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
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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