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cover-Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon

Wednesday, November 8, 2023 2:17:12 AM

Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon Review (owl)

At its core, Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon is exactly what I was hoping it would be: a rough-around-the-edges, indie take on the Elder Scrolls. Just like you can in a Bethesda game, here you can be a rogue, a stealth archer, a thief, a mage, or a dual axe-wielding berserker -- just expect everything to be jankier and less fleshed out. If that's what you want out of this game, you can stop reading this review now. Download the demo. Try it. I don't think you'll be disappointed.
But my own love for this game compels me not to leave this review at that summary alone. Calling this a copy-cat of a AAA sandbox RPG would be doing it a disservice. This review is going to be long, non-comprehensive, and meandering, so feel free to stop reading at any time and just try the demo.
Atmosphere Stuff
Tainted Grail stands on its own two feet, while riding on the shoulders of giants. It takes inspiration from Skyrim and Oblivion, yes, but has its own distinct identity, with some features, story beats, and gameplay elements that surpass what you'd find in a Bethesda title. From Tainted Grail's shockingly good and consistent voice acting (not an insult; simply a surprise given the team size) to its absolute BANGER of a soundtrack (holy shit it slaps, especially in some areas), this game drips with twisted, dark fantasy Celtic atmosphere.
The quests and writing are genuinely interesting and compelling, and actually faced me with some pretty tough moral decisions that I wasn't expecting.
Life is bleak in Tainted Grail. Peasants struggle to feed their families, villagers go missing, restless spirits haunt spooky crypts, and dark, twisted forms of torture take place in dank dungeon halls. Every single book, note, rain cloud, and line of NPC dialogue feeds back into this oppressive atmosphere. I absolutely adore it.
Random Gameplay Stuff
Let's talk combat first. It's a little clunky, but the bones of a fantastic combat system (one that surpasses Skyrim's) truly are here. You can equip one-handed weapons in either of your hands, Skyrim style, and in any combination. Those weapons all feel crunchy in Tainted Grail, and parrying attacks perfectly feels satisfying (it staggers enemies and reduces their stamina until they have to stop fighting and catch their breath). Dodging could be a bit smoother with its camera animation, but it's very effective gameplay-wise. Equipment load and weight also seems to play a significant role in combat and stamina management, but I don't know the specifics yet.
I haven't dabbled in magic, so no comment there.
Enemies in Tainted Grail are very aggressive. They attack fast, often, and at the same time in many cases. This is where player skill really comes into play. There's a certain 'flow' to group encounters that's hard to describe and not immediately evident when you first start playing, but feels good when you get a feel for it.
Stealth builds are my favorites in RPGs like this, and I'm happy to say that they feel solid in Tainted Grail. You lack some of the tools you'd have in Skyrim, but hiding in the shadows and backstabbing bandits in dungeons still feels pretty good. Dungeons seem to support multiple playstyles pretty well, too, from a level design perspective.
Negatives & Misc Feedback
Let's get down to negatives and points of feedback I have, because there are more than a few.
- Performance. This game runs badly on my 4070 Ti at 1440p. In outdoors areas, my FPS often dips down to the low 30s, and then fluctuates between that and the high 40s. Indoor FPS is rock-solid, though, at 90-100.
- There's a major lack of 'life' to enemy NPCs in particular. They either stand around or statically walk between one point and another a short distance away. It's rare to see them transition from sitting to walking, or from walking to smithing or eating. I'd like them to have more idle activities and 'things' to do in their settlements.
- There's not much life to the world as a whole. Nobody patrols the roads or travels from place to place, there are no random friendly encounters to stumble upon, nothing... The friendly NPCs you DO find outside of settlements all just stand still wherever they are. Can't you at least give them little campsites they'll meander around and interact with?
- Very little enemy banter. Why aren't the 'disgraced' nobles shouting at their lackies? Why aren't the 'grunts' mumbling about their rations, or their pay? Why aren't any of the enemies ever doing or saying ANYTHING AT ALL to make me feel something (anything!) about them? I'd love to laugh at their silly repeated one-liners (a la Skyrim), or feel a twinge of empathy before I drive my dagger into their back, but there's nothing most of the time. Just... dead silence. This issue issue applies to friendly NPCs as well.
- The perks are uninspired. The devs are Elder Scrolls fans, clearly, so they must know how hated the generic "You now do X% more damage while doing Y" stuff is. Look at Cyberpunk's latest 2.0 update for inspiration. Perks can and should offer players a mixture of new abilities/augments to existing abilities (combos, maybe?) and flat % buffs.
- Can we get some more ranged weapon options? I've been picking up loads of 'throwing knives' but found no way to equip them, and I've only found two types of bow. I want crossbows, slings, javelins, throwing axes, fire pots, and more. Let me wield throwing knives in one hand and a shortsword in the other!
- Give stealth players some more options. I can use my bow or stab people in the back; not much else. I can't drag bodies. I haven't found any invisibility or illusion spells. I have no way to distract foes (like Skyrim's 'throw voice' shout), and I haven't found any poisons that let me wreak havoc from the shadows (making enemies go berserk/paralyzed etc).
- I get stuck in cracks and crevices too often. It's a problem in Bethesda games, too, but at least there I can just toggle noclip for a few seconds.
- Let me save in combat, please. I'm tired of redoing a bunch of progress because combat erupted and I wasn't prepared with a quicksave. At least give me an autosave whenever combat starts?
- NPCs hear me too easily and react too fast to me stabbing their buddies in the back when I'm nowhere near them. However, they are also incredibly stupid when investigating my last known location, or trying to reach me behind an obstacle.
- There's little human enemy variety (but plenty for monsters), and a lot of the designs are uninspired. How about: lightly-armored 'scout'-type enemies that dodge my blows and flank, druids that root me in place and summon tree spirits, mages that cast more than just tiny firebolts, and necromancers that reanimate corpses of fallen buddies I've killed? How about some visual variety, instead of the same 'disgraced nobles' and merchants? Skyrim is guilty of this, too, but it at least had more visual variety hold-to-hold (Forsworn, Orcish bandits, so on).
Phew! That's a lot of negatives, and it's not even a comprehensive list. So why am I recommending this game?
Because I truly believe every single one of these issues can and will be fixed. Anyone with a background in game design or development knows exactly what an utterly insane undertaking Tainted Grail is. Even getting the basic framework down must have taken this team years: NPC schedules, complex RPG systems, dual wielding, combat that doesn't feel like dogshit, AI, pathfinding, open world design and performance optimization... None of these are simple design, art, or programming challenges to solve, and I'm utterly flabbergasted that a team of 30 (?) people managed it.
The people behind this game are madmen and women, and I'm so glad for it. I never thought I'd see the day that an indie studio took up the reigns from Bethesda, but it seems I have.
Keep up the absolutely astounding work, devs. You have my seal of approval, and I'll gladly recommend this game to my friends.