Review – Avadon: The Black Fortress

One of writer Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writing engaging fiction was thus: Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

He had a second rule: Start as close to the end as possible. Avadon: The Black Fortress follows neither of these rules, and it feels like a sick, bloated title. It’s quite good, too, in spite of itself.

Spiderweb Software have been around for seventeen years at this point as the project of one man, Jeff Vogel. He’s notable, additionally, for his blog, where he talks about things like how indie games are too cheap, how piracy is bad, and why game developers shouldn’t listen to forums users. All good ideas. He’s been around for a long time, and Spiderweb has been making games since I started playing then. Exile, that shareware great, was one of the first games I played as an impressionable youth. The Avernum and Geneforge series are excellent examples of retro RPGs set in evocative fantasy worlds, and they provide all the meat and potatoes that fans of classic series such as Baldur’s Gate require.

So now we have Avadon: The Black Fortress, the first entry in a new series. Compared to Spiderweb’s previous games its tone is much darker, its world more a bleak fantasy than anything else. You are an agent of an autocratic, bureaucratic government that doesn’t seem to be helping its people very much, and you’re assigned tasks to help that government’s operations in a varied, complicated fantasy world.

Well, that’s what it offers. In reality, it takes a long time for the world of Avadon to reveal itself to you. It’s where Spiderweb’s financial aversion to fancy graphics really comes back to haunt them. Video games, in general, can be good at giving us worldbuilding through osmosis, in the sense that we walk through the cities and towns of the world we’re spending hours in. RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, Planescape, and (gasp) Dragon Age succeed at doing this without a second though. Ferelden feels alive because we can walk through it and talk to its people. Spiderweb’s previous titles succeeded in this regard by having premises, either crashing on an island or being thrown down into a pit, that served to quickly immerse the player in the setting. You were thrown into the creek, and you were told to take the world in.

Avadon has none of that. Frankly, saying the beginning of the game is abysmal might be being too kind. Provided a massive, richly imagined (trust me on this one) world full of political intrigue, interesting places, and intense people, you’re thrown into the dungeon of a keep filled with rats, goblins, and the most uninteresting people imaginable. Everyone treats you like a gofer, someone they’re trusting to kill rats because you have no intrinsic value. Then they send you to kill some goblin analogues bothering a dragon in a backwater village that has absolutely no personality.

All of this is realistic—there’s no way a secretive, bureaucratic government would be nice to a new employee, and there’s no way they’d trust you with important tasks—but this does not make a fun game. Instead of using this opportunity to engage you with one of the more interesting and complicated fantasy worlds around, Avadon gives you busywork and removes any scrap of personality from the world until you get through hours and hours of game.

I’m a notable opponent of liking games because they get better, and while Avadon does get significantly better this opening is practically inexcusable. Its goal is Baldurian in its scope: set you to busywork so you get a sense of the government you’re working for (parallel to Baldur’s sending you on busywork so you understand the economic realities of the Sword Coast), but this is hardly compelling. When you have a government that lets giant rats break into their prison and eat people, I get the impression the government is awful. It feels like a conscious effort to slow the pace from titles like Geneforge, which started with you stranded, alone, on an island surrounded by your people’s fantastic technology so that everyone could really fall into the fantasy.

That’s Avadon‘s big problem. It’s opened up the window and tried to make love to the world. Spiderweb’s previous games were for the hardest of the hardcore, the kind of people who wrote long, involved articles about classic CRPGs and expected people to care. Avadon tries to be for them, but it also tries to streamline everything into a package consumable by the average idiot. You can’t really mess up your character build, because there are four classes with very easily defined skills (as opposed to Geneforge‘s brilliant system); I don’t see this so much as a negative, but it’s another sign of this drive towards accessibility. Instead of complicated fantasy worlds, we have one where the status quo can be figured out quickly and none of the details are needed for a long while. Instead of making a party or having only your summons as your guides, you instead have additional characters you can choose from who have personalities and defined existences.

It’s not necessarily a dumbing down, but it is a change. It’s a change that brought pneumonia with it. The game, as a whole, isn’t particularly hard on normal*, and the high ratio of encounters with no possible challenge to the player, coupled with a slow turn based system, really serves to distract from its strong points. On the normal difficulty you will be occasionally challenged by difficult fights but all too often you will be slogging through waste-high groups of enemies who can’t damage your party. You’ll be clicking through a slow, not particularly smooth combat system until the obstacles, more akin to knee high hurdles instead of goblin analogues and snakes, are gone for good.

It’s not all bad with Avadon, though. You see, somewhere in my fifth or sixth hour with the game, somewhere around the time when I found a comically small looking dragon in a cave, I fell for Avadon. It was like falling in love with someone who has no distinguishing features, for absolutely no reason, but I resolved that I liked the game. I think the moment that got me was the Dragon’s personal assistant. It’s the kind of moment that makes Avadon just work as a game. All the struggles, all the tribulations, they all mean bupkiss when you finally meet a character who’s memorable. The Dragon’s PA, for reference, is a weak, shrimpy lady who stands up to the dragon and is downright unpleasant to him because she knows she has job security. It’s the kind of idea that’s never really been touched on in the fantasy world—hey, it’s someone who’s legitimately employed in this land of adventurers and autocratic government agents—and it’s an idea that shows you that deep down Avadon has some brilliant ideas.

Avadon‘s that girl in a romantic comedy who’s funny, basically. She’s not much to look at, but she’s funny, and she makes you feel like you exist in a better world, one where RPGs are more Baldur’s Gate than Dragon Age 2. A world where we’re playing turn based games because we want to play them, not because the developers aren’t talented enough to make a first person shooter. A better world.

Avadon‘s strongest card is its choices. In a world where all choices are placed on a linear scale, where every player is told, You are good or evil! Avadon presents a world with intense grayness. Quests don’t always work out in your favor if you perform the action. You can make mistakes, and these mistakes can cost you both valuable experience and the respect of your peers. Not to sound like a broken record, but I wish the game were better presented because it offers a really, truly brilliant array of choices in situations; instead of a lawful good-chaotic evil binary, it instead offs a lawful neutral-chaotic neutral one which provides for a lot more gray and more interesting options than anything on the market.

If you love choices, then Avadon might be the game for you. You should give it a chance, fight with it, because it’ll show you a world where your choices matter. And you will find it good.

It’s hard to tell anyone else to give Avadon a chance because for the first five hours it’s going to try to fight you at every turn. It’s going to alienate you. Anyone who wants to like it because they like Jeff Vogel’s games has already heard of it and has already plunked down the cash for it. Anyone who’s never heard of him is probably, paradoxically, better off starting somewhere else, somewhere more vibrant and brilliant if less immediately accessible. It’s a shame, because Avadon has some really great ideas underneath its horrible introduction; most gamers, alas, will never see them.

*This point has been contentious on message boards and Jeff Vogel’s blog. His point, in effect, is that veteran players should be starting on hard, while new players can take normal. Personally, I see this as a cop out. There’s an easy mode designed to just experience the story. New players will pick that. Veterans grew up in a world where picking hard was something you do on future playthroughs, where normal is the option on playthrough one, and I don’t see why this game needs to reinvent a working difficulty paradigm.