Avernum: Escape From the Pit Review

28 Apr 2012

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Independent
Developer:Spiderweb Software
Release Date:2011-12-12
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
Spiderweb Software has a longer history than just about any other RPG developer still around today. As an independent studio headed up by Jeff Vogel (who is responsible for the programming, game design, writing and much of the artwork in his games), Spiderweb has a surprisingly large following that has stayed consistent for years. It's no surprise, perhaps, as it's one of the few developers still providing traditional turn-based, party-based games with a point-and-click PC-style interface. Beginning with Exile: Escape from the Pit in 1996, Spiderweb have nearly 20 games (including remakes) to their name.

Avernum: Escape from the Pit is a remake of 1999's Avernum, which in turn is a remake of Exile under a different name. A "remake of a remake" isn't a common thing, but evidently Jeff Vogel is a fan of updating his games both for new audiences, new technology (his Avernum 6 engine) and new devices (the iPad). While I'm personally familiar with a few Spiderweb games, I haven't played the original Exile or Avernum before, so like many, I'm going into Avernum: Escape from the Pit with fresh eyes. While the question of whether or not this second remake offers enough new content to be worthwhile to old fans is a bit hard to answer, on its own, Avernum stands as a very solid exploration-driven RPG that fans of the genre should enjoy, albeit with some rough edges.

Welcome to the Pit

Avernum is unique in that its world (also called Avernum) is entirely underground. Cast into the darkness by the all-controlling Empire on the surface world for some crime or other, your party of four will soon learn that life under the surface of the earth is actually quite remarkable, if harsh and dangerous. The kingdom that's been formed by exiles like yourself, ruled by King Micah and home to six major towns and a society of mages, is a large and relatively prosperous place all things considered. After a short, if slightly awkward tutorial sequence (a brand-new addition), you're set free into the game world to explore, do good deeds, strike a blow to the Empire, and, hopefully, escape from your subterranean prison.

If there's one thing that Avernum completely gets right, it's open-world exploration and a sense of progression. While not entirely free-roaming, you'll work your way from one corner of the world to another, following more or less whatever path you want. With the single goal of escaping Avernum, there's a lot of room to take your time and figure things out. As you explore the world, so too will you grow in power, learn more about Avernum, its people and history, and so on, until you're finally both tough enough and well-traveled enough to leave it behind. Trekking deeper and deeper, the distance from civilization growing as the land becomes more and more desolate, Avernum is able to create a feeling of scale and, later, isolation, that few other games can.

Two more goals appear as you explore the caverns - strike a blow to the Empire by assassinating its Emperor right inside his palace, and defeat the ancient demon Grah-Hoth. Combined with escaping to the surface, these form the three "great goals" of Avernum. In keeping with its generally open-ended nature, Avernum never actually ends until you want it to, a design choice which encourages you to explore every inch of the game world and solve every quest. Without any points of no return, forced cutscenes and plot doors, you're free to play at your own pace in a game actually built for it, making Avernum a stronger open-world experience than many more modern titles.

Of course, there's a lot of additional content beyond these "great goals", and in fact, many of those goals require you to solve several other quests - banishing the demon Adze-Haakai from the Mages' Tower, collecting a magic orb that allows your party to fly, helping out several dragons, and so on. There's also a lengthy subplot concerning helping out either the Empire's servants, the kingdom of Avernum, or the freehold of Kyass, in addition to several dozen minor quests sprinkled all throughout the game world. Many of these help guide your exploration, but I was able to solve many, many quests and visit the farthest reaches of the world well before I was "supposed" to simply by striking out on my own. The rewards - skill-boosting tomes, money, magic artifacts, and more - are more than enough reward, and make exploration very compelling.

As Avernum is based off of Exile, Spiderweb's oldest game, the design of many of these quests and the overall story is decidedly different from the newer titles. Rather than having a plot, it'd be more accurate to say Avernum gives you a lot of problems to solve and scenarios to complete. Almost all of the quests are of the fetch/kill variety, and there are very few puzzles to be found, so unfortunately they tend not to be very interesting on their own. At the same time, a global reputation mechanic and the fact that many characters are involved in multiple quest-lines also means that advancing one quest will help you indirectly in others, which gives the world a great sense of consistency, as well as a feeling of progress in your adventure as previously locked areas and opportunities open to you, sometimes revealing entirely new sections of the game world that were invisible earlier on.
Growing Pains

If there's one complaint to be made about Avernum as far as its world and gameplay goes, it's that it comes from a much simpler time. While there is an interesting parallel between some of the underground conflicts and those implied above ground (such as the dominance of the state over the people), Avernum is bare-boned compared to the far more character-driven stories found in the later games, and has very little choice and consequence in either solving quests or the game ending(s), something that can become a bit jarring at times.

The game world's overall tone and morality is also a bit strange - slaughtering Slith (lizardmen) farmers in the name of the king might be uncomfortable, but the game world certainly doesn't care. Additionally, while the early game constantly reinforces how miserable the world and its people are, none of this really translates into any actual game mechanics - you'll be rolling in supplies and magic items even just a few hours into the game, while peasants continue to farm cave dirt and fight off bandits. The classic tongue-in-cheek, wry humor Jeff Vogel is known for is very much intact, but it doesn't always mesh with the situations or setting, certainly not as well as in his later games.

The simple fact is that Spiderweb's games have changed over the years. Avernum is both a simple hack-and-slash game, and one with some hints at the later greatness of the franchise. Not everyone will be bothered by this, but there is so much more potential that was only fulfilled in later games that it can be hard to ignore. As a remake, Spiderweb had the option to flesh out the world and characters, create a more refined and driven story, and spiced up some of the quest design. Some of them, like the addition of the Freehold of Kyass, an all-new town that's tied up with a few quests, are definitely interesting, but they also draw attention to the lack of sophistication in the parts of the game that weren't spruced up.  As one of the few parts of the game with real choice and consequence, it's a little unfortunate some of these improvements didn't show up elsewhere.

This new version of Avernum has some additional quirks; the transition to the new engine, as well as cross-platform play on the iPad, has brought with it a share of compromises. For one, the ability to close doors manually has been removed, which means that now stealing items can be very difficult without being caught. Additionally, changes to the non-combat skills mean that searching for secrets is now done by clicking hidden switches on walls, with the emphasis not on finding secrets but on whether your party is smart enough to press these buttons - a little silly, in my opinion. The auto-regenerating health from Avadon is thankfully gone, but now your party fully heals whenever it enters a town, and there's no hunger system in place like some of the other Avernum titles, which makes eating food or staying at inns completely useless. It's simply hard not to feel like you're playing an old game with a fresh coat of paint, and like the simpler story and gameplay mentioned above, these more modern design choices don't always fit, or simply weren't necessary.

Character System & Combat

One consistent theme throughout Jeff Vogel's games has been an emphasis on party-based play, as well as a lot of combat to enjoy (or slog through, in some cases). After the previous Spiderweb game, Avadon: The Black Fortress, and its heavily simplified character system, I was a little apprehensive about Avernum. Fortunately, Avernum retains much of the depth of other Spiderweb games, although there have been a few changes here and there, specifically to the leveling-up process.

Avernum is a classless game, although like many classless RPGs, in practice you’ll have to specialize into various roles anyway. With only four character attributes and only one or two of those relevant for each archetype (mage, priest, fighter, archer/rogue), there's little room for fiddling around with spellswords and more exotic character concepts. Min/maxing is the name of the game. The one key advantage of the classless system is that non-combat skills, such as Cave Lore and Tool Use, can be assigned to anyone, and the entire party will pool its knowledge, so you can either have a "nerd" character to figure out everything, or spread out the non-combat stuff across your whole party depending on preference.

Leveling up is fairly frequent, although different from the 1999 version of the game. Aside from a single attribute point per level (along with some "natural" bonuses as you go), you'll also get two skill points and, sometimes, a trait. Skills cover everything from passive bonuses, to the aforementioned non-combat skills, to defensive abilities like parrying, to more general bonuses that allow you to learn spells and battle disciplines (activated combat abilities). Traits, meanwhile, are now passive benefits earned every two level-ups, and they either take the form of health bonuses, attribute bonuses (strength, intelligence, dexterity, etc.), or skill bonuses. They're a bit of an odd fit, because the same effect could have been achieved with a bonus skill or attribute point every few levels. I would have preferred the original trait system, with up two two selected on character creation, was kept for the new Avernum
Happily for fans of modern open-world games, there's no level cap in Avernum. Once you hit level 30, you continue to gain health bonuses on level-up, but you'll only receive new attribute points and skill points every five levels. This is both a blessing and a curse for the game. On the one hand, it's great to be able to level up endlessly and still feel like killing monsters and exploring the world is worthwhile. On the other hand, it means that about 35-40 hours into the game, my party was basically unstoppable, and only some of the toughest boss fights even remotely challenged me (and even then, due more to my complacency than anything else). It's a great feeling to be able to crush just about everything in the world, even the all-powerful dragons, but it also reduces a lot of the combat to busywork, as tactics at that point are mostly irrelevant.

The combat itself takes a form that should be instantly familiar both to Spiderweb fans and fans of Western RPGs in general. Movement is grid-based, with each character assigned a set number of action points per turn. Usually, battles will see you outnumbered, sometimes with a five-to-one ratio or more, although there are a lot of fights against small groups of powerful creatures as well. The zone-of-control mechanic remains from previous Spiderweb titles, preventing characters from freely moving when enemies are breathing down their throats. Battle disciplines have been hit with the nerf stick compared to some Spiderweb games, which severely limits the functionality of warriors and mostly relegates them to tanking roles. Combat balance is a bit rocky, unfortunately. Polearms and shields are severely outclassed by dual-wielding, and archery doesn't do enough damage to be worthwhile in most cases; magic is extremely powerful in comparison, to the point where your mages will probably be doing over 90% of your total damage output.

The actual quality of combat encounters is very hit or miss. There is a lot of filler combat in the game, albeit given its open-ended nature that's not surprising, and much of it is necessary for leveling properly (as most quests give only a small amount of experience points). Moreover, while you have a lot of options in buffing, summoning monsters and so on, almost always the best choice is simply to eliminate as many enemies as quickly as possible, especially when you're faced with large hordes. Instead of a focus on preparation and using the right tools for the job, usually you'll just be spamming area-of-effect attacks with your mages and priests, while your fighters hold the enemies at bay. When you actually need to dig into your pockets and use the more advanced abilities, fighting is great - but it's almost never necessary, leaving much of the combat feeling grindy and repetitive. The same goes true for some of the more exotic weapons, potions, scrolls, wands and so on - they come in handy from time to time, but usually simply attacking is the better choice, which means most of them are reduced to vendor trash.

The game's boss fights are simultaneously combat's high points and low points. Some of them feature interesting environmental challenges to deal with, similar to newer-school Spiderweb games like Avadon, as well as difficult combinations of enemies, like mages, ranged attackers and meat shields. However, in some cases, bosses simply have all their hit points, resistances and so on cranked up to eleven, with endless waves of respawning mooks to kill. This renders some fights sheer attrition more than anything else, and a single mistake (sometimes interface-related) can be fatal when it interrupts your delicate attack/heal flow, or causes the death of a critical party member. Like general combat, some of these battles are a ton of fun and very tense... but other times, they're simply tedious.

Visuals, Sound & Interface

Avernum, as far as I can tell, runs on the same engine tech that powered Avadon and Avernum 6. The look of the game is almost identical to Avernum 6, so much so that save for small changes to the interface and some much-improved character portraits, you'd likely have a very hard time telling the games apart. Whereas Avadon had a somewhat close-up look, with a lot of additional detail in the game world (for a Spiderweb title, anyway), Avernum pulls the "camera" back and gives a better sense of scale and space, as well as environments that generally feel a bit more realistic in terms of their size.

The actual art assets are the usual Spiderweb mix - simple, and effective, but surprisingly diverse. The limited tilesets mean that often environments have to distinguish themselves with unique layouts, and Avernum is generally successful at this, with surprisingly diverse dungeon layouts and towns that are easy to tell apart at a glance. However, the consistency of the assets themselves sometimes leaves something to be desired. While most of them are taken from the newer Spiderweb stock, a few of them have apparently been retained from the original Avernum, and when they're present they stick out like a sore thumb.
Audio is the usual for Spiderweb's games, with a heavy focus on environment ambiance and some stock sounds used primarily in combat, for opening doors, etc. Almost all these effects have been reused from previous games, but there's a little bit more music to go around - a generic but rather effective intro theme that plays on the main menu and after completing major goals, a short melody that plays when you enter a town, and a dramatic orchestral sting when combat begins. It's all effective and minimalist, and while Avernum still doesn't compare to games with bigger budgets as far as sound effects and soundtrack are concerned, there has been at least some progress made in this respect, even if it's just the little things.

The one major stumbling block for me, from a technical standpoint, isn't bugs or glitches, it's actually the user interface. Although virtually identical to the one found in Avernum 6 and Avadon, save for some added hotkeys during combat and exploration, there are a number of annoyances which I had not previously encountered in any Spiderweb game. For the most part, these issues are restricted to combat. The first of these is the snap-to targeting that's been added when selecting party members or NPCs. While usually it works, in some cases it's impossible to move your character to a certain space on the battlefield, or to target a specific enemy, or to place an area-of-effect spell exactly where you want it. Since double-clicking the active party member ends the current turn, when combined with the auto-targeting, trying to walk one space upwards will often lead to wasted turns.

Another big issue is pathfinding. Party members will not move through each other without you telling them to, which means that in dungeons, they will often plot long routes all around the other side of the level, much like in the older RPGs such as Baldur's Gate. In 2012, this is extremely frustrating and means that sending your mages to their dooms by accident, or at least attracting a new room full of enemies to deal with, is very common. Moreover, when moving near enemies, the zone-of-control mechanic won't always work consistently - sometimes your character will halt in place and allow you to still attack, and sometimes they will walk an extra space, and you won't be able to get off an attack or a critically needed spell. This can be very frustrating and on multiple occasions led to me losing difficult fights. Simply put, combat requires precision and the interface often doesn't allow for it. The addition of a pathing preview, showing the route a character will take before he or she moves, would have gone a long way towards mitigating some of these problems.

Beyond the interface issues, however, the game runs extremely smoothly, and should manage on just about any computer made in the last 10 years due to its low requirements. I played the PC version through Steam, which grants some Steam achievements in trade for the DRM, and encountered absolutely no other technical issues with the game stemming from either Steam or from the game itself. However, I did read about a few broken quests and corrupt save files on the official Spiderweb forums, so like many old-school games you'll probably want to keep as many "hard" save files on hand as you can, just in case.

Conclusion

Avernum: Escape from the Pit is another game in the Spiderweb mold, with all of the usual trappings that includes: a unique setting with competent writing, decent combat gameplay marred by occasionally poor balance and filler, and a great sense of freedom and exploration within a huge game world. However, unlike Avadon and Avernum 6, Avernum: Escape from the Pit often shows its age with its relatively basic quest design, lack of puzzles, shallower characters, and simple story. This isn't always a bad thing, but it is worth pointing out, especially if you're used to newer, more plot-driven titles.

Overall, I can recommend Avernum: Escape from the Pit to just about any fan of old-school isometric RPGs. For your $10 USD (on Steam, anyway), you're looking at about 40-50 hours of gameplay, which is phenomenal value no matter how you slice things. While it's a shame some of the rough edges in user interface can get in the way of gameplay from time to time, and I would have liked to see some more content additions, there's no denying that Avernum is an enjoyable game. Fans looking to get into the Avernum series will do very well with Escape from the Pit, and while the improvements beyond the game engine and visuals are relatively modest, there's still a lot to enjoy even if you've played through the game once before already.