Here at Gameindustry.com, we’ve been putting an increasing emphasis on independent game studios and their products. In fact, part of that effort lead us to create the weekly Saturday Time Waster reviews, even though that has since expanded to include non-independent titles.
My point is that for the most part, independent game studios mostly create small quickly-played titles, you know time wasters, that may very well be fun to play, but aren’t really overly complex. So it was with some surprise that we took a look at Avadon: The Black Fortress, from Indy Spiderweb Software, and found a robust, full-on old-school RPG with enough content to keep even hardcore pen and paper RPG geeks happy for hours.
First off, there has to be a good story and a compelling world in any RPG, and this game has that and then some. The writers, so often overlooked in development studios, do a wonderful job here. This world could easily be the setting for a series of fantasy novels. It’s a unique place where five nations have banded together in a shaky alliance to prevent themselves from being overrun by monsters. At the head of this alliance is a group of people collectively known as Avadon, who reside in a massive fortress. They are kind of like the internal affairs division of every nation that is part of The Pact. They have tentative authority over everything, a license to kill as it were. You begin your journey as the newest recruit.
Seeing this massively powerful organization from the bottom is cool place to start. Your character knows nothing, but neither do you, so you kind of learn the ropes together. And speaking of character, there are four archetypes that you can become. Basically they are a fighter, magic-user, cleric and thief, though the thief is kind of more like a ninja. The nice thing is that some of the most important skills are available to every class. A fighter can eventually pick locks, but it costs him way more picks to do it than a bare-bones thief. Or a magic-user can eventually learn a spell that will help them open locked doors.
You are thrown into combat fairly quickly, well, even after the obvious tutorial, and get to learn the interface of fighting. Once an enemy is visible, a grid of squares will draw across the map and the turn based fighting begins. You can count the squares to determine if someone is within range of say, your bow or magic wand, or to see if you can close the distance and still have enough points left to launch an attack. You move and the monsters move, and you keep taking turns until one of you, hopefully the monsters, are dead. After that, the game returns to real-time. The turn based fighting interface is nice, and really helps you to squeeze the best tactical effort out of your resources, items and skills. Especially at first when you are pretty weak with limited choices, it’s nice to be able to think and plan your attacks.
Interface-wise the game is very intuitive. You can double click on an item like a glove and it will go where it needs to on your large paper doll. I was surprised at how many slots there were for items actually, which makes it even cooler to find stuff. Most likely either you or someone in your party is going to be able to make good use out of a fancy new item. Later in the game you can even enhance items so you can begin to weird the weapons of legend.
There are a couple negative aspects to the interface. For example, when you hit the I button, your inventory comes up, which is fine. But clicking the I button again does not close it, which is how every other game I ever remember playing worked. Instead, you have to use your mouse and find the little green check circle to close the open window. I’m not sure why the keyboard keys seem to disable when a window is open, but in this case it makes collecting little vendor trash items on the floor a bit of a pain to grab. Also, I had trouble figuring out how to level up, and what benefits various choices gave me. I realize I could have read the instructions, but this basic stuff probably should have been in the tutorial given the system’s complexity. Still, if you’ve played a lot of RPGs like I have, then you will figure everything out pretty quickly. It might turn casual gamers away however.
Graphically speaking, Avadon is surprisingly good, and runs well even on older machines. You have three options for graphical quality, plus a resolution setting, so if your system is really old, you should still be able to tweak things enough to play. The view is top down and 2D, though the sprites and backgrounds look pretty good. I would say these were cutting edge graphics about six years ago or so. Besides looking nice, or at least above adequate, they are also very functional in terms of the interface. It’s easy to find stairs or important items and people. The only thing is that if your resolution is too high, you might miss something lying on the ground, depending on the object and the color of the ground. They are just pretty tiny, so for once, perhaps playing at a lower resolution is better.
The sound is probably as good as can be expected from an Indy studio. Environmental noises are nice and help set the mood. There is no dialog, and that means a heck of a lot of text to read, a turnoff for some, but its probably better than a having a bunch of guys with no training try to voice all the parts.
Questing is fairly straightforward, but get this, there are a ton of side quests, hidden parts of dungeons and even entire hidden dungeons that you will miss if you’re not looking. So if you start exploring, you will probably be rewarded, unless you run into some monsters you can’t handle.
And one final note about combat since we drifted into that subject. For the most part, fights seem balanced. I never felt they were too easy or impossibly difficult, though a few were tough and frustrating until I switched techniques. This is definitely a thinking man’s RPG, so use your best weapon, your brain, when approaching a fight.
Avadon: The Black Fortress puts a modern twist into the old school computer RPG and makes us remember why we fell in love with computer games in the first place. Feel free to dim the lights, sit back and play for lovely hours on end as you explore the world, gain power, and generally get your RPG on. It earns a very respectable 4 GiN Gems for its treasury, and restores our faith in the ability of independent game studios to make something more complex and thrilling than a series of jumping puzzles.