Spiderweb can be counted on to provide a classic turn-based RPG, and with their latest offiering, they do so again.

User Rating: 7 | Avadon: The Black Fortress PC
I've been a major fan of Spiderweb Software games for well over a decade, having played all of their legendary Avernum series (I've reviewed the last two of them here in GameSpot). So anyway, after hearing that the Avernum series was more or less completed, I was really looking forward to when their most recent new series offering, Avadon/The Black Fortress finally came out. I immediately purchased it and have been playing it now for a couple of weeks. I pretty much have the gist of the game, and while there's a lot of the usual (meaning good...) Spiderweb Software core game mechanics, I've been frankly a little disappointed in the overall game set-up. So here's my take on what I've experienced so far:

- Spiderweb Software has always been known for its classic turn-based gameplay, while minimizing the game's graphics (you'll never confuse this game with, say, the Witcher 2...), making it accessible to computers that can be at least 5-6+ years old with older graphics cards. Graphics have always been nudged up on their Avernum series each time one came out, but with Avadon, this is a major leap for them, and so the graphics are quite an improvement
- Sounds: Not much has changed, many of the sounds I've heard before in the Avernum series are merely repeated here.

- Game Play: While they stick with the old tried-and-true turn-based system that has been common to most of their past offerings, the strategic elements and choices are improved, as well as the leveling up system. Rather than just assigning points to the various skills available, one can improve your main character (as well as the 4 available NPC companions) via specific diverging skill tree paths emphasizing one's chosen game play preferences, not unlike the Dragon Age series.

- Story Line: Much more detailed and a bit darker at times, with choices made by the main character that can affect the outcome, and give one either a positive or negative slant with the many encountered NPC's and factions in the game. There are a number of moral choices to be made affecting the story elements and the final ending, and so, it again pays some homage to the Dragon Age series.

- NPC Companions: Here's a major change from the old Avernum series, rather than selecting 4 self-generated characters as part of your party when needed, in Avadon, you select only your base character and have a stable of 4 NPC companions (fighter, shadowwalker, mage, and beast master) that you can always select two of, to accompany you out in the world, each with their own special talents and limitations, and who level up with (and you can select their skill trees as well). Bit of a nice touch I guess, although in playing, I've found that I've only really relied on three of them continually, one to me, is a more or less a throw-away. Although in the main game plot toward the end they each figure in significantly in that one has to make moral choices about their take on the main plot with an associated major quest involving them, if you wish to keep them as allies at the final conclusion.

- Loot, lots of it as usual, and much of seen before in the old Avernum series, and some new. Two nice new touches: 1. Rune stones that can be applied to weapons and armor to make them more effective (again a homage to the Dragon Age series), and, 2. the addition of a "Junk Bag" which has virtually unlimited capacity to put stuff in that you don't want to keep for the long term, but wish to sell to a merchant in one fell swoop (cash is important in Avadon). Makes your inventory much more manageable and streamlined to control.

- Game World: And here's where I find my surprising disappointment. Avadon appears to be patterned after the Geneforge model (with specific map areas of basically the same tile set size you travel to by clicking on the edge of these singular map areas), versus the humongus open world of Avernum. That was one aspect of the Avernum series that always appealed to me a lot (I tried to play one of the Geneforge series, and just didn't find it to my liking), in that the player was faced with an enormous open world with so much expansive areas to explore on a non-linear basis. Oh sure one would wander into Avernum map areas that had opponents that were way stronger than you and kicked your butt totally, where you had to reload a save game and come back later when your characters were stronger. However, with Avadon, it's not that open, one cannot travel anywhere in the gameworld without first getting the story-driven quest assignment, which makes it seem much more linear to me, and I've never been a fan of linearity in RPG's. Also with some side quests, you'll complete one and then ask that same rewarding NPC if they have any more quests, and often get told, "well yes, but come back when you have more experience...". Well, come on, let me be the one to judge if I have enough experience to do it, if I get my butt kicked in trying it, that's on me, and so I'll try to do it again when I've leveled up to what it takes. What this does is that it makes for is a lot of repetitive returns to map areas that have been basically 90-100% explored already. And there's also the many usual caverns, mines, tunnels and dungeons to explore, but after playing the game for over 20 hours, their number does not approach the sheer enormity of the Avernum series.

So, that's where a little bit of my let-down with this new game comes from. I still basically enjoy playing Avadon and will likely play it to the end, that should take only a few weeks or so more to complete. But does it compare to an epic game (many weeks to complete) like one of the Avernum series? I just don't see it that way, and thus my minor disappointment. With the Avernum series, it seems like each time Spiderweb Software came out with a new one, it always seemed to top their last act (over and above the previous one in many gameplay and visual aspects), and so, there was to me always a sense of awe and majesty about the abject immensity of the overall Avernum game world. Sorry, but this time, unfortunately, in this player's humble opinion, they didn't really top their last act with Avadon.

Review Later Addendum: Been playing the game now for an additional few weeks, and am getting near the end of it, so I wanted to provide an amendment to my earlier review above on further things discovered with the game.

The Good:

- Pathfinding AI is great, your group of characters never get stuck, and in any of the section area maps, all you need to do is click on a non-blacked-out part and your characters will go quickly there.

- Combat toward the end of the game becomes challenging and tricky, requiring some thought-provoking strategic planning, rather than just wading in with your group and your weapons swinging away.

- Individual and lengthy side quests to retrieve each of your NPC companions are a nice touch, in that they are challenging quests, and require one to make selective moral choices (affecting how the game ends) on whether to support the NPC's possibly pejorative and self-serving ambitions.
The Not So Good:

- I mentioned lots of loot above, and now that I am about 80% thru the game, I'm finding a lot of the loot very repetitive, and not varied. There are a few quality items, but the overall algorithm for loot offerings in enemy drops, caches, and chests, is just not that enticing as it is the same over and over.

- Found a bug in the game in one of the side quests that is a two part action quest to, A: Identify a traitor, and then B: slay the traitor. I thought I had done the A part appropriately in one section map area, and then found the traitor in the B part (different) section map area, and slew him. However upon returning to the quest giver, I learned that I hadn't done the A part correctly (even though I indentified and slew the traitor in the B part, via the scenario game dialogue), and so therefore, I could not complete the quest in the giver's view, and so could not receive any rewards. No save game to back to, so Ah Well....

- I've mentioned the Avernum series above, and now that I've just about explored all of the game's section maps, I'm finding that, when compared to the Avernum series, there really is no sense of a "Game World", even with a detailed "world map" provided. You get no sense of traveling to/from parts of the game world, crossing boundaries, etc. In the Avadon fortress, to leave, you go to one of 3 ubiquitous transporter poles that magically send you to areas of the world. And each of the world areas you go to have section maps that you choose by clicking on them. When arriving in them, you're always at the very same entry location each time. In each of the maps there a multiple ways to walk off the map edge, and so then choose another map to go to. However, if you choose the very same map you're leaving (and are walking off the far edge of the regular entry point), you're "magically" transported back to that standard entry point clear across the map. Doesn't make a lot of sense to me, and detracts from the game world aspect from my game play. The Avernum Game World was way better than this with a great sense of map continuity, as one traveled across an very expansive game world.

- This may be a bit trite, but the great/powerful/mysterious ruler-figure you're working for and representing the Pact organization is a guy named
......."Redbeard". Well, OK, but c'mon, "Redbeard??....". I mean, couldn't you have come with a more menacing/ethereal fantasy name, like "Lothar Vindictus", or something along those lines, but "Redbeard"??....Each time I've had to interact with him in the dialogues choices, I've want to the ability to say to him, "Hey, C'mon, what's your REAL name??...." Anyway, I said this comment on my part was probably trite.

So I'm ending the game soon, and ultimately find it mildly entertaining, but very much a major step back from the Avernum series IMHO. Obviously looking at the Spiderweb Softward Forums on this game, there's a major niche of players who likely do enjoy it very much, and will be looking forward to Avadon II coming out. I'm sorry, but I'm just not one of them. I replayed several of the Avernum series games after my purchase of them, but this one, no way, it'll end up on Ebay before the end of the month. I sure hope that Spiderweb Software resurrects their Avernum series in the format that worked so very well in the past, as their on the edge of losing me as a customer, if this is going to be the norm now of what they're putting out.