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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (416)

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I Am Setsuna 2.5/5
Assassin's Creed Origins 4/5
Boot Hill Heroes 3.5/5
The Bard's Tale IV: Bar... 4.5/5
The Bard's Tale Trilogy 1.5/5
The Bard's Tale III: Th... 1.5/5
The Bard's Tale II: The... 0.5/5
The Bard's Tale: Tales ... 0.5/5
The Technomancer 2.5/5
Tyranny 3.5/5
Pine 2/5
Victor Vran 3/5
Front Mission Evolved 2/5
Greedfall 4.5/5
The Deep Paths: Labyrin... 3/5
The Vagrant 4/5
Avadon: The Black Fortr... 2/5
Mass Effect 3 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2.5/5
Knightin'+ 3.5/5
Indivisible 3/5
Final Fantasy XIV Onlin... 2/5
A Total War Saga: Troy 3/5
Stardew Valley 3/5

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Avadon: The Black Fortress   PC (Steam) 

The ‘Blah’ Fortress    2/5 stars

“Avadon: The Black Fortress” (“Avadon”) is the first game in the third series by married-couple-Indie-developer, Spiderweb Software. Spiderweb has been around since the early 1990s, and prior to the release of “Avadon,” the studio was responsible for the long-running ‘Avernum’ and ‘Geneforge’ series. One thing that all of Spiderweb’s many games have in common is the fact that they are lo-fi retro cRPGs that should evoke fond memories of the bygone era in which PC mega-publisher, InterPlay, gifted the gaming world with the original ‘Fallout’ games as well as the large number of Dungeons & Dragons-based cRPGs made in the Infinity Engine.

“Avadon” was released in 2011, a few years after both the ‘Avernum’ and ‘Geneforge’ series were wrapped up after their 6th and 5th entries, respectively. I caught wind of this RPG series sometime in 2012, shortly after becoming a Steam member, and snagged a copy during a Steam sale for a couple dollars. Later, in 2014, I would grab the sequel at a similar discount, despite never having touched the original.

Now, 9 years later, I was in the mood to play an RPG, and with no obvious big names sitting in my backlog, I finally decided to give “Avadon” a shot. To my dismay, I received a reinforcing lesson that just because a game is an RPG does not mean it is good.

Presentation
Spiderweb has never been known for its ability to deliver a flashy-looking product. All of the games in all of the developer’s franchises look roughly the same: Hideous. “Avadon” uses a game-creation toolkit and a pallet of assets that looks remarkably similar to the first two ‘Fallout’ games, with a static, isometric (three-quarters) point of view; drab, undetailed sprites for characters and monsters; and a generally lifeless feel. Because character sprites are minimally animated, numerous concessions in visual world-building are apparent, such as people who are allegedly imprisoned in stocks just standing behind said stocks, and people who are allegedly sleeping just standing at the head of their bed. Spell and magic effects are likewise limited and unexciting, usually amounting to a variety of colored blobs falling from the sky or shooting out of a character in a cone. Of course, I’m no graphics whore, so the fact that “Avadon” is objectively hideous isn’t a deal-breaker… it’s just that there’s really nothing else about the game that’s any good either.

Audio is particularly odious. I never liked the ambient ‘rumbles and wind’ soundtrack that graced the early ‘Fallout’ games (before the Bethesda-developed entries in the series added a radio and the ability to pick up excellent in-game music stations), but “Avadon” actually manages to do one worse. To be clear, outside of the basic title screen theme, “Avadon” has NO music or soundtrack of any type, and there is not even a hint of voice-acting for the game’s many lines of dialog. There is simply canned ambient noise, and many of these background noises are absolutely grating. For example, in every ‘town’ area, the background noise features clinking dishes, something that sounds like sucking cement through a straw, someone dry-heaving, and a young child of indeterminate gender saying something that sounds like “cahta-coohta-cah,” then smacking its lips violently. I have no idea what language the kid is speaking, but it’s just the straw that broke the camel’s back with regard to the audio design. This game would be better off completely mute instead of with the horrid ambient sound it barely has.

Technically, at least, “Avadon” is solid enough, though it is woefully basic. While I never experienced any game-breaking bugs or random crashes, the game doesn’t not support Xinput out of the box (thus necessitating the no-longer-available-for-purchase Steam controller), and the nearly-entirely-mouse-driven user interface leaves much to be desired. Of particular poor quality are the fact that the quest journal doesn’t keep track of changes in quest status and the fact that the mini-map, while functional, doesn’t actually mark all of the important features (such as stairs and trapdoors) correctly, and further doesn’t allow the player to manually add their own map markers.

Story
The titular Avadon is a Black Fortress (natch) that sits at the center of a large island continent, surrounded on all sides by nations that are ostensibly members of The Pact. The Pact is a peace treaty enforced – somewhat heavy-handedly – by Avadon under the guidance of the fortress’ Keeper, who controls vast and overwhelming magics. Our hero is a newly-minted Hand of Avadon, who reports for their first day of work, only to discover that all manner of chaos has broken loose inside the allegedly-unbreachable walls of the fortress, with numerous Hands dead or missing and a jailbreak allowing many craven criminals to escape Avadon’s dungeons.

Reporting to the Keeper of Avadon, a dead ringer for Ed Sheeran named Redbeard, our hero learns little of import, other than that they are to report to someone further down the chain of command in order to start picking up assignments. These jobs all involve teleporting to one of the Pact nations and helping someone there deal with unrest, whether it’s a Pact dragon who’s pissed off that wretches (read: orcs) and ogres keep invading his territory, or a town beset by banditry, or a local lord who wishes for Avadon’s aid in brokering peace with nearby barbarian tribes, our Hand of Avadon must answer the call, otherwise Redbeard will become very, very angry, and apparently angering the Keeper of Avadon is a bad idea.

As so many RPGs of this type try to do, there are multiple endings available depending on the player’s in-game actions. Remaining loyal to Redbeard and Avadon or rebelling against them, for example, is the most obvious choice in the dichotomy. Presumably this choice will lead to greater consequences in the ‘Avadon’ sequels.

Our hero is also joined in their adventures by an array of the most grating, unlikable NPC companions I’ve personally ever encountered. Every single one of them is a portrait of social maladjustment, ranging from the revenge obsessed fighter, to the honor obsessed ninja, to the cultural-preservation obsessed shamaness, to the power-hungry sorceress. Each of them has their own unique side-quests, and the fact that they’re all completely dysfunctional is actually part of the plot, but, man, I didn’t enjoy talking to any of them.

In general, there is very little that is interesting or novel about “Avadon’s” narrative or plot. The world-building is fairly basic Dark Fantasy, where everyone is an ass because they can be. Then there’s the fact that the game’s super-basic presentation practically requires descriptive text, which results in a huge number of pop-up narrative boxes which contain a Wall of Text and some attempts at Purple Prose that barely manage to come across as mauve.

And that’s where “Avadon” lost me from a story perspective. There are a LOT of dialogs with NPCs, yet the writing frequently comes off as stilted and awkward. Nearly every chunk of dialog ends with far too many redundant dialog options for our hero to choose from (because, apparently, they are required in cRPGs), each of which leads to another redundant and tedious blob of text that all pile up into a dense and impenetrable mass of “blah.” There’s no sense of energy or excitement in “Avadon’s” text, making exploring the game world and dealing with its various happenings feel bland and laborious instead of intriguing and fun.

Worse of all, as boring and simple as it is, “Avadon” is a LOOOOOONG game! I didn’t complete all of the available side-quests, and I still spent nearly 60 hours slogging through this thing, which is about 40 hours too much.

Gameplay
As with every other aspect of the game, “Avadon’s” gameplay systems are basic in the extreme, yet functional enough to work, provided the developer uses them correctly. Spiderweb didn’t use them correctly.

At its core, “Avadon” features an Action Point (AP) based combat system very reminiscent of the old ‘Fallout’ games from InterPlay. Combat takes place in turns, with each participant taking theirs in a static order. Each character starts with a number of AP (usually 8), and moving roughly 1 body-width costs 1 AP. However, it is never clearly explained how many AP attacking consumes, which is usually ‘all of it,’ since, oddly enough, a character can move 7 squares and attack with their last AP, or stand still and attack with all their AP, with no difference in effectiveness. Some buffing skills allow characters to have more AP per turn or (semi-randomly) get to make an extra attack.

Magic and skills employ a double-whammy of cooldowns and vitality consumption. Each character has health and vitality meters. Obviously, health represents how much damage a character can take before being KO’d, while vitality represents how much they can use their special abilities before needing to return to Avadon to recharge (there is no option to camp or rest at an inn). Outside of combat, health rapidly regenerates, yet vitality can only be restored by returning to base or drinking a consumable potion. The former is time consuming and tedious, whereas the latter is expensive and unsustainable.

While “Avadon’s” combat systems may not be terribly exciting, the fact that the game’s combat is always woefully unbalanced is really the killing blow to any enjoyment. There is a LOT of combat in “Avadon,” but the vast majority of it is against literal trash enemies, like bats, spiders, and a small variety of canine creatures, with humans and the occasional minor undead thrown into the mix. Nearly every encounter in “Avadon” is painfully simplistic and boring, as mobs of weak enemies swarm the party, yet are quickly dispatched in a hit or two while constantly failing to land hits of their own. Slogging through these tedious battles occasionally culminates in a boss fight, where things swing completely the other direction, forcing the player to burn through consumables just to stay in the fight. In short, “Avadon” has a MASSIVE balance problem. There isn’t a single interesting, fun, or thought-provoking battle in the game. Instead, the player will spend the entire experience curb-stomping their way through repetitive battles with trash enemies or being curb-stomped by cheap bosses that employ impossible amounts of buffs and self-healing when compared to what the player’s party is capable of.

The player’s party is also quite limited. Even though there are 4 NPCs available to recruit, only two of them can join the player’s character at a time. A 5-man party would have been much more interesting than a 3-man party, but it is what it is. Player’s themselves can choose their hero to a very limited degree, basically picking a minor pallet swap of one of the 4 companions, thus the only player options are a male fighter (blademaster), a male ninja (shadow walker), a female cleric (shaman), and a female wizard (sorceress). I, played as a shadow walker, expecting a more roguish character than the ninja I got, but found that I had little reason to ever use the NPC shadow walker, or the blademaster, for that matter. Instead, the magic, healing, and buffs offered by the magical ladies were all I ever wanted in my party.

Character building follows a not-very-exciting skill tree, along with some basic stats. Dexterity, however, is really the only stat worth getting excited about, as all stats increase for each character at level up, but dumping the discretionary stat point given at each level into dexterity allows characters to hit more often and dodge nearly everything. Really, the only remotely exciting bit of character customization in “Avadon” takes the form of magical crafting. While there is no in-depth crafting system in “Avadon” by a long shot, the player will find a large variety of runestones in their travels. Each and every piece of arms, armor, and accessories can have a magical runestone effect applied to it – even pieces that are already enchanted! Of course, like everything else in “Avadon,” the runestone system is cumbersome and ham-fisted, with no ability to overwrite existing enchantments with better ones, thus forcing the player to hold-off on using enchantments early on in case something better appears later.

Overall
“Avadon: The Black Fortress” is a dull, plodding example of an RPG that seems to grasp the fundamentals of the genre, but manages to execute them all wrong. The lifeless story, the annoying characters, the unbalanced combat, the painful presentation, and the fact that the whole thing drags on three times longer than it should makes it easy to dismiss the remaining games in the series – as well as Spiderweb’s other efforts – in their entirety.

Presentation: 2.5/5
Story: 2/5
Gameplay: 2.5/5
Overall (not an average): 2/5

 

 


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