Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Game retrospective: Avadon: The Black Fortress

I've talked about Spiderweb Games before, in the context of Geneforge.  I'd like to speak briefly about one of the more recent games from the developer, Avadon.  More specifically, I'd like to speak about the game's final boss. That means there will be spoilers during the discussion below, but they'll be prefaced by pictures first.

After years of developing the Geneforge saga and updating the Exiles series into Avernum, Jeff Vogel started a new IP with the release of Avadon: The Black Fortress.  The story behind the game is relatively simple, in broad strokes: the continent that the game takes place on has been filled with various countries at war with each other for centuries.  Things changed with five countries in the center of the continent formed the Pact: a promise of each nation to aid the other four, cease hostilities with the other four, and present a united front against the nations not in the Pact.  To this end, they formed Avadon, a police force with ultimate authority whose mandate is to keep the Pact strong and its enemies weak, by any means necessary.  At the start of the game, a man named Redbeard has been leading Avadon's forces for decades, and you play a newly recruited Avadon field agent.

I could talk about the little touches Vogel has added to make the game flow more smoothly, in comparison to previous Spiderweb games.  And I could talk about the multitude of little story elements that demonstrate the  effort to construct a fully developed world for this game.  But that's not my main point, at the moment; for now, let's just say each of the five nations and at least five "extra" nations are reasonably well-developed, and the touches--auto health refilling after battle, tiered skill abilities--work to the game's advantage.  What I really want to talk about is that final boss.  Here's some pictures, so the unspoiled can turn back now.

This is Redbeard, the medieval Machiavelli

And the big ol' Fortress that acts as the game's Hub.
And this is what the actual gameplay looks like. Very 90s CRPG.

Still here?  Good.  Those familiar with the faction choices of Avernum and Geneforge would probably not be surprised to learn that the plot of Avadon culminates in a choice.  Well, actually several choices: you can fight with 1, 2, up to 4 of your allies, or none of them; you can side against Redbeard and Avadon, you can side against Redbeard and seize Avadon for yourself, or you can support Redbeard.  But essentially, it comes down to one main choice: side with Redbeard, or don't.  If you do, then the game ends right there, and you get a credit sequence reflecting your actions in the game up to that point, Fallout style.  If you don't, then you have to overthrow Redbeard.  And that....that is not easy.  In fact, I haven't managed to do it yet, even with maxed out, fully armed characters, on the easiest difficulty.

Let me preface this discussion with a few points.  First, fighting Redbeard is the only fight in the game where you have access to your entire party; usually, you go into combat with three of your five man (and woman) team.  But in order to have access to the whole lot, you need to have them loyal to you, to even have the option of fighting with them here--they must, simply, be more loyal to you than they are to Redbeard in order to join you against him.  And that means, for the most part, you have to finish their individual quests with their loyalities intact, a feat that takes a considerable amount of time and investment.  And going into the boss fight with less than a full roster is a significant disadvantage.

Second, it's not easy to create a truly difficult turn-based fight.  A lot of the JRPGs I've played, from Chrono Trigger to Dragon Quest IX, come down to simply spamming your most powerful attacks, reinforcing your status-affecting spells, and healing when necessary.  There's a lot you can do to shake up this formula, but it basically comes down to variations of the same.  So Vogel gets credit right there for crafting something out of the ordinary.

But what is this fight?  Well, Redbeard goes through three phases. Each time the player reduces him to a certain level of health, he enters a new phase, with increased defense and attack.  And by the the time he's entered the third phase, his health regenerates faster than you can knock it down.  The trick is realizing that after he enters the second phase, Redbeard destroys some pillars that allow you to access secret switches (the existence of secrete switches should, at this point, have been revealed to the player on multiple occasions, if they were handling the sidequests).  Those switches lead to two secret rooms, each with two golems in them.  The golems are Redbeard's secret weapon: each one, while it lives, grants him a hefty defense bonus. So in order to do him some damage, you have to kill them first.  Only they aren't pushovers themselves.  And they get replaced about four rounds after their death.  Add to this that there is a wall between the two chambers, which means that it takes time to go from one set of golems to the other--and while you're busy on golem control, Redbeard is attacking you nonstop.  The player has to make a decision: should they focus on eliminating all golems, then get a few swipes at Redbeard, greatly weakened?  Or do they prune one or two, so they may attack more frequently? Either way, forces have to be divided, and the fight is a long, protracted back and forth.

It's a hard fight.  Compared with what the player had to fight so far, it's a ridiculously hard fight.  But--and this is the whole point--you don't have to fight it. You could choose not to rebel, not to fight Redbeard, and the game ends, with an ending every bit as valid as the other route.  And that's what I like most about this fight, that it reinforces the game's story.  Choosing sides in a rebellion is a choice that is usually, in games, considered purely in moral terms: you pick because you think one side is ideologically better than the other (and, more often than not, it is very clear which side has the traditional moral high ground).  Avadon bases its entire finale around another consideration, the pragmatic one: you choose sides based on who's going to win.  It's a reinforcement of how Redbeard rules over people--he's not challenged because no one disagrees with him, but because he will do his utmost to grind any challenger into dust.  A lot of RPGs could take a lesson from this approach.  Bioware, for example, has shooting segments and story choices, and the two rarely have an obvious effect on each other.  Avadon has a final fight that fits directly into the main choice the game presents the player, and, for that, it got my attention--even if I haven't been able to overthrow Redbeard's tyranny.  Not yet, anyway.


Consistently Plump and Juicy said...

Very cool. As I'd noted elsewhere, it's particularly interesting that Redbeard looks an awful lot like a burlier version of Jeff Vogel (the game's designer/developer/hypeman/whatever.)
This kind of choice reminds me of Streets of Rage, where you always have the option to side with the final boss. Of course, if you were playing with someone else, you'd then have to fight them to the death before the game ended.

That said, I wonder if players are left with a lack of closure if they don't fight Redbeard. I guess, given Vogel's insistence on giving you morally ambiguous choices all the way through, once you get to the end, you've probably decided for yourself whether Redbeard's tactics are viable or not, so the decision of whether you confront your situation pragmatically or heroically (suicidally) has a lot more weight to it.

Person of Consequence said...

I think you're right; further, it would depend on whether or not the player attempts the fight with Redbeard. If you side with him, and never even see the battle, then you wouldn't have any qualms about declaring the ending you get to as the "real" ending (there's a few epic fights leading up to it that would take care of that). But once you attempt to fight him, even if you sided him with the first time through, not beating him will stick with you, at least in a "mountain unclimbed" way if nothing else.

The issue of endings and closure remind me of that beat 'em-up that was released recently, Karateka. You get three lives to save the princess-figure from the enemies; the trick is that each time you die, you become a new character, someone less to the princess' favor. So unless you complete the game on one life, there's going to be a clear sense that you didn't really complete it.