GamingReview: Siege of Avalon Anthology

Review: Siege of Avalon Anthology

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I want to open this review by saying, before we go any further, that if you are someone who enjoys watching a story unfold or who misses the late 90s/early 00s surge of isometric RPGs, then please go and play Siege of Avalon Anthology. This game has its faults without a doubt and I’ll be digging into them here, but behind the surface issues there is a brilliant story that was so beloved by its fans that two decades after it was first released, it has been rebuilt from the ground up by community developers. I’m not going to be spoiling the story here so you can read on if you want to know more, but please don’t let my nitpicks put you off a fantastic game.

Siege of Avalon was initially published in 2000 in six separate chapters, then was later re-released as a single product with ‘Anthology’ tacked onto the end of its name. Told via an isometric point-and-click setup, the fantasy story places you at the heart of a war, desperately trying to defend the titular citadel of Avalon from the hordes of Sha’ahoul while beset by betrayals and deceptions.

After a simple character select screen to choose your gender, your class (Fighter, Scout, or Magician), and your starting stats, players are greeted by a handful of pages of text explaining the general state of the war and that you are travelling to Avalon to find your brother. From there, you’ll find yourself bouncing between quests and commanders as the story spirals out organically from trying to save your now-missing sibling to personally juggling the fate of the world itself. Unlike modern RPGs, players aren’t given many opportunities to make decisions for themselves, but the story and characters are compelling enough that just watching it unfold is a joy in and of itself.

Without any voice acting, players are going to be faced with a lot of reading, particularly at the beginning, but an effort has clearly been made to keep things as to the point as possible without sacrificing the atmosphere the developers were shooting for. Backing it up is a decent soundtrack, which changes depending on the area you’re in and can do a lot of the heavy lifting when trying to set the mood.

More than anything what this game succeeds at is immersion. Every character that you speak to – of which there are hundreds – feels like a real person with a place in this world, and you can find out bits and pieces about almost everyone. After years of playing games like Skyrim or Breath of the Wild where all guards say more or less the same thing unless they’re part of a particular quest, I found that there was a huge amount of joy to be found in chatting with the wide array of characters inhabiting the kingdom of Avalon. The game world isn’t large in comparison to more modern titles, but in my experience, there was more substance to be found here than in games ten times its size.

That’s the good, and I really can’t stress enough how good most of this game is. However, it’s not a perfect title and this wouldn’t be a fair review if I didn’t explain its downsides too, so:

The biggest issue Siege of Avalon Anthology has is a product of age, and it’s not what you might expect. Let me demonstrate with my first experience of this game: I started up a new game having never seen any gameplay footage. I chose a Scout character and upon getting control of her, I was almost immediately handed a bow and quiver that my character was insufficiently strong to wield, though I could equip it. I set that aside as a problem for later, and instead followed the quest line down to a training yard of sorts and was told to attack a target; I dutifully clicked on it and my character ran up to hit it with her fists.

At the time, I shrugged it off. I’d already been told that I wasn’t strong enough to wield the bow properly, so I assumed this was the game’s way of showing that. Perhaps having the bow equipped gave me a minor damage boost but I couldn’t use it at range – with no experience to draw off and nothing in the game giving me better directions, I had no reason to believe I was doing anything wrong.

My conviction wobbled a little once I started fighting actual enemies and I realised I was doing a pitiful amount of damage when they were capable of taking out half my health bar in a single blow. Still, the game didn’t give me any hints. I am not exaggerating when I say that I spent hours playing Siege of Avalon Anthology like this, chipping away at my enemies’ health while I darted in and out of their attacks, unable to take more than two hits before I was bounced back to the menu screen and had to start over. I became a master of dodging, of running back and forth to the infirmary, of extreme patience as I hacked my way through a village of soldiers inexplicably more powerful than me. I levelled up enough to properly equip my bow and saw no change; I kept going all the same. By that point I had invested so much time in such punishing gameplay that I refused to give up.

It wasn’t until I did a quick internet search for controls – for an entirely unrelated issue, as it happens – that I discovered the truth. The reason I was doing so little damage while taking so much is that your character doesn’t receive their equipment bonuses and abilities unless they enter combat mode, done by pressing the space bar.

Siege of Avalon Anthology never tells you this. There is no prompt, nothing to indicate you might be doing something wrong, no in-game character to break the fourth wall and give you a clue. I was so sure that I must have missed a text prompt somewhere that I started a new game just to be sure, but I still saw nothing. 

Some of the game’s dungeons can be punishingly dark, but bumping up your screen brightness solves most of the problem

Now, it’s possible that you’re supposed to work this out based on the fact that you can’t see your character’s weapon until they enter combat mode, but that’s not exactly bulletproof reasoning. For one, you can see your character’s shield, should they have one equipped, while outside of combat and it’s not outside the realms of possibility that the weapon hand could have simply glitched. Secondly, anyone like me who hasn’t watched any gameplay isn’t necessarily going to assume that you’re meant to be able to see the weapon in the first place.

The heart of the issue here is that Siege of Avalon’s original design, all the way back in 2000, relied on something that doesn’t exist in the realm of digital gaming: a manual. Games of old could trust that players would read the little instruction books that accompanied each release, meaning that they didn’t need to put explicit directions within the game itself. I haven’t been able to get hold of a Siege of Avalon manual, but I’m willing to bet that if I did, I would find a page explaining what combat mode is and how to activate it, as well as perhaps something explaining how to toggle the game’s x-ray mode that inexplicably defaults to off (hit X, by the way, if you’ve not stumbled across this yourself).

Finding out these controls existed utterly transformed my time with this game. I went from inching my way through an area to hacking and slashing a mile-wide swathe through the enemy forces with a blood-thirsty grin on my face. It is to the game’s credit that despite my deeply incorrect and fiercely punishing way of playing it was still engaging enough to keep me interested, but a lot more could have been done in this re-release to smooth out the learning curve.

There are a few other ways in which this lack of in-game guidance manifests itself. While there is a map for each area, there aren’t quest markers to point the way to where you need to get to. Instead, you’ll have to listen to what characters tell you and follow their directions. In terms of creating immersion, this system is brilliant, and you can find yourself noticing the smallest of details of world design as you figure out your way forwards. However, it can backfire whenever the instructions you are given either aren’t clear or simply aren’t accurate. The most noticeable of these for me was the bridge between Act I and II, wherein the only instruction you are given is to return to your quarters to sleep when what the game actually wants you to do is go to a heretofore unseen part of the castle and speak to the commander who just asked you to go to bed. How players were meant to figure this out in 2000 without easy access to an online guide, I have no idea.

Outside of the game’s design, there are a few quirks worth noting. Most frustrating to me was that the game would consistently crash moments after I opened it for the first time after a PC restart, although the issue was always fixed by force closing it and starting again. Similarly, the player character’s pathfinding leaves a little to be desired, and sometimes requires very precise guidance to navigate tight spaces.

One particularly amusing mistake – or perhaps very progressive creative choice? – is that even having chosen a female character model, all characters will refer to you as male. While this might be a limitation introduced by the age of the game, it is possible for NPCs to refer to you by your chosen name so it seems strange that other dialogue choices weren’t similarly interchangeable.

This was one of the first dialogue boxes my female character Katrina was faced with

As I said at the start, these are all very minor issues and once I got past my one-woman war against the controls, I can’t stress how much fun I had with Siege of Avalon Anthology. Even setting aside the nostalgia brought about by returning to such a beloved era of gaming, this game has a story that is well worth the time investment it asks for and the level of immersion it manages to achieve with such low technological demands is truly impressive. I would recommend that anyone with even the slightest interest in fantasy games gives this one a look – just make sure to look up the controls first.

SUMMARY

A thoroughly engaging and immersive fantasy story that will unearth nostalgia in anyone familiar with the early days of isometric RPG adventures.

+ Brilliant fantasy story to explore
+ Well realised world with in-depth and varied characters across the board
+ Rewarding loot system
- No guidance on controls
- Some in-game directions are unclear or misleading

(Reviewed on PC)

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