If you’ve ever played a Spiderweb Software game then you’ll know what the one-man (Jeff Vogel) studio does. Each of his games follows a very specific formula – isometric top-down classic RPG questing in the vein of such works of art as Baldur’s Gate.
Breaking it down further it means reams of text to read through because the narrative can’t be told through voice acting, 3D cut scenes or even facial expressions – these features cost too much to produce as a developer and therefore Vogel relies on what he does best; the written word.
And so we come to Vogel’s latest release: Avadon 2: The Corruption, which is the imaginatively titled sequel to Avadon: The Black Fortress (surprise, surprise). Now it’s possible to jump into this game without having played the first, but I recommend for the sake of consistency to play them in order – the fully-fleshed out world is, in this case, better than jumping in midway through in terms of immersion.
You’ll need to be willing to do plenty of reading, too, and I can’t emphasise this enough; at a time where modern development wisdom is to keep scenes short and sharp and reading text to an absolute minimum, Vogel remains comfortable in giving players paragraphs of text at a time, and that starts to make sense in the context of how limited the visual engine really is. It’s not just that the characters are grainy figures with minimal animation, it’s the fact that in order to understand what’s going on in the game, you’re going to need to read it happening.
For instance, in the tutorial alone there’s a sequence where the heroes find themselves a tiny passage through a thicket of trees and plants. The only way that the visual engine can approximate that is for the entire thicket to be temporarily removed, and then replaced once the players are through. Without the text to explain what’s going on, this event would not make much sense at all.
I know there are plenty of players out there that simply skip through text and even the RPG developers have had to find ways to compensate for this. For instance, the “decision wheel” in games like the Mass Effect series came about to present players with easy options (and projected consequences) without the player needing to really stop and think. It turned moral decision making into a reactive, instant response. There’s none of that in Avadon. Dialogue trees are still represented as they were pre-Mass Effect with a list of responses that need to be carefully weighted and interpreted. Each of those options will lead to further reading. An especially important conversation can run on for some minutes before finally being resolved.
Needless to say, players need to go into Avadon 2 expecting a significant change in pace to what they will be used to if they play modern games in any great quantity. But those that can climb that mountain of inaccessibility are in for a real treat; I don’t want to give away the story in any way because like any good fantasy novel it should be discovered by yourself, but the world of Avadon is a compelling one, and Avadon 2 fleshes out what was experienced in the first game in style.
If you’re able to stretch your imagination beyond the visuals you’re in for a rich pulp fantasy world of diabolical villains, horrific monsters and exotic villages to explore. Vogel’s style of fantasy has always been rooted in the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic of the 80’s, and frankly it’s good that these developers still exist, because it’s a unique style that I would hate to see disappear completely.
In terms of the play itself, players are left reasonably free to explore for themselves. There’s an overarching narrative, but plenty of side distractions along the way, and paths that can be wandered down that might hide danger, but not a flashing star indicating the next objective point. Some players might even find themselves a little lost here and there (especially if they don’t take the time to carefully read the text which explains to them the context of where they should journey next and who they should speak to). With mainstream games being more and more committed to doing all the playing on behalf of the players aside from some arbitrary decisions or skill rooms, Avadon 2 still tasks them with doing their own work, and that’s refreshing. Where even RPGs are degenerating down to the point where there’s a single corridor to explore at a time, or developers are using quest markers to drag players through the preset narrative by the nose, Avadon 2 asks players to participate in the experience on a far deeper level.
Which is why it’s disappointing that for all the narrative depth and rich world that Vogel has created, the combat itself is a little too shallow for its own good. The skill tree is a generation old in that it is thin and quite restrictive in terms of how customisable the individual characters are. There’s some freedom in terms of the party construction (in that you can pick and choose your own mix of character roles), but each individual character remains tied to a specific role throughout the whole game.
This also goes without saying, but while combat can be quite challenging, they’re not visually engaging. Enemies are simple sprites with even less animation than the heroes, and a little blob of red to represent blood is the only reaction to a successful strike. Magic effects are also little blobs, just of different colours to the “blood.” Battles also tend to be quite slow paced and methodical and major encounters can be drawn out affairs indeed.
But you don’t buy a Jeff Vogel RPG for its visuals or its in-depth tactical combat. You buy it for the story, and if Avadon 2 continues Vogel’s fine form with the written word.
– Matt S
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld