Avernum: Escape From the Pit Review

28 Apr 2012

Eschalon: Book II

Developer:Spiderweb Software
Release Date:2011-12-12
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
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.