Publisher: Lighthouse Interactive
Developer: Clockstone Software
Release Date: October 2007
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and what recent series has gotten more of it than Harry Potter, World of Warcraft or its predecessor Diablo? One could go on, but trying to compare the upcoming work of neophyte developer Clockstone Software to, say, Halo might be stretching things a bit. Instead, Avencast: Rise of the Mage takes the Diablo formula of fast-paced combat, throws in a vaguely Harry Potter-like "boy with destiny becomes wizard" theme and turns the player loose to play and have fun. It's a classic formula that may just work to get a new developer off the ground.
Avencast casts you, the player, as a young boy found by a hermit wizard. You've always shown immense potential in and endless curiosity for the art of magic, but after the wizard has taught you as much as he can, he urges you to attend the prestigious Avencast Academy (not the only school of magic!). The plot unfolds in a series of quests, some required and others optional, all organized in a fashion reminiscent of Neverwinter Nights. What I read of the English version was well-written and sensible, if a tad on the generic side ("Oh, I tried to practice a spell in the library and unleashed a bunch of imps into it! Can you beat them all down for me please? Oh, by the way, there are giant rats and poisonous spiders down there for no viable reason.").
The actual formula feels like it was made for a controller more than the keyboard-and-mouse scheme, which is good in that it represents just how fast and furious the action is. Your player moves as if he were in a first-person shooter and controls with about as many keys. WASD moves you side-to-side (and dodges), the mouse turns you around and aims up and down, E uses things and the mouse buttons use your melee and ranged attacks (which operate at a near-Dynasty Warriors speed and style). A few WASD keystrokes and a mouse click (left button for short range, right button for long range) are all it takes to execute one of your many learned spells, such as shockwaves, fireballs, poison spells and plenty more. The control scheme is clean, and you can fight, kick butt and do basically all the game requires of you quite easily, although there were several performance "hiccups" and delays in motions that Clockstone will hopefully iron out before releasing the title.
Avencast sports a variety of creatures, and while they are all out to get you, they do vary in how you can dispose of them. For the most part, they consist of the typical fantasy fare (i.e., oversized spiders and crabs, skeletons, zombies, pterodactyls), swarming you and trying to (b)eat you down. Some will remain in the background and attack you from afar, while other beasties will circle around and lunge at you like rabid dogs. Some of the bigger, dual-sword wielding, monstrosities must have had a bad lunch, as they spew green goo from their oversized bellies and try to suck you in at the same time.
While the game is clearly an action RPG, your time will not be spent exclusively mashing the mouse buttons and casting spells, as Clockstone has added in some lighthearted puzzles to mix things up. They aren't intricate contraptions or cryptic riddles like you'll find in most adventure games, but they offer a nice break from the frantic action. You'll have to put on your thinking cap for a few minutes in order to, for instance, figure out how to adjust the mirrors in a room so that a beam of light can unlock the next clue or pathway.
A game like this can often fall back on looking pretty as a way to set itself apart from the crowd, and Avencast holds up pretty well on this front. Character models can look a little plastic at times, but Avencast makes up for it with clear animations, fairly detailed lighting effects and particle handling and some clearly developed backdrops. Avencast Academy is well designed, with light shimmers in just the right places to give an otherworldly feel without unnecessarily disorienting the player. Things are mixed up just enough to feel at least somewhat organic in design, and new textures come in regularly enough to keep things feeling fresh. Menu designs and load time artwork have a slightly gothic theme common among most fantasy games these days, keeping the title squarely in the traditional path established by its plot. In between quests, the story is being told through a series of artwork slides instead of the usual pre-rendered cut scenes, which fit quite well with the overall atmosphere of the game.
Sound effects were generally adequate, with clear plain-fantasy evocations; the zap of a spell causes the skitter of the spider to be replaced by a wrenching cry of pain as the killer tree branch strikes you with a thump. The music has orchestral tones, but with plenty of percussion instruments to add needed emphasis. At this stage of development, the decent sound effects are matched with rather functional voice acting, with many of the female characters and a modest share of the males sounding too similar. The preview build could be sporting placeholder tracks, and it's possible that they'll be updated with more distinctive fare before the game reaches store shelves.
Avencast: Rise of the Mage is building up fairly well; few glitches or glaring issues plagued the press build, and with more polishing in certain areas, the results should be a solid, if derivative, work. Clockstone isn't trying to make a completely individual work in the much-filled fantasy RPG genre, but they're trying to take existing elements and merge them into a distinct, tightly made effort. From its top-pace combat scheme to its honed magic system, Avencast is solidly succeeding at this objective. Most of the end purchases of this game are likely to be random pick-ups at the game stores, but for that, one could easily do a lot worse. Here's hoping that Clockstone's launch succeeds and we see more works out of them.
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