Aveyond 4: Shadow of the Mist ReviewJason Venter
Like most villains, Boyle Wolfbane always believed he would grow up to rule the world. He came close to achieving that very goal, too. He even found a dragon to guard his lair. An actual full-grown dragon that breathes fire and stuff. But then, on the eve of his triumph, those pesky heroes rose up against him. They eluded his devious traps, bribed his dragon with piles of gold and jewels, looted his treasure and ultimately sent him to an early retirement.
In the world of Aveyond 4: Shadow of the Mist, early retirement means a life in the village of Wyrmwood. It's a dark sort of place, basking in the foul shadows cast by Mist Mountain. In that dreary environment, Boyle is set to live out his days with Ingrid, a local witch who has cursed him to a fate worse than death: unholy matrimony. Things happen, though, and suddenly Boyle is on a quest to save the wor-- no, that would be stupid. He's a villain, remember? But his pet wolf has gone missing, and that just won't stand. So Boyle eventually assembles a ragtag crew of villains and heroes, and together they will ultimately fill in for the world's absent heroes. But only by accident.
Indie RPGs on Steam aren't supposed to be especially involving affairs, particularly when they look like perhaps they were designed with RPG Maker. But this particular game doesn't care about what it's supposed to be. It builds a surprisingly involving, intricate world and throws you right into the thick of things with a fun anti-hero, lots of tricky dungeons, plenty of questing, and some astonishingly good audio. If you're looking for an old school genre experience that will eat up 30 or so hours of your time, you could do considerably worse than Aveyond 4.
As noted, the game begins with Boyle leaving Wyrmwood to find his beloved pet, Fang. Early on, he teams up with a mist girl named... Myst. She is capable of morphing between human and wolf form, and she's looking for her abducted brother. The duo doesn't get far before it is joined by Ingrid, who dares not let her betrothed wander far from her sight (and who would rather he not get himself killed before they can exchange vows and he can live out the remainder of his days in a life of servitude). There's some clever dialogue along the way, though not every joke lands gracefully. In the early going, it's mostly just Boyle grumbling about not actually being a hero, and quite a few classic tropes are turned slightly sideways. Sometimes, the affair feels excessively juvenile, but it can occasionally evoke a smile and it does get better.
Dungeons tend not to be especially large, but they're intricately constructed. You'll have to double back a lot, flip switches, explore caves that link regions and so forth. Some later destinations are quite devious, including an especially clever dungeon for heroes that forces players to swap out amulets to affect their abilities as they advance through a series of small chambers. Unfortunately, it's sometimes easy to get turned around, or just plain lost. Stairways linking various levels of an area sometimes blend into their surroundings, especially if you're playing on a large monitor in the windowed mode, which at that point presents as a quite small box. Playing full-screen improves things somewhat. If your resolution is high enough, though (1920x1080, for instance), everything you see looks rather pixelated and for some reason doesn't fit on the screen. Depending on your hardware setup, then, there's not necessarily a happy medium.
Enemy encounters aren't random. You can see monsters on the screen before you engage with them, and thus can anticipate virtually every encounter (unless you talk to someone and they unexpectedly pull you into a battle, which almost never happens). Depending on the difficulty setting you select, most monsters don't reappear until you exit an area, or travel between major portions within a given region. Avoiding encounters altogether is pretty rough, and would also be quite foolish, because you'll definitely need to level up your characters. During my own run on the Normal setting, I didn't try to avoid many fights at all. I just explored and completed any side quests I could. I was thus able to defeat the final boss without ever grinding, though only just barely, since the game gets fairly difficult toward the end. That's true in part because unlike in some indie RPGs, your heroes don't get a health and magic refill after each victory. You'll have to bring some of your old skills out of retirement if you want to see the brief closing credits, in other words. Unless you play on the lowest difficulty setting, that is.
Combat, when it does occur, is turn-based. Your initial crew of three warriors grows over time, and you can only have a maximum of four members participating at once. Everyone gains levels, though, so you're not forced to needlessly juggle just to keep everyone in fighting shape. What's nice is that the characters all possess distinct abilities, which means you might sometimes find yourself agonizing over which group to use. Ingrid has some nasty magic up her sleeve, especially if you assign her to the right coven, plus she can transform into various animals with different attributes. Boyle is a powerhouse, plain and simple. And later on, some of the other characters that join can play additional roles. Since the adversaries you'll encounter at each point along the way are capable of dealing strong damage even when you're well equipped, that means you have to develop actual strategies in order to keep your adventure going.
Unfortunately, the game's second half is light on story elements but not ready to let you make a run for the villain. Instead, you'll have to do a lot of fetching. There are numerous elements in place that force this. For example, Ingrid may have to brew a particular potion to advance the plot, which could require ingredients that are difficult to acquire. It's fetch quest time! Or you'll need help from a village, but they won't lend a hand until you find an artisan to craft them some special furniture. On and on it goes. You'll become intimately familiar with the layout of a number of villages and a twisting realm you can find that lets you warp between them. It's kind of cool but also a bit of a pain.
The good news is that most areas have a personality about them, and I generally wanted to explore just a bit more because there were reasons to come back. Boyle can find little purple critters hidden deviously all over the world, and he can turn them into a wizard who will teach him new abilities. The "Cheeki" creatures are a fun collectible, and there are a lot of them to find. Besides that, there's always the chance that you'll find a rare red or green chest that adds additional gear, or you could stumble across a hidden treasure room containing impressive wealth or equipment. Sometimes, you'll see something tempting on a distant ledge and might not be able to actually snag it until hours later, when you come after it from a different side or with new abilities.
I also liked that the artwork in each area feels distinct. There are a lot of forests in the land, but many of them look different enough that you're unlikely to mistake one for another. And you'll visit a few very different towns that are full of buildings and people with interesting things to say (and often, quests to offer). Besides all of that, most areas have their own music. I'm not usually one to stop and listen to tunes in a video game, but there's some great work here. Compositions always feel appropriate for their respective area, rousing or melancholy when needed. Not only that, but the environmental sound effects are some of the best I've ever encountered in an RPG. That stuff really helps to bring the game to life, and I never once played with the volume muted.
Aveyond 4: Shadow of the Mist surprised me. I expected a simple, lighthearted romp through a fairly generic fantasy world that only occasionally did anything especially noteworthy. Instead, I found myself exploring environments that really came to life, places full of secrets and mystery that kept me entertained even after I had spent many hours within them. The visuals are charming, the protagonists compelling, the soundtrack spectacular and the challenge is generally quite fair without ever coddling the player. My biggest gripe is the amount of busy work, which sometimes leaves the game feeling like it was built as a way to sell you the strategy guide rather than to provide optimal entertainment. Old school RPG fans should find a lot to love, though, provided they're willing to look past the rough first couple of hours or so. This is one game that definitely delivers the goods. Or should that be... the bads?
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.