Avadon: The Black Fortress is a fantasy epic that's as appealingly retro as the big red demon on the cover of the first edition of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide. Just like the developer's earlier efforts in the Avernum and Geneforge franchises, the game compensates for its archaic visuals and sound with an engaging focus on storytelling and turn-based party combat that recalls the glory days of the Gold Box games from the late '80s and early '90s. With that said, you definitely need to possess the nostalgia gene to get the most out of this one.
If you don't have any experience with Spiderweb's previous games, your first moments with Avadon are likely to come as a shock. The single-player-only game could almost have been developed in 1989. Crude isometric visuals and paltry sound recall the 286 era. By 2011 standards, the game is ugly. Characters and monsters are soft-focus multicolored blobs, and you can't zoom the camera in to get a better look. Dungeon furniture and architecture mainly consist of standard chests and wardrobes like the set dressing in summer stock theater. Outdoor locales are loaded with symmetrically arranged cacti, rocks, and other terrain features that make the landscape look surreal. Only some of the textures stand up to scrutiny: the gravel roads and stone walls look pretty good. There are virtually no audio effects. The game has no music or voice acting, and monsters share a handful of attack noises. Oddly, a near-constant wind seems to blow whether you're indoors or out.
Game options are sparse in the beginning. You start off with no real character customization options. You get to type in a name and pick from four set Dungeons & Dragons-inspired classes that touch on the standard fighter, wizard, cleric, and thief archetypes. The only difference is their names: the warrior is called a blademaster, the wizard a sorceress, the cleric a shaman, and the thief a shadowwalker. There are some variances, most notably in the way that the classes veer off into slightly innovative directions. Still, there is no way to roll up a custom character, so you're stuck with a quick choice before delving into the action.
Thankfully, Avadon has a lot of appeal beyond this admittedly off-putting surface. Some areas feature a considerable amount of detail when it comes to furnishings, with elaborate layouts in bedrooms, libraries, and other locales. You're given just enough for your mind's eye to work with, so suspending disbelief isn't a problem. Performance is also very good, making this a good choice for older machines or even netbooks. Some user interface flaws get in the way, however. Levels are typically massive and confusing, which isn't helped by the hit-and-miss minimap. Quests aren't noted on the minimap, and neither are some key characters and locales. Even vital spots like stairs up and down aren't given icons, which can be incredibly annoying given the mazelike nature of many of the levels. The developer has at least posted more-comprehensive maps in the official forums on its website, but they're hardly an acceptable substitute.
Despite the flaws, you can't help but be drawn in once you go deeper into the game. Even though the graphics don't do a complete job of immersing you in this fantasy world, textual blurbs bridge the gap between what you see and what you're supposed to be envisioning. They tell a story and bring situations to life without being overly wordy. The generic medieval fantasy setting and plot are somewhat predictable, though. Events center on a fantasy land of magic and monsters dominated by the Midlands Pact, an alliance of five nations dedicated to protecting all that is good from evildoers. The heart of the Midlands Pact is Avadon, a fortress ruled by the ominous Redbeard, a hero who might be going a little too far when it comes to guarding the realm from the bad guys. You play as a newcomer to Avadon, one of Redbeard's warriors dedicated to helping the big guy keep the peace. The story keeps you interested, even though it offers few surprises--or at least few surprises that you don't see coming a mile away
Quests mix inventive tasks like playing PR man to an irritable dragon with typical go-fetch and locate-missing-people busywork. There is a lot of combat during these assignments, although you're never overwhelmed. Battles are not so numerous that you feel numbed by monotony. They actually fly past pretty quickly, with characters and foes moving as though they're under the influence of a haste spell augmented with liberal shots of Red Bull. Fighting is handled from a tactical perspective, in a way that hasn't changed much since the aforementioned Gold Box games of two decades ago. Whenever you spot a foe, the real-time exploration mode switches to a turn-based perspective, and grids pop up on the screen to show you how and where characters can move. It's an easy-to-learn and intuitive system for anyone with a background in RPGs. The main drawback is a lack of monster variety. There are a fair number of creeps in the game, drawn from fantasy archetypes such as giant spiders, lizards, wizards, orcs, and the like, but they mainly attack in straightforward melee styles. You don't need to get too fancy with combat strategies, save in some of the boss battles, which can be brutal on the regular difficulty and above. The visuals aren't detailed enough to make monsters distinctive, either, so you're often facing off against blurry groupings of pixels that need to be identified by the text blurbs beneath them.
Character development also offers a fair number of options. Experience points are earned for combat and other tasks and are used to level up party members. Skill points are doled out for each level and are then spent on buffing core stats as well as special class abilities that boost attacks, defenses, spells, and so forth. Basically, this gives you extra goodies to employ during battle with the use of a vitality pool that sits alongside your hit points. These features lend an added dimension to combat strategies with souped-up attacks and healing spells or buffs to core functions like hit-point regeneration and the percentage chance to inflict a critical hit. There isn't anything dramatic or new here in the character skill trees, although there are enough options to give you the sense of growing and customizing your party.
If you crave up-to-the-minute 3D visuals and bombastic sound, Avadon: The Black Fortress is not for you. But if you want to immerse yourself in a fantasy adventure and don't mind letting your imagination take over where the graphics end, this RPG can be involving and satisfying. You might get the feeling that you've played this game before, but in this case, that is sort of the point, and one of the big positives to this retro treat.