Avadon: The Black Fortress

I have a hate/love relationship with Jeff Vogel’s RPG games.

I love them because they’re a somewhat nostalgic throwback to the days of the early Ultima games (I’ve talked about my hate/love relationship with those games in detail before). I hate them largely because the games' UIs are just clumsy enough that I feel a bit like I’m trying to dice onions while wearing mittens.

Mind you, Vogel himself has an ambivalent relationship with the genre – worth a read is his not-so-tongue-in-cheek article Why I Hate Fantasy RPGs, outlining a number of their flaws.

Vogel’s latest, Avadon: The Black Fortress was recently released for Mac OS X and Windows and, somewhat more interestingly, for iPad. I picked up the iPad version (it’s a steal at $9.99) because I was curious to see how the UI issues played out on that platform.

It turns out, it’s pretty good!

_“You are a servant of Avadon. The Black Fortress. Your job is to protect the Pact, five nations that have banded together in a fragile alliance. The purpose of the Pact: To hold back the waves of invaders that seek to destroy you.

Outside the lands of the Pact, there are limitless threats. Barbarians. Fading, jealous empires. Titans and unspeakable horrors. The warriors and spies of Avadon are charged to keep them at bay, weak and divided. You fight in the shadows, rooting out small threats before they have the chance to grow. Your resources are unlimited, and your word is law."_

There are a number of great things about playing Avedon on iPad. Chief among them is the fact there’s no “miniaturization” going on for the platform. You are playing the exact same game that you’d get on the PC or Mac, just with a different way of interacting with it. I can’t quite explain why - and I’ll be the first to acknowledge it doesn’t make any sort of rational sense - but interacting with my cute little avatars by poking them with my finger is more fun than clicking on them with a mouse. Go figure.

As always, Vogel has made a fairly interesting world using sparse but effective text. I’m only to the second major area, but at this point I’d summarize the overall plot as “You play a brutal thug hired by an oppressive empire to enforce the Pax Avadonia by murdering as many orphans as possible”. Presumably as the game progresses I will be given opportunities to decide whether to embrace the orphan-murdering or to instead lead a band of Ewoks in rebellion. I am doing violence to Vogel’s writing with my completely unjustified snark, of course. Vogel has a good sense of when to spell things out, and when to leave things unsaid, and this leads to a well-paced game that draws you in right from the start, and hasn’t so far left me wondering “Well? What do I do now?”

The combat system in the game is a turn-based affair redolent of the original Fallout but moving along a lot more fluidly. And with no wondering whether you’re supposed to left-click or right-click. There are four character archetypes (whom I will summarize as the Hitty guy, the Ninja Guy, the Wizard Chick, and the Healer Chick), and each plays different enough, tactically, to make each combat enjoyable. Especially when I win.

There are a few UI rough spots that deserve special mention. You identify enemies by tapping and holding your finger on top of them – which, if you have big fingers like me, completely obscures the label you’re trying to read. Second, I keep wanting to use a pinch-gesture to zoom in for a better look at something, or zoom-out for an overview. No such luck. Lastly, you can drag the viewport around while your party is running across the map, after which it jumps back. This feels clumsy, but I’m also not sure I have any brilliant ideas that would work better. When I do this, it’s usually because I have tapped on a location I want my guys to go, and I want to get the next location after that lined up. But you end up not being able to do this effectively.

There’s also a bit of ambiguity about when a quest has been completed. The first quest in the game gives you a nice big hint in the form of one of your party members saying (I paraphrase) “Well, I guess we did what we were supposed to so we should probably go back and talk to that guy again, huh?” This led me to believe I’d get something akin to that whenever I finished a quest; no such luck. This leads to a little – just a smidge – of low-level angst, along the lines of “Am I about to waste 2 minutes walking across the map only to discover that I missed one rat that was hiding in a corner somewhere?' I sort of wish that wasn’t the case.

I’ve only been playing this for a couple of days. But my initial experiences have been positive enough that I find myself hoping that Vogel ports some more of his games to the platform.

Geneforge, anyone?