"Avernum, but more linear and plot-driven. Still a good thing."
During the same year that Jeff Vogel's Spiderweb Software released Avernum: Escape From the Pit -- a second remake of his first game, Exile -- the independent company also delivered a completely new property to computer gamers. Well, "completely new" if you ignore how Avadon: The Black Fortress uses many of the same assets from Avernum, meaning you fight many of the same monsters throughout the same sorts of dungeons and caves, which are littered with many of the same tools and items.
I can understand that. I've played a decent number of Kemco's mobile RPGs, so I've grown accustomed to tiny companies that constantly recycle virtually everything in order to meet deadlines. Fortunately, Spiderweb doesn't fall into the same traps that bedevil Kemco. Though this particular game didn't impress me as much as Escape From the Pit, it still provided me with a full 35 hours of entertainment.
Avadon is a collection of five countries in a fantasy world. More precisely, Avadon is the governmental seat for a five-country pact, and serves the dual purpose of enforcing laws and making sure no one--either in or outside of those countries--even thinks about engaging in illegal activity. Led by the mysterious Redbeard, a man both jovial and sinister, Avadon's employees essentially serve as above-the-law secret police. Having trouble with bandits? Avadon will kill them for you. Are two member countries working through a disagreement? Avadon will mediate. Are non-pact countries trying to gum up the works? Avadon will spearhead the effort to put them back in their proper, subservient place.
Well, at least in theory. You start the game as a new Hand of Avadon. Redbeard's employees come in three ranks: Hearts report directly to him; Eyes handle research, spying and other crucial non-combat duties; and Hands are sent out on the road to get their hands dirty. In theory, as a Hand, you represent Avadon itself. Your decisions are law, and no one in their right mind will oppose you, lest they draw Redbeard's ire. That could lead him to, oh, raze an entire village just to prove a point.
As you'll soon find out, reality and theory differ. There simply are too few Hands to effectively cover all the lands of the Pact, which requires Redbeard to pick and choose what problems are important enough to delegate resources to handle. This inconsistent enforcement leads to widespread resentment. Non-pact groups, whether they be primitive races of humanoids such as Wretches and Ogres, or the once-mighty Tawon Empire, take advantage of that dynamic to undermine Avadon, both by raiding pact lands and by working with disgruntled nobles to fuel outright rebellion. Being a Hand and having all the authority that title bestows might have sounded like a dream job for your blank slate of a hero, but the reality is far different. Hell, even current members of Avadon question its purpose. Has Redbeard stayed in power too long, allowing a once-great organization to fall into disrepair? Is his authoritative style of rule doing more to hurt Avadon's authority than to help it? You'll spend plenty of time pondering such topics.
Escape From the Pit tossed you into an open world where the only thing preventing you from going virtually anywhere was your ability to survive the local monsters, but The Black Fortress is considerably more linear. You pick a character from one of four classes, meet a few other Hands who serve as your allies in battle, handle a small riot in Avadon's dungeons and soon journey to the three lands that host the majority of the game's campaign.
First, you are sent to the remote Kva. This land is part of the pact, but shares borders with non-pact lands that house Wretches, Ogres and Titans. Such creatures used to keep to their own territories under fear of extermination, but recently they have begun making life miserable for the Kva residents. Those residents include, in particular, an arrogant and grouchy dragon who openly states that if the pact doesn't work for him, he might decide he's no longer respecting its rules.
After completing a mission there, you are sent next to Khemeria. Unlike your other destinations, this land is not directly involved with the pact. However, despite being low on numbers, Avadon believes its law applies and should be enforced everywhere. When word comes down that a beast seemingly made of shadows is harassing the residents of a small village, you're sent to "resolve" the problem. Redbeard suspects that dark (and illegal) magic lies at the root of the problem. Oh, and throughout your various missions, you also encounter a mysterious figure who uses your status as Hand to attempt to procure favors. Except for in this particular instance, when he bluntly states that he just wants to watch the destruction unfold. For, you see, when Avadon uses criminal activities as an excuse to meddle in the affairs of non-pact lands, the involvement doesn't simply end once the problem is solved. No, Avadon maintains a presence there until ALL crime has been purged. And if lingering on in that way should happen to completely destabilize the region in the process, well, you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs!
Your third destination is the one Redbeard is most excited about. Ever since the pact took hold, the nations of Kellemderiel and Holklanda have been on the verge of war. The two countries are bickering over a tract of land they both insist they own. Sure, this land is little more than bandit-infested forest, but both sides claim possession and that's that! However, a young and ambitious Kellem duke hopes to broker a peaceful accord. He might even succeed in that effort, if Avadon representatives are on hand to serve as a neutral party during negotiations. And, of course, to help wipe out the hostile beings infesting the precious forest.
You'll spend a lot of time going back and forth between these three lands, and in Avadon itself. Usually, an expedition starts you out in a region with a town, where you get the lowdown on your main quest and can also set to work on a few side quests. You then travel to another location, where you're able to finally make your way to your destination, while either obtaining more side quests or clearing the ones you already have undertaken. There's no actual world to explore, since you simply pick your destination from a world map and start wandering. That design is great for game streamlining, and as a way to maintain a focus on narrative, but it's not so great for people who loved Avernum's open-world exploration.
Combat hews more closely to what you would have experienced in Avernum. Once again, when enemies approach, you engage in turn-based battles. You and any enemies take turns whacking one another with swords and spells. Melee combatants must move close to their foes, while mages and projectile users can attack from a distance. There are fewer available skills in this game, but they can each be powered up as many as eight times as you gain levels and access to more branches on a particular character's skill tree. Instead of tying spell and skill use to remaining magic points, the game introduces a cool down timer, which means you have to think more carefully when utilizing special attacks that will then become unavailable to you for a time.
You have four total allies, and can pick two of them to serve as companions as you embark on most quests. Spiderweb has its own names for each class, but they roughly correspond to fighter, ninja, mage and druid. Depending on how you build them, these people can be pretty versatile. Both mages and ninjas have the ability to pick locks, while nearly every class has access to some sort of healing spell. You also can find or be gifted Scarabs, runes you can equip on characters to grant them skills they wouldn't normally possess. Your allies also have their own personal loyalty quests, which tend to add to the running "Is Avadon's system actually working?" narrative.
Overall, I'd call this a shorter and more plot-driven Escape From the Pit, if not for two annoying problems that drop it down a full notch or two below that game. Overall, this is a much easier game than Escape. Playing on the default difficulty setting, the only things I found remotely challenging were a few optional fights and a couple of the game's larger battles. At least that issue can be remedied by changing the difficulty; the general meaninglessness of the game's main conflict, however, is more difficult to stomach.
As you may have surmised from reading this review, much of the plot revolves around Avadon and its purpose. You work for an isolated leader who commands a personal army that exists solely to enforce his laws by any means necessary. Justice often is harsh, and prisoners essentially get mind-raped in his dungeons, so that the Eyes can extract pertinent knowledge and ferret out potential conspirators. A lot of the ills plaguing the land are ignored due to a shortage of available Hands… until those ills finally become so pronounced that Redbeard sees them as a threat to his authority. Other members of Avadon, including your own teammates, openly start to wonder if Avadon might have run its course. Eventually, you must make a decision about your ongoing relationship with Redbeard himself.
Unfortunately, this isn't Mass Effect. Your decisions in this particular game have no bearing on anything that unfolds over the course of the rest of the trilogy. When you start up the second Avadon game, the story moves forward as if there really was only one way things ever could have gone. There's just something bothersome about a game that gives the player two distinct choices, then says in the sequel that only one of those options was valid. That's especially true since it feels like so much in this game is leading you in one direction, and then the sequel assumes you went another way.
Still, Spiderweb has developed a strong formula for making good Western RPGs over the years, and The Black Fortress is another example of just how well that formula works. It simply shows a few more cracks than Escape From the Pit did. Despite those weaker moments, the game is easy to get into, with simple and engaging combat, as well as events that are interesting to watch unfold. It lacks the replay that Escape From the Pit had, but The Black Fortress is still quite enjoyable and well worth going through at least once.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (April 09, 2017)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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