Back in a time when everyone else was probably still playing Diablo 2, I was just beginning to play my first ARPG. Of course, being the frugal youth I was, this first ARPG came from a friend who had picked it up at a garage sale of sorts. Let's just say that it was exactly the kind of obscure castaway of a video game you are likely to find at such an event. However, I enjoyed the game immensely, and have recently had the sudden urge to play it again. So here is a write-up/review of this obscure game, which seems to be refusing to install on my PC. A nostalgia cock block, as it were.
It would seem that there are a lot of fantastic ARPG's out there. The genre has a rich history, and many esteemed games are classified under the ARPG banner. Games like Diablo, Torchlight, and Path of Exile ensure that the genre is rich with exceptional experiences. Yet somehow, I ended up with the awkward cousin of the bunch as my first. As far as I can tell, not that many people know about it, and I am here to rectify that. In any case, the game is called Siege of Avalon. I happen to possess a disc anthology version that is the full six chapters which comprise the game. Originally, the game's chapters were released separately as downloads, which I take as an interesting format for a game made in 2000.
Siege of Avalon itself is a fairly stock fantasy story, with the game centered around the citadel of Avalon. This citadel serves as the last defense of humanity against the Sha'ahoul, who have relentlessly pushed deep into human territory, whom the regard with considerable contempt. Selecting either warrior, scout, or mage, you play as a male character who sets out to assist in the defense of the citadel, where your older brother already is. You make a name for yourself, and slowly work your way to ever-greater importance in the desperate defense of Avalon. The part of the story that kept me coming back was the characters, who can range from simple to fantastic.
Now, for an explanation of the slightly confusing, but fairly well implemented 'chapter' system: The game was advertised as a playable episodic novel, and it lives up to that title, with the game being split into six distinctive sections. Three of these are mandatory chapters, integral to the story, while the other three are class specific. Each class will get something useful out of their class-specific chapter, but it is fun playing through them as any class, just for the depth and length they add to the overall game.
The gameplay is particularly interesting, given that it adheres to a Diablo-like format while somehow being rather more Dark Souls style. Exciting, right? Well, at first, it was more frustrating than anything else. Early on, enemies brutalize you, and they do it quickly. The combat is all point and click, but it's quite a bit slower than something like Torchlight. Dodging is key, given that early on sometimes even a single blow from an enemy scout can kill you. It's all rather imbalanced, as later on you can become ridiculously overpowered as any class, especially the mage. Plus there's the fact that bows and spells have the ability to shoot beyond the screen, allowing you to wipe out enemies without them actually ever detecting you. Given the difficulty of some of the bosses, that bug/ability is quite useful later on. Speaking of bugs, the original version I played had a debug feature mapped to the keyboard which had the unfortunate effect of rendering you invincible for the duration of the game. On my first playthrough, I accidently tapped it, and it's probably the only reason I made it through the first time. It was pretty fun running around naked sniping offscreen enemies, but probably not the original vision of the developers.
The fact that you can haul around and take control of additional party members can make the gameplay a bit easier, but the AI is fickle, and ridiculously so. They really shut down any attempt at stealth, but they are reasonably good meatshields. The best way to get through the difficult bits is probably by taking part in the myriad side quests available. Imagine Dark Souls, except where the NPC's are constantly asking you to retrieve minor trinkets from the most dangerous locations. It builds character (and your level), to say the least. Many of the quests allow you to learn some sweet spells and abilities, so they are worth your time. There are a ton of NPC's that you can miss (it's a HUGE castle, not to mention the outlying areas), and many of them are very interesting to get to know and interact with throughout the game.
Anyways, on to the armor system. This game is one of the reasons I complain about the way a lot of games handle currently armor, because it is really cool So get this: rather than a single piece of armor covering an entire body section, i.e. legs, torso, or head, it allows you to stack different armors on the same area. Like real medieval armor! It's super fun, and helpful for immersion, when you can have the proper layers of armor for a full plate set, like a tunic as a base, then padded leather, and finally a breastplate. Or perhaps a chainmail coif, with a studded helm on top. It's a really fun system to play around with, and it allows you to create a unique armor set without being able to wear, sat, three suits of plate at once.
Overall, the game is an interesting exploration of an alternate ARPG style. The sad thing about writing this is realizing that the sequel, which they did announce in 2004, is probably never going to come out, and that not even GOG.com possesses the download. As far as obscure games go, this is a great, albeit buggy and imbalanced experience, which deserves to be played and analyzed by a wider group than the few that have experienced it.
Next up on Obscure Game Reviews, the occasional post on games that were forgotten because nobody played them in the first place: Will Rock!
All images for this article are from the official Siege of Avalon site: http://soaos.sourceforge.net/
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