so focused on your experience as a gamer.
One thing I didn’t mention is the length of Avadon. I would estimate it at about 40 hours based on my slow play-style. Jeff Vogel targeted a run through at 25-35 hours based on your own style of play, which is about right. For some, that is short – it is certainly shorter than Avernum 6. But Avadon is a tighter experience – as I said the trash mobs have been reduced, so the hours you spend are actually doing RPG-related things rather than battle after battle … or wave after wave within a battle!
Is Avadon: The Black Fortress perfect? Not at all – the story isn’t the best Vogel has written, and some of the game elements could use more fleshing out. But it also has a great combat system, excellent balancing, great characters, and so in spite of those minor complaints this is my favorite Spiderweb game.
I have been very vocal about my disappointment in recent ‘major’ RPG games and developers: Bioware has been moving towards story-based action games with little RPG content in Mass Effect series, and Dragon Age II also took a major step in that direction. Bethesda did a very similar thing with Oblivion compared to the much better RPG Morrowind – and I truly doubt that Skyrim will suddenly have robust RPG systems. Between Soldak, Basilisk and Spiderweb, RPG fans have three ‘indie’ game studios willing to do the hard work of developing worthwhile and robust games that fill the void left behind. I applaud them in general – but with things like Din’s Curse, Eschalon Book II and now Avadon … I can more specifically applaud their efforts.
Spiderweb took a chance this year – they left behind the established and well-loved worlds of Avernum and Geneforge and set out on a new adventure. Avadon: The Black Fortress is the start of a new franchise, and so far it is looking like we are in for a great series!
Review: Avadon: The Black Fortress
Where to Buy: Spiderweb Games Store
What I Like: Great looking new engine; excellent characters; solid new game world; excellent skill trees; tremendous value
What Needs Improvement: Shorter than other games; story not at same level as prior franchises