In Avadon: The Black Fortress, the new turn-based RPG from Spiderweb Software, you take the role of a warrior from the Pact, a group of five nations that stands together for strength against the Farlands, the untamed parts of the world that don't want anything to do with the Pact and would prefer to see it broken. As the story begins, you've just begun your work as a Hand of the fabled fortress of Avadon. Redbeard is your new leader, a man older than he looks who inspires as much terror as he does loyalty in his innumerable soldiers and servants. There are rumours of traitors at work, and dissent seems to be spreading through the land as Avadon begins to show cracks in its facade of power. Will you become a new hero to uphold the ideals of the Pact... or will you find yourself clashing with your superiors as you begin to question the things you've been told? They say the only way in Avadon is Redbeard's way, but if you're cunning and careful, and know who to trust, you might just uncover more than a few pitfalls in that road.
Avadon is played entirely with the mouse, give or take a few hotkeys for ease of use, and combat is turn-based. You'll have your choice of four character classes to play as with varying skills and abilities, but don't worry about your decision that much; before long you'll be joined by four other Hands of Avadon that will provide whatever spell or sword power you lack. While most of your time will be spent doing the will of Avadon and serving the Pact, you shouldn't expect this to mean you'll be stuck behind a desk filling out requisition forms and taking complaints. No, your method of work is a bit more on the stabby/looty/even-more-stabby side of things, and we wouldn't have it any other way.
If you've played any of Spiderweb Software's earlier titles, a lot about Avadon's gameplay is going to feel very familiar. Despite taking place in an entirely new world with a new storyline, Avadon plays nearly identically to Avernum, with a noticeable facelift and some other changes. As you level up, for example, you'll spend points on a talent tree to get the skills you want, or to make one more powerful. You'll also be able to sneak by enemies if you're careful, and make use of the game's strategic turn-based combat if you're not. You can save anywhere, and you're probably going to want to, in multiple slots, since there are a lot of painful ways to die, and just as many ways that the fate of the world can change based on your decision. So which is it, hero... Coke or Pepsi?!
Analysis: Sometimes, all I want is to play a Spiderweb Software game. They have a knack for crafting massive, open-world adventures, and Avadon is no different. Ignoring your vital quests and striking out to see what treasure and terror lies in the opposite direction is a ton of fun, especially because there is a staggering amount to see and do. There are an enormous amount of purely optional sidequests, large and small, and just exploring in any direction is enough to bring some sort of excitement your way, usually in the form of something that would like to wear your face as a mask... with a big fat treasure hoard behind it. The downside is that the realm here does feel a little generic as far as fantasy goes most of the time, which is a bit of a disappointment compared to, say, the flea-ridden pesky unicorns in the Avernum series, but Avadon still never feels dull. The political intrigue, the freedom of choice, the enormous cast of characters, all of it mixes together to create a mammoth adventure you can lose yourself in for days.
Like its predecessors, Avadon is one of the few RPGs that can actually claim strategy is everything with combat. Sometimes all it can take is a single mistake to wipe out your entire party, but on the other hand, a little thought and tactics (not to mention liberal use of save files) can make any battle go from monstrous to merely satisfyingly challenging. Where in other titles combat is something to be endured to get to the next piece of the story, Avadon's battles feel like they're a vital part of the whole experience and rarely seem like tedious busywork to pad the gameplay. Avadon hasn't made many changes to the formula its predecessors decided to stick with, but for my money the most irritating aspect are the cooldown timers applied to skills; admittedly, it does force you to be even more tactical in combat, but when a single healing spell could mean the difference between victory and messy defeat, it's hard to see the value after you've reloaded a battle for the umpteenth time.
Compared to previous Spiderweb titles, however, the level of customisation at hand for both character creation and skills/attributes is extremely low. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss all the different races and traits/flaws that let you feel as if you were actually creating your own hero. The four classes are very balanced, but not even being able to choose your own gender kind of hurts the whole "role playing" thing. How big of an impact this is largely depends on what kind of role-player you are, and whether creating your entire party from scratch is an essential. The four classes On the one hand, the small amount of options means you can't tailor-make a group that covers all your combat bases, but on the other, it does give Spiderweb a chance to tell a noticeably more character driven story.
The four potential companions all have personality and backstory, and listening to their input in the story and taking part in the conversations they strike up really helps to make you feel invested in them and the story. It's a far cry from earlier Spiderweb titles, where it often felt as if you were battering yourself against walls of text that had little to do with what you actually wanted to be doing. Having Shima voice his displeasure over a town's strict code of laws or Sevilin ask your opinion on his code as you travel goes a long way towards making the world feel more real and important beyond a series of roads and encounters between one quest reward and the next.
While some of it may feel a little familiar, Avadon: The Black Fortress is a significant step forward for Spiderweb Software in virtually every way. In addition to the enormous main storyline with its multitude of different endings, you can get lost in the world just doing odd jobs; investigating a mysteriously abandoned house, tracking down wretch infestations, doing a little "harmless" espionage, and much more. While it takes a while to really get rolling, Avadon is an enormously fun adventure with an impressive amount of replay value and a ton of love and hard work behind it. Fans of the genre will definitely want to give the demo a try, while fans of the developers will be happy to spend some time with yet another high quality creation packed full of danger and treasure in equal measure.