Publisher: Lighthouse Interactive
Release Date: November 14, 2007
The "Harry Potter" books have done evil things to this industry, even if you ignore the games and spin-offs bearing the name. I can't claim that Avencast: Rise of the Mage would even exist without Harry Potter, but I can claim for certain that we'd have found the story a lot less familiar without it.
Avencast opens with a tale of a mysterious orphan who goes to the legendary Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry — sorry, I mean, he goes to the legendary Academy of Avencast — to learn magic. He's an apt student, but naturally has some lessons he doesn't perform highly in. After falling asleep in potions class, the snarky Professor Snape sends him to his house mistress, Professor McGonagall, who — Goddammit. After falling asleep in alchemy class, the snarky teacher Xivarius sends him to his master, who tells him there isn't much point in carrying on if his attentions are elsewhere, and maybe it's time for his final exam, but first he has to prove himself. He's told to see three masters in the academy and complete their quests, at which point the final exam will begin.
Thus opens a not-so-epic tale. As mentioned, were the opening not so similar to a certain well-known franchise, it might seem a bit better. If the characters had more depth, or we actually cared about any of them in the slightest, they'd perhaps stand out a bit more from Rowling's creations. As it is, though, a clichéd plot, poor characterization, and average — at best — voice acting do not a compelling beginning make.
Sadly, none of that really improves. After the final exam, Avencast distances itself from the Potter books quite well, but falls ever more deeply into old RPG tropes: mysterious parents, impending apocalypse, demons from beyond the fabric of space, magical hubris, things man was not meant to meddle with, and all that lot. About the only character who actually has any character (because, frankly, the stereotypical mages with too many Xs and not enough vowels in their names do not) is Gorlin, the one-gnome wizard's superstore. As a largely incidental character for much of the plot, though, he's not really enough to keep anyone playing.
It doesn't really help that the game doesn't seem to care in the slightest about drama of any sort when one early quest results in you killing the risen lich of the famous academy founder, with no real build-up, and the only response you get on completion is essentially, "Oh, right. So you destroyed the bones of the founder? You should ask for permission before you do something like that in future." Sorry, what? Never mind the weird writing quirks that crop up occasionally. Honestly, who puts "I must go now," when signing off from a memo they're writing to themselves? Or "AARGH! They are coming," when desperately trying to finish writing a spell? It's almost as if the developers have never seen "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
The one area in which the plot shines, however, is in the periodic out-of-engine cut scenes. Narrated by someone who actually has a sense of gravitas, they're gorgeous. The plot is largely told as a story being written down years later by the old mage who raised the orphan main character, and as such, these cut scenes are done as semi-still drawings with fantastic line art, as though illustrated on paper. They're far from the usual bloom-oriented renderfests, and they, fortunately, work.
More fortunate still is that Avencast as a game fares much better than Avencast as a plot device. Combat is breathtakingly original for the genre. Where it initially seems like it'll follow Diablo as a clickfest, it smartly sidesteps this and creates an action-based combat system that has more in common with fighting games than anything else. When using one of the sensible control options, the player character is controlled directly with the WASD keys, with combinations (A followed by W, then left-click, for instance) to perform the spells. Constantly important magic, like a shield spell, are performed through simple combinations, while the more complex magic — like, say, summoning an imp to fight for you — generally requires three directional presses and then a mouse button.
Forgetting the combinations isn't much of an issue, as you can show up to eight of the combinations on-screen at once, as well as binding four spells to the F1-F4 keys for instant use. There are two different schools of magic — Soul and Blood — as well as summoning spells to be utilized, and they're wildly different. Soul Magic is the standard long-range magic attacks, with fire walls, ice meteors, sprays of magic missiles, and the like. Blood Magic is all about being up close and personal, with a series of magically empowered staff swings, invisibility spells for sneak attacks, area-of-effect health drain spells, and the like. A combination of the two might seem the sensible option initially, but it's largely impractical, with a certain plot device massively boosting your skill in one or the other, and each school using a separate stat for damage. It works surprisingly well at catering for different styles of player, though Blood Magic seems much weaker to begin with, and yet becomes far more abusable toward the end of the game.
In true action-RPG style, Avencast doesn't pause when checking your inventory, which is an absolute pain in this case, as that's where all your healing potions are, and movement is impossible when checking the inventory. Trying to get life back can result in getting killed. It doesn't help that the difficulty varies wildly, either, with one of the opening dungeons being one of the hardest simply because you don't have enough spells to make life easy. The contrast with this is that a lot of the late game is incredibly easy, because certain combinations of spells and effects (particularly for a Blood Mage) pretty much let you murder everything without taking a hit. Enemy design is varied if unimaginative, with demon hellhounds, ghosts, skeletons and bloody giant spiders all making appearances, along with, uh … giant crabs (no weak spot joke here), plants and scorpions, amongst others.
The combat, while imaginative, does grow unfortunately stale after a while. You just want to progress with whatever quest you're on rather than check all the side rooms and kill every enemy you see, but you know the XP will be useful, even though a lot of fights take more time than you'd hope. That's potentially more of a knock at our skill with the game, but we did think some of the enemies had slightly too high health — potentially to scale with level, so that they aren't too much of a pushover when you're a bit more powerful. That in itself isn't a major problem, but sighing every time a large group of enemies turns up is not a good sign for a game that's mostly focused around combat.
You find yourself repeating the same moves again and again, with little variation, and once you've got the hang of which spells are incredibly useful, it's a matter of time until you win, rather than a matter of skill whether you win. The action is broken up by boss fights, which usually require some different thinking as the enemy attacks and movements vary; to compare two earlier boss fights, one giant spider hides in the ceiling and drops down at random locations, making constant movement essential and preventing you from keeping it away too easily, while a giant crab boss — oh God. The giant crab boss is a puzzle boss. It has a weak point that must be hit for massive damage. I'm so, so sorry.
The path-finding that crops up in combat varies just as drastically. Enemies don't tend to get stuck on much, though they find it impossible to open doors, meaning that you can happily open a door, let an enemy through, close the door, kill him, and then wait in safety for your health to recharge. Your allies, on the other hand … while the summoned creatures aren't that much of a bother in this respect, as they're summoned and thus are of little to no long-term value, it's incredibly irritating to start a quest to get some people to safety, have them follow you, safely defend them through groups of enemies, and then as you near the goal, one of them decides the quickest and safest way to you is through a fire, and dies. Gnng.
It's not all combat, though. While the majority of Avencast is spent in besieged areas, with towns and quests a bit few and far between, there are frequent puzzles — sometimes optional, sometimes not — to break things up. Some are simplistic, requiring solely that you have the right items in your inventory (and if not, good luck, as you're going to wander back through the entire dungeon and every single room to see if you missed something). Others make you think, and even they vary a little in difficulty. An early optional one involves getting into the tomb of a mage noted for being vain. Blocking your path is a set of tiles with letters on them; you have to walk them in the correct order to get through unscathed. Considering he's vain, it's not a difficult assumption that you need to walk on the letters with his name. Other puzzles, such as the ones involving the Planetarium, do take a bit more thought, but are unlikely to keep anyone stuck for too long. Some involve quick thinking while being chased; others let you take as long as you like. It's a nice idea that does help break up the gameplay somewhat.
All things considered, Avencast: Rise of the Mage is a very average game on all fronts. For everything that it does right in a given area, it does something wrong. The graphics, for instance, aren't too spectacular in terms of textures, but the flame effects on torches are staggering, and the spell effects are genuinely some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring I've ever seen. Combat is imaginative but slightly unbalanced, with awry difficulty, and it gets boring faster than we'd hoped. The plot is thin and uninspired but with some lovely design on the cut scenes. It's clear from the fresh ideas and the parts that shine, that Avencast has been a work of love by the developers, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's considered a bit of an undiscovered gem by people rooting through bargain bins in a few years, but it's not something that can easily be recommended. If you need something in between Sacred 2 and Diablo 3, though, this might fit the bill.
More articles about Avencast: Rise of the Mage