Avadon: The Black Fortress
For many years, the lands of Lynaeus have coexisted in an uneasy fashion with the rule of the Midlands Pact, five nations collectively controlled by Avadon, the Black Fortress. Avadon is controlled by a Keeper, known as Redbeard. He rules with an iron fist and shows little mercy to those that would oppose him. There are skirmishes with the disenfranchised Farlands, outside the Pact's borders, but it seems to work, for the most part.
After years of training and effort, you've been selected to join Avadon as one of Redbeard's Hands - warriors and magicians dispatched across the kingdom to sort things out, usually with violence. But on arrival at the fortress, things aren't quite as you'd expect. Virtually no other Hands are around, all dispatched to quell various disputes. There's been a breakout in the dungeon, which you are quickly dispatched to clear up. Rumours of insurrection are rife - is Redbeard really as in control as he appears? And, if there is an uprising, which side will you be on?
As you've probably already gathered, Avadon: The Black Fortress is a fantasy RPG. You control one main character and any of up to four others (one of each of the four main classes). When sent on quests, you will usually choose one or more of these characters to accompany you. Alongside the basics of exploration, killing monsters and gathering useful items, you'll be performing a series of tasks set for you by Redbeard and his advisers (the Hearts). The story progresses as you do so. At many points you'll be able to speak to people and the responses you give can have an effect on how others react to you later on.
Most of the game is real time - you explore and operate by clicking with the mouse and scrolling the screen around - but when you enter combat, you switch to a turn-based system in which you operate each character in turn and strategy is more important than speed. Initial battles will be against "pests" - rats and spiders, that sort of thing - but bigger foes await. Equipping the right armour and weapons and spending your upgrade points wisely will make battles much easier. You can also wear "scarabs", stat and ability boosting items, but the number of these is limited by your level. The range of objects that can be collected is immense, but I discovered rather late that a lot of them are quite literally useless. Some can be sold, most are worthless. Your characters have a "junk bag" that can store all this nonsense so you don't clutter up your inventory - I'm not clear whether the weight of these objects has any impact.
There's something quite old school about the graphics, but the range of them is impressive. Even within Avadon itself there's a range of styles. People can look very similar, however - your character looks the same in no armour as in full plate armour, for instance, and any two characters of the same class are pretty much identical. The game makes little effort to disguise its tiled nature, especially in combat, when squares are highlighted to make the turn based system easier to use. One nice touch is the way objects strewn about the floor (or on nearby tables) are actually shown - if you're within close proximity of them, you can pick them up via your inventory. Of course, a lot of the objects on the floor are not collectable, and it's not always easy to tell the difference.
There's a suitable range of sound effects for most actions, including humble things like opening doors and the obvious combat sequences. There's a sword ringing sound that signifies the start of combat, though I'm less clear whether this always plays regardless of your characters' weapons or class! The only music, however, is that playing on the title screen - in the game itself, there is no music. Just background sounds, often several to a location that can be randomly cycled, and which add a certain amount of atmosphere. Any music would become tiresome if repeated often enough, and you'll likely be in any one location for a significant length of time. This is a different approach and one which works rather well.
The playability is, in the relatively short distance I've come thus far, very good. Early battles are simple, and give the player a chance to adapt to the controls. There are lots of keyboard shortcuts for common actions, many of which can be very useful, but the game can be played entirely by mouse. New concepts are introduced slowly through your first mission in the dungeons and shortly after, so a new player isn't overwhelmed (and an experienced player can speed through much faster). There are lots of books around Avadon that give the history of the various nations, but reading them is not required and puts the information into your journal for you to read as and when you wish. And if you're struggling with the difficulty, you can change the difficulty setting for the game you are currently playing in the settings menu!
The demo is huge, providing the first few hours of play, which gives some idea of the scope of the full game. I would probably need a few months to fully explore this game, and as a reviewer I do not have that luxury! There are plenty of save slots available, there are several ways to approach the game depending on your chosen class and there's all manner of ways in which you can choose how to interact with the people you meet, so there's plenty of replay value. Sometimes it's not entirely clear which way to go or what you need to do next - quest details only tell you so much - but generally you can figure it out from the map and by simply heading in the right direction and exploring a bit.
So far, so good - but I did have some issues. One of these is the inventory system, which I found a little tricky to navigate - moving items between characters can be tricky, and you can only access the inventory of those in your team when they are active. If you leave an item with a support character and then need it later when they aren't with you, tough luck. Selling items was a little unintuitive (I much prefer the method in Din's Curse of dropping items into the vendor's inventory) and some items cannot be sold, so dumping your trash can be a little messy. Money is always in short supply - trading for a slightly better sword may prove a false economy, as you'll get far less than value price for selling the old one. But more concerning is the crash bug that has struck me twice now - entering a new area, Avadon simply quit on me with Windows asking whether I wanted to check online for a solution. There is an Autosave function in place, but I'm not clear how often it works and regularly saving your game is recommended.
On the surface, Avadon isn't much to look at - those graphics really do look quite dated compared to the general market. But there's a lot of depth to the game and a vast amount to explore - once you get used to the look and feel of the game, there's enough here to keep you going for a long time.
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