Wot I Think: Avadon: The Black Fortress

By Richard Cobbett on May 27th, 2011 at 4:13 pm.

And if I didn't have to fit in this single square, I'd crush you for your insolence right now!
Avadon is Jeff Vogel’s latest RPG; a roaring saga of dark politics and glorious face furniture. It’ll give you hours and hours of questing… but will it show you a good time as you slay giant spiders and screw with the fate of nations? Well, let’s see Wot I Think…

Zhethron is a dragon. Dragons have scales. Dragons have hoards of gold. Dragons have arrogance and age and power, and very little patience for the ramblings of fools. This dragon also has a PA. Her name is Thara, and her hobby is teasing her giant red boss. What does he demand as the price of his advice? “More cows,” Thara confides. “Fatter cows. Someone to clean up after him. The sort of things asked for by dragons, the lazy, and invalids.”

“I hear every word of this!” screams Zhethron, his voice echoing through the chambers of his endless volcanic lair. “I shall devour you the next time you return to me!”

Thara just rolls her eyes, winks, and promises great riches if you help her out with a relatively minor errand. Lavish rewards! Pounds and pounds and pounds of gold, straight from Zhethron’s very own hoard! “You can negotiate a better deal than that!” roars the dragon, and while you can’t actually see him, you just know he’s clawing his eyes in frustration.

So does Thara. It wouldn’t be any fun for her otherwise…

It's a kind of magic. Specifically, pyromancy.

This is the kind of moment that makes a game special, and Avadon has many of them. It’s the latest RPG from Jeff Vogel, and if you’re an RPG fan, that’s a name you should either know already or prepare to get very familiar with. His games aren’t pretty. They’re not polished. There’s no orchestral music – no music at all, really – and no voice acting. Yet hidden behind their simple sprites and old-fashioned tilesets beat some of the most entertaining concepts around, from Geneforge’s focus on your character being able to create life on a whim, to all of his games’ emphasis on making important choices that affect the world around you in ways that really, only The Witcher has bothered offering commercially in recent years.

Avadon is slightly unusual. Vogel’s RPGs aren’t as hardcore as they might look – at least not on their regular difficulty settings. This one actively tries to be a friendlier game, stripping out some of the complexity and making it easier to get started. You start by choosing one of four pre-built characters, choosing just their name. Levelling up is based on a very rigid skill tree that makes it tough to screw yourself over with a bad choice. There’s more focus to the action too, with the titular fortress of Avadon acting as a central base, and your missions sending you out into the wider world via teleporters in a largely linear way – albeit with choices to make while actually in the field, and plenty of optional quests to take on for extra XP and resources.

Hardcore fans have already complained that this makes the game feel dumbed down, although ‘simplified’ and ‘streamlined’ are arguably better words. I can safely say that this side of the game never bothered me, though it’s worth noting that combat is usually the thing I care about least in an RPG – as long as it’s adequate – and I was playing through on Normal difficulty, which was a reasonable challenge without forcing lots and lots of replay. What interested me far more was the story and its characters, both of which offer some refreshingly different gimmicks.

The high concept of the game is that Avadon, your new employer, is the power that holds together several neighbouring countries with a careful mix of support and fear. Think of it as the UN, with the Gestapo as its intelligence division, and an approach to keeping the peace that involves burning a troublesome city to the ground and pointing out that at least the ashes aren’t going to be causing any more trouble. Your boss is a man called Redbeard, an avuncular chap who makes a point of welcoming all his new recruits with a big smile and a welcoming pat on the back… but also sets wolves on them to make sure they can handle themselves, and guarantees that anyone who tries to screw with him regrets it for a very, very, long time. There’s a man in Avadon’s dungeons who’s been alive, numbed, for decades in a stasis field, purely as a salutary example for any future assassins. He’s one of the luckier ones who survived.

Your job? To keep Avadon’s power secure so that it can keep ‘protecting’ the land. Or alternatively, work to destroy it from the inside. Your choice, bearing in mind that this is the kind of world where it could well be the maggot-filled lump of evil it appears to be, or the stern rod of protection it claims to be. Or maybe something in the middle.

What this means in real terms is that no matter how heroic you think you are, you’re no hero. People call on you to solve their problems as a last resort, and begrudge being expected to pay for, or rely on, your services. If they don’t actively resent your boss, they’re terrified of what you represent – and even if you’re there to help with the best will in the world, your presence is a lingering reminder that Avadon has Noticed Them. Little good ever comes of that.

Now with the greatest POSSIBLE respect, please piss off and die. Thanks.

As usual in Vogel’s games, Avadon’s writing is excellent. It efficiently drafts out the rules of both the castle and the world in short order, then immediately sets itself to exploring it. You soon become very familiar with everything from the structure of Avadon itself (a caste system made up of Hands, Eyes and Hearts) to the religions and rules of the lands surrounding it, and quickly notice the little extra flourishes, like the regular Guards being described as having greater respect for you when you talk to them after your first mission than when you swaggered in as a raw recruit, or the way the rest of your party often chips into conversations or offers observations on the cultures and locations you encounter. The graphics are very simple, and you often have to make some serious allowances to buy into what they’re showing you (a person standing behind some stocks to indicate they’re inside them, or a few stones on the ground representing an impassable cave-in), but the world itself is big, detailed, and very well crafted.

Despite the premise though, much is business as usual. You may be a Hand of Avadon, capable of bringing the hammer down on anyone who dare oppose you… but don’t expect to demand they unlock their doors and give you all their stuff for free. You aren’t even equipped by Avadon itself for the most part, due to an unconvincing explanation that Redbeard prefers you to fund yourself in the field, and that this is better because it means you get to use whatever you like in combat instead of being reliant on the Fortress giving you what you need. Your character is meant to nod approvingly at this. A more appropriate response would be “Hmmm…”

Underequipped or not though, you do frequently get to enjoy the fun of pulling rank though, which is always fun, if often only for roleplaying purposes rather than actually getting you anywhere. Similarly, more than a few enemies see you and immediately shout some varient of “Oh, shit, you’re a Hand! I surrender!” to reinforce your status in the world. The only downside of this is that it really, really draws attention to how often you get fobbed off when you try to force an issue, and how little consequence your decisions often feel like they have.

(It’s also notable that for all Avadon’s threat and danger and politicking, you’re still able to start the game by walking up to your boss, the most feared man in the entire world, tell him straight to his stupid red beard that you’ll only follow orders if you feel like it, and not end up hopping away due to your entire right leg being shoved lengthways up your own arse.)

Redbeard. Not the most imaginative nickname, but would you want to be the unlucky fool who coined 'Sir Dickweevil'?

Combat is the bit where many people are going to get annoyed, either because it’s slow and turn-based, or because I just said something mean about it being turn-based. I’m sorry. I don’t like turn-based combat much. To be specific, I think it’s absolutely fine in proper battles, where it adds an extra strategic edge to taking on a pack of trained soldiers or giving you scope to use brains and brawn when taking down a boss. What I can’t stand is when every last encounter with pointless trash enemies slows everything down to a stop. And Avadon has a lot of trash.

In fairness, yes, this is fairly typical fare for RPGs in general… but it’s something I invariably have less tolerance for in story heavy games. I want to be sucked into the plot and its pacing, and while I don’t mind fighting monsters per se, having to duel ten Giant Spiders just getting from A to B simply isn’t my idea of fun at the best of times – much less when it means stopping and starting and wasting turns as everyone gets into scrapping positions. Even if you cheat and switch the difficulty down to Casual, it’s more than a bit of a chore.

Against the actual bosses and set encounters though, the turn-based approach is entertaining. The use of specific character classes makes it an easier introduction than most, and it’s not long before you have a backpack full of wands and potions and other handy tools to help you out. Against bosses and other scripted encounters, I had no real issue with it. It demands proper tactics, without being harsh and unforgiving – characters knocked out in battle simply get up again at the end of it for instance – and the game is good about warning you when you’re about to be locked into an encounter by a cave-in or something so that you can make a quick save or head out and level up a little bit before risking a difficult battle you’re not ready for.

(And yes. If you love turn-based combat, consider my whinging exactly that.)

I'd complain about my hate of giant spiders, but when the company's called Spiderweb, they're kinda to be expected.

As reasonable as Avadon is about its main mechanics, it does have its unfriendly side too. The graphics are easily ignored, but the interface is frequently a pain – to name a couple of minor irritations, pressing ‘i’ opens the inventory but doesn’t close it again, and while you open chests and containers by clicking on them, you have to keep remembering to press ‘g’ to pick things up off the ground itself. Some of the questing mechanics can annoy too, by not telling you that your work is done and it’s time to go home, or not letting you chase a monster across a level transition because you haven’t unlocked the next map yet. Small things, yes. But still irritating.

If you think you can tolerate the occasional rough edge though, Avadon has much to offer. It’s an enjoyable story, well told, and packed with great characters – of the main party, Nathalie the psychopathic mage quickly became a favourite, bouncing effortlessly from complaining that nobody understands her genius to staring up at another mage’s magic tower, effectively announcing “It will be mine. Oh yes…” and mentally trying to decide on the best wallpaper. It’s a different kind of story to your average RPG, but one that slides much better into the shades of grey of something like The Witcher than the pure dungeon-hackery of your average independent RPG. As simple as it looks, it’s one of those games that’s very easy to fire up for a few minutes, only to be magically transported without supper to 5AM the next day.

As ever with Vogel’s games, there’s a demo available – and it’s huge. It unlocks into the full game for $25, letting you keep on playing where you left off. By the time you’re asked to make that call, you’ll know if you’re up for the rest. If it’s your first time playing a Spiderweb game though, make sure to give it a chance to impress you. It has a slow start that might put you off, and it’s never going to be a game that wins out with raw production values, but that doesn’t mean it can’t more than hold its own in terms of plotting, character, scale and heart.

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87 Comments »

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  1. Atic Atac says:

    My first Vogel game and I love it. There’s so much indie gorgiousness happening right now with my time split between Avadon, Gemini Rue, Terraria and Frozen Synapse, while L.A Noire (which is excellent) ist just waiting in the wings. I love how indie games don’t have to make compromises and can just surprise you with crazy dialogue you wouldn’t find in Dragon Age II (which I gave up on after an hour) and Avadon is has that.

    • Alextended says:

      Agreed, it’s a solid, lengthy game with good quality writing and a fun, balanced combat system.

      I don’t get the trash mob complaints at all. I thought the encounter design in Avadon is some of the finest yet. Very few times were there enemies just for the hell of it, they always made sense in location and numbers and they were almost always mixed up with tougher enemies or other points of interest that made it all an actual challenge, and a worthwhile one. If you just want to see the story and play on the easier difficulty settings, well, it’s your own fault that you’re playing games whose gameplay you don’t enjoy (try adventure titles instead, they’re a lot like RPGs without combat, win!) and that you’re willingly playing an unbalanced version of the game that doesn’t offer the same thrills and of course appears boring or pointless in certain areas.

      Not to mention how fast battles go along once you get the hang of it. It may be turn based but the lack of unnecessary fancy graphics or whatever else could have been included makes it super quick and barely any slower than the semi real time systems used in, for example, Infinity Engine games. Even in set pieces where you’re working with many AI controlled allies against numerous enemies, each battle lasts a few minutes at most, and you either survive or die.

      Also, with the Vitality system in place, that you can only refill with not too common potions or back in Avadon, trash fights that aren’t hard are also about conserving as much Vitality as possible through all of them, which means they’re still tactical as you don’t go around using your most powerful spells and abilities on rats because then you might not be able to use them when you need them.

      In any case, Avadon is one of the few good CRPGs in years, even if, as far as Spiderweb’s games are concerned, it’s more Icewind Dale than it is Baldur’s Gate, due to all the streamlining and the particular focus of the story. This comparison is purely in relation to their past games mind you (reader), there’s a ton more story than there is in Icewind Dale, and plenty choices to make. Yes, many not so meaningful choices as well, but those are welcome too in my opinion.

      Why someone who doesn’t like what makes up like 80% of this type of game’s gameplay, ie, turn based combat (all there is outside that is talking to people and exploring locations really), was asked to review it, I have no idea, but I guess these days you can’t complain too much when most mainstream outlets like RPS didn’t even bother writing much or at all about it.

      Edit: ops, I also don’t agree with the lack of polish comments. Cheaply produced and lacking things like music as mentioned, sure, but it’s been pretty bug free and feels very polished in the actual game design, in the interface, location design, gameplay, combat rules and basically anything that matters.

  2. Ian says:

    Demo, eh? Might have to try me some of this.

  3. Aymes says:

    Agreed, tempted with the demo, I’ve usually avoided these due to looks vs cost but maybe it’s time to give it a chance.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      They’re definitely worth trying. You may like them, you may not, but the demos are almost ridiculously big (and Avadon has a smaller one than most of the Spiderweb games)

  4. Will Tomas says:

    I actually completely agree with you about turn-based combat. It kills the pacing and – for me – is really, really annoying.

  5. thebigJ_A says:

    Real RPGs aren’t turn-based. Everyone knows that!

    • Hallgrim says:

      “Ok guys, everyone roll for initiative.”

    • Memphis-Ahn says:

      Au contraire. Real RPGs are turn-based! Any non turn-based RPG should be considered a disgusting hybrid known as Action RPG and should be shunned like the bastard genre it is.

    • Nick says:

      what?

  6. Pemptus says:

    I agree that the immediate switching to turn-based on sighting a bloody rat ruins the pace somewhat. Just one of the many reasons why I prefer the first Avernum trilogy (2 being the crown jewel) to Vogel’s newer games.

    Currently playing through Nethergate Resurrection and beating the crap out of things with a band of Celts. Loving it.

  7. adonf says:

    I’m stuck with linux this week-end, does it run on Wine ?

    • pandora says:

      Try with the demo, chances it works are high. At least Spiderweb’s older games worked well with Wine, iirc, and Wine gets only better with time.

    • adonf says:

      Ok, thanks. I won’t be on my own computer so I didn’t want to risk installing Wine and then find out that the game doesn’t work. If older games are known to work then I can always try Geneforge or Exile. Or Tux racer

    • Premium User Badge

      DavidK says:

      I’ve never had a problem running Spiderweb games with Wine. Try the demo – if it works, then the full game will too.

  8. Longrat says:

    that control scheme sounds an awful lot like a roguelike’s scheme. Being a nethack veteran, i doubt it’ll trouble me. At any rate, I’ll be sure to give it a go. Any number on an actual length?

    Also, to all multiplat devs who neglect making pc demos, take note. This is how it’s done! No way I’d have thought about this had it not had a demo

    • Alphabet says:

      I’d say roughly 30-40 hours depending on how many sidequests you do.

  9. Bhazor says:

    Ok, so to any Vogel fans out there if this only middling/above average for a Vogel RPG then what would be the best one to start with?

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      I really like the Geneforge games. Really cool concept, nicely executed.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      If you don’t mind the graphics, nigh-universal consensus is Exile II, though my personal favorite is Exile III.

      Alas, you’re boned if you’re running 64-bit Windows. They should work great with Linux and Wine, though. Or possibly DosBox and a copy of Windows 3.1.

    • Bhazor says:

      Wow, Exile really takes me back I remember getting the freeware version in one of those “50,000 GAMES!!!” CDs when I was about 12 and spending days trying to get it to work. It’s intro movie was really well written and the style tickled my nerd glands even at that age. I never knew that was by Vogel let alone that the makers were still going. I’ll give the demo a try see if my fancy space age computer can get it to run.

      Edit: Turns out it don’t, or at least not in x64. Well… shoot.

    • Wizardry says:

      The Exiles.

    • Jesse L says:

      Avernum 2, the remake of Exile 2, will work in 64-bit Windows.

    • Pemptus says:

      If you don’t much care for awful graphics and obtuse interfaces, and you’re able to sacrifice some depth (debatable) for an immensely more user-friendly experience, skip the Exiles and go for the Avernums, which are their remakes. Skip to Avernum 2 (knowledge of past games not really necessary). Try the demo. Stay forever.

    • Waltorious says:

      I never played the Exile games, but I played the Avernum series which are remakes. They are allegedly not quite as complex and therefore inferior, but I like them a lot. I am also apparently the only one who prefers Avernum 1 to the rest of the series… I think it was mainly that the premise and story were so good. Avernum 2 is a great game but I don’t think it can match the premise of the first one, where the whole world is new and dangerous. Anyway, the Avernum series is a classic party-based RPG that’s mostly about just being heroes, but they’re also fairly open-ended in terms of exploring the world.

      The Geneforge series is quite different and also very good. This one’s all about questionable moral decisions and multiple paths through the game depending on your abilities. Also being able to create creatures to fight for you. Very interesting if you’re looking for something a bit different.

  10. TillEulenspiegel says:

    I’ll always prefer the old Exile combat. Since moving to isometric, the combat system in Jeff’s games has never quite clicked for me. Part of it’s the removal of that lovely area-of-effect fireball spell. Squish, squish, squish went the goblins. Everything felt a bit more solid, and definitely easier to control. IIRC, Avadon has largely ditched keyboard controls.

    If he wants to go super-modern action-oriented, he should really make the next game pausable real-time with AI control. Like Dragon Age, or even Dungeon Siege.

  11. Handsome Dead says:

    Vogel’s games are always decidedly not terrible.

    The Geneforge games are the only ones I’ve really enjoyed since they have what is probably the most interesting setting for an RPG that isn’t cyberpunk.

    It’s the best thing.

  12. Alphabet says:

    Played, bought, completed Avadon, loved it. (Praise the internet – as soon as the demo ended, I was delighted to give him my $25 – I remember when the Icewind Dale demo ended and I had to wait months for the game!)

    I love his recent games, especially Geneforge 5 and Avernum 6. I’m thrilled he’s reportedly remaking the earlier ones, because the tiny window on the world model doesn’t work for me.

    Avadon is a blast, and very addictive. But I’d recommend the above two games to those who don’t have all the time in the world.

    • dakl says:

      I’d heard Avadon was a somewhat “simpler” game. Are you saying Avernum 6 is a shorter game?

  13. Premium User Badge

    fupjack says:

    Jeff Vogel’s other writing is good too – he wrote a good book about becoming a parent that is much more … accurate than most parenting books.

  14. Demiath says:

    It saddens me somewhat to realize that even a hopelessly nerdy place such as RPS – it’s a site about PC games, after all – expresses the widespread sentiment that computer RPGs are not primarily about combat, that a completely turn-based system ruins the game’s pacing and that it therefore also detracts from “immersing” oneself in the story. These are obviously all perfectly valid personal opinions that are not shameful or objectively wrong in any way (even though none of them make the least bit sense to me), but it’s just a little depressing to see them reiterated everywhere I go on the interwebz.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Sorry, but I’ve always felt like that. When I play an RPG, I want to feel immersed in a world, soak in its culture, see the sights and use combat as necessary to save the day (usually as a mage). Having to beat up rats in sewers and deal with giant spiders at all is what I’m willing to endure to have that experience, not the reason I buy into it. Similarly, the fantasy I grew up reading was primarily about heroes using wit and ingenuity to beat the odds, not being strong enough to just beat them up.

      The more numbers get involved, the more I have to think in terms of DPS and tanking and whatever, the less interest I have. Likewise, I don’t care about loot, levels, XP or fake gold. They’re all just a means to an end, and have been for a couple of decades now, even when RPG stories were rubbish and the designers didn’t even try to make them more than rescuing a dragon or killing a princess, or possibly the other way around.

      (Not for nothing did I do a Gaming Made Me on Quest For Glory IV)

    • dadioflex says:

      I generally play turn-based or round based RPGs for the story and action RPGs for the combat.

      Very nice write-up RC. Glad to see Vogel getting some love on RPS.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Thou art welcome, sir.

    • Waltorious says:

      It’s an interesting argument… for me, turn-based combat has never really meant that things are about numbers and breaking immersion. I like it because it means my characters can perform things based on THEIR skills, not mine. It doesn’t matter how fast I am at telling my characters to attack; if my thief is really fast, he’s going to be able to run all the way up to that enemy and stab it before it can react. Not that there’s no skill involved on my end, it’s just that now it’s my skill as a tactician that’s being tested, rather than my reflexes.

      The numbers aren’t numbers to me, they’re just for representation. I don’t care if my Thief’s speed is 72, what I care about is that he’s FAST. That’s what the number means. Is he faster than my also-fast mage? Yes, the numbers inform me that he is indeed slightly faster. So I know that he’ll get to go first in fights, and I can plan accordingly. And when he levels up, I might want him to get faster, so I raise that stat. Similarly, damage ratings on weapons and spells tell me “man, that’s a badass magic sword” more than anything else.

      Games like Diablo, which are real-time, have always been more about the numbers for me, probably because all they really have is combat, and it’s not really all that tactical and more of a slash-fest. The main draw is finding loot with higher numbers than the last loot.

      I will agree with the general sentiment that having too many super-easy fights to slog through is bad though, regardless of whether said combat is real-time or turn- based. I can get behind games that have fewer, but more challenging, fights.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Yeah, and as I said, I have no problem with turn-based when it’s for those kinds of fight. Against weak enemies, admittedly, most approaches suck. (Sword-fight a rat like it’s a worthy opponent? No. You reach for the +2 Boots of Much Stomping). Turn based just takes way longer.

    • malkav11 says:

      I can understand the opinion that it takes too long to put down unthreatening encounters in turn-based combat. But the payoff in properly designed and tuned encounters more than makes up for it as far as I’m concerned, and since the former kind aren’t particularly enjoyable in most combat systems, I would sooner write off boring “trash” encounters than turn-based combat.

    • JackShandy says:

      Hold on, Demaith – You’re saying you play RPG’s primarily for the combat? If you’re still around I’d like to hear you explain. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who feels that way.

    • bill says:

      Totally agree with Richard on this one. On both points.

      I don’t play RPGs for the combat, but the big battles can be exciting and dramatic. But most RPGs are padded out with way too much combat that keeps getting in the way of the story. It’s as if the LOTR novels stopped every page to kill a spider. If they did that it’d kill the pacing and be very repetitive. But instead they save the fights for a few unique dramatic moments – either big battles or when the heroes escape using their wits).

      Turn based is fine with me, in that it allows for tactics and my clever* plans. But it can slow things down even more and when you are fighting low level monsters (trash mobs, is it?) it just gets really annoying.
      I’ve just given up on King’s Bounty, despite loving it, because it gets really boring grinding through all the low level enemies when you KNOW you’ll win easily, but it takes 20 minutes to do it. Same goes for all those JRPGs. On the other hand, i just finished Jade Empire because, though it also had it’s fair share of filler combat, it at least just involved banging a few buttons and killing the guys in 30 seconds.

      *doomed to fail.

    • Acorino says:

      RPGs changed a lot, focusing now much more on story and world building.
      The days of hardcore dungeon crawlers like Wizardry, Eye of the Beholder or Might & Magic are largely over. They were excellent games, and I think especially Wizardry 8 had unusually excellent turn-based combat, but most player wanted something different from their RPGs.
      I know I liked the promise of exploring a huge world, but was then disappointed that I had mostly to fight. I never encountered a dungeon crawler that hit a sweet spot for me, giving me enough story to interest me in playing further.
      But I wish that recent RPGs would take a bit of inspiration from the excellent turn-based combat of Wizardry 8. Seeing how story-based and basically pacifistic a lot of RPGS are nowadays, a lot of the fighting you’re involved in seems now largely redundant and annoying, which is even worse when the combat system sucks. It can get tedious.

    • InternetBatman says:

      I don’t agree with the comments in the article about turn based combat, but I do agree that it is needlessly time consuming against trash. I prefer ATB the best because I can use turnbased combat for hard fights that require a lot of strategy and breeze through the trash fights.

      Also, rpgs are not exclusively about combat. Dungeon runners that aren’t Diablo are generally not as highly regarded as games that feature a lot of talking.

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      Saul says:

      Another vote for the “story is king; combat is a diversion” side. I know that it originates from D&D, but I just can’t stand the idea that RPGs should be primarily about combat. There have been very few pen-and-paper RPGs since D&D that are so obsessed with fighting, and I’d much prefer to see CRPGs go the same way. Planescape: Torment was brilliant because almost every fight had context, and the Witcher 2 is similar (there are still some combat-heavy sections, but they at least make sense in terms of the story. The reason I didn’t get through either Dragon Age game is because the endless combat became an unbearable grind. I didn’t actually hate the combat per se in either game, just the repetitive and meaningless way it was implemented.

    • Fumarole says:

      A pen and paper RPG is only as focused on combat as the DM and players are.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      For me, Darklands is a shining example of what CRPGs should be. And what’s good about it has absolutely nothing to do with combat or its nonexistent story. It’s about interactivity, building your characters and making your own adventures.

      Imagine a D&D campaign where the DM has taken all the Lankhmar books (which describe a vast city with diverse districts, memorable characters all with their own motives, and many possible adventures) and thoroughly digested them. Then told the players to make their characters, dropped them off in the city, and let them run around and do whatever they want, based on the characters they’ve chosen to play. The more possibilities, the more the world reacts to appropriately to your actions, the better. I attempted to run a little slice of that once upon a time. I would do horrible, unspeakable things for a CRPG version. There are few more interesting RPG settings than Lankhmar, particularly if you like to play rogues.

      In short, I want room for creativity and imagination and exploration. It’s pretty much been all downhill on that front since Darklands, Daggerfall, and Realms of Arkania.

    • malkav11 says:

      Story is an important part of the RPG genre, certainly, but if one removes the combat, what one receives is not an RPG but an adventure game or interactive fiction.

  15. Burchard says:

    I just want to leave this here…

    http://www.desura.com/games/avadon-the-black-fortress

    It’s $19.99 on Desura, the fledgling indie/mod tool from the Moddb/Indiedb folks. You can also install the demo from there.

    I do agree with the Geneforge series being worth a try. It has a very interesting setting and nice faction mechanics. Try the demo of Geneforge 5 and see what you think.

  16. Jesse L says:

    Thanks RPS, I really wanted to see a proper review of this. The man’s still got it! Though I also miss the Exile combat, specifically the area effect spells, which made trash mob fights more fun. Watching a pack of wolves try to struggle through my force wall was always strangely satisfying.

    Could you spoiler for me whether the happy spiders managed to make a guest appearance in Avadon? Finding them – and one time, the happy roaches – in the Exile/Avernum series always made one of those happy moments.

  17. vodka and cookies says:

    I’ve always enjoyed Spiderwebs games, I’ve just started Avadon and so far so good although I agree the inventory system for picking up things is a bit of a chore.

    Basic beginners tip for any Spiderweb game steal everything that’s not nailed down, there aren’t really any consequences as long as your not caught and sell everything for gold to buy supplies/better equipment.

    Avadon does make this a little more challenging though as some basic common equipment cannot be sold.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      “I’m back from the mission! SPOONS FOR EVERYONE!”

    • Alextended says:

      What’s wrong with the inventory? It works fine in my opinion, and I love the trash bag that I can throw anything I’m not gonna use in with a single click when looting or from within my inventory and then sell it all with one click.

      Also, many objects have 0 value so you shouldn’t get EVERYTHING.

  18. Severian says:

    Anyone who’s played both this and Eschalon (Book I or II) care to make a comparison? I’ve been tempted to play Eschalon II for a while now, but this also seems interesting.

    • choconutjoe says:

      I’ve only played the demo for Avadon so far, but I’m inclined to agree with the general consensus that Spiderweb games win on story/quest design but Eschalon wins on graphics/aesthetic/polish. Also, the combat in Avadon is a lot slower, which can the make the dungeon crawling a tad dull compared to Eschalon (obviously this is all based on the demo of Avadon).

      Eschalon: Book II is a great game. A definite improvement over the first game. I haven’t really played enough of Avadon to recommend it yet, but the demo is definitely worth a look.

    • kenoxite says:

      I’ve played both Eschalons (and loved them), and also Avadon, Avernum 6 and those old Exile demos like more than a decade ago (although I didn’t play a full Spiderweb Software game until A6).

      The first difference you’ll find with Avadon that, unlike Eschalon, the world moves in real time until you’re engaged in combat. So, Avadon is more like Baldur’s Gate and Eschalon more like the traditional roguelikes (the world only updates when you move).

      Avadon is also a party based RPG, so that’s another difference. You can go on your own if you want to, but I don’t think some parts of the game could be beaten without help, particularly some bosses. There’s a total of four companions to choose from, although you’ll only be able to travel with two of them (until the very end). Anyway, for story related reasons you’ll probably end up using them all, so that’s five inventories you’ll have to micromanage, like it or not.

      It’s also a class based game. Once you pick your class you can only train the skills related to it. So, less freedom than Eschalon (or previous SS games) but also less chances of you messing your character up. Even if you ever manage to do that you can always “respec” (reset your skill and attribute points) just talking to a certain NPC you’ll find at about midgame. You can respec any time you want, as many times as you want, and for free.

      The combat itself is pretty much the same (turn based) with some interesting features, such as that nobody can’t move more than one tile away when they are close to an enemy. That allows the creation chokepoints on narrow areas, helps in “pinning down” enemies with your tank and makes life trickier for ranged units (mages and archers).

      Graphically both are quite similar. While some compare it to the level of Eschalon I still think it’s not there yet. Mainly because where Eschalon definitely is under a certain artistic direction Avadon is more of a patched up work with occasional taste and beauty. There’s also no music in Avadon once you leave the menu screen and the intro slideshow, and the sound effects are extremely limited and raw in general.

      That’s all I can remember from the top of my head, but it seems it was enough to create a quite decent wall of text. Anyway, definitely try the demo. You’ll probably find Avadon easier than Eschalon, so that might or not be a plus for you.

      And if you liked Eschalon Book I chances are you’ll like Book II the same if not more, so give that one also a chance.

    • Fumarole says:

      Eschalon: Book II is a fine game. I never got into the first game when playing the demo but the second really grabbed me. Perhaps I was just at that point in my life where everything clicked into place.

      I haven’t played Avadon yet but intend to play the demo on this glorious three day weekend coming up. Full marks to Vogel for the inclusion of a demo (with bonus points for easy demo to full game transition) but the price point is kinda putting me off. I’d be much more likely to purchase (pending me liking the demo of course) if it was $15 or lower.

  19. geldonyetich says:

    Seeing the gems laying on the ground in a square-based world, I identified the source almost immediately.

    I’ve always carried a flame for Spiderweb Software. They do old school RPG right.

  20. danimalkingdom says:

    Great review, I am definitely going to try the demo of this, it sounds intriguingly refreshing, and refreshingly intriguing.

  21. Derpington Hurrrrrrr says:

    I always wondered why Spiderweb games aren’t available on Steam. I thought small indie developers loved Steam.

    • malkav11 says:

      It’s possible that Vogel hasn’t approached them, but I suspect it’s more likely the usual story where the indie company would love to be on Steam but Steam has no interest in selling their games for unexplained reasons.

    • Alextended says:

      Yes, there was a Steam related thread on the Spiderweb forums and going by what Jeff wrote Avadon was rejected. For what reason, I have no idea, considering they have things like Eschalon on there (much inferior in my opinion, but that’s besides the point considering they’re the same genre and have similar retro looks – and pricing – though at least Avadon supports high resolutions). Steam seems to reject plenty worthwhile games for no reason at all or for stupid reasons like being “too similar” to things that aren’t similar at all. It sucks.

    • malkav11 says:

      What really weirds me out is when they reject subsequent games from developers they’ve accepted previously. Depths of Peril is on Steam. Kivi’s Underworld and Din’s Curse, the other two ARPGs from Soldak? Nope. Rejected.

    • Urthman says:

      I wish Steam had a GOG-style “vote for games you’d like to see on Steam.”

  22. Vinraith says:

    This sounds really promising. Thanks for the WIT, Richard.

  23. abremms says:

    Exile 2 was the game that taught me that RPGs are a real thing. I spent entirely too much time with that game back in the ’90s. I didn’t realize Spiderweb was still putting games out, looks like I have an extensive back- catalog to catch up on.

    thanks for posting this, RPS. I don’t know how I missed all these Vogel games, but it’s gonna be great catching up on them!

  24. psyc0lops says:

    I loved Avernum 3 (Exile 3 remake). I played the through the Exile 3 shareware portion many many times and when I got Avernum 3 I played through it at least twice. I can’t stand the new movement system they moved to. I missed the old JRPG style world map and the smaller locations but Avernum 4 changed it all to being one big big map. Sadly this game looks the same.

    • Pemptus says:

      +100

    • Alextended says:

      What’s the practical difference in that? It’s the same in practice, with only slightly different presentation (representations of cities or whatever aren’t downsized etc). Anyway, this isn’t the same, you only get to explore specific regions, not the whole known world. You telport to and from Avadon and various regions for your assignments using stone pillars. Outside that, when you’re in a specific region exploring it it’s also divided in various sub areas. These sub areas are large and seamless outside the split second switch from outdor to indoor or when changing floors (to enter dungeons, which often have as much total size as the surface, or different building floors, etc). When outdoor, on the surface, there are various area exit points (basically the very edges of each area, if they’re at all available due to the morphology) that when you go to you view a map of that region and just click to travel to the various sub areas you learned of from discussions or have business in (not all will be available from the start). It cuts padding. Though I wouldn’t want every one of his series to use this, it works great for this setting.

    • Pemptus says:

      Well, the practical difference it makes is that in the older games the game world feels huge thanks to zoomed-out world map, whereas in Avernum 6, for example, everything seems a walking distance away, which hinders the feel a bit. The vastness and “epicness”, if you will.

    • Alextended says:

      That’s still just a slight presentation difference. And a very personal interpretation to that. Everything is a walking distance away regardless of the style of map anyway. And overworlds usually have much less to do in them than seamless worlds where the map is also a proper game area at the same time. Avadon’s style doesn’t make the world feel larger by only letting you travel from region to region via teleports rather than by walking. It’s still all just slight presentation differences as long as the actual game areas you explore are vast and all the games take you many, many hours to see through. So what if it doesn’t seem like you explore an earth-size world? The story took place in that area, so that’s the area you saw. Games can take place in a single house and be as good as games that take place on a whole world. If some game didn’t satisfy you on some levels it has more to do with the way it was handled, the story, the gameplay, how interesting the world or part of the world you get to explore has been made, etc, than small presentation design choices like this.

    • Pemptus says:

      You mentioned an important word – “personal”. Personally, I find this “slight presentation difference” to be a bit more than slightly important to the portrayal of Avernum as a believable world. Yes, there usually are fewer things to do in the world map, but it’s a world map, it’s a representation of the world. In the old Avernums, notice how the date counter goes faster when in the world map. It’s little things like that that, uh, “fool” me into believing that Avernum is larger than its grid representation. You might not see the difference, but I certainly do.

      Of course it doesn’t disqualify the newer games, they’re still mostly fun. I just prefer the old way better. Also, I only played a little bit of Avadon, so I can’t really comment on that.

    • Waltorious says:

      I also preferred the world map of the earlier Avernum games versus the system in Avernum 4 where everything was zoomed in all the time. Part of it is what Pemptus said, in that the world map somehow gave a better “feel” of the world to me (coupled with text descriptions of various nooks and crannies that you’d find), but I think a larger part of it was that the new, zoomed-in world was not nearly as well designed. To give some sense of scale, it needed to be quite large (although as Pemptus notes, somehow it didn’t feel as big as the zoomed-out map), and then to make that work, it needed to be filled with content so it wasn’t just empty. But in my opinion this ended up being TOO MUCH content. Yes, most of it is optional, but I typically like exploring all the nooks in an RPG but doing so just felt like a grind in Avernum 4.

      Fortunately, others seem to agree with me that the fourth game is the weakest, and claim that Avernum 5 and 6 are better, even though they use the same map system. With some time to improve his map design in these games, I’m hoping that’s true. I’ll get around to playing them eventually. I may end up trying Avadon first though, for a change of pace.

  25. bill says:

    I’d like to propose a motion that all RPGs should come with a “skip all irrelevant combat” option.

    This would keep the boss encounters, important dramatic battles and story-point battles, but invisibly skip all the filler combat – while granting you any experience or gold that you would have received.

    That way, people who love that style of combat could still enjoy it, and people like me and Richard could enjoy the story and choices and a few dramatic battles, without all the annoying delays or interruptions.

    • MD says:

      Yes yes yes! This is a Very Good Idea.

      I’d be fine with it giving you somewhat worse results than you could have got by playing the battle optimally, so that those who choose to play them would be rewarded, and wouldn’t need to feel a nagging sense of pointlessness eating away at their enjoyment.

  26. Torgan says:

    Haven’t heard of this guy before but downloaded the demo last night and thought it was pretty fun apart from the wee niggles mentioned above.

  27. Premium User Badge

    AtkinsSJ says:

    I remember trying a Vogel game years ago (I think it was a Gene Forge) and not really liking it, though I may well enjoy it now.

    Tried the demo of Avadon a couple of weeks ago, and I love it! Haven’t played it much as I’ve been distracted by other things, but the writing is brilliant. I’ve been enjoying the combat too, but that does seem to be a thing of personal taste.

    I’d not really been an RPG player, but it’s convinced me to try Baldur’s Gate and the like once I’m finished.

  28. Vexing Vision says:

    Cheers for the write-up!

    Personally, I feel that Avadon doesn’t deliver the amazing set-piece battles of Avernum 6, or the political backstabbery and switching allegiances of Geneforge 5, though.

    If you do like Avadon, make sure you check out those too. Geneforge 5 especially impresses with being able to ally with any of the five factions, and at one point betray them and switch allegiance if you feel that way. And Avernum 6 is just a lengthy string of absolutely awesome boss battles.

  29. Xander77 says:

    Here’s a question (posted here due to lack of walkthrough):
    Can anyone figure out how to open the gate to the Wretch fortress? I know there’s a back way, but the main entry text seems to indicate that choosing the front entrance would involve a difficult battle, rather than a locked gate that’s impossible to open.

    Also, this game’s UI, ugh.

  30. Xander77 says:

    Anyone knows how to deal with the Dragon challenge? Running away doesn’t work, staying around gets you killed and “wait until you’re levelled up (15 atm) seems like an annoying advice.

  31. malkav11 says:

    FWIW, Avadon on Direct2Drive (at least in the US) can be obtained for 50% off by using the coupon code AVADON at checkout currently. The downside? Activation DRM.

  32. pertusaria says:

    I don’t know how far I am into the game right now – my guess is not very far. This is my introduction to Spiderweb, and I’m definitely going to try some more of Vogel’s games at some stage, so it’s good. It’s definitely a game that sucks me in for hours.

    However, a couple of things bug me, and they’re about the NPCs. The quest givers are generally OK and your party members are interesting enough, but the normal NPCs in the world just aren’t smart enough. When I get back to the village after placating the dragon, I don’t want to hear “The dragon is angry!” anymore. I shouldn’t have to go all the way back to base camp just for the villagers to catch on – this dragon is their livelihood and a potential danger, so I think they keep up with the news. NPCs that aren’t quest givers (or monsters) exist to help set the mood, so it’s really frustrating if they don’t do their job.

    I also find it odd that NPCs always say “Oh look, it’s the Hand” when I’m travelling with two other people, also Hands. Reactions don’t seem to depend on your character class very often, although I have had one or two reactions from NPCs to the people I’m travelling with. Specifically, the old shaman should notice that I’m also a shaman and make a comment on it that she wouldn’t make if I were a meat shield.

    This is intended as nitpicking on what is basically a good game, but which has a few flaws that make it harder to role-play.

    The forums on Spiderweb’s website are really helpful, and I would particularly point toward the player-generated maps at http://avadonannotatedmaps.zxq.net/ (thanks The Turtle Moves) – minor spoilers, better for when you’ve done most of a level and have frustrating little bits to go back for.

  33. zdeno84 says:

    playing, enjoying, lovely game. makes me eager to finish it just to give another spiderweb games a go.
    I don’t bother to be bothered by some minor aspects that could be improved as the game core itself is splendid. Makes me really enjoy party based rpg again (though you can go solo as well)
    So refreshing experience after skyrim and mass effect 3 it’s not even funny…
    Felt the same playing book of eschalon 2 so if you enjoyed that one you will most likely this as well and vice versa.