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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of the Siege of Avalon Review
This is the addendum to my Siege of Avalon Review in which I put all my opinions that contain
spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Siege of Avalon yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where
I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.
The Backseat Game Designer: Siege of Avalon
Backseat Game Designer pages are primarily
a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the
game better. Hey, who knows, maybe the people who wrote this game will decide to get together and write another one, and think about giving a little thought to
female protagonists for a change. Ah, a girl can dream, right? Here's all the news about Siege of Avalon that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.
I'm really not sure why Siege of Avalon was such a flop. I suspect it had something to do with the game designers' decision to try and self-publish it on the Internet, hoping
for their game to go viral rather than paying a publisher to market it right off the bat. It didn't go viral, and the company folded. It's really a shame, because I would have
enjoyed playing the sequel. Sure, Siege of Avalon has its interface annoyances and its game imbalances and its mindless running from place to place, but it also has
drama, action, interesting NPCs, and a main character who can turn invisible and sneak around an enemy camp picking bad guys off with
sniper shots. It's a fun game, in other words, and well worth picking up on the cheap.
Siege of Avalon Game Advances
Things Siege of Avalon really got right:
1) The quality of the writing was head and shoulders above most games you pay $50 for. The dialogue was never cringeworthy, there were few cliches and a minimum
of annoying in-jokes, and even the optional reading material was occasionally genuinely interesting (one of only a few games in recent history I could say that about.)
2) The game milieu was uncommonly well fleshed out--given the setup of a besieged castle in a fantasy world, the designers came up with an excellent spectrum of
characters that could inhabit it, quests that could occur inside and outside its walls, betrayals and alliances that could occur, tactical assaults each army could launch,
and even minutiae like the specific comments and complaints people might have about their situation.
3) The enemy race was both unique and genuinely alien, something that's common in science fiction novels but still a rarity in computer games.
Advice from the Backseat Game Designer
In my game review, I gave Siege of Avalon a 7.5 out of 10 (rating: very good). So, what would
have taken this game to the next level? Well, the low-hanging fruit would have been a few basic interface adjustments--doing something, ANYTHING different with
the inventory screen, for starters. A "rearrange contents automatically" button would have been a start. Making all the inventory items regular-shaped and similar in
size would have been even better (the most aggravating of all were inventory items with large blank borders around them, so that they took up much more room than
they appeared to on the screen.) The combat interface should have been streamlined--the whole switching-back-and-forth-from-combat-mode thing was a bad choice
that was unnecessary to gameplay, in effect just forcing us to make two extra keyboard strokes every time we want to loot a body. And all that pointless backtracking
and jogging around could have been completely obviated with some kind of "shortcut" key that would have automatically returned you to, say, the first level of the
Outer Keep. Since you can jump to any area of the keep from any stairway anyway, a shortcut key obviously would not have any negative effects on
gameplay--just save bored players many wasted minutes of crossing an uneventful screen. By itself, that one improvement would make Siege of Avalon more replayable.
That's my biggest beef with the game, in fact: lack of replayability. The game designers were very careful to include different dialogue, reactions, and even
a few different quests for the three different character classes; there were even a few game elements that changed based on charm, perception, or conversational
choices like blabbing your mission to the keep gossip or not. But it's hard to truly enjoy playing this game through a second time, because A) navigation is such a
frustrating chore, and B) the main character is not at all customizable. 95% of the time, you have no choice in dialogue options--you will say the same things every
time, be nice to the same NPCs every time, be sarcastic to others every time. Your journal records your character's reactions to important people, and they are always
the same. In a handful of conversations, you have the choice of acting arrogant or humble, but that's pretty much it. You can't imagine your mage having a significantly
different personality than your fighter. The PC always looks the same, too--you can change his hair color, at least, but it's impossible to play a female or dark-skinned main
character. Yes, yes, I know they were going for that realistic Old English feel, but this is a fantasy game in which people are freely lobbing fireballs and Hold Person
spells at each other and having conversations with animate skeletons. Why do so many game writers think elves and the living dead are more "realistic" than a female
PC would be?
There are other improvements that could have been made, but they would have been harder to implement. The two-NPC limit, for example, is particularly artificial-feeling,
and often feels very constraining (you find six or seven pairs of uniquely magical boots, for example, and don't have a party to take advantage of them, so you just
end up throwing most of them away in frustration.) A six-character format would have been more fun and allowed for more interesting tactics.
The game balance could use some serious work, too-- first you find yourself suddenly powerful enough to
assassinate hundreds of Sha'ahoul and walk right under Mithras' nose without even getting a scratch on you just by using the Shadow spell,
and the next thing you know you're getting insta-killed by any Dreamwalker with an attack spell no matter how good your magical defenses are compared to theirs.
And then there's the final fight of the game, which genuinely seems to be impossible for a non-magic-using character to win without cheating or exploiting a bug.
Siege of Avalon would have been a better game if it could have kept the challenge level consistent throughout.
Overall though, this was an impressive first effort (especially considering the lack of financial support the designers were struggling with as they threw together the last
two chapters). If they ever decided to make a second go of it, I'd buy their next game. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like that's going to be happening any time soon.
Best Quest: Probably rescuing your brother in the first chapter. There was a real dramatic immediacy to that.
Lamest Quest: The tests for both Knights and Mages in the crypt in Chapter Six were pretty brain-damaged.
Best Plot Twist: The Sha'ahoul scoutmaster's revelation once you've completed his tasks.
Lamest Plot Twist: Queen Nanesi's idiotic trial. I've never seen such a thoroughly stupid, unbelievable, pointless legal sequence in a computer game before.
High Point: The creative and chilling "death" screen when you get killed in Chapter 1. The writing was high-quality in general, but that particular bit may be the
best death screen I've seen in 25 years of gaming.
Low Point: For me, I finally lost my patience with the game in Chapter 6 when it wouldn't allow me to go up the stairs into the village (despite having previously
wandered it in perfect safety), forcing me to walk my character slowly and tediously back to Captain Calvaric, only to be given the quest to walk all the way back and go up
the stairs after all. The writing of the last two chapters was excellent, but they really sucked from a game-design standpoint.
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