Developer: Spiderweb Software
A new Spiderweb Software RPG is like my birthday, Christmas and unexpected tax rebate all rolled into one. While my American peers continually bicker about console resolutions and upload pictures of their brand new PS4s to Instagram, you'll find me playing a game that creates an entire world and believable characters using little more than the written word and a pocketful of sprites. Avadon 2 may look like it's stuck in 1998, but it channels the classic Infinity Engine and Gold Box games of old, another one-man tour de force from the indomitable Jeff Vogel.
Like Avernum and Geneforge before it, Avadon 2 requires its players to just add imagination, using a peerless command of the English language and rock-solid RPG systems to keep us hooked to the screen over the course of fifty-plus hours. Sorry it took so long.
Avadon 2 leads on from the events of its predecessor, though previous experience isn't essential. We're re-introduced to a fantasy world on the brink of destruction, both from a force of monolithic evil and squabbling factions vying for control under the guise of a grudging alliance. The formidable black fortress of Avadon used to keep the treacherous factions in line with an iron fist and its elite armies, but a recent attack leaves it uniquely vulnerable. Into this fragile situation steps you, the player, a wild card who could help to restore Avadon to its former glory or undermine it from within.
Our adventures begin in traditional RPG style: character creation. Six classes are on offer, two of which correspond to traditional archetypes of beefy melee tanks and ranged spell-slingers, while the other four provide a much more interesting hybrid playstyle. Whether you're teleporting in and out of combat as a stealthy Shadowstalker or deploying a range of offensive and technical turrets as a versatile Tinkermage, there's scope to hone in on a specific playstyle, and a streamlined skill tree with a small but varied smorgasbord. As always, going from peasant to powerhouse is insanely addictive thanks to hundreds of items, weapons and artefacts.
And then the revels begin. Like a painstakingly-planned tabletop RPG campaign, Avadon 2 spins a cracking yarn stuffed with rich characters and interesting political machinations with an extraordinary amount of text. NPCs such as the terrifying Avadon boss Redbeard, and even smaller incidental cast members may just be simplistic sprites, but they're brought to life with expertly-crafted dialogue and evocative descriptions.
In sharp contrast with the user-defined blank slates of Avernum, Avadon 2's party members are all real, believable people. Each has a personality quirk and a hook, rounding them out as relatable companions as opposed to collections of stats and inventory clothes horses.
If you take the time to pore over the text, Vogel's writing conjures up a believable established universe in your mind's eye, and better yet, we've got more scope to influence the narrative this time around. Though many conversations present the illusion of choice and play out the same way regardless of what you say to characters, we're free to express our opinions and make some seriously big decisions as we go. As we decide the future of Avadon itself, rat out dissidents or convince drunken bandits to run in terror rather than joining battle, there's a real feeling of agency that - though illusory in the main - I found incredibly compelling.
Though not as open-ended in gameplay terms as many competing RPGs and previous Spiderweb Software games, Avadon 2 still throws us into some massive sprawling isometric stages that we can leave and return to as new story quests and optional objectives unfold. As we explore dangerous woods, corrupted evil demenses, dark basements and Avadon itself, Infinity Engine fans will be well away, occasionally dallying to locate a hidden door, loot a secret stash or defuse some nasty landmines. The graphics may look primitive, but they mask an exquisite level of granular detail, to the extent where individual items can be spotted and looted if you get your eye in. There's plenty of exploration to get stuck into. Dozens upon dozens of hours of it, in fact. Combined with Desktop Dungeons, sleep deprivation is becoming a real worry.
Combat is simple, slick and effective. Real-time exploration seamlessly segues into tight turn-based encounters, instantly overlaying the environment with an traditional grid and kicking off in order of initiative. Character skills and clever positioning are simple clicks away, removing much in the way of busywork, while any number of set pieces provide surprisingly tactical and open-ended scenarios. Maybe you could kill that archer before he releases a wolf from its cage? Perhaps you could flank around the periphery with your Shadowstalker while a Tinkermage shores up some beefy turret defences? It's as enjoyable as it is intuitive, and the interface keeps things as convenient as possible.
That said, the interface does make a pig's ear out of everything else. Shortcuts don't toggle menus, a tiny yet staggeringly inconsiderate design decision that's almost impossible to get used to, and juggling items could use a round of streamlining. Worst of all, the all-important text is aggravatingly tiny at higher resolutions, leading to eye strain if you play for extended periods. Which you will.
Unfortunately Avadon 2 hits one major stumbling block in this reviewer's opinion: padding. Much of your time will be spent traipsing through expansive maps and cleaning house in repetitious enemy encounters, facing off against numerous HP-bloated palatte swaps of foes you've fought countless times before. There's a degree of tedium and grind that feels somewhat at odds with Vogel's greatest strength -- his writing -- miring us in battle rather than presenting us with more in the way of 'dialogue bosses' or clever puzzles. I actually find grinding incredibly therapeutic and enjoyable, but eventually opted to ding the score after a good two hours of agonising.
Combat may be enjoyable, but the streamlined classes can cause you to settle into a very predictable loop of abilities and attacks - and it's time I'd rather spend reading or talking. The pen is mightier than the sword and all that.
I also still have to ding Avadon 2 for its presentation, the sound design especially. It's utterly appalling; either stony silence or constantly-repeated environmental loops that start to grate within minutes, and sound effects that often don't fit the situation at hand (a distinctly male scream for a female NPC, say, or silence when explosions and rockfalls are mentioned in the dialogue). I appreciate that Jeff Vogel needs to get his priorities right and keep costs down, but I'm sure that there are any number of aspiring musicians or sound engineers who'd work for free in exchange for putting a videogame on their CV, not to mention hobbyists. Good ones, too.
But you know what? None of that really matters to me one iota in the grand scheme of things; as a player, as a gamer, not a reviewer. Frankly this is the most fun I've had with an RPG all year.
- Satisfying old-school RPG combat, character creation and mechanics
- Fantastic and evocative writing; compelling political decisions and setting
- Moreish and unbelievably lengthy...
- ...but undeniably padded with repetitive combat encounters
- Sound design is still awful after years of criticism
- Some niggling interface gripes
The Short Version: Avadon 2: The Corruption once again proves that excellent writing and rock-solid RPG systems are more important than soulless visuals. Though combat padding and some niggling complaints annoy from time to time, Spiderweb Software has produced another seriously satisfying slice of old-school roleplaying.
If, like me, you value world-building and wordsmithery over shiny graphics, Avadon 2 might just be your favourite RPG of the year.