Action RPGs have been given a pretty bad name, and rightly so, for quite a while. It seems everyone wants to make another RPG, but things just end up as a mindless slaughter with thought to what is actually happening in the game. Avencast: Rise of the Mage has taken a different approach to the traditional Action RPG genre by throwing out the generic class system, and maybe they've just come up with something new.
My favourite part of an Action RPG is always the RPG, and quite typically that is virtually absent from these titles - not so in Avencast. The story begins with your mentor, who has raised you since infancy, telling the tale of your natural talent for magic. Next begins your journey to the legendary academy called Avencast and your days slacking-off in class and falling asleep! Your professor knows you are bored, and are too advanced for class; he sends you off to your instructor who also realizes this as well and decides to help you prepare for the final exam. This portion of the game acts more or less as a tutorial. You'll need to practice your combat and magic skills, and in-between you can talk with students and other professors for extra quests and items you to earn. Most of the quests are optional, but why play an RPG if you aren't intending to do quests?
Once you complete the introductory area you take your final exam in the crystal caves built around Avencast Academy. You may choose a between a bonus of blood or soul magic, yet in reality mixing and matching your skills instead of specializing is always a possibility. Upon completing the final challenge and exiting the cave you come upon a scene of horror: the academy is under attack and in ruins! Bodies are everywhere and beasts are hurling towards you! You find safe refuge in a hall with the very few surviving members of the academy. From here, your quest to find out what happened, to get help, and to combat evil begins.
If you've made it this far, then you already know Avencast is something special. You've made it through stories, puzzles, deceptions, riddles, mini-games, mysterious merchants, intense combat, tough bosses and uh … died a "few" times already I'm sure. Avencast maintains a very strong story through the entire game, and often weaves video sequences nicely into long periods of combat, mini-quests, puzzles (and boy can they be tough), and a variety of dialog.
Alright, so Avencast: Rise of the Mage is definitely a different breed then the standard hack n' slash or "Action RPG" games out there. Instead of coming up with a ranged class, a mage, and a warrior - you know, the typical set up - they have decided to just focus on making the mage very playable. Normally I'm not a mage fan, it is probably the last choice I'd make for a character, but things are just incredibly different in Avencast.
Magic is divided into three schools known as blood, soul, and summoning, with summoning available as a complementary class to the main schools of blood and soul. Blood magic allows you to attack with your staff in a multitude of melee attack spells, combining area attacks, single blows, stealth hits, teleportation and the ability to knock your enemies back. You'll typically need more health and specialization in blood magic to raise your health regeneration to a decent level (it is slow to start), but keeping a stash of mana around for your special attacks when needed will be helpful.
Soul magic is the more traditional mage school, using powerful single target blasts, radial blasts, waves of energy, icy blasts to freeze enemies, fire balls and distant meteor showers. This magic field causes heavy damage and a variety of knock back along other small defensive effects but costs a high amount of mana. While you don't get hit often, you will to take the occasional hit, but more importantly cause damage and keep that mana regenerating as fast as possible. Summoning magic allows you to summon a variety of pets for limited time periods either blood or soul based, and generate small defensive shields "just in case."
I found the user interface to be one of the more difficult aspects of Avencast's design. There are three settings: one for beginners, advanced and somewhere in between. The beginner mode uses a fixed camera that moves with your character; the expert mode is very useful for combat if you can adjust constantly. While moving your character is done with the controls, the camera moves independently - much like a first person shooter. I couldn't be dodging, diving, and shooting in combat and then deciding where to put my camera. This is why I picked the fixed camera mode; your controls operate somewhat like expert - and it gives you a good action speed - but the camera will stay behind you.
The eight hot keys you have to cast spells can be another challenge in addition to the odd controls and camera. it took a good deal of time - more than any other game I've played - for me to just give up and wipe out all the bindings and rebind spells directly to my mouse buttons. Thankfully, you are allowed to pause the game and change equipment and spell bindings when needed, because the combat is just much too quickly paced to adjust in the heat of battle!
Combat is not an aspect I normally concentrate on when reviewing a title because I love the RPG element far more. However, in Avencast, it is quite spectacularly designed, so I'll delve a little deeper. As the combat focuses heavily on magic, it may begin to feel as if you are going to be playing a standard slow mana regenerating style mage. Nothing could be further from the truth. Combat in Avencast is FAST! You do not slaughter thousands and thousands of enemies, because the enemies you do fight are not fodder for you to blast away; they will dodge your attacks, and counter when you are weak; or even outflank you while you are engaged by others. Some will have immunities to your knock back skills, and resistances to different degrees of freeze, etc. Your mana regenerates quite quickly, allowing you to evade, retreat, find quick cover for a couple of seconds and then attack again. I found myself too often in the middle of a 5 or 6 enemies as a soul based mage not capable of taking damage, diving and dodging, then throwing out whatever freezes and blast waves to push back my enemies.
My time as a bloodmage involved using stealth to sneak into an area, hit on enemy hard, using knock back on a specific opponent and area attacks to control the rest - all the while focusing on any ranged classes first. Sometimes you need to decide if you can take the chance and charge up for a big blast, or hit them quick and keep moving. Combat evolves in Avencast. Rarely do you use the same tactics simply because as you level you gain new abilities and the old attack styles become wasteful. The simplistic combat at the start of the game is absolutely nothing like the high powered blasts, waves and combos you cast near the end.
The nice looking graphics in often can't really be appreciated - the nature of combat would make zooming in a lethal choice when you lose your field of vision. However at the very least you can get a zoomed in view of your current armour - each piece you equip looks different, and some enchanted ones will glow. The armour can be quite stylish; and can change your look drastically. It is unfortunate that the armour availability is so limited. It drops off random enemies (often making zero sense) or is purchased from one of the major characters in the game, many of whom carry a somewhat static and limited inventory.
While the graphics may be very good, some of the spell effects are simply over the top. A blast can fill the whole screen with lights and coloured effects. Or sometimes a few shots of this or that can make it so you don't even know where you are anymore. The lighting effects are just fantastic! Each object adjusts its shadow and lighting as your effects pass by, but they do need a serious toning down, at least some of them. Other than the spell effects the other effects like smoky rooms and dark field of visions are extremely well made, and add greatly to the game.
Avencast: Rise of the Mage is quite possibly the best Action RPG I have ever played. It combines a very strong main story line with accents via puzzles, quests, riddles and lots of fast paced action. Quite incredibly, it has actually done what it intended to - it connects RPG and action - giving you both in a healthy dose. If you combine the very respectable play length with the chance to play as the other (or a mixed) combat class then this game is a good deal for your dollar. While the controls take a bit of time to get used to, the combat is skillful and fun to play once you get into it... now I think I'm heading back to finish my blood mage character.