The RPG genre has evolved quite a bit since its inception. To many of its fans, however, not all of the changes it’s seen have been welcome ones. “Streamlining” has become a dirty word to many, as the roles of methodical strategic combat, statistical analysis, and character customization are downplayed, or have vanished altogether. Avadon: The Black Fortress, the latest release from prolific indie RPG developer Spiderweb Software, acts as an answer to the growing trend of streamlining RPGs. It may not be much to look at, with visuals easily outpaced by genre entries from ten years ago, but it can still be every bit as arresting and evocative as a modern, triple-A epic. And frequently, even more so.
The game’s world is a tumultuous one. The Pact, an alliance of convenience forged between the five central nations, is at constant war with the neighboring Farlands. The center of The Pact’s political and military power comes from the titular black tower of Avadon, ruled over by the ruthless leader known only as Redbeard. This is where your story begins.
As a newly recruited Hand of Avadon, it is not only your task to uphold the peace within The Pact, but to venture into the Farlands as an ambassador and a warrior, often both at the same time. Avadon is a game that is not afraid of dealing in shades of grey, with the lines between allies and enemies blurring with every conversation and encounter.
At first, I had a great deal of trouble with Avadon. It was not because the game is too difficult, though it can be quite challenging at times. My primary concern was with the game’s visuals. Or to be more specific, concessions made on behalf of the game’s visuals. Avadon’s presentation is rather simplistic; the kind of simplistic where a man standing behind a row of stocks signifies he is chained inside them. As such, text boxes frequently appear to set the scene and describe what the visuals can only hint at. In the beginning I found this to be an annoyance, especially as text boxes appeared unprompted while I was simply moving from one spot to another.
However, as I continued to play, my opinion changed. The descriptions of facial expressions, body language, and bustling towns filled my imagination, and became a more interactive experience as my own mind participated in building the world around me. Where a triple-A game would attempt to fill in details with stilted animations and poor lip syncing, Avadon’s simple text drew me deeper into the game’s world rather than pushing me away from it.
And what a world it is. Avadon is filled with side plots, all of which have a feeling of weight to the world without subjecting you to menial fetch quests. And every character has been fully fleshed out, with the gleefully destructive sorceress Nathalie sure to become a favorite.
That isn’t to say that Avadon is all text and conversations. Combat is a turn-based affair, with characters given a set number of action points for movement, attacking, and item usage. Battles move at a surprisingly quick pace for a turn-based and grid-based game, so you can plow through weaker enemies without slowing the game’s pace while still allowing for deeper tactical combat when faced with tougher enemies.
Each class has a skill tree enabling customization along three skill tracks. Additionally, each skill can be upgraded, with new abilities unlocked as you spend skill points in them, leading to a great deal of customization in how each character and class advances.
Avadon is not perfect, however, and at times can be downright archaic. The interface is just not very intuitive. The simple act of picking an item off of the ground or shifting inventory between party members is an overly complicated task, and quest descriptions never update even as the quests objectives may change. Unlike the game’s text boxes, these annoyances never became endearing, often resulting in me leaving valuable items behind because I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of opening yet another menu to pick them up.
Avadon: The Black Fortress is like a time capsule waiting to be unlocked. The sparse visuals, uncompromising interface, and lack of tutorials will likely prevent those who cling to polygons and sweeping orchestral themes from embarking on its adventure. But those who venture into Avadon with an open mind will be transported to one of the richest fantasy worlds to grace gaming in many years. They just don’t make games like this anymore.