The first day of a new job can be a daunting experience. One has to get their bearings, learn their co-workers names, figure out their role, kill or capture escaped prisoners, topple governments or placate an arrogant young dragon who sells his services for gold. If your new job is being the latest Hand of Avadon, medival fantasy's answer to the CIA, that is.
Avadon: The Black Fortress is the latest RPG to come from Jeff Vogel and Spiderweb Software, the unsung heroes of classic RPGs in this age of cinematic spectacle. Like all of Spiderweb's games, Avadon was released first on Mac, way back in February. It eventually found it's way onto PC in May and iPad in June. You could be forgiven for missing it, though. People tend to find out about Vogel's RPGs through word of mouth and even then it's hard to see what the fuss is about. But trust me, the fuss is warranted.
You play the newest Hand of Avadon, a position of power and responsibility. You aren't tasked with saving the world, your job is to maintain the status quo. Your imposing master, Redbeard, is the most powerful man in the continent of Lyneas. With his army of agents, powerful magic and keen mind, he keeps the Pact (a coalition of nations) from falling apart. This isn't a conventional RPG. You aren't the hero, the Hands are extensions of Redbeard's will. Your first mission is to put the fortress dungeons back in order after a break out attempt. Straight away it is clear that Redbeard is merciless and manipulative, as you see the state of some of his prisoners -- especially the last man that tried to assassinate him.
The relationship between Avadon and the realms it protects is one of the most interesting facets of the game. Without Avadon's protection the five nations would be at war with each other and the ravenous wolves that surround the alliance, such as barbarian hordes and powerful empires. But the last thing anyone wants to do is draw Redbeard's gaze. A large ginger chap, who doesn't seem to age, has survived countless assassination attempts and strong arms every nation in the Pact into following his rules is probably worth fearing.
Even powerful creatures, like dragons, respect and fear Avadon. These creatures are part of the Pact, but still remember the age where they were able to party and devour towns to their hearts' content. Zhethron, the first dragon you meet, is one of the most memorable characters in the game. In exchange for his allegiance he is given freedom and his cave and horde are protected. He has a haughty, mercenary personality and despite his might he'd rather wait for humans to sort out his problems rather than lifting a claw, himself.
He's a young dragon, delightfully arrogant and rather powerful. But really he comes across as impotent. Another agent of Avadon acts as his caretaker and the two of them bicker like a married couple, in the end Zhethron always loses. He's lazy, bored and trapped by his deal with your master. Even with all his power and wealth he's as much a prisoner as the inmates you capture and kill in your first mission. The whole game takes place in a prison, of sorts. The nations of the Pact have given up a great deal of their freedom to ensure the alliance's stability, yet Avadon really doesn't have any interest in helping them.
Of course, you don't have to be a jailor. You can still play the hero is that's you thing. But it's much more fun to be a wee bit shifty. You aren't stuck with being Redbeard's lapdog. There are plenty of opportunities to undermine your boss and you can even try to destroy Avadon from the inside. Or you can simply be a bit corrupt. Sometimes it seems like RPG developers don't have the confidence to tell a story that doesn't have some generic, evil threat looming over everything that you -- as the hero -- have to defeat. But Spiderweb Software has crafted a game that's a lot more ambitious than your run of the mill fantasy RPG. You can work for Redbeard or betray him, you're not necessarily taking a good or evil route and you're rarely even sure who your enemies are.
The trope of NPCs standing about just waiting to ask for the heroes aid is thankfully not all that present, either. The people of Lyneus fear and often mistrust representatives of Avadon, they also expect to have to pay large sums of money for a Hand's aid. While there are plenty of quests and lots of useless people needing help it always feels like you are on the job and working towards a larger goal, rather than just going about randomly helping people like some gormless hero.
Everyone knows that Hands have access to places that few others do and sometimes approach them with offers of gold for this nik nak or that tome. The Hands are kept on long leashes, they can pretty much do what they want as long as it doesn't get in the way of Redbeard's plans. While you get equipment and rewards from your superiors, Hands are expected to find more creative ways to get money and finance their missions. It really does feel like you are working for the CIA or some other shady contemporary agency. Time for a confession -- I kept calling my shadowwalker Michael Thorton. He deserved a chance to be in a good game.
As this is the first in a planned trilogy, there's a significant amount of world building going on and it pays off. It never feels like the massive amount of lore gets in the way of advancing the plot, books are scattered throughout the game world and upon being read the information is saved for future browsing. You can stop and soak up Lynaeus's history whenever you want. It's certainly worthy of your attention.
Despite seeming like generic fantasy fare on the surface, Lynaeus is a complex, well realized land, with plenty of conflict to drive the game forward. It's still possible to enjoy the experience without going too deep into the lore, however. The various characters found in towns and and elsewhere do and excellent job of humanizing this intrigue ridden realm, as well as giving the player plenty of context without bogging them down in details.Your two companions (selected from four other Hands) help with this, too. They are a diverse bunch and all have their own interesting reasons for joining Avadon and following you. They come from all over Lyneaus and help fill in gaps in your knowledge with tales of their own lands and travels. There's a vast amount of dialogue. But like other text heavy RPGs, such as Planescape: Torment, the quality of the writing means that you won't tire of it.
On the surface, Avadon: The Black Fortress is not an inviting game. The huge labyrinthine dungeons and simple character models evoke early 90s RPGs, the turn-based combat and isometric view does nothing to persuade you that you haven't traveled back in time. Your adventure is a pretty silent affair, too. There's almost no music and there's certainly no voice acting. But the game doesn't feel like it's missing any of those things, it's all window dressing to try to immerse players in the world, window dressing that Avadon doesn't need.
Realistic animation, flashy spell effects, cinematic cut scenes and stirring scores are all splendid, but not necessary. Some of the greatest adventures are just words on a page, your imagination fills everything else in. With writing as good as Avadon's, the gaudiness of modern RPGs would just get in the way. That's not to say that some modern conventions haven't found their way into the game, though.
It is a far simpler and dare I say, streamlined, game compared to Vogel's previous titles like the Geneforge and Avernum series. There are four classes to choose from -- Blademaster, Shadowwalker, Shaman and Sorceress. Each has three skill trees and three specialisation options. It's all fairly simple and self explanatory, but each class distinguishes itself even if they don't break any molds.
While many modern RPGs have moved away from turn based combat, Avadon sticks to its traditional roots. However, compromises do seem to have been made to speed up the pacing. The Hand's three man team races around the battlefield with unbelievable haste and their foes are no slouches either -- at least not in the speed department. Other than some bosses, enemies don't pose much of a challenge. Combat is not the game's strong point, but battles are usually over as quickly as they are in many action RPGs and it breaks up the story and exploration very well.
Avadon is a hefty game, especially compared to other indie RPGs which tend to be simple action driven dungeon crawlers. It's around a thirty hour experience and the locales and dungeons are huge and sprawling. Exploration makes up a big part of the game and this is real exploration, not making sure you look in every barrel and behind every building -- although you should still do that -- or exploring the general vicinity of a quest area. This is about heading off into the unknown just because you feel like it, not because you were told to.
Inevitably some people will still be put off by the presentation. But if you can look past that, you'll find Avadon: The Black Fortress to be one of the most enjoyable and surprising RPGs of the year, even if barely anyone knows it. It's also a fantastic introduction to the games of Spiderweb Software. While Avadon has split fans because of it's low difficulty and streamlined elements, that makes it perfect for newcomers. It's also cheap as chips.