Thursday, May 5, 2011

Review: Avadon: The Black Fortress (PC)

Holy crap Avadon: The Black Fortress took me back… I grew up on RPGs like this. It’s a game that’s retro flavoured to a fault, but for anyone looking for a lengthy dungeon hack, here’s a hell of a good time for you.

I love killing mini digital rats - yes, rats are the first enemies


The first thing that’s going to stand out is the visuals – we’re talking tiny spites with minimal frames of animation, minimally-decorated tile based backgrounds and a static isometric camera. In other words… it looks exactly like many of the old SSI Dungeons and Dragons game, or a more primitive version of Baldur’s Gate.

As we’re all quite accustomed to detailed sprites and silky smooth animation in the modern era, the first few minutes of play as characters jerk across the screen can be quite off putting, but while that initial design decision hits hard, You’ll relax into the world easily enough.

It’s the story telling style of Avadon that is really different. The game directly addresses you as the player in a storytelling manner like the Zork games of old. So, just like you’re playing a real game of Dungeons and Dragons at a real table top, you’ll get regular pauses in the action so the AI ‘Dungeon Master’ can break into simple, but clear descriptions that sound a little something like:

You enter a large natural cavern, clearly not part of the original dungeon. The ceiling arcs far over your head, and a natural river bubbles through the middle, the crystal clear water beckoning invitingly.”

The environments don't have a huge amount of variety - not unexpected

It’s nerdy, yes, but the game is so lovingly built, it’s difficult not to get drawn into the world nevertheless. It never takes itself too seriously, though it’s also not an outright parody; so the fairest way to describe playing through this game is as a pleasant experience: it’ll be a stretch to remember specific moments at the end, but you’ll still enjoy yourself.

The story itself doesn’t break from the tradition of RPGs in the 80’s and 90’s – it’s a mess of clichés, inappropriately dressed women, tyrants and obvious plot points, but once again this just furthers the charm. The plot runs very much in the background – text is over quickly and new monsters to slaughter pop up regularly. There are multiple endings and different characters to play through, to give a bit of incentive to come back for some more.

For the most part, though, this is a game about exploring deep and dark dungeons and killing stuff. There’s a decent loot system, but in yet another throwback to the bygone eras of gaming, there’s encumbrance. Put on too much armour, and you’ll be an impenetrable tank, but you’ll also move nowhere.

Assuming you are equipped lightly enough, eventually you’ll run into some battles, and it’s an addictive, if slightly simple experience. Avadon is turn based, and everyone moves about in a grid formation. There’s a handful of spells and special attacks to choose between, but otherwise combat flow is the “you hit, now I hit” variety. You can build a reasonably-sized team of miscreants and heroes, and each has a unique role to play in the game, but if you’ve ever played an RPG before, you’ll know you’ll need a healer, a fighter, a thief and a mage as a base ‘unit.’

Ever feel that sometimes, you're just a very small person in a very big world?

There’s all the usual inventory micro management that you’ll need to perform – you’ll need space in the backpack for light sources, for instance, as well as positions and the like, and just like the RPGs of yesteryear, you won’t have quite enough inventory slots for all the stuff you’ll want to carry.

The only really irritating part of the game comes from the exploration. Finding stuff on the floor requires you to pull up the inventory, and because the game doesn’t do a good job of explaining to you that “hey, this here bit of floor has some good stuff on it,” you’ll waste a good portion of your time running around tapping the ‘I’ key just to make sure you don’t miss anything.

But the game is the sum of its parts, and the small irritations are completely forgivable. This is a big, chunky game that is retro RPG fans should absolutely adore. And, if you don’t care for playing it on PC or Mac… there is an iPad version coming in June, Spiderweb Software promise, and that will be awesome.

Basically, you’ll be able to tell if you will like this game from the screenshots. If you remember playing and enjoying these games as a youngster, then this score below is for you. Otherwise… well, you probably didn’t read far enough to get to this conclusion anyway.




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