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Avadon: The Black Fortress ($20, free demo) from Spiderweb Games continues that company's tradition of large-scale, top-down (Ultima-style), story-rich CRPGs. In Avadon: The Black Fortress, you play a newly chosen "Hand" of Avadon, a kingdom which has united (or perhaps, oppressed) neighboring nations in a treaty known as the Pact. As you play, you learn more about the world and its history, and slowly uncover a web of mysteries. Oh, and you kill monsters. Lots of monsters. And rummage through every trash heap, desk, and chest you can find in a mad pursuit of any loot you can use or sell.
While Avadon uses the interface style of many older games, it has kept up with the times, using high-resolution icons instead of retro, blocky, ones, and it has a clean and responsive interface. Animation is still minimalist, and no matter what you're wearing, the only visual change to your character is the weapon equipped. You name your starting character and pick their class (which gives you a fixed portrait and a gender), and then you begin your quest. In short order, you'll have a chance to select companions, each of whom has their own personality and story. Although I enjoy truly older-style games that let you create an entire party from scratch, Avadon's use of pre-generated characters is equally satisfying. The cast of characters you're given makes it possible to tell a story…not only are your companions useful in combat, they will drop major plot points at various places and even interact with each other, which means, if you pick different sets of companions, you'll see different results at certain points in the game.
Avadon is turn-based. When not in combat, you simply click to move, and your party follows you. Once combat begins, each character moves or acts individually, and tactics start to matter. Enemies often swarm at you from many directions, and you cannot casually run by or away from enemies. You have a range of special attacks and powers, increasing as you go up in level (much like the talent trees in Diablo II and many MMORPGs, such as World of Warcraft), but these consume resources that regenerate slowly. Further, they can be used only infrequently--it may take 10 turns for a power to recharge--so there's a real resource management factor to fights. Knowing when to use your powers for maximum effect is critical; you cannot simply spam your best attack over and over.
As you explore Avadon and deal with the various NPCs, you learn more about the world and about the government you've sworn to serve, and some of it isn't pretty. There are many places where you can make choices about whether to accept a quest, to help someone or not, to ask an impertinent question or take a risk on someone's honesty, and your choices will directly influence how the rest of the game progresses; to see what might have been if you'd chosen differently, you'll need to go back to a prior save and make a different choice.
My complaints about Avadon are few. Sometimes, the dialog trees can be circuitous, and it can be unclear if you've accepted a quest until after you've closed the conversation. Also, many of the levels and regions are large, and relatively empty (though future quests will return you to old areas and reveal new discoveries), and there is a lot of relatively slow walking and exploration--but you do not want to ever leave an area even partially unmapped, for there are trapdoors, quest givers, and interesting items hidden in odd places. Because there may be something useful hidden somewhere, you spend a lot of time rooting through places that may contain nothing.
Avadon provides a lot of the gameplay feel of games like Ultima IV and V, with a complex tactical combat model and a story that is more than "Kill The Evil Wizard." With a clean, modern, interface and well-polished, if somewhat static, graphics, it is not so retro as to appeal solely to the nostalgia crowd, but it does offer a slower-paced and more text-oriented experience than more modern games do. There are no 'cutscenes' per se, but there are blocks of story text and world background. At twenty dollars, Avadon: The Black Fortress is well-priced for the quality of gameplay offered.
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